Garden tips for January | January 13, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 13, 2012

Garden tips for January

Tools, techniques and tricks for pruning

by Jack McKinnon

January is the best month for pruning. The deciduous plants have lost their leaves, the evergreens' sap has slowed almost to a stop and there is time between rains to get out and do this work.

This month's tips will cover tools, techniques and some tricks. Here are the tips:

1. Buy good tools and you will not have to replace them for many years if at all. Price is a good indicator and may not be negotiable but can certainly vary if you shop. The key is to get a name brand with a long history.

2. Learn how to sharpen and lubricate your tools. Modern saws seldom need sharpening but shears, loppers and pole pruners do. I like to use diamond sharpeners but files and stones for sharpening work, too. The important thing to know here is how to look at and test your tools for sharpness. Try cutting a leaf. If the tool cuts cleanly, get back to work pruning. If the cutter tears up the leaf, keep sharpening.

3. Prune dead, dying and diseased branches first. Remember three "Ds" for Dead, Dying and Diseased. This will give you plenty to do without risking destroying your plants and your marriage.

4. Get a good pruning book. There are several on the market. I like "Pruning & Training" by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce from the Royal Horticultural Society. It has good illustrations, information and covers most of the plants we will be pruning.

5. The best way to learn pruning of course is to follow behind a good pruner and see where the cuts were made. I did this 30 years ago and have never regretted it.

6. Whenever you have a question, write it down. This way when you take a class or talk to an expert you can ask all your current questions and maybe even get tips you did not expect.

7. After pruning all the dead, dying and diseased branches in your garden it is time to look at thinning and shaping. The best tip I can give here is to do the worst first. Of course this may be subjective. Another very important maintenance habit to have is to remove all stubs. Stubs are cut branches that stick out from the trunk or other branches. It is important to remove these so the cut will heal over properly.

8. Think about your relationships and if this pruning job will affect them. If there is any doubt, you may want to think about it for a day or two. If you need to, go to a marriage and family therapist. In order to continue pruning, it may be wise to hire someone else to do your pruning.

9. Try not to prune your neighbors' plants without letting them know about it first. Usually asking rather than telling them works better. I have seen some pretty angry disputes between neighbors and often it takes years to heal them.

10. For fruit trees it is important to know if the fruit comes on spurs (little branches that flower) or directly on the branches. Usually it is safe to remove crossing branches, straight up and straight down branches. Otherwise consider what the tree will look like with the weight of fruit bending branches and prune it to support this weight. Also keep the fruit within reach. There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to reach fruit at harvest time.

Good gardening.

Garden coach Jack McKinnon can be reached at 650-455-0687 (cell), by email at Visit his website at


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