January 28, 2020

Winter Damage Prompts Pruning Frenzy

Beauty bush and a butterfly

Faith Pineo Photo | A butterfly partakes of the beauty bush in 2011.

• By Janine Pineo •

Take the good with the bad.

That’s what I keep telling myself as trips around the yard reveal more damage from winter’s wrath.

I think the pluses outweigh the minuses, but you can decide.

Good: March greeted April with a wave of blooming crocus. Then came the dwarf iris and snowdrops, and an ever-expanding drift of Siberian squill, glory-of-the-snow and puschkinia. Tulips and daffodils strove to reach new heights, while the first luminous leaves of lady’s mantle, lamb’s ears and lupine took a tentative peek out of the mulch.

Bad: If one keeps an eye on the ground, all seems well. But a glance skyward still prompts a wince.

The obvious breaks are in the ornamental trees, but the wooded areas of the Pineo plot were not unscathed. New-fallen trunks litter the forest floor, their heavy branches bending young saplings to the ground. While nature will take its course in most of those areas, the ornamental trees require professional help. I can’t picture myself, pruning saw in hand, teetering atop a ladder and tethered to a tree trunk. Then, I would be the one in need of professional help.

Good: The first green buds on the lilac, forsythia and St. John’s wort made it easy to spot any dead shoots ripe for pruning. To promote a new flush of bloom, the winter-weary branches on the heath and heather plants got their spring trimming, too. Requiring nothing but admiration was the several-years-old enkianthus, a stunner with its bud-speckled branches; maybe this year the bell-like blossoms will ring the crown.

Hydrangea blossoms

Pineo Photo | In spite of heavy damage during the Ice Storm of 1998, this hydrangea bounced back and continues to put on a show every year.

Bad: The hydrangea lost its top, the beauty bush is a beauty no more, and the summersweet may have seen its last summer.

Those sorry discoveries — all in the same flower bed by the gardening shed — made me ill. It also forced me to learn how to prune the wounded wrecks if they are to have a chance at survival.

The simplest guide I’ve found is “Pruning Woody Landscape Plants” from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. While I may not follow all the instructions perfectly, I think I’ve got a handle on this pruning thing (and after this year, we all may be pros).

Tools are key, but my weapon of choice for smaller shrubs is a bypass pruner, scissorlike shears that make a smoother cut than anvil pruners, which crush the stem and leave a ragged wound.

With pruners in hand, I first attacked the hydrangea, a stubby sort of tree that has been slow to grow. The most I could do was make a clean cut below where the crown broke off and pray that the remaining lower branches will take over. This is definitely not the recommended way to ever prune a tree, but I want to make the attempt to save it. The hydrangea’s best hope is its youth; it may bounce back better than before.

The pink summersweet, Clethra alnifolia rosea, was a bit trickier. The weight of the snow and ice broke two of the major branches of this young bush, which was less than 2 feet tall. Both shoots had to be cut off just above ground level. With only a couple of sets of puny branches left, survival will depend on how strong the root system is and whether it can sustain the plant through this trauma.

Clethra is among the later-flowering shrubs that produce buds during the current season, which means there might be flowers this year on the remaining shoots of the summersweet. That characteristic also means spring is a good time for pruning clethra. The opposite of clethra would be forsythia, which makes flower buds the previous year. Spring pruning of forsythia may sacrifice the flowers unless only deadwood is being removed, so it is recommended to prune these shrubs just after flowering to allow time for maximum growth.

The other casualty was my beauty bush, Kolkwitzia amabilis, which had reached about 3 feet in height last summer. The vertical branches all were splintered; left intact were the horizontal branches that arch gracefully out.

All of the breaks were next to the trunk, which meant that any pruning would leave an awkward hole in the center of the plant. Enough of the plant remains to keep it alive, but I don’t know how or if any new shoots will fill in the bare area. Only time will tell.

Good: Brushing the dog.

It has a lot to do with my gardens, actually. Bear’s fluffy black fur floats around the back yard after she is brushed, attracting the attention of the birds — in this case, a pair of phoebes and a chickadee.

The phoebes use it to line their nest atop the light fixture outside the back door. They are pest control for the gardens, swooping down to snatch unsuspecting bugs from my vegetables and flowers and then feeding them to the babies back home in the cozy, fur-lined nest.

As for the chickadee, I’m not sure why one was pulling puffs of fur from the last of the snow. Maybe it, too, needed a baby blanket.

Bad: Deer.

December’s snow made it easy to follow one creature’s path of nibbling destruction when it made mincemeat, so to speak, of my stand of kale. On its way out, the deer decided dessert was the poor apple trees, all of which had to be pruned this month.

So I’m thinking this harebrained scheme may work: In the spring, I brush Bear for the birds and in the fall for the deer. Huh, you ask? Well, I’ll take those wispy clumps of dog fuzz and drape them from the apple trees, sort of a hairy version of Spanish moss.

Good for the trees, bad for the deer, and really ugly for the rest of us.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in April 1998.

2012 update: Fourteen years after the Ice Storm, a number of the shrubs and trees damaged in that onslaught are still thriving. A few shrubs succumbed, but not that year and then only some years later. Perhaps they were too damaged to live longer, but they kept trying. The beauty bush? It has gone on to be one of the most spectacular shrubs in the yard, looking like it was dead a couple of years ago and being severely pruned back, only to erupt into a glorious display the next year. There is something to be said for pruning.