Getting the Garden Ready

Mary Helen Ferguson
NC Cooperative Extension Agent, Horticulture
TREES NC Board Member
Posted March 4th, 2010 in Lawn & Garden

Have you planted your carrots and potatoes yet? How about your sugar snap peas? If you’re like me, your garden is still resting. However, the planting dates for some vegetables have already arrived, and tomato-planting time is only about a month and a half from now. If you haven’t started getting your garden ready yet or have questions about how to raise vegetables, you might take a look at our Home Vegetable Gardening publication (, or come by or call for a paper copy) for recommendations on how to do so.

The expected turnaround time for soil samples, at the time I’m writing this, is four to five weeks. If you do it now, you can get results back before it’s time to plant warm-season vegetables. In the future, you might consider getting your soil test done in the fall or early winter, for the next season, in case you need lime. It takes time for lime to raise the pH of the soil. Also, the turnaround time for soil samples is generally faster during those times.

Why Are You Pruning that Tree?!
One weekend in January, it seemed like the people on the streets between my house and the office decided that it was time to prune the crape myrtles. That was a decent time to do it, and we’re still in the period (and will be until spring growth starts) when it’s suggested that crape myrtles, and other trees that flower on growth produced in the spring, be pruned, IF it is needed/desired.

This column has addressed pruning more than once, and I don’t intend to address it in depth this time. However, I want to suggest that people think about why they are pruning. Sometimes, it seems like a tree would have looked much better if it had been left alone.

Here are some reasons to prune: (1) to remove diseased, damaged, or dead wood, (2) to enhance flower or fruit production, (3) to improve the appearance, and (4) to keep a plant “within bounds.”

The first reason is pretty self-explanatory. Removing diseased wood may help keep the pathogen (disease-causing agent) from spreading to the rest of the plant. Damaged wood can serve as a place for pathogens to get into a plant and, like dead wood, may break or detract from the looks of the plant.

The second reason is applicable to fruit trees and to some flowering plants, like crape myrtles. Appropriate fruit tree pruning allows sunlight in to fruiting sites and helps strike a desirable balance of vegetative (leaf and shoot) and reproductive (fruit) growth, so that fruit production can be increased. For more on fruit tree pruning, you can check out Training and Pruning Fruit Trees in North Carolina(, or contact us). In the case of plants that produce their flowers on shoots that grow in the same year (like crape myrtles), practices that increase spring growth can increase flowering. The act of pruning while plants are dormant stimulates growth.

Since people differ with respect to what they consider attractive, I can’t say what will justify pruning, for the third reason, for a given individual. Personally, I think the most attractive crape myrtles are the ones that are pruned to a few main trunks (root suckers can be removed annually) and allowed to grow freely, for the most part. Some removal of lower branches may, again, in my opinion, enhance the appearance of the tree, and some thinning (removal of growth back to its origin) may open up the top and encourage new growth. There are other ways to do it.

I mentioned earlier that pruning plants while they’re dormant stimulates growth. However, if growth is removed from a plant after the plant has spent a lot of its energy reserves putting out that growth (e.g., just before leaves are fully expanded in the spring), the plant’s ability to produce food for itself is reduced. Pruning early in the growing season is one way to reduce the vigor of a plant.

Those are some reasons that a person might choose to prune. On the other hand, if either of these are your reasons for pruning, you might reconsider your plans: (1) to decrease the likelihood that a tree will break up in a storm or (2) because everybody else on your street does it.

I was told that some people engage in the criticized [by NC Cooperative Extension, the International Society of Arboriculture, etc.] but common (in Randolph County, at least) practice of topping because they believe that doing so will make their tree less likely to cause damage to their house in an ice storm. While this practice can surely result in limbs that are small enough—for a time—not to cause much harm, the cuts that are made during topping can actually result in branches that are more likely to break off during a storm.

If you are planning to prune or prune in a certain way because that’s what everyone else is doing, well, what’s that Mom used to say about jumping off a bridge…?

For more information on pruning trees, check out Pruning Trees (, or contact us).