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by Pernell Gerver

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"Pruning Simplified: What, When, & How"

For many, the subject of pruning is a mystery. Many plants throughout the garden and home landscape benefit from proper pruning, but knowing what to prune, when to prune, and how to prune is the key to success. For ornamentals whether trees, shrubs, evergreens, vines, roses, foundation plantings, or hedges or fruit-bearing plants like berries and fruit trees, there is a right time to prune each.

Here in western Massachusetts, there are many plants that should be pruned at this time of year, but there are also many that should be pruned at other times of the year - it all depends on the specific plant. Some trees are pruned now while dormant, but some shrubs are pruned in early spring while others should be pruned only after blooming. It all has to do with the growth habit of the particular shrub and whether or not it blooms on old wood or new wood.

There are many reasons for pruning. Pruning methods can maintain a desired size and shape, improve appearance in the landscape, develop good structure, get a new or transplanted plant off to a good start, increase quality and yields of flowers and fruits, keep plants healthy, train a plant into a desired form, or rejuvenate old specimens.

Shrubs and foundation plantings that have outgrown their location may be encroaching on walkways, doorways, and even covering up windows. Pruning to maintain their size and shape will keep them in bounds.Prune for a healthy plant

Overgrown shrubs in the garden or landscape can be unsightly and out of proportion with surrounding plantings and buildings. Pruning helps improve their appearance in the landscape and the appearance of the home.

Developing good plant structure begins while the plant is still young. This is especially important for fruit trees to allow sunlight and air circulation into inner branches. Good structure also helps support a heavy fruit load. For other trees a strong structure prevents damage from winter storms.

Newly planted or transplanted trees are pruned to compensate for the loss of roots when the roots are dug out or disturbed. If there is too much leafy growth on top the roots can't support it and the tree wilts.

Blooming and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs should be pruned to increase the quality and yields of flowers and fruits. Thinning out extra branches from the tree or shrub will result in bigger flowers and larger fruit.

Pruning helps keep plants healthy. Dead, broken, diseased, or crossing branches, water sprouts, and suckers all adversely affect the overall health of the plant. Dead, broken, or diseased branches should be removed to prevent disease from entering the tree or shrub. Crossing branches rub, causing wounds to both branches. Water sprouts are vertical growths that grow perpendicular to the horizontal branches. They do not produce fruit and should be removed. Suckers crowd the tree or shrub. They often arise from a grafted rootstock which is often a different variety and when the suckers start to grow, they will not be the same desired plant.

Pruning is also done to train a plant into a desired form or shape. Decorative pruning and training methods include espalier, topiary, and pollarding.

Older trees and shrubs can be given a new lease on life with pruning. Some plants respond to drastic pruning well, but others don't. Old lilacs that are no longer blooming well benefit greatly from drastic pruning. Choose several younger trunks to leave which will become the new plant. Cut down to the ground all sucker growth as well as older stems that are not blooming well. This drastic pruning will rejuvenate the old plant and it will bloom well once again.

When it comes to pruning, the right tools and equipment can make a big difference. My favorite pruning shears are a pair of ratchet-cut pruners. What I like about the pruners is how easy and comfortable they are to use. The ratchet action works like a car jack and allows anyone regardless of hand strength to easily cut through stems and branches. I use them for all sorts of pruning tasks from deadheading flowers to trimming trees, shrubs, and roses.

Pernell Gerver's Gardening Q & Aby Pernell Gerver

"Remedies for a Leggy Wandering Jew Plant"

Q. My question is about the plant known as "wandering Jew." I have a few cuttings and have planted them as house plants and they are doing well, but they look very leggy - almost growing like an ivy or vine. I have seen this plant other places and mine isn't growing into the filled-out, bushy ones I have seen. Someone suggested pinching it back, but where on the stem do I do that? Will that make it fill out? The longer the vine gets on mine the weaker the stems get and it is breaking. Do you know where this plant is native to? Thanks for reading this and for taking a few minutes to respond!

A. The term "wandering Jew" is a common name for many similar and related vining house plants known botanically as zebrina (which is native to Mexico and Guatemala) and tradescantia (which is native to southern North America and South America). "Inch plant" is another one of many common names used for these plants.

Because they are vining plants, they are often grown in hanging baskets where the stems can trail downward. If you are not growing it in a hanging basket that explains why the brittle stems are breaking. The weight of the vine could be pulling it down and causing it to break.

The plant most often referred to as wandering Jew and the most common is Zebrina pendula which has very colorful foliage. Its pointed, oval-shaped leaves are about two inches long and have two shimmering stripes of silver set against a green background. The undersides of its leaves are a rich, deep purple. Although mainly grown as a foliage plant, it does bear small purple-pink flowers. Other zebrinas also have nice foliage. There are zebrinas with bronze leaves or bronze and silver leaves, and even one that has a mixture of four colors on each leaf - green, cream, pink, and silver.

Variegated Wandering Jew

Variegated Wandering Jew

The tradescantias look like the zebrinas and also grow like them with long, trailing stems and decorative foliage. Many have showy variegation. Tradescantia fluminensis has several forms and one of the best for variegated leaves has a base of light green striped with white and creamy white. Other species of tradescantia have colorful, variegated leaves in a myriad of color combinations.

The answer to your question regarding why your plants are thin and leggy is they are not getting enough light. Zebrinas and tradescantias do best in bright light and even strong, direct sunlight close to the window. Plants that aren't getting enough light will develop spindly, elongated stems and their colorful leaves will fade. Grow these plants in the sunniest window you have.

You could train your plants up a short trellis in the pot, winding them through it for support or you could pot them up into a hanging pot and let the long, trailing stems hang down.

In addition to giving the plants brighter light, you'll need to regularly pinch out the growing tips to make the plants bushy. With your thumb and forefinger, pinch the growing point off removing a small section of stem and leaves. Side branches will sprout from the remaining nodes (where the leaves join the stems) along each stem.

Other than that, these plants do best in average room temperature and water thoroughly when the top half of the soil mix dries out. Fertilize every few weeks with Electra Plant Food in spring through fall.

Click here to order variegated wandering Jew from Pernell Gerver's Online Store.

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