A Fine Day for Pruning

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I’ve been itching to get my shears out and prune these Japanese Maples for some time now. There’s some controversy about just when is the “proper” time to prune these delicate creatures. I tend to follow the advice of Cass Turnbull, of Plant Amnesty, a Master Pruner here in Seattle. She says the best time is basically “when the shears are sharp”.

In other words you prune them when you’re ready to do it. You have to be in the right frame of mind to do these trees. They can be messed up so easily if you make the wrong cuts. I have spent literally hours gazing at these two trees to determine just which branches to cut and why. My goal is to prune so that you can’t tell that I’ve even done it.

I suppose you’re wondering why I put  up these two shots. After all you can’t tell anything can you? I sure hope not. If you can tell I’ve just pruned a couple of buckets of branches off the two of them then I’ve done a poor job. If you could see them up close you’d see a scar or two of course but otherwise I think you can’t tell.

We were lucky to have a perfect day today for this work. It’s been sunny and warmish, for Seattle anyway, with no rain, another rare occurrence just lately. And I just felt good about it today. I was in the right frame of mind and felt prepared to do it and suffer the consequences if I screwed up. But I don’t think I did. They look just like I had in mind for them to look when I was done.

I pruned several other things in the yard but the prostrate rosemary that half froze to death isn’t that pretty right now and the Pfitzer Juniper didn’t fit my theme of maples so I’m not showing those. I did a bunch of other chores around the yard since it was so nice out and I was in the mood. I’ve really been wanting to do some gardening and it’s just been too wet recently so I’ve put it off.

So today when I got home from an appointment I put on my pruning gear and got myself prepared. I sharpened my shears and got out the buckets and bins to put the prunings in. I spent an little time just looking at the trees again to make sure I was ready for this and I got out the tall pruning ladder so I could get at the top of the bigger one and off I went.

The top shot is of a Japanese Maple, or Acer palmatum, called Sangokaku or Coral Bark Maple, for its reddish new bark. It means Pillar of Coral in Japanese, or Sea Corral to be precise since that’s what it supposedly reminds folks of there. It gets about 25 or 30 feet tall and grows in this vase shape tho I’ve emphasized it and made it tighter since it’s between two paths and we need to be able to walk under it.

The other one is an Acer palmatum dissectum called “Waterfall” we just got about a year ago. It was pretty low to the ground when we first got it and I had to prune quite a bit last year. Over the past growing season it put on a lot of growth and so I had to do some more work on it today to keep it off the Rhodie in front of it and keep it in good shape. It may get to 10 feet tall they say and as wide. I’ll have more pruning to do in time.

I have 4 other Japanese maples in this garden and the rest of them don’t really take any pruning to speak of yet. They’re growing very slowly, except for one I’ll profile soon, and just can’t handle any loss of limbs. I’m waiting for them to gain some size first before I attempt to prune them much and some of them will probably never need much pruning. I’ll get to them when it’s time.

I have pruned them a bit tho and you can’t tell at all that I’ve even touched them it’s so subtle. That’s the way I approach most of my pruning. I’ll try to be as subtle as I can so you can’t tell what I’ve done. It’s like how when you clean a house it just looks right when you’re done, you can’t tell you cleaned it actually and done any work. Good pruning can be like that. You can’t see it.

I was taught to prune by a few talented people in my youth and one of them gave me a motto I love. He said he did “Aesthetic and Therapeutic Pruning”, a phrase I’ve used ever since. This practice means that you take into account the nature of the plant you’re working on and allow it to be itself as much as possible, with minor adjustments to keep it in shape and healthy as well as beautiful. It’s a great way to think about it.

I don’t believe in topping plants if there’s any other way to prune them. But sometimes it’s necessary. I almost lost a big Viburnum rhytidophyllum a year or so ago and thought it was going to die so I topped it way back and tied it up and in a few months it started to grow again and is a gorgeous shrub that looks grand now. You can see where I cut it still but that will disappear in time as it’s an evergreen so will cover up its scars. But it’s rare I’ll do something that radical unless I’m trying to save a plants’ life, which was so in that case.

But topping trees is often a tragedy and I really try to talk people out of it if there’s any other way to go. Often it’s more work to do it right I’ll admit, but you end up with a plant that has it’s natural form instead of bare arms sticking up out of the jungle of suckers that will come on after you top something. It looks like hell to me and I hate it. There are better ways to do it if you just look closely and see where to cut it.

We have a big pruning project we still have to do – an Italian plum in the back yard that shades much of the garden. It’s gotten way too heavy and needs to be thinned badly. It’ll be a few hours project tho and we just haven’t gotten to it yet. But we will soon, before it starts to bud out. The cherry next to it has buds showing now and I think I got to the Maples just in time too because one of the ones I have in a pot is definitely starting to push its buds out already. I’m so excited I can’t stand it! Wow… 😉

Anyway, that’s enough about pruning for now. I know that as time goes on I’ll have many more plants to prune in this garden that have yet to mature. But I hope I’ve done a good enough job of planting them with enough space to grow that I won’t have to do a whole lot of pruning to keep them happy together. Time will tell but if I can do it so you can’t tell I’ll be happy. And so will the plants!

Pruning to be invisible,

Steve

PS: Here are a couple of posts I’ve done on pruning before: https://gardeningingreenwood.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/plant-amnesty-says-stop-topping-trees/ and https://gardeningingreenwood.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/some-thoughts-on-pruning-and-size/. Both have some redundant material but new stuff too, especially about Plant Amnesty, which is so cool I want to share it again… ;). Thanks for reading.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. I sort of winced when I saw the dreaded (by me) “P” word . . . then I got down to “Aesthetic and Therapeutic Pruning” and was able to relax. You have the same attitude to pruning as I do, although I likely have done less of it in my life. I generally enjoy things (and people and animals, too) just as they are, so I resist cutting plants. Even when I know they may bloom more or whatever. But I have done it . . .

    I like that you try to be so subtle that the cuts don’t show and the plant continues to look like itself. (On the other hand, I’ve seen topiary that I very much admired; I never said I was consistent!) 😉 Great post, Steven. ~ Linne

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    • Thanks Linne. I share your fear of bad pruning. Sometimes I’ve been a little too enthusiastic so I’ve learned to prune more lightly by experience. That’s why I’m so careful today. I use plant analogies and human ones together all the time in saying that all creatures do their best when they are allowed to grow to become themselves. Plants, animals, people, forests, rivers, whatever. I try to use a light touch and have a very holistic view of life… I confess I like some topiary too…. My guilty pleasure… 😉
      Thanks for visiting,
      Steve

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  2. Great pruning job, Steve. Your trees look so natural and that’s not an easy task. The Coral Bark Maple is so pretty even this time of year…I’m anxious to see it when it leafs out. I’m just going to have to look around for one! I also have to prune some plants in my garden…they need cleaned up once in awhile and some gently shaped. We have a shrub/tree here in the southeast called a crepe myrtle and it would make you cringe to see how people hack these poor trees. Southern Living magazine calls it “crepe murder” and fittingly so. People don’t want to take the time to study the plant and apply the appropriate pruning like you do. Your plants are lucky to have such a good gardener! 🙂

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    • Thanks for the kind words. I do try for the natural look and feel in my work with plants. Just makes sense to me… I hope you can find the maple. They’re really lovely with their new growth tinged in red and gold. I grew up with crepe myrtle in California so I know it well. It’s a beautiful small tree and should Never be topped. It’s got a lovely form and is great when it blooms and fills the area with it’s gorgeous colors. I have seen a few plants here in Seattle but that surprised me. I think they’d do better in warmer climates… It’s a shame to see people butcher tress. Calling it the Crepe Murder is fitting I guess. Such a waste…. I don’t get why people don’t Look at the things they prune and see how they grow first. More uncommon common sense… 😉
      Cheers,
      Steve

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  3. I love that Coral Bark Maple! The tall narrow shape really picks up on the coral imagery (in addition to the color), and is what the space needs. Nice.
    I don’t like topping trees, that being said, I have a hemlock that probably ought to get topped. Its function is as a dense evergreen hedge at least fifteen feet tall in a full shade understory, no other evergreen hardy here will grow in that condition. (planted beneath mature maples) I can’t have an 80 foot monster there, but hemlock was the only option for the site. Still, for me having to top a tree always means poor planning on the part of the person who planted it…

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    • I love this maple a lot too. The colors are just so vivid against the sky and the habit is striking as well. I wish I could take better pictures of it… I’m sorry to hear about your hemlock. It sounds like you’re stuck with topping it. It happens, but I agree that it usually indicates poor planning. I wonder if there are cultivars of this same hemlock that mature at closer to 15 feet. But it’d take awhile to regrow and that’s not realistic I’d imagine. I can see why you’d need to top it at this point. Sometimes you just have to. Thanks for visiting… 😉
      Best of luck,
      Steve

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