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Gardening: Prune Hands

Tree and shrub maintenance is like some kind of fairy tale.

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I was immediately stripped of my shears and banished from the kingdom by said lady, whereupon I began my wanderings. Into the wilderness went I, and in time I came to a small house, overgrown and unkempt, the home of seven dwarf trees.

Each was the victim of a similar ineptitude I had unleashed on those poor azaleas, and each had a lesson for me. Taking up the shears of shame, I began to learn. There was:

Sprouty: A deciduous tree, young and eager to grow, cultivating water sprouts and suckers like teenagers grow long hair and wispy mustaches. Sprouts, popping up at pruning spots, and suckers, emerging from the trunk or roots, should both be taken right off. Sprouty's pruning was timed for maximum effect. If you prune in summer, growth is suppressed; in winter or early spring, callous tissue forms, but so does sap. Only mature trees should be allowed sprouts, which they need for photosynthesis (think old men and comb-overs).

Wilty: A lot of low-hanging branches and weak and dead stems, allowed to limp along in hopes of fixing himself. Wilty required tough love: removal of all the dead branches — all of them — and anything dragging along the ground or growing at an angle below the horizontal. Looking a little nude, Wilty will nevertheless recover.

Buddy: An unruly grower with a lot of buds, this one took some planning, since any cut might send off a branch in a random direction. Buddy required cutting back branches to a vigorous bud that was poised to grow in a good direction, being careful to angle the cuts at 45 degrees (so the water would roll off, not pool) and making sure not to cut too high above the bud or into it. Looking trim, he had a good future ahead of him.

Bushy: Buddy's brother. Another big grower, a deciduous shrub getting a little too tall and thick in the middle. He'd be the awkward one in the AV Club of the forest if he wasn't evened out. So by taking out the tallest canes at ground level and thinning out the center well inside so that the cuts weren't easily seen — to let in light, air and water for the plant's center — Bushy was taken down by that magic third that makes all the difference.

Crotchy: A mess of branches. Some rubbed together, creating wounds and openings for disease; some were at too sharp an angle, weakening the crotch through bark inclusion (think about what happens to golf pants or tight shorts on a hot day). Some were almost horizontal, which unbalanced the whole plant and were more easily broken. Crotchy had to be pruned to find the branches that met at at least a 35 degree angle. He wasn't happy about it. But with that many crotches, who is?

Bloomy: A neglected flowering shrub, he had to be cut just right to avoid losing the blooming buds. I remembered the rules, just in time: spring flowering shrubs, like azalea, forsythia and lilacs, are old-growth and should be cut right after blooming so they'll have plenty of time to grow out new buds for next year. Summer and fall bloomers, like crape myrtle, spirea and butterfly bush, grow on this year's buds, and should be cut in late winter. Now which one was Bloomy? He wasn't talking.

Top: The old man of the crew, subject to a lifetime of topping, the aesthetic-free version of the flattop that leaves open wounds, weakens the shrub against the elements, encourages water sprouts and destroys the tree's natural beauty. Top was militant in his way, and I had to use the lessons of all the others to get him back to a shape most resembling a plant and not, well, a two-legged poodle with a buzz cut. Top was a lesson to us all to avoid topping at all costs.

So my seven friends were set right, and back on the road to plant health and natural good looks. And with new knowledge in mind and the shears of success in hand, I got back on the road, to return to the kingdom and the lady and share my wisdom. Now I'd just follow the bread crumbs I left to get back out of the forest and … oh, hell! HS

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