Grow 506: Prune Clematis, sharpen tools, bleeding maples

Late Winter!

Gearing up for spring in a year when it seems spring will never come


Dear Readers,

There are tones of despair in your letters and the questions you've posted recently on the website listed at the end of my column. After so many years of mild winters and early springs, we're wondering how we'll ever accomplish all we want to do outdoors before the real warmth comes and plant growth outpaces us.

There's much you can do even while it's still cold. I've condensed my advice on these topics to short reports to cover as many of your concerns as I can.

Short reports

Ready to prune?

You bet! You can prune trees and shrubs now. Late winter pruning capitalizes on the ability to see and correct awkward branching while plants are leafless. It's also a better time to prune shrubs you're trying to keep small, sincee it removes the dominant tip buds before growth begins. This frees up subordinate side branches, so more of the plant's spring growth happens on the sides and interior.

What about my clematis vine?

You can prune clematis, butterfly bush, dwarf spirea, barberry, ornamental grasses and just about everything else now. Fifteen or 30 minutes of pruning every few days is a great way to ease into spring gardening.

My hand hurts when I prune!

Gardeners are often over-achievers -- we shouldn't prune for so long all at once, particularly our first time out!

Sharpen your pruning tools first.

Check hand pruners to be sure they're the right size for your hand. Put one handle into the crook of your thumb where it should be, then open your hand flat and let the pruners open to their full spread. If the handle meant to be held by your fingertips opens so wide that it's sitting on or beyond your fingertips at its full extension, you need smaller pruners so your hand can truly rest between cuts.

Most pruners, even the Felco model made for a small hand, open too wide for a small man or average woman's hand. That may be a holdover from a time when companies were marketing high quality tools primarily to professional lumberjack types. Try the Fiskar's brand -- lighter and smaller but with a very good blade.

My maple's bleeding!

Maples, birches, beeches and grapes are known for pumping sap so vigorously in spring that it flows copiously from fresh cuts. This doesn't hurt the plant, but it does upset people who assign human qualities to their plants. If you're in that league, wait to prune your bleeder in August or during a winter thaw.

That shrub seems dry and brown on one side...

Has a male dog made a habit of visiting this plant? Dog urine on wood and concentratred in the soil can kill even while a plant is dormant. Cut out the dead wood, flush the soil well or dig and remove what you can, then give the dog some other four-season item to mark. Prominently-placed concrete statues, boulders or wooden posts are less likely to be damaged and often accepted as subsitutes. wait to prune, don't want to get cold feet; can prune now; dog pee on dormant bushes hurts? can prune cleamtis no; can cutr back grasses now, buddleis now

I didn't finish dividing my perennials last fall.

You can divide perennials as soon as the frost leaves the ground. It's easiest on the plant and its appearance during this growing season if you divide before new shoots begin to lengthen, butIf you can't stay ahead of


Green thumbs up

to warming up for 2003's first full-out gardening day. Think about what you'll be doing in the garden when the weather breaks. Try to prepare those muscles. I have many bags of leaves to move from here to there and empty, so I'm working out indoors first with sacks of rugs and dirty laundry.


Green thumbs down

to cutting plants back, then up-potting them. If you cut back your rosemary, jade, ficus or pothos each March, just loosen and top dress the potting soil. Up-pot -- move it to a larger pot --


Originally published 3/8/03