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Soil field Day

Lilac branch

Dakota Gardener: The Nuances of Pruning Spring-flowering Shrubs

Esther McGinnis, horticulturist with NDSU Extension fills us in about her neighbor and this same neighbor not being very plant friendly.

My former neighbor did not have a green thumb.

Shh! Don’t tell her I said that!

Although she was a woman of many talents, pruning shrubs was not one of them. We each had a lilac shrub adjacent to the property line. In mid-May, my shrub would burst forth in all of its lavender-colored glory. In contrast, my neighbor’s shrub would quietly leaf out and never bloom.

One year, she asked me why my lilac consistently bloomed each year and hers would not. I delicately responded that bad timing, combined with her pruning method, sheared off all of the newly formed flower buds before they could bloom.

Knowing when flower buds form is important information to have before pruning. Most spring-blooming shrubs have flower buds that were formed the previous year in late summer or fall. In spring, the flower buds on forsythia, bridal wreath spirea, viburnum and lilacs finish their development and put on a spectacular floral display. Major pruning between late summer and spring bloom would remove flower buds.

To muddy the waters, NDSU Extension states that the best time of year to prune spring- and summer-blooming shrubs is March or early April, while the shrubs are still dormant. The rationale is that pruning cuts heal faster if made just before spring growth commences. You may be rightly asking, “Won’t this cut off the flower buds on my lilac and forsythia?”

The answer depends upon the pruning method you use. I don’t blame my neighbor for not knowing the nuances of pruning. Most people use a gigantic set of hedge clippers and give their shrubs an all-over haircut. We call this shearing and this is not the proper technique.

Shearing stimulates a lot of dense growth on top of the shrub that can shade out the interior leaves. Repeated shearing will result in an unhealthy shrub.

Getting back to our original timing issue, shearing the shrub between late summer and spring may cut off the flower buds of spring-blooming shrubs.

A better method of spring pruning that also will conserve flower buds is to annually thin out a couple of the oldest and thickest stems all the way to the ground on mature deciduous shrubs. Also remove dead branches. Thinning opens the canopy to more sunlight and reinvigorates the plant.

This type of pruning only works for shrubs that have multiple stems emerging from the ground, such as lilac, forsythia and dogwood. Unlike shearing, only a limited number of stems are pruned, thereby conserving the flower buds on the unpruned stems.

If you forget to thin your spring-flowering shrub in March or April, the second best time to prune a limited number of stems is immediately after the shrub is done flowering.

If your multi-stemmed shrub is seriously overgrown, you can thin out a maximum of one-third of the oldest stems for three consecutive years to renew your shrub. The result will be vigorous growth and renewed flowering after the shrub has recovered. Regardless of bloom time, this type of drastic pruning should occur only during the dormant season in March or early April.

These tips from Ester gave me some things to try on the lilacs on my parent’s farm! Did these tips shed some light on your shrubs?

Rejuvenate Your Old Apple Tree

Last week I talked about it being a little on the chilly side and just like that it warmed up! Before long our trees will be growing again and we’ll see them and wonder if our trees are healthy. Don’t worry! Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist with North Dakota State University has some tips for reviving your apple tree.

Do you have an old apple tree in the backyard? Now is a great time to rejuvenate it!

PRUNE NOW. Late winter is the best time to prune for several reasons:

First, the tree is dormant and will suffer less shock.

Second, pruning in late winter minimizes the exposure of wounded tissues to the ravages of winter.

Third, diseases are less active in winter and you are less likely to spread diseases on your pruning tools. Wound dressings are not needed when pruning in the dormant season.

REDUCE HEIGHT. This will make the tree easier to manage and the apples easier to harvest. Old trees can be pruned into an umbrella shape, with branches cascading in all directions from the main trunk, not allowing tree height to exceed about 12 feet.

DEVELOP A STRONG FRAMEWORK. The most vigorous branches will have glossy bark (not old, scaly bark). Trim just above these vigorous, sturdy branches. This will bring the tree down to size (see the BEFORE/AFTER figure below).
Rejuvenate Apple Tree Example
We want to keep sturdy, productive branches. these will have an angle of 60-degrees from the trunk. To say it another way, using the face of a clock as our guide, the strongest, most productive branches will be at angles of 2 and 10 o’clock.

Remove vertical and horizontal branches. Vertical branches are not fruitful and their narrow crotches are weak. Horizontal branches struggle to support a heavy fruit load.

REMOVE CLUTTER. We want to get more sunlight and air movement in the tree. This will improve fruit color and reduce humidity that promotes diseases in the canopy. Start by removing the water sprouts. These are vertical, pencil-thick shoots. Water sprouts are unproductive and clutter up the canopy. Remove broken branches, branches that rub one another, and inward facing branches.

BE PATIENT. To avoid sunscald damage and shocking the tree, avoid removing more than 25 percent of the tree’s wood at any one time. It’s best to give yourself at least two years to rejuvenate the tree.

BE REALISTIC. Apple trees age like people do. We can live 100 years, but we reach our prime at around 25 years. Pruning an old tree will lead to higher yields and much better quality fruit, but your tree is still old. It’s nice to have a tree with character and charm in the backyard, but it doesn’t hurt to have a young and productive tree nearby. Spring is the best season for planting.

Dakota Gardener: Best Vegetable Varieties for North Dakota

By Tom Kalb, Horticulturist with NDSU ExtensionVegetables

The first step to growing a great garden is to sow great varieties.

What’s the best way to find a great variety for us in North Dakota?

Ask your neighbor. Or better yet, ask hundreds of gardeners in North Dakota who test varieties for North Dakota State University. Last year alone, 320 families tested promising varieties in their backyard gardens. We’ve been doing these tests every summer since 2008.

We’ve discovered lots of great varieties through the years. The following are a few of the finest.

The best pea is ‘Lincoln.’ This heirloom produces high yields of delicious peas and is great for freezing. ‘Sugar Ann’ is our champion snap pea. This variety ripens early and produces big crops of sweet, crisp pods.

We’ve tested many bean varieties, and the one that generates the most excitement is ‘Crockett’ filet bean. Have you ever grown a filet bean? Try it! They are very crisp, slender and full of flavor. ‘Crockett’ produces amazing yields of dark green pods.

I invite you to sow burpless cucumbers. They produce the finest cucumbers for fresh eating. Burpless cucumbers have thin skins, small seeds, crisp flesh and refreshing flavor. ‘Summer Dance’ ripens early, produces a large yield and resists diseases. You will be dancing for joy.

For pickling, ‘Homemade Pickles’ is our all-time favorite. Its cucumbers are crisp, small-seeded and blocky. Its vines are productive and resist diseases.

Gardeners in our lettuce trials look for varieties that tolerate heat. ‘Buttercrunch’ is a popular classic and does well in our trials.

Try a Batavian lettuce. This type of lettuce produces crisp, wavy, delicious leaves all summer.

‘Muir’ and ‘Nevada’ are outstanding Batavian varieties. Other notable varieties of lettuce include ‘Alkindus,’ ‘Fusion,’ ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Bergam’s Green.’

Tolerance to heat is important also with spring-sown spinach. Our team prefers smooth-leaf varieties, which are easier to clean. ‘Space’ produces impressive yields of flavorful leaves in spring and summer.

Growing pumpkins is fun. ‘Neon’ is the easiest variety to grow in North Dakota. You will be amazed to see its bright orange pumpkins glowing in your garden in August, weeks ahead of all other varieties. Its vines are compact and won’t overrun the garden.

My kids like giant pumpkins, but most varieties require constant maintenance and produce big, ugly fruits. ‘Big Moose’ pumpkins will grow to 50 pounds without any special care. Its fruits are reddish orange and beautiful.

The most stunning vegetable is ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard. Its colorful stems are so vibrant they would stand out in your flower garden. It’s a showstopper!

Growing melons in North Dakota is hard due to our short growing season. The best watermelon in our trials through the years has been ‘Sweet Dakota Rose.’ It was bred here, and many gardeners will tell you it is the best tasting watermelon they ever have eaten.

Another special melon that grows well here is the Galia melon. It has green flesh that is sweet and aromatic. ‘Arava’ and ‘Passport’ are reliable and flavorful.

As for tomatoes, I encourage you to try ‘SunSugar.’ Its vines produce an abundant supply of orange cherry tomatoes that are absolutely delicious.

Our list of recommended vegetable varieties for 2021 is available on our website. Do an online search for “North Dakota Home Garden Variety Trials” or go directly to the site at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/homegardenvarietytrials.

I invite you to join our team this spring to try some of these winners as well as some new vegetable varieties. We test herbs and cut flowers, too. The trials are simple, and the entire family can get involved. Go to the Home Garden Variety Trials website and sign up to receive our online catalog.

Traill County Courthouse

NDSU Extension/Traill County
114 Caledonia Ave. W.
Box 730 (mailing address)
Hillsboro, ND 58045
Phone:  701-636-5665   
Fax: 701-636-5666

Office Hours:
8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday
Summer Office Hours:
(Memorial Day - Labor Day)
7 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.,  Monday-Thursday
8 a.m. - Noon, Friday

Related Links:
NDSU Extension
North Dakota Department of Agriculture

Traill County
City of Hillsboro
Cities of Mayville-Portland
City of Hatton

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