Shrubs & Trees. Best care practices. 
              articles on the care of your shrubs and trees.   Shrub pruning in particular is often done incorrectly, so I've included loads of tips on that here.         


Shrubs and trees are the irreplaceable backbones of any garden's design.  Investing time and education in their correct care pays back handsomely with a garden that increases in beauty and value over time rather than needing renovation or replacement every few years.  

 Plants of all kinds are one of the few things that increase in value as they get olderother than ourselves of course!).   We tend to forget just how valuable a healthy mature shrub or small tree is - value of both money and meaning.  In this disposable era we're in, many new gardeners assume that plants, just like most of the things we buy, need replacing when they get "worn out" and old, but nothing could be further from the truth! 


 Correct Planting of New Trees & Shrubs.    linkto...  

Coppicing.  A severe pruning technique for unique results. linkto...   

Best Time for Transplanting Trees & Shrubs. linkto... 


Buying large specimen plants to start out with, still won't give you a plant that has been allowed to achieve it's full potential beauty, since it's usually been pruned and chopped tight to fit into a garden center setting.  Only good pruning and care practices, along with the most important ingredient - TIME, will give you the beautiful specimen you saw in a picture somewhere that inspired you to choose it for your garden in the first place.    

  Pruning is the fine art of gardening.   When you come to understand the principles at work in how all woody plants grow, you can achieve anything from a miniature bonsai or full size topiary, to a specimen tree with a unique sculpture.   You can't purchase a fixed shape or size - you need to train them through knowledgeable pruning. 

I hope some of these articles will help you along your learning curve!    If you live in the Newmarket area, you might like to attend my "Stop the Torture" pruning workshop for some hands-on learning.  See the "Classes" page for details.
    Evelyn  Wolf


... an excerpt from my "Dirty Knees" newsletter I used to email, January 2012.  E.

COPPICING.  This severe pruning technique creates unique effects to use in your garden's design.

... when a branch is cut, it's stimulated into more growth than it otherwise would put out. We tend to think of pruning as removing growth, but the actual result is MORE growth. Pruning is the art of controlling where on the plant more growth will happen.  When pruning you need to look into the future and "see" the growth results of each cut.  Coppicing is usingthis natural response in an extreme way.   

Seeing in the minds eye what growth pattern will result from each cut, is the tricky part of any pruning.  Topiary, espalier, pollarding, hedging, or 100 year old shrubs still vibrant and full of flowers are just some of the many ornamental effects that can be achieved when you work together with the 100% guarantee that a healthy plant WILL respond in a predicable way to your pruning cuts.  Coppicing is just one of the many effects that result from trusting in this 100% guarantee of a predictable result.  

Coppicing is a particularly severe pruning technique, but it can produce some dramatic results. 

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It is the practice of annually cutting a tree or shrub back to the same point each year, or even all the way to the ground, to stimulate very vigorous regrowth.  It is called "pollarding" when it's done higher in the plant to achieve a lollipop effect, and it's called "coppicing" when it's done at the base of the plant at ground level to achieve other desirable effects. 
It is an ancient art with its roots in the practicality of producing a renewed supply of manageably sized firewood, but has a more ornamental role to play in our gardens.   It is not a pruning technique that's healthy for a plant, but it serves a particular purpose - be it for firewood or a unique design effect.  If you plan to prune this way, know that you need to also watch regularly for diseased wood that may develop because of the unnatural growth you've forced.

Cornus siberica "Cardinal Red"Coppicing also serves an additional purpose - as a last resort for  rejuvenating an old shrub that has grown too large or has too many congested branches.  Technically, this isn't called coppicing, but all the same principles and plant reactions apply.   All branches are cut to the ground, then after all the vigorous new growth has ripened, you start training what is, in essence, a whole new plant.  Select a few of the best branches from the dozens that will sprout as a  result of coppicing, and remove the others completely.  This creates a basic framework for a renewed life.  In subsequent years you can start pruning it normally to shape it as you wish.

Another use of the coppicing technique is to stimulate lots of fresh stem growth with intense colour.  Dogwoods are a particularly good candidate for this since their red stem colour is brightest on new wood.  Cutting them right back to the ground each spring produces the brightest possible stem colour to shine against the snow of the following winter in a fireworks display of long straight branches.  An established healthy Dogwood receiving adequate moisture can grow branches 4 feet to 5 feet tall each year when pruned this way.  There's one major caveat to remember though - this is a severe and plant weakening pruning technique.  If done every year, the shrub will decline in health and lose it's come-back vigor, so every 3rd year or so, leave it alone and let it grow to full size so it can have a full compliment of leaves to soak up sunlight and feed itself properly.  (Overall, a shrub is dwarfed by regular coppicing because Purpleosier willow, coppiceing resultsof this weakening effect - sometimes, exactly what you want!)

Another design effect on particular plants can be achieved with coppicing.  Because coppicing removes all of the growth buds that were along all the branches you cut off, the few buds that remain at the base of the plant receive all the energy stored in the roots, so those few buds grow at a phenomenally strong and fast rate.  Long, straight and strong branches are the result - an ornamental feature you can put to unique advantage. The most striking example is with Cotinus coggygria, (a.k.a.Purple Smoke Bush).  When coppiced early each spring, their branches grow 5 feet tall at least - all perfectly straight and upwards, full of huge purple leaves.   Long purple wands swaying in the breeze.  Beautiful!   Another shrub this long straight wand effect looks great on is Salix purpurea, (a.k.a. Purpleosier Willow).  Again - the reminder though - the plant will be dwarfed, but this can be a good thing if you want to achieve this particular effect and keep it small to mix in with your smaller garden rather than letting it grow to it's mature 8' - 10' size. 

Cotinus aurea coppicedThere are many other pruning techniques to learn and, as mentioned above, the starting point is to trust in the 100% guarantee that a healthy shrub will respond predictably to a pruning cut.  How vigorously it responds  depends on its typical growth rate, the health of the plant, how much you've pruned away at that moment, and whether it has enough moisture to support fast growth.  

Coppicing is best done in early spring or very late fall since you're not concerned about flowering, but in stem colour or the long straight wand effect instead.   I can't stress enough though just how much this technique is torturous to a shrub or tree, but in the spirit of "the essence of gardening is control", you can achieve particular effects that are unique and beautiful with knowledgeable pruning.  

Experiment with this strong pruning approach to discover some unique effects, but only on healthy established plants. 


  ©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.  Please contact for permission to use.
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Correct  Planting of New Trees & Shrubs.
       Q. My friend and I both bought a cut-leaf Japanese maple last summer, but hers is doing fine while mine seems to be struggling. They were both similarly healthy when purchased.  

    A. It isn't easy to diagnose plant problems from a distance of course, but the difference between the current state of health of your shrub, as opposed your friend's, is probably the result of improper original planting.
I'll assume you watered well at planting time, but watering after planting often won't penetrate the tightly congested root ball of a new plant that has spent the first few years of life in a pot.
Even though nursery grown plants are healthy and treated well, life in the confined space of a pot is not a Even "drought tolerant" plants need lots of watering help for the first 2-3 months after planting.  Until they regrow the fine root hairs that got damaged at planting time, they're extremely vulnerable to collapse since they can't replace leaf moisture fast enough.  Same is true for even dry loving plants.  For just a bit of time, they need your help.  (read "This Year We'll Be Ready" on the Drought Tolerant Gardening page. link to)   Evelynhappy one, especially for woody plants.  Roots on a sizeable container grown plant can become so congested as they circle around the inside of the pot that they can become impenetrable - even by water.  If these roots are not untangled at planting time to let soil, water and air reach all of the roots, only the outer roots will ever be in contact with water and the plant will struggle for life until it can establish a whole new network of roots outside of this congested ball.  They can suffer a lot of damage during this period and sometimes will not make it through.  (This sounds like what your young tree might be going through now.) 
If your tree or shrub does makes it through this phase, a different problem can emerge much later in the plant's life if root that circled the  inside of the pot weren't untangled at planting.  In a worst case scenario, these roots will grow in girth to literally strangle the tree or shrub's trunk base, eventually cutting off the flow of water and nutrients.  It isn't unusual for these "girdling roots" to be the cause of poor health or death of long established trees.
 (To prevent this problem in a mature plant, at year 5 or 6-ish, when the tree has established a good new root system, cut any roots that appear to circle the trunk at the base.  Scratch 5 or 6 inches down around the trunk and hunt for any offenders.  Even if you find a large circling root, the stress caused by cutting it will set the plant back a bit, but it will recover.  It won't be able to recover from a girdling root that's allowed to stay and strangle the tree in the future though.)

The correct method for planting all new plants, especially woody plants is as follows.
~ Prepare a hole at least twice the diameter of the pot or root ball, but no deeper.
~ Fill the hole with water and let it drain to thoroughly soak the soil.
~ Remove the plant from its pot (in the shade!!!) and put it in a bucket of water to soak and loosen the root ball.  If the root ball is very congested, the jet spray of your watering hose will help force a untangle roots diagrambreak in the armor.
~ Separate and untangle larger roots, especially any that are circling, even if you have to cut them to do so.  Dunk them in the water again to moisten and loosen them further.correct tree planting diagram
~ Spread roots out in the hole as much as you can without causing damage, positioning the crown at the correct level (no deeper than it was in the pot) then add soil, firming as you go.
~ Leave a bit of a trench around the base to allow water to pool and soak through the root area, and drench thoroughly again to help soil particles settle close to roots.
~ Leave the trench in place for a few days and drench daily for at least 4   €“5 days. An added guarantee of success would be to provide shade for these few days.  I use an old bed linen to just drape over the plant.  This is especially helpful if you're planting during the warmer days of summer rather than spring.
~ After a few weeks you should see the plant revive and begin to put out new growth.  This is the time to fertilize with a water soluble booster applied at half strength - again, really well watered in - not just in the top few inches.  However, if you're planting in the fall you really don't want vigorous top growth but you do want roots well established and moist, so water well right through until just before ground freeze up in December, but don't fertilize until spring. 

As you  ' ve experienced, correct planting can mean the difference between life and death for any shrub, let alone a sensitive cut-leaf maple. For now, don't fertilize, water well, and cross your fingers!

Good luck! Evelyn

  © Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.  Please contact for permission to use.
back to index excerpt from my newsletter "Dirty Knees" of October 2003.  E. 

Best Time for Transplanting Trees
Q.    I hear conflicting advice about when it's best to transplant.  I have a healthy, three year old, Burning Bush that I'd like to move.  When is the best time?
A.    The best time to move most plants is mid to late fall.  In other words, NOW! 
At this time of year all perennial plants, whether they are herbaceous (hosta, daylily, etc.) or woody perennials (shrubs & trees), have shut down their feeding systems and are entering dormancy.  (This is what the fall colours are about.  Plants are draining the last of the chlorophyll from their leaves and have stopped producing more.) 

When plants are in their dormant period they undergo the least amount of shock when transplanted.  Think of it as though they are in a deep sleep.  They can be moved around without even noticing it, and simply wake up in a new "bed".   (It isn't quite that simple though since their roots have been damaged while transplanting.)

Dig up your shrub, getting as much of the root ball as possible.  For very large shrubs or young trees with deep roots, dig a trench around it that's more or less in line with the outer edge of the top growth.  If your soil is heavy this may be a real chore, but what I often do is get an old bed linen or tarp and lift or roll the root ball on to it to drag it to the new spot - or if you have a dolly, that'll work too to move it.  If your soil is lose and falls away from the roots, don't worry about it.  This is actually a better situation since you have a chance to spread out the roots in the new planting hole where it will be in direct contact with fresh soil.  Just be sure to not expose bare roots to sun or wind.  I usually hose down roots and cover them quickly with something until they are safe in the ground again. 

Obviously, do your best to damage as few of the main roots as possible, but this is why transplanting in dormancy is best.  It's inevitable that there will be damage to roots, but during dormancy this doesn't cause stress since it doesn't have any leaves to support right now and it's not in an active growth period where water uptake is needed.   It will have a chance both now and in early spring to grow more feeder roots before growing time and the heat of summer comes.   If there was a lot of damage to roots during the move, in very early spring prune away about 1/3 of the branches to reduce the amount of draw on the damaged roots, until they have a chance to recover with new ones. 

The most important part of transplanting any woody plant at any time is water.  Since woody plants have above ground parts that are constantly exposed to sun and wind, the stress on them is much greater than with herbaceous perennials.  After transplanting, leave your hose on a slow steady dribble and really soak the root zone.  It may sound crazy, but a thorough watering again in December, just before the ground freezes, will ensure that when early spring arrives the damaged roots will have a ready supply of the moisture needed to put out new growth and repair roots.

When spring fully arrives, make sure extra care is given to watering the shrub well again.  It may be a plant you've had for a long time, but it now needs to be handled as though it's a brand new plant for a few months with extra watering help for a couple of months.  (see article on correct watering on the "drought tolerant gardening" page.)      Be patient if it doesn't stir to life as early as usual.  Your transplanted shrub needs to take some extra time to grow new feeder roots, but as long as enough water is available, this will happen quickly.  If you are in the habit of using fertilizer, don't fertilize this particular plant until you see that it has fully recovered and is growing.  Fertilizing a stressed plant will only speed it along to poorer health.  Water is the only important thing until recovery is complete.

For the first season in its new spot drought can be very damaging, so once the heat of summer comes, again, give it extra watering attention.  By the end of summer your nursing job is complete and you can treat it as you would any of your other garden plants.   

Good Luck with your move!  Evelyn 

    ©Evelyn Wolf, 2019.  All rights reserved.  Please contact for permission to use.
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