Prune now for roses later.

Roses should be pruned before the end of winter. Here where winters are so mild, they can get pruned early.

Just like most of the modern fruit trees that were bred over the past few centuries to produce unnaturally large and abundant fruit, almost all modern roses have been bred for unnaturally large flowers. Production of such large flowers takes quite a bit of work. An excess of these large flowers is more than overgrown rose plants can keep up with. This is why roses should be pruned so aggressively while dormant in winter.

Pruning should be done before buds start to swell at the end of winter. Some people prefer to wait until the end of February. However, because winters are so mild here, buds are already starting to swell, and some are even beginning to grow. I actually prefer to prune early, as soon as roses are dormant and most of the foliage falls off easily when disturbed.

The objective of pruning is to remove as much superfluous growth as possible, in order to concentrate growth into fewer but more productive stems and flowers. Without pruning, roses naturally develop into rampant thickets of abundant but less productive stems. It is also good horticultural hygiene to remove all foliage from last year, since that is where fungal and bacterial pathogens overwinter. Leaves should be plucked from stems and raked from the ground.

Hybrid tea roses get pruned severely so that there are only three to six canes about two feet high. Healthy canes that grew from the base last year are the best. They should have fresh green bark, and preferably lack branches below where they get pruned. Older canes that are developing striations (rough bark texture) should be pruned out. Most floribunda roses can get pruned almost as severely, so that they have only five to a dozen canes.

Some grandiflora roses are allowed to get significantly taller. They develop most new canes on top of canes that were pruned during the previous winter, instead of from the base. Consequently, some stems can get quite old and tall before new basal canes develop to replace them. Climbing roses are likewise pruned less aggressively, since new canes grow from old canes.

Like most fruit trees, most roses are grafted. Therefore, ‘suckers’ (shoots from below graft unions) must be removed. Tree roses should not be pruned below the graft unions on top of their main trunks. Most carpet roses are not grafted, so do not develop suckers; but then, they do not require such specialized and aggressive pruning either.

Dormant Pruning Promotes Fruit Production

Persimmon trees get pruned after harvest.

While they are dormant through winter, deciduous fruit trees require specialized ‘dormant pruning’. Exceptions are rare. Most need major pruning that might seem to be excessive. Without such pruning, fruit trees produce more fruit than they can sustain. Excessive fruit is very likely to be of inferior quality, beyond reach, and heavy enough to disfigure limbs.

Dormant pruning limits the volume and weight of fruit that can develop during a following season. By eliminating structural deficiencies and maintaining compact form, it improves the structural integrity of trees. It eliminates diseased stems, and concentrates resources into healthy stems. Dormant pruning concentrates resources into less but better fruit too.

Dormant pruning is necessary because of extensive breeding to improve the quality and quantity of fruit that fruit trees produce. The ancestors of modern cultivars of fruit produce either smaller or less abundant fruit that they can generally support in the wild. However, even some wild fruit trees will produce better fruit with pruning to concentrate resources.

The many various types of fruit trees need various types of specialized dormant pruning. Unfortunately, such trees, which are so commonly available from nurseries, do not come with instructions. It is important to be aware of the sort of maintenance any particular fruit tree will require, prior to incorporating it into a garden. Some dormant pruning is extreme! 

The various stone fruits are the most popular deciduous fruit trees. They are of the genus ‘Prunus‘. Their fruits contain single large seeds, or ‘stones’. This includes apricot, cherry, nectarine, peach, plum, prune, almond and all their hybrids. They need the most intense dormant pruning. (Almond nuts are stones of leathery fruits that are the hulls of the nuts.)

Although uncommon within the mild coastal climates of Southern California, pome fruits, primarily apple and pear, are very popular too. They require specialized dormant pruning that is very different from what stone fruits need. Likewise, persimmon, pomegranate, fig, mulberry, currant, kiwi, grape and cane berries, each need customized dormant pruning.

Spring Pruning Of Flowering Trees

Some plants prefer pruning after bloom.

Most major pruning happens while the plants that need it are dormant through winter. That is why it is known as ‘dormant pruning’. Such pruning would be so much more disruptive while plants are blooming, fruiting, foliating or growing. Pruning that happens during other seasons is not as aggressive as dormant pruning. Spring pruning, although practical for some plants, is relatively docile.

For deciduous fruit trees, dormant pruning is very important. It concentrates resources into fruit production, but also limits production to sustainable quantities. Otherwise, such fruit trees would be unable to support the weight of their own copious fruit. Spring pruning of such trees is simply too late. By that time, superfluous fruit has already consumed significant resources, only to be wasted.

Stone fruit trees and pome fruit trees are familiar examples of deciduous fruit trees that rely on dormant pruning. Stone fruits include peach, nectarine, apricot, plum and their relatives. Pome fruits are primarily apple and pear. Ironically though, their fruitless but flowering counterparts perform best with spring pruning instead. As similar as they all are, they have completely different priorities.

Flowering cherry trees bloom more spectacularly than fruiting cherry trees, but produce no fruit. Similarly, flowering crabapple trees bloom more colorfully than fruiting apple trees, but produce only tiny fruit. Neither must sustain production of significant fruit. Nor must they support the increasing weight of developing fruit. Prolific bloom is their primary function. Spring pruning accommodates.

Spring pruning allows flowering trees to first bloom as profusely as possible. Pruned out stems have already served their purpose. Because fruit production is not a concern, spring pruning is less severe than dormant pruning. Nonetheless, because dormant pruning is so practical for so many plants, spring pruning may seem impractical. It is tempting to prune dormant flowering trees now. Doing so harmlessly compromises bloom.

Pruning Roses During Winter Dormancy

Pruning now promotes better bloom later.

Contrary to what the pleasant weather suggests, it is still winter. Most plants are resisting the temptation to break dormancy prematurely. They must know that the days are still short, regardless of the weather. Most plants are surprisingly proficient with scheduling. Nonetheless, dormant pruning should happen sooner than later. This includes pruning roses. They have been ready for a while.

Technically, roses are ready for pruning as soon as they begin to defoliate. Also technically, rose pruning can be as late as the buds of the bare stems remain dormant. Later pruning is preferable in some regions where pruning wounds are susceptible to pathogens. Such delay is riskier here where mild weather can disrupt dormancy prematurely. Wounds are less vulnerable to pathogens.

Pruning roses is about as important as pruning deciduous fruit trees. Without adequate pruning, rose plants become too overgrown to perform properly. Crowded stems are unable to elongate as they should. Diseases and insects proliferate in congested foliage, and damage bloom. Specialized pruning concentrates resources into fewer but significantly more vigorous stems and flowers.

Although the technique may seem to be drastic, pruning roses is not very complicated. Hybrid tea, grandiflora and floribunda roses should retain only three to six of their most vigorous canes. The canes should be only about two feet tall, and cut just above a healthy bud. If possible, they should be canes that grew during the previous year, from bottom to top. Older canes should be removed.

Pruning roses of other classifications may be slightly different. Some types may retain more canes. Climbing types likely retain old canes for several years before replacement. Carpet roses and other ungrafted roses can be cut nearly to the ground, leaving no canes at all. Tree roses are like bush types, but on top of short trunks. New canes grow from their graft unions on top of the trunks.

Of course, potentially vigorous sucker growth that develops from below the graft union of any grafted rose must go.

They Don’t Know When To Quit

The good news is that these billowy white blooms were not wasted.

The main difficulty with such a mild climate is that many plants do not get sufficient chill in winter. Several types of apples do not perform well here without it. Only a few are productive in Beverly Hills (in the Los Angeles region), where I sometimes need to modify my gardening column accordingly. A few of my neighbors here somehow grow peonies; but I do not even bother.

Even plant that require more chill than they get here seem to be aware that it is cooler at this time of year. Their deciduous foliage turns color and eventually falls to the ground. They just want the weather to get a bit cooler and to stay cooler for a bit longer before they are convinced that it is really winter. Otherwise, they think that autumn simply merges directly into spring.

I really do not know what hydrangeas are thinking though. They perform about as well in milder climates of Southern California, and may not bother to defoliate completely if old foliage can linger until it is replaced by new foliage. In the mildest climates, bloom is merely subdued through winter, but might continue sporadically. I am not convinced that they need any chill at all.

The hydrangeas here get pruned shortly after the roses, and almost as severely. (They are a bit more complicated than roses, and a bit less cooperative, but respond well to their pruning.) I started the process on Thursday with a few that needed to be relocated, and will be finishing on Wednesday or Thursday. Most of the remaining yellowed old foliage falls away in the process.

Their lingering bloom is a bit more disconcerting. I hate to waste what the old hydrangeas put so much effort into producing. Some of the best blooms were outfitted with a bit of eucalyptus foliage (since they lacked their own) and given away to others who work here. However, there were invariably some undeveloped blooms that were just discarded as they got pruned away.

Undeveloped bloom was merely discarded with the rest of the debris.

Hydrangeas seem to appreciate a good chill, but do not seem to need it, or expect it to last for very long. I sometimes wonder if I could just groom them to remove old canes throughout the year rather than pruning them aggressively in winter. I do not remember ever pruning any in Southern California, but might expect them to be less responsive to the even milder weather.

For me, they would be easier to prune where winter is cool enough for them to be completely dormant. Without foliage, it would not seem like I would be pruning them while they are still active. Without bloom, I would not be concerned about the waste. I could just prune them like so many other deciduous plants. There really are a few disadvantages to mild winter weather.

Hydrangeas that were transplanted got pruned and dug bare root.

Winter Is For Dormant Pruning

P90316++++The internet makes it possible to communicate with people who enjoy gardening all over the World. It can be amusing to hear what garden enthusiasts in Australia are doing now in early summer. Is it always summer in Ecuador? A common theme in much of America is that there is not much gardening to do right now. It might be more accurate to say that no one wants to go out in the cold.

Where winter weather is too unpleasantly cold to work in the garden, many winter chores can either be done earlier in late autumn, or delayed until early spring. Such scheduling is not a problem, since the plants involved are so deeply dormant through such cold weather anyway. Until the weather warms a bit, they do not want to work in their gardens either. Scheduling is very different here.

Not only does mild weather facilitate gardening chores, but it necessitates the completion of certain chores before the end of winter. Many plants that are mostly dormant while the weather is cool are actually dispersing their roots now that the soil is moistened by winter rain. They will be ready to break dormancy weeks before they would where winters are colder. There is no time for delay.

With a few exceptions, winter is the season for pruning here. Maples and birches should have been pruned earlier, or should be pruned later, so that they do not bleed sap. Citrus get pruned and groomed after the last frost because pruning stimulates new growth that is sensitive to frost. Early blooming flowering crabapples, flowering cherries and forsythias should get pruned after bloom.

Otherwise, most deciduous plants and many evergreen plants should be pruned in winter, while they are as dormant as they get. Pruning now will be less disruptive than it would be while they are more active. They wake up in spring and resume growth as if nothing happened, but relieved of the superfluous growth that was pruned away. Winter pruning is what fits best into their schedules.

Of all plants in the garden, deciduous fruit trees and roses rely on specialized pruning more than most others.

Work Day Renovation Of A Flowering Crabapple

P91020P91020+It is amazing what just a few parishioners and friends can accomplish in just a few hours from about nine to noon on Saturday morning. It is only happens a few times through the year, so we make the most of it to catch up on all sorts of maintenance and projects at Felton Presbyterian Church. (My parish should do this sort of thing.) I was there to work in the minimal landscape.

I started working with this ‘Prairie Fire’ flowering crabapple several years ago. As I pruned for clearance above the adjacent parking spaces and patio, I retained lower growth in the space in between. The tree bloomed too nicely to unnecessarily remove all that was right where it was most visible. Besides, from the patio, it was more visually appealing than a view of parked cars.

Then, I missed a work day. There were plenty of volunteers. There were plenty of power tools. There was plenty of enthusiasm. There was no horticultural expertise. Someone decided that my once exemplary flowering crabapple was in need of pruning, so executed the task with power hedge shears. The damage is irreparable. Lower growth is gone. Upper growth is mutilated.

It was very discouraging. It was done out of season, so I could do nothing to start to repair the damage at the time. There was not much left to repair anyway. I could only let the tree grow through a season so that there would be something to work with later.

Well, this was later. I would have preferred to wait for complete defoliation, but the tree is starting to go dormant now, which is technically good enough. I also would have preferred to prune less away; but really wanted to remove as much of the disfigured growth as possible.

I am less than pleased with the results. With all the disfigured lower growth removed, only the new upper canopy remains. The tree got what my colleagues might refer to as an ‘Ethiopia cut’, which is what much taller trees in Ethiopia get when their lower growth gets eaten by giraffes. It will be a long recovery.

The upper picture is the ‘before’ picture. The bright sunlight at noon does not look so good in the lower ‘after’ picture. I mentioned the Work Day and an update in my other blog, Felton League.


Horridculture – Bad Pollarding And Coppicing

P90508Pollarding and coppicing are proper pruning techniques. If you think you are an arborist who believes otherwise, do not waste my time arguing about it. More than likely, you are neither as educated nor as experienced as I am with such matters, or you work exclusively with trees for which such procedures would be very inappropriate.
Well, yes, pollarding and coppicing are very inappropriate for the vast majority of trees and shrubs out there. Furthermore, even for those trees and shrubs that they are appropriate for, such procedures are very rarely done properly here in California. Most attempts at pollarding and coppicing are really horrid!
Take these blue elderberries and mock oranges for examples. They were mutilated last summer to improve the view of the historic Felton Covered Bridge. It sort of accomplished that objective, although the improved view of the Bridge was then cluttered with the disfigured and mostly bare trunks and limbs of the brutalized shrubbery below. Because they were chopped back too late in summer to grow much, they stayed that way until now.
So it is spring, and the shrubbery is growing from the tops of the mutilated but tall trunks and limbs, right back to obstructing the view of the Bridge. They will likely get chopped when they get to be too overwhelming, which again, will be in late summer, repeating the process. It would be better to just remove the shrubbery not only because it would be less work, but also because the shrubbery is so unsightly when it gets chopped!
OR; the shrubbery could get coppiced. Both blue elderberry and mock orange respond favorably to the procedure. If coppiced, or in other words, if pruned back to the ground annually each winter, they could regenerate fresh new growth each spring, but not get big enough to crowd the view of the Bridge by the following winter, when they get coppiced again. The elderberry would not bloom or fruit; but that is not important here anyway.
Coppicing takes advantage of the natural dormancy and regenerative processes of the plants. Starting over fresh each spring and growing uninterrupted through summer is more natural for them than trying to recover from getting brutalized while they are actively growing in summer. Since they start the process at ground level, they have room to grow without interruption. If cut back only as much as necessary, they have no room to grow.

Attack Roses While They Sleep

8bd4This theme may be getting a bit redundant about now. There is just so much that needs to be done in the garden through winter for what will bloom in spring and summer. We plant new fruit trees, and prune mature ones. When we finish planting spring bulbs, we can start planting summer bulbs. Berries, rhubarb and grapes all get planted. With all this going on, it is also time to prune roses.

Like so many fruit trees through the past few centuries, modern roses were bred to maximize production. Instead of big and abundant fruit, they produce big and colorful flowers. Such enhanced production is more than overgrown rose plants can sustain. Pruning eliminates superfluous stems to concentrate resources into fewer but more vigorous stems, and flowers of superior quality.

Pruning also eliminates diseased, damaged, dead and dying stems; which are known as the ‘four Ds’. Foliage falls from the stems naturally through winter, but should be raked and disposed of because it can spread disease to new foliage in the spring. (Dormant fungal spores and bacteria overwinter in fallen foliage.) Foliage that clings to stems after pruning should be plucked away.

Pruning should ideally be done by the time buds begin to swell in late winter. Of course this is not as easy as it sounds in the mild local climate. Buds swell early, and may even start to grow before rose flowers from the previous season finish blooming! Modern ‘carpet’ roses and a few other shrubby types barely go dormant, but fortunately, they do not need such meticulous pruning anyway.

Hybrid tea roses need the most severe pruning, which leaves only three to seven canes approximately two feet high. These canes should ideally be unbranched below where they get pruned, and be spaced somewhat evenly around the center. Stout canes that grew last summer from the base of each plant are best. However, canes below graft unions are suckers that need to be removed.

Floribunda roses are pruned similarly, but can retain a few more canes. Some grandiflora roses are allowed to get significantly taller, with new canes on top of canes from the previous year, which may already be on top of canes from another previous year. It may take a while before they develop replacement canes from the base. Climbing roses likewise retain old canes for a few years.

Tree roses should be pruned as if the upper graft union is at ground level, so that canes should be about two feet high above the graft union. (Although, tree rose canes are usually pruned shorter.) Carpet roses and a few bramble types only need to be pruned low, but cane quality is not so important. They are not grafted, so can not develop suckers.

Winter Pruning Of Fruit Trees

90130thumbThe vast orchards of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys might make the impression that production of fruit is easy. The trees naturally bloom in spring, and develop fruit over summer, as if they do most of the work prior to harvest. In reality, those trees have been so extensively bred to maximize production that they need, among other maintenance, very specialized pruning in winter.

Without pruning, deciduous fruit trees produce more fruit than they can support. The weight of the fruit breaks and disfigures limbs. Excessive fruit production exhausts resources so that, although more fruit is produced, it is of inferior quality. Diseases and insects proliferate in crowded stem growth that lacks vigor. Unharvested fruit that is beyond reach in upper growth may attract rodents.

Well pruned deciduous fruit tree produce fruit of much better quality, and are able to support it on well structured limbs that are reasonably within reach. They are less susceptible to diseases and insects. Such pruning seems severe to those who are unfamiliar with it, but it is necessary, and the trees appreciate it. Because it is so severe, it is done while trees are dormant through winter.

Different types of fruit trees need distinct types of pruning. Furthermore, different cultivars of each type may need different degrees of the same type of pruning. All should get the ‘four Ds’, which are ‘dead, dying, damaged and diseased’ growth, pruned out of them. Because figs produce early and late crops, they can be pruned less for more early figs, or more severely for more late figs.

Most of the deciduous fruit trees are either stone fruits or pomme fruits. The stone fruits include apricot, plum, prune, nectarine, peach and cherry, which are all of the genus of Prunus. Pomme fruits are apple, pear and quince. Because the winter pruning of deciduous fruit trees is so specialized and so intensive, it is worth studying, preferably before planting the fruit trees that require it.