Garden Report: The art of pruning

Sat, 02/06/2016 - 7:30am

Last weekend gave us zero excuses not to get out of the house and do something around the yard, at least here on the eastern side of the island where all traces of the blizzard known as Jonas have disappeared. Well, not quite all of the traces — there were some tree limbs down, some minor, some not. Saturday was spent picking up the pieces and toting them to the brush pile.

Also toted to the brush pile were the remains of the fallen apple tree, and the oh-so-carefully shaped little piles of pruning left by my husband, who, for a few days post-Christmas, went on a spree with his loppers and clippers. (We have a system around here — he prunes, I pick up.)

The impetus of all this activity was a book I picked up at one of my parents’ down-sizing sessions recently. Not really knowing much about the subject (that’s why I picked it up) I thought it looked to be a useful guide with clear pictures that even I might be able to follow. My husband might not need it, but I did. I could start with the butterfly bushes…

Even the title of the book is simple: “Pruning.” And, it was put out by the Royal Horticultural Society. Who better to trust with your roses than the English? It also, to be fair, does exist in an American version put out by the American Horticultural Society, and many other versions put out over the years. The main author is Christopher Brickell. David Joyce joins him in the American Horticultural Society version, which is available at the Island Free Library. 

I was wrong about my husband. He may not have “needed” the book, but he spent quite a bit of time studying it. “We should have done this the first year,” he was heard muttering as he perused the fruit tree section. There are additional instructions for what to do the second, third, and sometimes fourth year. (Coincidentally, a fruit tree catalog arrived in the mail, and this time it did not get tossed aside.)

On the first day of pruning my husband gave haircuts to shrubs all around the yard. On the second, the smaller fruit trees we have planted over the years got a new “do.” 

But for some of our trees, the “first year” was long before either of us was born. Those would be referred to the “rehab” program — but only those that showed promise as good eating apples, not cider ones. There is one in particular behind the garden. It has yellow apples about the size and shape of a Granny Smith that ripen in August. After just a couple of days in rehab there are about 20 piles of sticks for me to pick up. 

Evidently I don’t even get to practice on those butterfly bushes. They were amongst the first to receive a trim. So, I had to find my own project for winter weekends. As long as there’s no snow, there’s really no reason not to go out and cut some brush. It’s more like hacking than pruning, so no special skills are needed. Perfect.

I picked out the area behind the shed for my outdoor winter project. Some twenty years ago it was the first area of the yard I had tackled, an old and overgrown garden bed. I ripped out all kinds of things — mostly with thorns on them, and soon it became what we called “The Nursery Garden.” It was a place to nurture young plants that would produce, hopefully, offspring that could be moved into other, newly dug garden beds around the house. But as those other beds took precedence, the nursery garden became the last place to weed, and we all know what happens to a garden that is always the last to be dealt with. It just never gets done. Hidden under there are daffodils – especially the first-to-bloom tete a tete, diminutive little things, and crocuses.

So now, it appears that the Orientals (invasive bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle) and the natives (poison ivy) are having a Latin dance party, twisting themselves together and around in the worst salsa dance possible. They have even gone under the shingles and into the shed, as if looking for a more private place to do their spooning. 

There has been one bright spot in all this neglect. Years ago when my daughter was of the age to receive an Arbor Day planting from the Block Island Gardener’s annual plant giveaway at school, she was sent home with a white lilac. Since it was tiny, it went into the nursery garden. The plan was, at the time, to let it grow some and then move it out to another place. 

In actuality, it was forgotten first, and left for dead later, with the belief that it had been eaten by deer. So it was with some surprise that two springs ago, up from the by-now brush in the nursery garden, emerged a white lilac blossom. 

Two years ago I thought, “I must get the brush out of there and rescue it,” but I found other things to do, evidently. It’s not hard to do. But this year I’m coming for you, baby! I will save you from the thorny deep, which in retrospect may have been responsible for your survival by providing protection from the deer.

And I do have one special skill. And it may be why I am tackling this area instead of my husband doing it: I don’t get poison ivy, or so I think. Also, I’m a pretty good dancer. 

Although this is not a particularly large area, the task is looking pretty daunting. On day one I cut enough brush for three armloads and it looks as if I’ve done nothing. But heck, that’s why we call it a winter project and not a weekend project. 

In the end, however, will be the best reward a gardener can get — space to do something new and an excuse to plant new things.