Backyard Bounty’s Pruning Primer for early season plant care.

Believe it or not, the snow in our region will be gone at some point. When the first warm Saturday comes around, you’ll probably notice some broken branches and a garden eager to be cleaned up for spring. Pruning is the first chore for this prep. (Earlier information about pruning here:).

No matter which type of tree, shrub or bush you wish to prune, there are a few simple rules to use as your guide and four basic cuts that are useful year-round.

Simple Rules for Pruning

• How to know what to prune? at Backyard Bounty, we always start by determining which cuts will maintain the health of the plant. We follow the rule of the “Four D’s” in determining what these cuts are, looking for Dead, Diseased, Damaged or Displaced (crossing) branches.
• How much can I cut out from a tree or shrub? Remove no more than one-fourth of most plants at one time and no more than one-third in one year
o FYI: In general, the harder a plant is cut back, the more vigorous the re-growth.
• Where do I start on an overgrown shrub:
o It is generally healthier for plants to remove older stems and branches over a 3–4 year period.
o Never just randomly trim or shear the ends of branches on an overgrown woody plant (unless it’s a hedge-like plant), in order to reduce its size. This will stimulate a lot of increased growth over the whole plant, which prevents light from entering the inside of the plant causing dieback. This will often then lead to pest and disease problems.

The Four Types of Cut
There are four basic pruning cuts, each aimed at producing a different effect.
• Pinch-pruning
• Thinning
• Heading back
• Shearing

1. Pinch-Pruning (Pinching) of the shoot tips

Where: Used for some Ornamental Shrubs (such as Fuschia and Chrysanthemum) and many herbaceous plants (including some vegetables).

Why: To produce a bushy plant.

How: Use the thumb and forefinger to pinch at the tip for cutting.

2. Thinning

Where: All woody plants

Why: Selective thinning reduces the density of a woody plant without stimulating a lot of new growth.
Thinning also opens up the plant, allowing light in and helping maintain the plant’s natural shape. New growth occurs only on the remaining stems and branches.

A thinning cut removes a lateral stem, limb or branch back to its point of origin on the main branch, trunk or back to the ground (see diagram below)

How: Use hand-held pruners, loppers, or a pruning saw to make thinning cuts, depending on the thickness of the branch/stem being cut.

(from the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website

3. Heading Back

Where: Woody plants (as with thinning), but to produce a different effect

Why: A proper heading cut is made to reduce the height or length of just a few branches at a time. (See diagram above)

How: The cut is made farther back from the end of a shoot than you would for pinching, but always just above a lateral bud or shoot that is heading in the right direction for the new growth to go (normally an outward-facing bud).

Note: A common mistake of inexperienced gardeners is to make an indiscriminate heading cut (by cutting anywhere on a branch or stem to shorten it), when what’s needed is a thinning cut.
This is incorrect pruning (unless shearing a hedge), because heading cuts stimulate vigorous new clustered growth from lateral buds below the cut (and even more so if the cut is made just randomly anywhere on the stem). This makes a plant denser and not smaller.

Therefore, to reduce the density of a shrub, use thinning cuts, because you remove a number of lateral buds along with the stem or branch, making it less likely for you to end up with clusters of unwanted shoots than you are when you make heading cuts.

4. Shearing

Where: On hedging plants or when cutting some herbaceous plants back after blooming.
Since this method cuts right through leaves, it’s best done on small-leafed plants, where damage is less noticeable.

Why: This causes vigorous new growth just below the cuts. Therefore for hedging plants, it needs to be done regularly in order to maintain a desired shape.
For some herbaceous plants, it is done to promote further flowering (Threadleaved Tickseed – Coreopsis verticillata for example)

How: These are random heading cuts that are made with shears or electric hedge trimmers.

Pruning plants in February? Are you crazy? Or crazy not to?

1. Why to prune in February – Proper pruning helps ensure attractive, healthy, productive plants when spring arrives.
2. Get ready – Sharpen your tools. A sharp pruning cut is essential to a plant’s health.
3. Do your pruning right – Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our pruning guide to make sure you’re getting the results you want.

1. Why to prune in February

There are plenty of reasons to stay inside in February:
− Every instinct wants to continue our hibernation inside in the warmth this month. It’s part of our natural seasonal rhythm.
− “No way can I get outside on these cold, miserable grey days! I don’t even walk the dog right now!”
There are also plenty of reasons to get outside in February:
− As garden lovers we know the many benefits of the exercise and sunlight, as well as the rewards from nurturing something we love and of being once again close to the earth after months away.
− Proper pruning helps ensure attractive, healthy, productive plants when spring arrives.
− From late Winter (from mid-February) to very early spring (before the buds show) is the time to prune Summer-flowering deciduous woody plants such as Butterfly Bush, Beautyberry and Japanese Spirea.
− These plants bloom in summer on the current year’s new growth. If you prune too late and remove the buds, you will have no flowers this year.
− Many deciduous shrubs don’t produce attractive flowers. These shrubs may possess attractive bark, fruit, or fall leaf color. Prune these shrubs now in late winter or very early spring before the buds show.
− Above all, deciduous shrubs should not be pruned in late summer. Pruning shrubs in August or early September may encourage a late flush of growth. This new growth may not harden sufficiently before the arrival of cold weather and be susceptible to winter injury.
− Old, neglected spring-flowering shrubs often require extensive pruning to rejuvenate or renew the plants. The best time to rejuvenate large, overgrown shrubs is late winter or early spring before the plants begin to leaf out.

2. How to get ready

Sharpen your tools. A sharp pruning cut is essential to a plant’s health.
− Clean the pruners/loppers with warm soapy water and wire wool.
− Then apply a lubricant such as WD40.
− Clean cuts allow the plant to heal well. Many people are unsure as to what to use to sharpen pruners.
− Backyard Bounty suggests DMT “Diafold” sharpeners. We have years of experience in using them and have learned to love their high quality and their convenience. Much faster than other sharpeners, and no oil needed. They fold to pocket size. The blade is protected at all times once folded and they last for many years even when used continually.
− We suggest the “coarse grit’ (blue) for any neglected blades and the red one (“fine grit”) if you are just maintaining a keen edge on a regularly sharpened blade (ie red is for the gardener who is good at maintaining their tools……………not so many of us in this category!!!)
− Method: Hold the “Diafold” sharpener at a 20-30 degree angle against the blade of the pruners or loppers. With pressure on the outer edge of the pruners’ blade, file all the way along the blade in one direction, away from you. Lift and repeat. Don’t go back and forth. Test for sharpness on a small branch if needed.

− Backyard Bounty has found ‘AM Leonard’ to be a good and reasonably priced source for a varied selection of high quality garden tools.
Link to DMT “Diafold” Coarse Grit (blue) sharpener mentioned above. They also supply the “fine grit” sharpener (red).

3. Do your pruning right

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of our early pruning guide to make sure you’re getting the results you want.

Time to plant strawberries?

Johnny’s Seeds sent us our bare root strawberry plants at the ‘appropriate planting time for our region.’

Hoping today’s rain will wash away the last of the snow so we can plant them.

Inoculating Peas

Peas take nitrogen from the atmosphere and ‘fix’ it in the soil. Adding beneficial bacteria to the soil through an inoculant helps the peas do this extra efficiently. Here’s a good system for inoculating peas (and beans for that matter) with a commercially available bacteria (total natural and approved for organic farming, btw)
1. Place peas in a glass of water
2. Remove the peas and place the peas in a second glass
3. Sprinkle pea inoculant in the glass and shake up the peas till they are coated
4. Plant peas

You don’t need to add additional nitrogen to the soil when you plant inoculated peas, and you can till in the peas when they are done and enrich the soil in your garden bed.

We get our inoculant from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine:Inoculant for peas and beans

3 Years with NO DEER???

Check out the barrier MD Extension Specialist Jon Traunfield built that has been successful at keeping deer (and rabbits and groundhogs) out for 3 successive years.



Getting ready to plant peas: apprentice gardener Kris learns how to pull winter weeds, add compost and turn the soil. Love this excuse to pass off the heavy lifting and just show up for the planting….


Thinking about spring and favorite plants right now. Here’s one of the best: Amsonia hubrechtii, Blue Star Flower. Amsonia is a tough native, easy to care for, gorgeous in bloom with fabulous summer texture and stunning gold fall color. In this photo, it looks a little like the sunshine we need to melt all this snow.

Precaution or Risk/Cost/Benefit Analysis????

Precaution or Risk/Cost/Benefit Analysis????

Situation: A five dollar bill blows out of your hand and lands between the rails on the metro track. A train is coming in 5 minutes.

Do you:

A. Jump down and grab the bill because you’ve got plenty of time before the train arrives and really need some coffee to fight the cold

B. Give up on the five dollars because a cup of coffee is not worth the risk of getting run over?

Don’t know about you, but I would definitely skip the coffee and write off the five dollars. However, that’s not how the US approaches questions of pesticide safety.

European countries have issued a temporary ban on neonicotinoids, a widely used pesticide, because there’s a risk they are partly responsible for bee deaths.

MD legislature is debating a bill about whether to only allow licensed pesticide applicators use neonicotinoids.

Here’s text from a legislative update that arrived in my inbox asking for traditional landscapers to weigh in on the debate:

‘After consult with U of MD Extension and one of our grower members, it looks like the bill takes using neonicotinoid out of the hands of consumers, but continues to enable MDA licensed pesticide applicators to use these products. This bill may invoke emotional response/public perception that neonicotinoids are harmful (blamed for bee colony demises), however there may not be strong science to support this thought. What are your thoughts on this bill? Oppose based on bad science; or support with hope that if consumers can’t buy it, they’ll hire industry???’

I don’t know that the neonicotinoids are partly responsible for bee deaths, but I do know that I’d rather not risk the problems that will arise if they are.

Here’s a fact sheet about them from the University of Wisconsin Extension:

and here’s the counter-argument from a recent Forbes article:

Truth is, we just don’t know what these pesticides do.

Why not pause and evaluate what is happening when we use neonicotinoids before we risk creating a bigger problem since we don’t yet know what harm this type of pesticide might do? Is precaution such a bad thing?

What should we infer?

Prior to the 1930’s (pre- pesticides), US Agriculture lost 13% of crops to insects and disease.

Currently, we lose 17% of our agricultural crops to pests and disease.

Are these chemicals solving problems or creating new ones?

Thanks to Chip Osborne ( for this info. and for the excellent training on Organic Lawn Care he offers across the country.

Skip the fertilizer

You can grow healthy plants without fertilizer.

NOFA’s standards for soil offer a helpful description of the process and rationale:

NOFA Soil Standards

There are two approaches to matching soils and plants:

1. We can maximize the diversity of soils and plants and minimize the need to alter the soil by leaving the soil alone as much as possible and choosing appropriate plants for that soil, site, and microclimate; or NOFA Standards for Organic Land Care | 17

2. We (or the client) can decide what plants are desired and alter the soil and site to make them suitable for the desired plants.

The first choice is the more desirable because it minimizes our effects on the environment, and thus the potential for harm from our interventions. In either case, we must avoid practices that impair soil health and the health, diversity, and functioning of soil organisms.

Organic land care follows a holistic approach to plant health, nourishing soil life instead of feeding plants directly. This is accomplished by increasing organic matter in the soil, balancing nutrients and pH, and increasing soil life through the judicious use of biologically active materials such as compost and compost tea.

To reduce our ecological footprint, we emphasize the cycling of nutrients on site, supplemented as needed by local, renewable, sustainably harvested materials, and limit our use of materials that are mined or transported from far away to those that are necessary and not obtainable in any other way.

Soil tests are essential to gain specific information about the soil, and must be performed before any soil alterations can usefully be made.

We must minimize or eliminate any risk of contamination of soil or water with toxic substances or excessive nutrients, whether they are added directly, as with fertilizers, or simply allowed to come into contact with the soil. We utilize natural remediation methods, where possible, to cleanse the soil of contaminants.

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