Pruning, not hacking, results in a more artful tree or shrub
By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 8:01 pm
If I have a gardening forte, it well might be pruning. More than one visitor to our garden has commented on the artistic appearance of some plant or other pruned out and up into a, well, sculpture.
The trunk structure of many trees and shrubs can be the most valuable feature of some of them. Crape myrtles, for instance, have smooth, sinuous, bark that is an attraction the whole 12 months of the year. Provided, that is, they are pruned high enough for it to show.
A Natchez crape myrtle can reach 20 feet or more tall. Its bark is a mottle of cinnamon brown, cream and tan colors. It’s there the year round, while the bloom, nothing to sneeze at, holds forth for two months, a long time as woody plant flowers go but not the year through.
Correct pruning, however, is a necessity if you are to enjoy that bark. Pruning is not hacking. Never, never, “crape murder” your crape myrtles by topping them and forcing a mass of weak, secondary branch eruptions.
Most spring blooming oriental magnolias (aka tulip magnolias) have a gray elephant-hide bark that, after a few years, puts on an effect of a tree much more elderly than its actual age would prove. But again, pruning is the secret. Too many of these magnolias and their kin, such as the white star magnolia, are left to their own devices and form into a shapeless thicket of gnarly limbs.
At our drive entrance we have a star magnolia that brightens up the whole place in March with its chalky white flowers in great abundance provided, however, that frosts hold off.
Even if we lose bloom some years, there is always the dependable year-round attraction of the gray bark. The plant, once shrubby, was pruned up and out years ago and now the canopy is about 20 feet off the ground, allowing pedestrians to walk under it on the way to the front door.
Japanese maples are noted for their trunk and branch structure. The best of them have been pruned yearly to keep them open and unfettered with whippy, thin wood. It is easier said than done, and it takes a discerning eye early on in the life of one of them to decide which major branches should stay and which should go. Once the general structure is established, however, keeping a specimen shapely from then on isn’t so daunting.
Most of the cutleaf low-growing Japanese maples are grafted near to the ground and, without pruning, will spread out sometimes no more than three feet tall. If it is desired to get one taller, then a branch near the center of the plant can be staked up a cane and tied in for several years until the canopy can be established at a higher level.
I have two specimens of Viridis Japanese maples that have been thus treated. One is more than 12 feet tall after about 10 years of training. I have pruned away all side branches up to some eight feet or more. Even Japanese maple experts have been puzzled on the identification of the tree, insisting that no ‘Viridis’ ever grows that tall.
Japanese maples also have gray bark that gets better with the years, and high pruning allows it to be seen, especially in winter. The cutleaf types generally exhibit a contorted branch arrangement that is one of their great assets.
Pruning is generally considered a winter job, and indeed it is easier to prune effectively when a plant is devoid of leaves, thus allowing unobstructed viewing as the process goes along. Maples, Japanese or otherwise, bleed badly when pruned in late winter or spring, so I prune mine just after leaf-fall.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — If you want to be a butcher, work in a meat shop.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 11.23.10