The dormant season, a time for transplants and pruning, is fast upon us. It’s a good time for remembering that comedians are the best source of garden wisdom (as they are for pretty much everything else worth doing). Woody Allen’s dictum that “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” for example, is a generalized version of the garden adage that “the best time to prune is when your shears are sharp.”
Never be afraid to trim anything in the garden. The worst you will do is eliminate a bloom cycle if you trim a shrub after it has set buds. Even then, if you’re paying attention, you’ll learn something about that particular plant that will serve you well in the future. This is where the “showing up” comes in — the gardens of gardeners who spend time in them look like someone cares.
The next corollary is, “Never spend post-planting time in your garden without something sharp in your pocket.” Ideally, that means a decent pair of clippers; at minimum, this rule requires a pocket knife.
What constitutes “decent”? I have clippers that have served me well for 20 years. The good ones are of a “hammer and anvil” design with one hard, sharp blade, and one flat, soft blade against which the sharpie impinges. The flat blade is usually brass. The principal is the same as that of a carbon steel knife and a wooden cutting board. The softer surface provides a bed for cutting, without dulling the blade. Every gardener needs hand shears of this design, and most need lopping shears as well — long-handled clippers that provide more leverage for cutting thicker branches. Wooden handles feel better in hand, but invariably fail, so I recommend all-metal loppers.
Pruning is cosmetic. Yes, there are advantages to thoughtful shaping of fruit trees, allowing for more air circulation to inhibit disease, or ensuring that limbs can support their burden of ripe apples come fall. But — and this is a crucial but — it still remains largely a matter of taste. One gardener will insist that espaliered fruit trees (those trained on wire frames) bear better, while another is certain that a “natural” shape does the trick. Some people prefer their boxwoods clipped into little cubes and some people love forsythias and everlasting roses that sprawl all over the yard.
While you can clip and deadhead your way through the summer, there are a couple of reasons that the dormant season is ideal for serious pruning. First, you’re through with other tasks, so you have more time. Second, once the foliage drops, you can see plant stems and figure out which ones are dead or damaged.
The pruning rule: As comedian Red Skelton noted, “If we don’t change direction, we’ll end up where we’re headed.” That is precisely true for plants as well.
If you clip a little branchlet that is veering left and leave a little branchlet that is going right, your rose bush will grow to the right. The oak limb supporting the tire swing in your yard started out as a little sprout. Someone once made a decision, or a series of decisions, coupled with the vagaries of wind and weather, that left that limb while others fell away. So go forth and be pruneful.