With cooler temperatures arriving, many people will spend more time in the garden. Fall fever is undersold compared to spring fever, but it’s a great time to plant.
Cool temperatures favor root growth, which helps get trees and shrubs established before heat stress arrives.
Pruning is another favorite autumn activity. You can prune any time of the year, but fall and winter are often considered the best.
Damaged branches and cross-branching are easier to see and correct. There’s also less sap bleeding from the wounds. Bleeding is not harmful, it’s just unsightly.
If the tree or shrub is valued for flowers, timing is critical. Woody plants either flower on last year’s growth or the current season’s.
For example, azaleas set flower buds for next spring this past summer, so you won’t want to prune now or you’ll remove most of the buds and see very few flowers in the spring.
Crape myrtles, however, flower on the current season’s wood, so fall pruning will not affect next year’s flowers. When in doubt, it’s safe to prune just after flowering to avoid affecting bud development. If flowering is not a concern, like with most large trees, then prune at your leisure.
Pruning wounds don’t heal, they seal. Tree bark is the layer around the living tissue of the tree. When a branch is cut away, it exposes the active wood to insects and disease.
In order to close the wound, the tree will form callus tissue over it, sealing it off from the exposed elements. Pruning paint does not help the wound seal, so save your money. Only a correctly pruned branch will hasten the process.
Avoid leaving branch stubs by always pruning a branch back to the trunk or another branch.
Think of the letter Y. Prune the left line back to where the two lines split so it looks like a single line going up and angling to the right. For smaller shrubs, prune branches just above a bud.
For large branches, use a three-cut method to avoid striping the bark on the trunk. The first cut is only a third of the way through the limb and several inches from the trunk. This cut is made beneath the limb. The second cut is a few inches beyond the first cut and all the way through the branch from the top.
When the limb drops, the bark will peel back to the first cut and the limb will safely fall off without swinging. The third cut is near the base of the limb. Be sure the third cut occurs just outside the swollen collar that contains a high concentration of sealing hormones.
Some trees embed the bark between the branch and the trunk as it grows. The larger it grows, the more bark is embedded and the weaker the connection becomes.
Bradford pears are notorious for this type of growth and it’s the reason why they split during storms. Pruning off susceptible branches could prevent damage to your house or vehicles.
Use leaves as mulch
Raking leaves is an autumn pastime, but there are alternatives to bagging leaves for pickup. Consider raking or blowing leaves into the planting beds as mulch.
It’s not the most visually appealing, but in naturalized areas like the backyard, it’s a good alternative.
Another option is to chop up leaves with the lawn mower.
Mulching mowers recirculate leaves under the deck to shred plant material into small pieces that rapidly break down into the soil. Consider waiting to rake and mow until all the leaves drop to avoid bagging. Research has shown this has no negative impact on turf.
Here are some examples of what — and what not — to do:
Tony Bertauski is a horticulture instructor at Trident Technical College. To give feedback, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.