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Paul and His Pruners

Master gardener Paul James cuts through unruly gardening problems with tips for proactive pruning.

"You'll often see gardeners with pruners in hand ready to snip away at whatever strikes their fancy," says James. "And that's exactly what I intend to do today." James' first stop is at a dogwood tree where several water sprouts have shot straight up out of nowhere. Water sprouts are branches that grow vertically along the plant, which makes them rather unsightly. "Pruning these goofy-looking growths opens up the center of the tree, which allows for better air circulation and reduces the threat of fungal disease."

When pruning, leave a little stub attached to the main branch so the cut can heal or callous properly. Of course, you would normally trim dogwoods and other spring flowering trees and shrubs after they've bloomed in the spring, but since water sprouts like these rarely have any flower buds on them anyway, James suggests getting rid of them while the tree is dormant.

Another dogwood in James' yard that needs pruning is a red-twigged shrub known as Cornus alba 'Argenteo-marginata'. This is an excellent shrub that is hardy to Zone 2 and produces gorgeous variegated green and white foliage. The red stems provide winter interest, but the red wood is most vivid on new growth. While dormant, James prunes the stems back to almost ground level. "It looks drastic, but these plants will bounce back in no time."

The same goes for this yellow-twigged dogwood known as Cornus sericea. It too benefits from this radical pruning every year (or at least every other year), just before it breaks dormancy in late winter.

Another type of odd branch growth is as harmful as it is unsightly. Suckers are branches that emanate from the base of various trees and shrubs, and they often suck energy from the plant. "Now, some plants are more notorious than others for producing suckers," says James, "but one of the worst culprits in my landscape is Philadelphus or mockorange." The plant is hardy to Zone 5 and grows to about eight feet tall.

James' mockorange plant has been growing in his yard only for the last two years, and it's already producing a lot of suckers. James prunes each of the suckers back to the base of the plant. By continuing to prune the suckers even as they appear during growing season, this shrub will produce better top growth and more of its sweetly scented blossoms.

James' hellebores look messy, which is normal for this time of year, but they're also in full bloom. So to enhance the overall look of the plants, he makes a few simple snips here and there. "And as I do, I'll be careful not to get any sap on my skin since some people are allergic to it, and frankly I don't know if I'm one of those people."

Other miscellaneous trimming tasks include trimming away dead growth from various evergreens, removing dead wood from a variety of deciduous trees and shrubs, and removing abnormal growth like this wildly growing branch on a smoketree (Cotinus). James recommends checking your landscape with your pruners in hand every month or so.

At least every year, you should give your pruners a little maintenance, too. Clean the blades thoroughly with a rag soaked in turpentine to remove any sap, and scrub them well with steel wool to eliminate rust. After that, apply any kind of oil to the blades, and don't forget to add a few drops of oil to the bolt that holds the two blades together.

Sharpening the blades is a good idea as well, to help make pruning easier. "I use a small diamond file to carefully put a new edge on my pruners. Following the beveled angle on the cutting edge, it takes only a few minutes to rejuvenate your pruners and make them as good as new.

"And that's important," James continues, "because a sharp edge makes a sharp cut. And a sharp cut heals much faster, which means your plants will be a lot healthier. Plus, your pruners will last a lot longer." James has been using the same pruners for 25 years, "and with any luck, they'll serve me well for another 25 years."

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