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Trim a Tree, Train a Tree

This has been a great year for flowering trees and shrubs. My Merrill magnolia had many hundreds of white blossoms in late April. The crabapples everywhere put on a spectacular display. My fothergilla (a shrub with great fall leaf color) is in bloom now with its tidy white bottle-brush flowers. My “Olga Mezitt” rhododendron (one of the parents of the popular PJM rhodie) is looking great and my wild azaleas are getting ready to bloom. And now the lilacs are blooming and I am overwhelmed with the large purple, blue, white and pink panicles (clusters of flowers). Spring has definitely sprung.

All these blooms this year will certainly encourage many gardeners to buy trees and shrubs and plant them. That’s a fine idea, but if you plant now, please remember that you must keep watering them all summer if we don’t get an inch or more of rain per week. When August comes around, it will be easy to have your new tree dehydrate if you get lazy or forgetful.

New trees and shrubs need a year or more to grow roots sufficient for their needs if we get hot, dry weather. So if you are forgetful or will be doing lots of traveling, you might want to hold off on planting a new tree until fall. Fall is cooler and more likely to be rainy.

I like to buy flowering trees and shrubs when they’re in bloom. That allows me to see the color and check out the fragrance. But there is more than just the flowers to consider when selecting a good crabapple or magnolia. Let’s start with size and price. Bigger is not necessarily better. If you are on life support and don’t expect to be around in five years, sure, buy the biggest tree you can afford. But be aware that a bigger tree is not only more expensive — it is also harder to plant and takes more water and care. A bigger tree may have a smaller proportion of its root system intact after being dug up and put in a pot than a small tree. I like to buy smaller specimens and train them to be a nice shape. That’s harder to do on a larger tree.

I recently visited a new nursery run by Henderson’s Tree Service on Route 14 in Hartford. I asked Sylvia Provost, co-owner, what she would look for if purchasing a crabapple for herself. “Structure,” she said, without a moment’s hesitation.

What Sylvia was talking about is the shape of the tree and placement of the branches. Fruit trees produce best on branches that leave the trunk at a right angle or are aiming just slightly upward. Branches that shoot straight up are not usually good fruit and blossom producers.

And although Sylvia noted that you can train a tree to be the shape you want, it is easier to start with something that is closer to your ideal before you start training. So, for example, Sylvia said that if you have a swimming pool some distance from your patio, you should choose a tree that has an open format, one that you can see through — so you can see what is happening at the pool. Conversely, if you have nosy neighbors and want to screen their view of your patio, you might select a tree that has a full, dense arrangement of branches.

Generally, pruning a tree should begin in the second season at your home. I often see apple and crabapple trees that have very low branches. I like to prune off those low branches to make it easy to mow around, and to have a nicer look. And if two branches are both striving to be the “leader” or the dominant, tallest stem, I remove one. Although most books say you should prune fruit trees in March or April, you can safely make a few judicious cuts now to train your tree.

You may train branches to grow at different angles by weighing them down — if you do so soon. This is an activity for spring, starting before the new layer of cambium growth has occurred. You can drive a stake into the ground and tie a branch to it for the next two months. A branch the diameter of a finger can be weighed down by hanging a plastic pop bottle on it, then filling it with water until it bends to the correct angle.

Chris Wilson of E.C. Brown’s Nursery in Thetford suggested that when buying a tree, look at leaf color — leaves should be green, not tinged with yellow. He also suggested making sure the tree has branches on all sides, and that the bark has not been damaged.

So if you’ve delighted in the flowers on trees in your neighborhood this year, go get one or more. Study several specimens to find the best one. And just remember to water all summer long.

Henry Homeyer is a gardener and garden designer living in Cornish Flat. His website is www.gardening-guy.com.