To Prune or Not to Prune, That Is the Question

An early winter Sunday recently found me hip deep in an old, bedraggled summer flowering perennial and shrub border, with my pruners trigger-happy and my heart full of indecision. The tall stems of Verbena bonariensis bent all around me under the heavy weight of their ripening seed heads, crossing and tangling in the fluffy seed pods on the long, browning milkweed branches. Bog sage stems taller than me still held a few little sky blue flowers, but most of the seed heads were spent, and tiny black seeds rained to the ground when I brushed into them. 

Verbena bonariensis.

Verbena bonariensis.

During the summer months, this had been a butterfly garden, full of dozens of different pollinators. The buzz of all the many tiny jewel-colored wasps, flies and bumbling bees filled the hot afternoons, while different sizes and colors of butterflies drifted and fluttered through the blossoms.

Now, with late fall turning into winter, it was time to cut back and shape the garden for next year’s pleasure. One of the verbenas needed to be moved out from under the shade thrown by a huge Salvia karwinskii. A one gallon Leptospermum which never took root and simply died very privately under the teeming mass of flowers above it needed to be dug up and tossed in the brush pile. I wanted to try another Leptospermum in this garden, but needed to clear some space for it. There was never a better day for a sharp pair of pruners.

Salvia karwinskii.

Salvia karwinskii.

And yet, only this morning I had seen fat juncoes feasting on the verbena seeds which goldfinches also love. Hummingbirds were still visiting the bog sage during the brief hour that the winter sun struck it, and nectaring in the remaining flowers. I felt like the grim reaper with my wintery scythe, making an end to all the last bits of the past season.

Many people think that gardeners make plants grow, and that we love to nurture all the little living things with the powers of our green thumbs. But in fact, gardeners can’t make anything grow. Only mother nature can do that. We usually restrict our activities to various forms of murder. Lopping off unsightly branches, exterminating slugs, aphids, and caterpillars in various gruesome ways, uprooting and beheading weeds, these felonies are our daily grind. And I was getting ready to begin a real crime spree.

I finally ended with a compromise. The butterfly garden did get a complete haircut, with transplanting and new planting included. But the hummingbirds got a reprieve when I left the sprawling, overgrown sages on the other side of the path with their last few flowers untouched, and the juncoes can still stuff themselves on verbena seeds in the backyard. 

We are approaching the hungry time of year for our little wild birds, and gardeners can help by choosing some plants for the garden which provide nectar in January and February for our resident hummingbirds. At Garden for the Environment, we have divided out our tree aloes, and now have several dozen plants all of which will be full of bright orange-red flowers during midwinter. Hummingbirds love them. We also let many of our big salvias stand even after they start looking bedraggled to provide a few extra sips of nectar for our hummingbirds. Allowing some plants to go to seed or berry and stand during the winter, also provides for seed-loving birds. Each gardener must find his or her own balance between tidying up the garden and providing for the wildness of seed-set and fertility, as fallen leaves decompose in untidy heaps to add life to the soil.

In last month’s article I wrote about the new weed season, and what local gardeners can do to minimize their weed problems for this year. We talked about oxalis in detail, and I promised that this month I would write more about the dreaded Ehrharta grass. 

Ehrharta, freshly pulled out at GFE.

Ehrharta, freshly pulled out at GFE.

Ehrharta is an invasive exotic grass that appeared in the Bay Area fairly recently. You may not have seen it yet in your garden. It arrived in mine about five years ago, from a neighbor’s neglected yard, and I didn’t know right away what a beast it was going to be. If you see a new weedy grass with long arching seedy stems covered with hundreds of tiny seeds, beware. Do not let these seeds ripen and fall. Immediate eradication is in order. 

When weeding out Ehrharta, the pale pinkish crown of the plant is your target. Right where the roots of the plant meet the top, there is a single whorl of pale stems, and you have to get all of them. This grass loves to break apart, and you may get a lovely big chunk of it only to notice that it has left one little bit of root and a small bunch of stems behind. Each plant may take several tries to remove all of the crown.

Please make sure to put the weed directly into a bucket or onto a tarp when weeding. If you toss this weed onto the ground or into a path, or carry it through the garden to your green bin, tiny grass seeds will be raining down all around you, and your problems will be multiplied next year.

December will bring rainy cold days if the weather gods love our watershed, and many days when we can only look out the window at our gardens. These are good days to spend with seed catalogs, imagining the heirloom varieties of yummy summer vegetables and new and sophisticated arrangements of blossoms in next year's border. Spread some newspaper on the table or counter and get after those garden tools with some oil and a sharpening stone. Or curl up with a good gardening book. My favorite winter reads this year are Vita Sackville-West’s In Your Garden and Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson.

Happy Holidays, and many muddy returns of the season. See you next year!