Garden Plot: Why you should stop pruning

Turn around slowly and drop the pruners

One of the biggest bits of misinformation I always try and correct at this time of year is about how to take care of your garden in the fall and how to clean it up for winter.

Yes, you should remove (or at least shred) any leaves that are smothering your lawn and plants. And yes, you should remove (and compost) your pitiful, dead tomato plants and such. But you should not “neaten things up” by pruning.

Pruning done outside of the dormant period will stimulate new growth. You are forcing the plant to grow while it is trying to go dormant.

Energy that was being sent down to the roots is now being spent in the name of new growth. In a bad winter, that could kill a plant that would have survived if left untouched.

No pruning reason No. 2

Time to go over the rules for November pruning: DON’T!

I realize that some of your plants are probably overgrown; and that you might have the odd shoot that makes it look like your boxwood is flipping somebody the bird. And now that the summer garden is done producing you are bored, and you want your plants to stay small and cute.

The plants, however, want to be as big as possible so that they can absorb the most solar energy, so they respond to pruning by putting out new growth.

That new growth — full of fresh sap — will freeze solid on the first night that dips into the 20s, perhaps even bursting under the strain.

Holiday pruning? Yes, you can

Yes, I urge you not to prune your plants at this time of year; November pruning can damage plants, perhaps to death.

“But Christmas is coming! And holly and evergreen cuttings from our own landscape provide perfect live decorations! Can’t we use the plants in our yard? Please?!”

Yes, but as with comedy and senior dining specials, timing is everything. You want to wait until we’re in December, otherwise, the cuttings could dry out and drop needles and berries before Christmas Eve.

Then wait for a nice cold stretch, at least two nights below freezing, followed by two more nights below freezing.

The actual days don’t need to be below freezing, but it is best if they are too cold for you to enjoy the collecting.

Christmas cuttings 101

Want to use cuttings of evergreens and berry-bearing plants from your landscape to make homegrown wreaths and swags? Wait until a cold spell and then harvest entire branches of evergreens, preferably from the lowest parts of the trees. (You can cut the branches down to size later.)

Same with plants that produce nice berries, such pyracantha, winterberry, beautyberry and such. Holly berries as well, of course, but this chore can also be turned into a plant-rejuvenation project. Hollies can take a severe pruning and keep on growing the next spring. So if you have dead or disfigured branches up top on your holly, cut all the bad stuff off, use the branches for holiday decorations and hope I was right about the regrowing thing.

Last call for leaf harvest

Many, if not most of us, have a long weekend coming up and a turkey tryptophan hangover to work off, so: Don’t rake your leaves. Don’t toss your leaves.

And certainly don’t burn your leaves!

Get an electric or rechargeable leaf blower that comes with a reverse setting and a collection bag and suck up your leaves without any bending.

You can use those shredded leaves to make excellent compost all by themselves. You don’t have to add anything.

Or, store them in big trash cans or bags for next season — shredded leaves make excellent mulch, especially for vegetable gardens.

You can store 12 to 20 bags of whole leaves in a single bag once they’re shredded.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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