Cabin Fever 

Robert Bishop 
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

If you are like me, you need to get outside soon or you will just scream! I am an avid skier, but I too have had enough winter and snow. There are some gardening chores that can be done outside now as well as some indoor activities that will help you maintain your sanity.

This is a great time of year to get outside and prune fruit trees, ornamental trees and shrubs. Prune to thin plants, remove dead wood, train growth, reduce size and rejuvenate declining plants. Limit the amount of material removed at any one time to 1/3 of the plants mass. Removing more is considered heavy pruning and can cause problems, although some situations require this type of pruning.

Shearing is different from pruning. Shearing, also known as trimming involves the even (hopefully) tipping back of all branches to shape them. The most common example of this practice is when plants are sheared to form a hedge. Pruning on the other hand selectively removes individual branches. Far too often I see azaleas, forsythia, spruce and other plants that are routinely sheared with electric trimmers. People create different size boxes, barrels and other interesting geometric shapes with their plants. From a design point of view the natural form and habit of plants are used to soften the hard, straight, geometric lines of buildings and homes. Shaping a plant to look like a building does not make much sense. I do not recommend this practice except when forming a hedge. Hedges are sheared in a triangular shape with the top cut back the most keeping it narrow and then gradually widening as you move down to the lower branches. This will keep the lower branches full and lush because they will not be shaded by overhanging upper branches.

Pruning flowering shrubs and trees now will not damage or kill them but will reduce the spring flower show because you will remove the flower buds with the pruned branches. Spring flowering plants are best pruned soon after they have finished flowering.

Needled evergreens should be planted in locations that allow plenty of room for growth instead of squeezing them into areas that will require annual pruning. Heavily pruned spruce, pine and fir will not develop new shoot growth on old wood, you can only wait for unpruned branches to grow over or hang down to cover the remaining bare areas. Juniper, yews, hemlock, falsecypress and arborvitea will tolerate light pruning in spring or summer, if you must prune these plants heavily do it only in early spring.

The following trees should be pruned only in the fall because they will bleed excessively (exude sap) if cut now: birch, maple, dogwood, elm, walnut, and yellowwood. This natural spring sap flow is what the maple syrup producers tap into when collecting the raw material for their product. I spent many a spring day skiing while enjoying the aroma from local "Sugar Houses" when I lived in Vermont.

Butterfly Bush is a spectacular large shrub that is very popular now. It flowers on new wood (current years growth), but it should be cut it back to the ground annually. I promise, it will grow back faster than Jackís beanstalk did and flower great.

Once the snow has melted away walk around your yard checking shallow rooted plants like perennials for frost heaving. Gently tap down any plants that have been pushed out of the soil. It would help in the future to mulch over these plants in late November with some straw, pine needles or bark mulch to protect them from frost heaving. Actually a snow covering insulates and protects plants from winter temperature extremes. Just like rain you canít count on a persistent snow cover, so mulch.

This is a good time of year to take a soil sample and send it in for testing. The lab is not busy at this time and knowing the existing soil condition before you plant is recommended.

If you still must avoid the cool temperatures and insist upon remaining indoors, spend some time planning for spring. You may want to add new plants or a water feature; install hardscape items like patios, decks, walls and fences; install irrigation or lighting systems, possibly correct some problem areas, or maybe renovate the entire landscape. Whatever your goal, research the project thoroughly, especially the cultural requirements of the plants you are considering and then write a plan. A plant out of place is a problem plant until it dies or is moved. A well thought out plan increases the chance of success and is less expensive in the long term.

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