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Taming those overgrown shrubs

Garden Muse

Twenty years ago, when I planted a golden willow (Salix alba 'Vitellina') along the perimeter of my garden, I imagined it would be a large, dense shrub to soak up standing water and deflect the neighbor's soccer balls. I'd seen the bright yellow branches of 'Vitellina' warming up a winter day at Wave Hill Gardens in New York (www.wavehill.org) and wanted the same effect at home.

I planted a gallon-size willow in soil amended with compost. For months it just stood there; I wondered if it was growing at all. But with hindsight I realize it was settling in and sending out strong roots. After a few years, it took off like a rocket and grew lustily into a tree.

I thought about pruning it down, but never got around to it. Sometimes procrastination pays off. Recently, when a two-story care facility sprang up just south of my garden, I was so grateful to the golden willow tree for screening that structure.

In this mild, rainy climate, everything grows taller and wider than books and catalogs describe. Who knew 'Hedgerows Gold' shrub dogwood would become a 15-foot tree? Or that cutleaf elderberry, with such dainty-looking lacy leaves, would rise up to camouflage two stories of the neighbor's house to the east?

I originally planted the elderberry to hide an old falling-down fence, yet still be able to enjoy a view of a small rustic house with its apple orchard next door. Down came that house and up went a bigger one, painted gold. Thankfully, the cut-leaf elderberry grew taller and taller, its green branches toning down the bright wall behind it.

Head it up

Sometimes a shrub that morphs into a tree is not such a gift. Enormous rhododendrons blocking the light from a window, hiding a vista or hanging over a path, call for action.

Spring is a good time to take a hard look at overgrown bushes and decide how to manage them. You can head them up by removing the lower branches and cutting away the dense twiggy interior, exposing the trunk and branching pattern. First remove dead wood, then crossing branches, and finally congested areas. Go slowly, stepping back every so often to see the big picture - once you cut you can't paste it back!

Take a stroll through Portland's Japanese Garden (www.japanesegarden.com) to see the beauty that comes of meticulous pruning. If you're lucky, you'll come across a gardener at work. You can also sign up for a future pruning class.

Whack it down

Pollarding, or coppicing, is another way to manage overgrown shrubs, especially red and yellow-twig dogwoods, elderberries, smoke trees and ninebarks. Last year, I removed a third of golden-variegated 'Gouchaltii' redtwig dogwood to encourage new, bright red canes to grow. Reaching in with long-handled loppers, I cut many older, thick, dark-colored limbs clear to the ground, leaving medium-sized red branches untouched. A fresh crop of new red stems are emerging for a colorful spring display.

For many years, I pruned my 'Royal Purple' smoke tree just a few feet from the ground every spring. Fresh branches sprung up shortly afterward, allowing the plant to remain shrubby. Since the smoke tree grows only a few feet from the north wall of my one-story house, I didn't want it to become a tree.

But I changed my mind after admiring a similarly placed neighbor's smoke tree all grown up. I stopped pollarding and let my own tree have its way. Now I just thin it every so often, selectively removing undesirable branches clear back to the trunk, especially those growing toward the house, or leaning too far over the sidewalk. To capitalize on the strong branches, I've trained 'Minuet' clematis up the trunk - the small white flowers edged in purple make a lovely embellishment against the purple smoke's round leaves.

Clean those pruners

This spring, my loppers got such a big workout they went on strike, refusing to budge. Thank goodness for husband Tom's skillful help. Using two wrenches, he took apart the pruners and showed me the metal dust and grime that was jamming up the works.

He cleaned out the apertures with Goo Gone, washed off the Goo Gone and let the pruners dry overnight. Then he applied a tiny amount of Sil-glyde Lubricating Compound to keep the hinges working smoothly. (A grease like Sil-glyde lasts longer than an oil like WD-40.) Reassembling them, he handed them to me and voilà, they moved so smoothly I was elated.


Coming events

• Lewis Elementary School Plant Sale and Art Market, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., April 23. Native plants, veggie starts, trees, flowers, as well as a bake sale, live music, and student-led tours of the Lewis Learning Gardens. Proceeds support the garden program. 4401 S.E. Evergreen St., Portland. Admission is free. For more information, call Erin Inclan, 503-774-1743.

• Old House Dahlias Work Shop, 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., April 16 and 17 at 8005 S.E. Mill St., Portland. Learn how to plant, harvest, divide and store dahlias. Dahlia tubers for sale. The event is free, but space is limited; registration is required. To schedule a time slot, call Mark, 503-771-1199.