Garden Notes: Pruning

Needed by your plants — and by you.


The very earliest of the spring bulbs are making their garden entrance. It is a special moment, even if it is way too soon. Luckily, deer and rabbits dislike snowdrops: all parts of the plants are poisonous. Deer still trample emerging bulbs, however.

The fates of other early bulbs are less assured. Hyacinths have always been off-limits, persisting for years and years. However, I note their emerging bulb tips have already been nipped, and am trying bloodmeal.

The rock garden irises are bulbs; I have added to them above our rockwork over the years. By now there should be masses of palest turquoise and sapphire blue miniature flowers, but it looks as if chipmunks in the walls may have consumed them.

Winter garden work

Stale indoor air, dust particles, and inactivity do little to stimulate our immune systems. While it might seem counterintuitive, time outside in fresh air is important for not only children but for everyone

Decent weather in February makes pruning a pleasure. Check trees and shrubbery for crossing and rubbing, such as the wounded aronia pictured, and prune to correct. The many windstorms produced lots of broken and damaged branches: Cut them away. Make undercuts, and look for branch collars, the swelling at the base of a branch; cut just outside this feature. 

Wisteria vines are usually pruned twice a year, now and in summer, to promote the most flowers, and to contain overly vigorous growth. Restricting the whippy, vegetative shoots is the goal. Ideally, cut back green shoots of the current year’s growth to five or six leaves after flowering in July or August.

Now, assuming you have already done that, cut back the same growths to two or three buds in January or February, to tidy it up before the growing season starts. The buds containing flowers are coffee-bean-brown nubbins near the bases of the shoots.

Grapevines, if they are to be pruned, must also be pruned ASAP. Many grapevines on the Vineyard grow and bear well without much care. However, if pruned, these plants bleed copiously once the sap has begun to rise: Prune them now.

Check out this grape-pruning article at; note that advice! “When gardeners prune, they should remove the majority of wood produced the previous season — until about 90 percent is pruned off.”

Most table grapes produce the highest yield of quality fruit when “cane-pruned.” Shorten back two to four fruiting canes per vine to about 15 buds, leaving a total of 50 to 80 buds per plant. Leave a one- or two-bud spur cane near the fruiting cane, with one or two buds each. (These “renewal spurs” will produce the fruiting canes for the following year.)

Herbs and flu season

It is flu season, and everyone wants to be as healthy as possible. Whether it is coronavirus, “ordinary” flu, or just some viral bronchial bug that has settled in your child’s lungs, all are highly concerning, not to mention highly inconvenient.

It should be better emphasized that antibiotics are of little value for illnesses of viral origin. Antibiotic resistance due to overprescribing is a very real threat, due to viral and bacterial organisms’ uncanny ability to mutate and transfer their mutated resistance horizontally to other, unrelated, microbes.

Recuperating with herbal treatments is a way of reducing our discomfort and our exposure to antibiotics. Garden plants of our hardiness zone supply cold and flu remedies, and planning should be done now to grow and harvest the most useful ones for the next (2021) cold and flu season. Harvesting and preparation are additional skills, but consist mostly of drying or freezing before using in teas and decoctions.

Cited here, portions of “Country Wisdom & Know-How” (ppg. 360-368, Storey Books, 2004), herbs for colds and flu: echinacea, garlic, lemon balm, mints of several types, chamomile, cayenne (hot peppers), catnip (Nepeta cataria), thyme, achillea, and parsley are among the useful garden herbs you can grow to prepare and use during cold and flu season. Nettle and comfrey grow prolifically, and do not need actual garden space. In addition, consider ginger and rosemary, which require winter protection.

(Among other sources of information, many Islanders are well-acquainted with herbal practitioners Heidi Schmid and Holly Bellabuono. Bellabuono’s published books are available.)

Also of interest is common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis Dirr), which possesses anti-flu properties known to be effective. A well-known and expensive anti-flu product, Sambucol, is based on elderberry, although homemade versions may be made.

Used since ancient times, elder is one of the most frequently cited herbal medicines. Both North American (S. canadensis) and European elder (S. nigra) contain significant amounts of antioxidants and vitamins A and C, in both flowers and berries.

Did you know you could grow elderberry and make anti-flu syrups with the flowers and berries? Elderberry wine, elderflower water, and elderflower wine are traditional preparations using the elder plant. It is a wild native all over the Island’s damp bottomlands. (Or have you just had someone come in and brush-cut all that useless undergrowth?)

Native elder is a plant of moist and partly shaded places, although it tolerates siting in sunnier and drier ones too. It suckers and forms colonies, and makes an excellent subject for rain gardens, swales, and other damp, water management spots. In summer, look for the large umbels of creamy white flowers and purple fruit, and its divided foliage.

Ornamental selections from S. nigra with “black” foliage, such as ‘Black Lace,’ are increasingly popular garden plants, but for herbal use, a free-flowering, straight species is probably best.


Watch for aphids on new growth of houseplants; control with insecticidal soap. Renew hippeastrums after bloom: Replace the upper inch of soil around the bulb shoulder with fresh compost, such as Fort Vee, or potting mix.