This Weekend: Preparing to prune. Plus the evils of landscape cloth

Posted by Anne Fletcher on

     Right now is the season to prune roses, fruit trees, and other trees and shrubs that you'd like to encourage to grow.  Late winter pruning stimulates new growth.  (Late summer pruning, on the other hand, restricts growth, and is best for plants whose size you're trying to control.)

     I'd planned to have all the pruning done in my yard this week, plus photos to share with you, but I've been laid low with a terrible cold.  Which, fortuitously, led me to realize the two big steps that come before pruning, that I hadn't seen as part of pruning until I got stuck with a cold.  

     The first is preparing your tools.  Sharp tools make clean cuts, and clean cuts give your plants less chance of an infection.  You can DIY the sharpening (I'm no expert, but YouTube is) or take them to tool shops, garden centers, sometimes even the farmer's market.  For most rose pruning, all you need is a sharp pair of hand clippers, but for bigger shrubs and trees, I find it helpful to have a small hand saw, plus a set of long handled loppers.  

     The second big preparation step is considering the plants you'd like to prune, and thinking about how you would like them to grow.  I spend a lot of time doing this, and I do it all year, considering trees and shrubs from all angles, looking at what's behind them that might be nicely exposed by pruning, or what might be hidden by encouraging new growth.  I look for where a plant is getting lopsided, where branches are growing together and rubbing, for where height or width can be restricted while keeping an elegant naturalistic look.

     With the preparation done, and hopefully with this cold behind me, I'll be back next week with some images and tips for pruning.

     In the meantime, a cautionary tale.  Two weeks ago I spent about 4 hours removing what I hope is the last of the landscape cloth in our yard.  I've been discovering patches of it, under thick blankets of weeds, ever since we moved in.  I won't mince words:  The stuff is a total nightmare.  It may, in some cases, block weeds that are already established underground, like ivy.  But in my experience, the weediest parts of the yard are the ones with landscape cloth. 

     The cloth creates an ideal environment for weeds in the mulch or gravel covering it.  Leaves and anything else organic get caught in the cloth and break down, creating a layer of fantastic compost just below the surface.  Because worms don't generally go through the cloth, they can't do their usual work of carrying the organic matter from the surface deeper into the soil. And because roots can't penetrate, the only plants that thrive are shallow rooted opportunists (aka weeds).

     Into the shallow super fertile layer, fall seeds of dandelions, weedy grasses, and my personal nemesis, oxalis, where they establish and grow happily, creating a thick, heavy weed carpet that is very difficult to remove. The landscape cloth does exactly the opposite of what it claims to do.  In the places I've removed the cloth, the soil is nicer, the plants I want are healthier, and there are fewer weeds.  It's taken quite a while, but bit-by-bit, I've done the heavy work of digging up and removing that dreaded cloth.  Also, gophers go right through it, natch.

     So you can imagine the surprise / dismay / irony when, literally, the very day after I celebrated the accomplishment of doing away with the cloth once and for all, my neighbor's hired crew completely blanketed his yard in the stuff.  I wanted to shout from the windows, "Don't do it!" But of course, they've bought into the claim of weed blocking, and so in it goes.  I hope to be proved wrong, and to spend the next couple years looking out onto a beautifully planted, weed-free garden.  

     I'll be back next week with pruning!  

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