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Care and Maintenance

I have a dear friend, colleague, and Red Bird co-conspirator, Cairene MacDonald of Third Hand Works.  She regularly employs metaphors to help people (and she’s a Canna, according to This Garden is Illegal‘s quiz).  I take inspiration from her. 

I was out in the garden immediately following this week’s Master Gardener certification class. It was a “big” weekend. I pruned trees and shrubs with a heart filled with zest (new knowledge), compassion (for my plants and my previous mistakes) and motherly concern (did I prune correctly this time?). I looked over each plant, (yes, talking out loud because it helps) channelling the voice, silly jokes, and crazy hand motions of this week’s MG instructor, horticulture teacher, pruner extradionaire, Bob Nelson. I felt part artist and part surgeon pouring care over these pups of mine. The wonders of nature’s effects set in along with the application of the “pruning metaphor” in life.  

It has been confirmed, after this week’s teachings, that the various owners of this property, including my Beloved and me, have screwed up the pruning of the flowering cherry out front. (For the purposes of this post, pruning is defined as selective removal of plant parts; maintenance and appropriate care for the life and health of the plant.) The tree stays because Beloved’s mom planted it 30+ years ago, so no “one cut prune” here for sentimental reasons. It looks like heck; it has since I met my Beloved 7 years ago.  

hope for her yet

hope for her yet

I have rallied – I have info (and hope) as to what’s going on with the tree and why/how we need to “work with” her.  Happy with the education I received: teachings of the what and then the why/how = big picture appreciation and then the motivation (and empowerment) to act responsibly – sustainably.  

For the record, we (the collective) have made the rookie pruning mistakes:  

whoops 1:  habitually pruned hard in the dormant period which got us (and the tree) a heck of a lot of vigorous upright growth with little spring bloom (picture your hair on end with static electricity), 

whoops 2: we cut the “water sprouts” rather than waiting to “pop” them out once they reached for 2 – 4″ growth (so we now have double the emergence of water sprouts x 7 years because we stimulated the buds with our cuts each year, each cut),

whoops 3:  left nubs where we (and others) didn’t cut to the collar nor follow the mirror image of the bark protection ridge,

nubs, stubs, shoots

nubs, stubs, shoots

whoops 4:  topping (my stomach turns as I type this word) done by previous owners, 

and, drum roll please,

whoops 5: wound treatment to “make the tree feel better and heal”. Those before us didn’t know that more and more research shows that wound treatment actually traps moisture in which leads to disease problems and stymies the tree’s natural branch protection boundary (chemicals to deal with a cut).  A Bob Nelson-ism for you:  

Plants are generating systems – they don’t heal. Animals are re-generating systems, so when we have a wound and treat it, we heal. Plants don’t heal, they respond. 


And now for the metaphor:  

This activity & education has me thinking about how pruning parallels life – if we understood what was going on with our bodies, then we would know why/how to take care of (prune out) that which we needed to in order to sustain ourselves, our growth – so that we might act responsibly for and about our lives and our health. 


I love gardening in the parallels –  between plant health and my health and lessons contained therein:  I left a couple of trees and shrubs because after the class I was reassured to wait for the right season. I trained some plants instead of pruning them – for life and strength. I cut to the collar on a few so that the right growth might happen. I dealt with codominant stems – competing vertical upright growth – and determined which was most appropriate for life and cut the other away.  Train, care, maintain — good rules to prune (live) by. 

As a “healing garden” advocate I’m down with the research that informs landscape design. Yet as a fellow gardener, your neighbor, a person, a spirit, I really “know” what gardening does for me — how it helps me, how it supports me, how I “heal” and grow from mistakes, how I restore.

Sometimes we make mistakes – in life &  in the garden – I don’t let this “possibility” stop me or keep me from trying new things in either realm. My garden is the best place to practice life, care, maintenance.  Spring and summer plant responses will provide me “feedback” of my pruning treatment and I patiently wait to learn more. 

Wanna learn more about pruning too?  Find Bob and other great garden allies at Clackamas Community College (the only PLANET accredited program in Oregon)- they have a great spring line up of short courses.  

Okay, I think there is something suspicious going on here… Week 1 of Master Gardener (MG) training, we met Chip Bubl.  Week 2, we are ed-u-ma-cated  in “garden pests and not-so garden pests” (basic entomology) with insect expert/inspec-tor Jean Natter.  Then we roll around in Soils, Compost and Fertilizers with “Dr. Dirt” Claudia Groth.

Come on… In my MG initiation, will I experience a metamorphosis into some sort of plant-landscape-gardening name?  Nah, but a nickname might be nice.  

What's buzzin' in your garden? Mrs. Natter insects: What’s buzzin’ in your garden?

Our time spent buzzing around entomology-land with Ms. Natter provided this:  in our Portland Metro area, less than 1% of insects are considered serious pests. So hold your fire with those various chemical potions & lotions.  Let’s talk management techniques people.

First: right plant, right place, right care (that’s why the service of landscape designers is so valuable – we help you with the “nature puzzle”.)

Second: not all bugs are bad (some are needed and quite necessary); not all bees are bees (some are flies that look like bees); and a “grub”, well that’s a teenager beetle.

Third: Insects are important to life and thrive-ability of your garden; they are critical to your enjoyment, satisfaction and health. Yep.

Lastly:  Insects are kinda interesting, once you get over the gag reflex and all.


Flummoxed by a perceived intruder? Don’t know what has taken up residence in your garden nor what type of neighbor that six- or eight-legged creature may be? Ms. Natter says, ” a lot of plant/pest problems lie in the root systems,” and really, spiders don’t hurt plants, though the rolling of leaves does annoy at times, I know.

Understanding insect life cycles, anatomy, classification and the common orders of insects helps MGs diagnosis your problems so that we can help you know when and what is the best intervention for management. If you’ve got a bug that’s bugging you, capture it (alive, please), contain it (and any associated plant material it may have been eating or living on) and bring it into your local MG extension office. Resources likely consulted in the MG insect CSI work:  Insects (a Peterson Field Guide) & Pacific Northwest Insect Management Handbook, among others. If you want to get all buggy with Ms Natter, you can have a live listen at a MG talk or seminar. She brings her bugs with.

mg-sustainable-gardening-binder_2009 Sustainable Gardening: Oregon-Washington Master Gardener Handbook

Was a pleasure to be greeted by similarly-minded, pink-vested, recycling devoted, deliriously happy Clackamas County chapter Master Gardeners – all buzzing around like happy, little bees, welcoming the “new-bees”.

Given the (over) abundance of info shared (note the girth of the Sustainable Gardening binder received on week 1), five factoids that may tickle your fancy:

1. There are 3000+ Master Gardeners (MG) in Oregon.  This best kept, grassroots (oh, pardon the pun) secret provides over 31,000 volunteer hours on behalf of the Oregon State University Extension Service.  The result is enough volunteer man/woman power to equal what 15 full time employees would do for OSU. This is a well-oiled, massive, complex, outrageously helpful outreach machine.

2.  More than one-third of all Oregonians seek advice/help from the OSU Extension Service.

3.  The MG course is not some “grow better tomatoes” info-session (though I do anticipate learning about tomatoes). And more on the tie between tomatoes, civility, social relationships and our food shed in a later post.

4. MG program’s mission: help us greenies (again, can help but pun) fulfill a critical role on the education delivery train: understand, digest, apply, teach, find & share the current research coming out of OSU (accredited land-grant university) related to gardens, plant/people relations, ecology and health.

5. The origin of “green thumb”, shared by Chip Bubl: pinching off plants (at right place, right time) to spark growth. Consider me pinched.

How lovely to plunge into a huge pool of information, surrounded by passionate people, chanting the same mantra: promote plant-based solutions for social problems.  Gardens (when designed sensitively) are practical and purposeful in affecting change.  Gardens grow hope, offer social support, positive distractions. When times (or food sources) are uncertain, change comes fast, and stress is high, gardens offer a sense of control – curtsey to the great minds in therapeutic garden design research and supportive design theory.

Promoting wellness and enhancing life through gardens, large and small, is an exciting job.

Week 2 – what they didn’t teach you in landscape architecture school: basic botany, entomology, soils and compost – yah, all that and a bag of chips in one eight hour day.