Q & A – Ask the Extension Agent!

Stumped by something in your garden? Ask the Extension Agent!

Kirsten Conrad is here to help. She’s the Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources – Horticulture, for Arlington County and Alexandria. Submit your question with photos to the Extension Master Gardener Help desk at mgarlalex@mgvn.org, and she may pick yours for this occasional feature. Please include your phone number in case she has questions.

Question:

Dear Kirsten,

Brown Turkey fig growing shrub-like after frost damage.  Photo from UC Master Gardeners of Inyo & Mono Counties

My fig tree froze down to its roots in 2017 and 2018, after having a huge harvest. I pruned it back pretty heavily in the fall of 2018, and that seemed to help its growth, both last year and this year. However, about a third of the tree is substantially taller than the rest – 5 feet as compared to 2 ½ to 3 feet — because it never froze.

What suggestions do you have for me to get the tree back to an esthetically pleasing shape in the coming year? Should I cut back the taller side when I prune sometime in February?

Answer:

Exactly, yes, cut while dormant to force a more esthetically pleasing new form. I would have cut the entire cold-damaged tree — even the branches that were not killed back — to the ground to allow it to regrow evenly. Once you see what the tree will do as it regrows, remove some of the smaller or weaker sprouts to funnel growth to the larger ones and control the size and spread of the regrowth.

The publication, Figs,  from the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension may be of interest. It includes a video on how to prune fig trees.

Happy Gardening,
 Kirsten


Question:

Dear Kirsten,

What is the difference between topping and pollarding? I have heard that pawpaws can be pruned to a height of 8 feet and remain healthy and productive.

When the time comes, I would like to do that, because I have a relatively small backyard, and I do not want my trees to interfere with the electric lines into the house. Also, I want to keep the pawpaws at a height where I don’t need to climb a ladder to harvest them.

Could you provide me with any advice on this?

Answer:

Topping is done to reduce the size and supposed threat of heavy wood falling from old, large trees. Pollarding is a form of training of young trees.

While both are practices of size reduction, topping is an artless and injurious pruning done to mitigate the fear of heavy branches falling from old, large trees.  Pollarding is a form of training and maintaining tree size and form and starts on younger trees. Topping is very damaging to the health of trees and is typically done once in a tree’s lifetime. Pollard pruning must be done at least every two years, with new growth continuously trained to maintain a healthy and attractive tree.

Pawpaw in April.
Photo © Elaine L. Mills

Specific advice for your pawpaw is to prune terminal branches to side shoots to encourage it to spread out instead of up. Also, you will need to develop your scaffold branch spacing to ensure maximum exposure to light and air.

Yes, you can keep a pawpaw at 8 feet, but it will require regular pruning and training. You also might consider the use of cordon training or the practice of espalier to train your tree to a wall, wire supports, trellis, or a fence in combination with pollarding to maximize space saving.

Happy Gardening,
 Kirsten


Question:

Dear Kirsten,

Where do herbs—particularly woody herbs like thyme, sage, and rosemary — as well as brambles, fit on the pruning schedule?

Answer:

That depends on the specific herb. In general you will want to prune them just as growth is beginning in the spring so that you can see what is growing vigorously and what is not.

Some herbs — lavender and rosemary come to mind — do not respond well to heavy pruning when cut back to wood that is not leafed or leafing out.  Cut to encourage new growth from axillary buds and to encourage new growth from the base to allow a plant to regenerate. Over time, woody, older, less productive stems can be replaced by selecting this new growth.

Many herbs like thyme or oregano can be cut back quite severely when they are vigorously growing without worry. Obviously, the harvest of the herb is itself pruning, but I think you are talking about renewal pruning for the maintenance of the overall plant health.

Bramble pruning is again dependent on the type of brambles. GENERALLY, you will be removing 3-year-old canes, suckering growth that is emerging where it is unwanted, and tipping back untidy or overgrown canes in the fall.  The constant nurturing of 1-year-old non-fruiting canes and 2-year-old fruiting canes will keep your plants happy.

Illustration from Small Fruit in the Home Garden , University of Maryland Extension

There are very good and specific rules for different kinds of brambles and this publication on Small Fruit in the Home Garden from Virginia Cooperative Extension might be helpful. If not please write back.

Happy gardening,
Kirsten

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