I’d like to share an especially satisfying and tedious task with you: pruning ornamental pines. There is a Zen to doing it correctly. The Japanese trim their pines by hand, snapping off new growth with fingers. A person can spend an entire day on one tree, guiding forth the ultimate shape hidden in its present form. The Zen is the focused meditation on a multiyear path towards perfection.
Most Western gardeners have little faith in this way of pruning pines. To them it’s the appearance of the plant that matters. Time spent on pruning is time not spent on something else. They will use electric shears to shave evergreens into obedient green meatballs and gumdrops. Usually they ignore the plants’ cultural needs. When the plant fails to meet their expectations, these gardeners pull it from the ground.
Pines grow only from their tips, in the spring. The buds swell into ‘candles,’ a soft, elongated growth that quickly lengthens into a new branch segment. Cut off a candle at the base, and the pine will never grow any more from that branch. Pines do not have dormant buds hidden in the bark; there is no recovery from a too-deep prune.
You can prune pines, but only in the spring. If you snip a candle mid-way, there is enough energy on the candle to form new buds and needles for next year. The trick is doing it at the right time, when the candles are long and soft enough to snap easily. Too late and the candle hardens into wood and it won’t form new buds for the next year.
Mugho pines are sold are ornamental shrubs, but they are really a tree species native to alpine Europe. Some individuals are faster-growing than others, but all eventually become multi-trunk trees. People buy cute little shrub at the nursery and think they will stay small and mounded. But the plant is programmed to grow up and out. Inattentive households will have a large, twenty-footer in blocking their windows.
I wait until the mugho candles are 2-3 inches tall, sometime in early May. They are flexible then, bending with little resistance between the fingers.
When they are at this stage, you have a two-week window to prune them before they harden off.
There’s a lot of drama to gardening. It’s creation, when one patiently observes a seedling grow into a large tree, or when they design a new pathway or vegetable bed. And there’s plenty of destruction as well; just think about burning brush or chopping down trees.
Yep, I’m in it for the drama. Being a gardener is like playing God in your personal space. You decide what lives and dies, what gets to stay and what gets banished. I’m the director and all my floral beauties are stage performers.
But there’s the other side to gardening. I find peace in the boring, little things. I can weed on my hands and knees for an entire morning. Watering pots is a ritual I do every night after work. When I get home after a long day, I quickly change clothes and head into the garden to deadhead flowers. As I do these mundane things, I review the roiling hours from earlier in the day, recalibrating the important issues, resetting priorities for tomorrow. Sometimes, I set my mind adrift to past – or future – things to ponder. I meditate as I go, snapping and clipping until it is time to go inside.
You can use your fingers and give a quick snap to halve them. But mughos have thousands of little candles. Unless you have a strong back, do what I do and use hand-pruning shears. (Hint: rub a little motor oil along your shear blades to keep them from getting gummed up with resin later.)
The trick with shears is to observe the shape of the pine’s curves and gently close the blades as they glide along them. Too fast and the blades will snap off needles and leave you with a sheared look. Go slow and gather just a few candles at a time into the shear’s reach.
It is very important to get at plant-level when pruning. This allows you to get all close and personal with your ornamental pine. You can see the swells and shapes that way. Hacking from above encourages a distorted perspective and a resulting distorted plant. (Another hint: use kneepads or sit on the ground.)
I bought three mughos over fifteen years ago. In a few years I noticed some pines were growing quickly and others were hugging the ground. To keep an order to things, I decided to learn the Japanese hand-pruning approach to pine maintenance. I applied this the first year and modified it afterwards to use the shears. Over the years my pines became more artistic, or as my friend would say ‘lumpy.’ The look is not entirely natural, but it’s very much the look you would find in a formal Japanese garden. Each year the mughos and I negotiate the path forward. Each year I am delighted with the evolving appearance.
Prune each candle halfway or less, but allow some candle to remain. The plant renews itself with new growth. The pine must throw new needles to replace the two-year needles further down the branch. If you want a plant to grow in a new direction, don’t prune the candles in that area; let the pine grow as it likes.
You will wind up with a dense, mounding plant in a few years. Each pruned candle grows extra buds at the tip after a few weeks. These new buds make for a thicker plant.