PruningPruning serves multiple purposes:

  • Shows plants, shrubs and trees at their best
  • Pruned plants produce more and better fruit and flowers
  • Improves the health of diseased plants
  • Strengthens trees stronger and makes them safer
  • Channels growth away from structures and traffic

See the Pruning Glossary section at the end of this post for terms and their definitions.

When to Prune

Heavy pruning should be done in spring, as it stimulates rapid regrowth. Prune evergreens in the spring and deciduous trees and shrubs in late winter to stimulate new growth in the spring. Prune shrubs that bloom in the spring after they have blossomed so that there is still time for growth and to set new buds before winter.

Summer pruning does little to stimulate growth. Hot, dry conditions stress plants, so avoid heavy pruning. Limit summer pruning to removing suckers, and to thin summer-flowering shrubs after they have bloomed.

Mid to late fall is the time for only thinning cuts. Heading cuts will stimulate soft new growth easily damaged by frost. Do not prune a plant while it is dropping leaves.

By late winter, leaves have dropped and you can easily see the form of the plant and therefore how to improve it. Pruning in winter stimulates growth in the spring.Formal Hedge

Pruning Do’s and Don’ts

Remove all dead wood first, to improve health and appearance, then prune from the bottom of the plant up. With larger plants, prune from the inside out. Next, look for branches that cross and rub. Keep the branch that is healthiest and better situated, that either grows upward or fills in empty space, and prune the other branch.

For shrubs, prune with the objective of opening up the
center of the shrub, and cleaning up the base of the shrub. This will allow more light to penetrate and more air to circulate, improving the health of the shrub.

Prune back branches that reach the ground, crowd other plants, or are too close to structures and walkways.

The most common pruning mistakes are:

  • pruning in an attempt to make plants smaller again
  • tree topping
  • indiscriminate shearing
  • overthinning

The only cure for bad pruning is time. Most plants will return to their natural state within a few years.

Pruning Cuts

Most pruning consists of one or two cuts: thinning cuts, or heading cuts.

Heading CutA thinning cut removes the entire branch.  Use a thinning cut to open up a plant to allow more sunlight to penetrate into its interior, to redirect growth, or to establish good structure.

A heading cut removes only part of a branch that results in rapid, bushy growth just below the cut. Use a heading cut to shorten a plant and stimulate latent buds. This is the nonselective technique used to shape formal hedges and topiary.Topiary

Pruning Tools

Keep your pruning tools sharp, as the best tools to use for pruning are those that will cut cleanly and easily. Use pruning shears for stems and twigs, lopping shears for branches that are the diameter of your finger or larger, and a pruning saw for branches larger than that.

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Branch collar: The part of the trunk that holds the branch to the trunk and revealed as the bulge at the base of the branch.

Branch crotch: The angle where a tree branch meets the trunk or parent stem.

Bread bud: When a latent bud is stimulated into growing into a leaf or twig.

Cane: A long, slender branch that usually originates directly from the roots.

Leader: The main or tallest shoot of a tree trunk.

Pinching: Nipping the end bud of a twig or stem with your fingertips to discourage further growth in that direction.

Thinning cut: Cutting a limb off at the base, either at ground level or at a branch collar.

Heading cut: Cutting a branch back to a side bud or shoot.

Skirting or limbing up: Pruning off the lower limbs of a tree.

Sucker: An upright shoot growing from the root or graft union; also a straight, rapidly growing shoot that grows in response to an injury or poor pruning.

Topiary: Plants sculpted into tightly sheared geometric shapes or likenesses of animals, people or objects.



All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors


Dividing Your Plants for Propagation

Divide bulbsDivision is a simple and quick method of propagating plants with multiple stems. It involves separating a multi-stemmed plant into several smaller plants.




Plants that can be divided:

  • Groundcovers
  • Clump-forming perennials
  • Bulbs
  • Tubers
  • Ornamental grasses
  • Suckering shrubs
  • Houseplants
  • Herbs

When to Divide

Divide your plants when they are dormant. For plants that bloom in spring and summer, divide in the fall, and for plants that bloom in the fall, divide in the spring. For houseplants, divide in the spring once new growth has begun. For tubers such as dahlias and begonias, divide them before you plant them in the spring.

How to Divide

Only divide healthy plants. Water the soil thoroughly the day before you plan to divide. Divide in the evening, or during cool, cloudy weather, to reduce moisture loss. Lift the plant to be divided from the soil with a pitchfork or spade. Separate healthy new growth and discard woody old growth. Each piece divided from the whole needs to have its own root system to continue growing.Plant Division

For herbaceous plants such as perennials or ornamental grasses, use a sharp spade to divide the plant into smaller sections in a single, clean cut. Do not chop at the roots. For fleshy crowns such as astilbes and hostas, divide sections with their own roots with a sharp knife. Lift bulbs only after their foliage has yellowed and died. Separate new bulbs from the old bulbs, and replant them at the correct depth and spacing. Cut dahlia crowns and iris rhizomes apart with a sharp knife into divisions that have their own bud where the root joins the crown. Cut tubers such as begonia and caladium into two or three sections that have a sprout or visible bud. Expose these cut surfaces to air for a day or two to dry before planting.

Care after Division

Replant your new divisions as quickly as possible, to prevent drying, at the same depth as the original plant. Water thoroughly. When dividing in the fall, apply mulch to protect developing roots from frost heaving.


All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors








Drying Your Harvest

Dried PeppersDrying food to preserve it is an ancient practice. It removes the moisture that permits bacteria and fungus to rot food. The methods used to dry food are cheap and energy-efficient. Simply cut it into small pieces, and expose it to warm, dry air, until 75-95 percent of the moisture has evaporated. The results are lightweight and compact, with concentrated flavor, and the capacity to be stored for long periods of time, from 4 to 12 months if kept in sealed containers stored in a cool, dry place.

Best Foods for DryingDehydrated Apricots

  • Fruits
    • Apples
    • Bananas
    • Cherries
    • Grapes
    • Nectarines
    • Peaches
    • Pears
    • Plums
    • Rhubarb
    • Strawberries
  • Vegetables
    • Beans
    • Beets
    • Carrots
    • Celery
    • Garlic
    • Mushrooms
    • Onions
    • Parsnips
    • Peppers
    • Pumpkin
    • Tomatoes
    • Zucchini

Dried Tomatoes

Preparing Food for Drying

Wash, peel, and core all food to be dried. Cut them into thin, small, uniform pieces so that they dry at the same rate. The thicker and bigger the pieces, the longer they will take to dry. Pretreat the food so that it retains its color and flavor. To prevent fruit from darkening, soak for 3-5 minutes in lemon, orange or pineapple juice, or a solution consisting of 1 tablespoon ascorbic acid powder in 1 quart of water. Drain the fruit before drying. To sweeten fruit and prevent darkening, dip it into a solution of ½ cup of honey dissolved in 1 ½ cups of boiling water. Let the solution cool to lukewarm and then soak the fruit as you would in the citrus fruit solution.

To preserve flavor in vegetables, blanch them with steam or boiling water. Place the vegetables into a wire basket and submerge them only briefly in boiling water. To blanch with steam, place vegetables into a wire basket and suspend it over rapidly boiling water. After either method of blanching, allow the vegetables to cool before drying.

Solar Drying

Using the sun to dry food is the cheapest and simplest method. It requires low humidity and long days of full sun with a breeze. Set your food out to dry on trays early in the day, and cover or bring them indoors at night or during rain.

Make your own drying trays using simple wooden frames and nylon mesh. For improved air circulation, place them on blocks. Use cheesecloth as a covering to keep out dirt and insects. Place the trays under clear plastic or glass to speed the drying process. Be mindful of temperatures however, as the food will cook rather than dry, if the temperature is too high. The high levels of sugar and acid in fruits make them the best choice for solar drying, as they protect fruit from mold.

See this article in Mother Earth News for plans to build a solar food dehydrator.

Food DehydratorIndoor Drying

Solar drying is impractical in climates with high humidity. Indoor drying, using your oven or a dehydrator, is best for vegetables because their low acidity permits the rapid growth of mold if drying conditions aren’t precise.

When using an oven, make sure the temperatures remain between 125 degrees and 160 degrees. Any warmer than that, and the food starts to cook. Gas ovens and convection ovens have good air circulation, but if you are using an electric oven, leave the door open. A microwave will dry herbs but is impractical for other foods as it will cook them rather than dry them. With oven drying, disconnect the broiler element if you are able, or place a cookie sheet on the top rack to deflect heat, as you want the heat to come from below only. Cover the racks with nylon mesh or netting.

Oven drying is not energy-efficient. If you will be drying large quantities of food, invest in a dehydrator. There are different models of dehydrators available commercially, but you can build one yourself. This site has links to multiple plans.

Whether you build your own or buy one, use a dehydrator in a well-ventilated area as the moisture it draws out of food will create humidity.

Drying Tips

  • Use a light coat of nonstick vegetable oil spray on drying trays to make removal easier
  • Place food in a single layer on drying trays
  • Stir the food and rotate the drying trays several times during drying
  • Solar drying may expose food to insects and can therefore contain small insects or their eggs, which can be destroyed by heating or freezing. Spread the dehydrated food on cookie sheets and heat to 175 degrees in an oven for 10-15 minutes, or put the dehydrated food into freezer bags for a minimum of 48 hours


Food that has been properly dehydrated should remain pliable, but should not be sticky. Slice a piece of dehydrated fruit in half and it is properly dried when there is no visible moisture. Vegetables should be tough, brittle, or hard.

Store your dried food in small, airtight containers, or freeze it.  Dried fruits may be eaten just as they are, but to rehydrate them, simmer in a small quantity of water until they are tender. Do the same with vegetables, or add them directly to soups or stews.


All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors



Natural Gardening – Part Two

Sprouting SeedSprouting Seeds

You can raise your own native plants for a natural garden, and the approaching fall is the perfect time to begin. To accelerate germination before planting, dampen the seeds, put them into plastic bags, and store them somewhere cold, at around 34 degrees Fahrenheit, for 60 days. These conditions simulate winter and prepare the seeds for germination rather than dormancy. Plant these seeds using a 50/50 mixture of sand and potting soil in flats or peat pots. By midspring, some of your native plants will be ready to transplanting into your natural garden, but before you do so, be certain that their roots are well-developed and that the plant has a minimum of 4 or 5 leaves.Seed Tray

Planning Your Natural Garden

First, make sure that there are no local ordinances against “wild” planting or tall grass prairie plantings. See our previous post, Start an Organic Garden, for tips on planning your new natural garden.

  • Pick a site with the appropriate amount of sun for the plants that you have chosen. Prairie plants in particular require full sun
  • Choose an organic shape for your garden, such as curves and rounded corners. Avoid straight lines, pointed corners and rows
  • Place plants that will be tall  when full grown in the back or interior of the planting so that they do not obscure shorter plants
  • Choose a diverse variety of plants so that you will have blooms throughout spring, summer and fall, and plant species in clusters, for best effect when in bloom

Create Your Natural Garden

Remove turf from your chosen site. Cultivate the bed in early spring with a garden tiller to bring weed seeds to the surface. Once these weeds have sprouted, pull them to reduce competition with your chosen native plants. Plant your site with seeds or transplants.

Maintaining Your Natural Garden

An established natural garden requires little maintenance, but you should remain vigilant to potential problems.

  • Weeds may be persistent for the first year or two. Pulling weeds by hand is the best strategy, as herbicides are just as likely to kill your native plants as they are to kill weeds
  • Some native species, particularly prairie grasses, can become very tall. Support these plants with stakes
  • Natural prairies were subject to grass fires that would remove thatch, or dead vegetation, and encourage new growth. Simulate these natural conditions by mowing or using a weed whip in earliest spring to cut last year’s dead vegetation to ground level, before the plants begin to grow, and remove thatch at this time



57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment and Yourself, Weinzerl, Rick et al.



Natural Garden

Prairie 02Bring the wilderness back to your yard with a natural garden, one that focuses on native species and less formal arrangements to create habitat for native wildlife.

Choose plants that are native to your area, those being commonly defined as species that were present in your area prior to settlement by Europeans. These include grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees.

The benefits of native species include:

  • They have evolved to excel in your regional climate
  • They require less maintenance
  • They are the species that native wildlife has evolved to use as food and shelter
  • They are a beautiful alternative to nonnative species

Before planting, check with city and county offices, as there may be ordinances that restrict the height of certain plants such as grasses.

The United States Department of Agriculture has divided the US into plant hardiness zones, which you can use to determine if the plants you’ve chosen are well-suited to your regional climate conditions, including temperature extremes and rainfall patterns. Growers and suppliers will list the plant hardiness zone of your chosen plants, usually on a tag on the plant or a card in its pot.

Create a map of the space you will be devoting to native species that tracks soil type and the amount of sun. See our Starting an Organic Garden Post for tips on creating a garden map. Choose plants that match your soil types and amount of sun.

Native habitats have a greater diversity of species than a conventional garden, providing a richer variety of food and shelter for a greater number of native wildlife species. Strive to mimic this diversity by incorporating as many species as your space allows.

Many nurseries carry native plants, even if only a limited selection. PlantNative is an excellent resource for determining what species are native to your area, as well as finding local nurseries that specialize in native species.

Strive to buy local plants or seeds, those from growers within a 100 mile radius, as plants beyond that range may not be well adapted to your local climate. Another option is to salvage plants from land that is about to be developed. Do not pick or transplant native species that are growing in undisturbed wilderness, as they are important to the survival of wildlife in the area and the ecological integrity of the wild landscape, but if you know land that is about to be drained, plowed, or bulldozed, seek permission to transplant native species that would otherwise be destroyed.

In Part Two, we will discuss how to raise your own native plants from seed, and how to plan, establish and maintain a backyard prairie.



57 Ways to Protect Your Home Environment and Yourself, Weinzerl, Rick et al.