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At the tail end of winter, it's a great time to shape plants and clip out old canes to make way for fresh new growth.
We like shrubs and trees with clean lines, colorful wood and youthful vigor. This is the time of year to cut some shrubs right back to the ground, and remove others' older canes so that when budbreak comes all their energy will go into replacement wood. As we work, we gather material for wattle fencing.
For instance, we chop butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii), blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis) and tea roses to stubs every year. We can also do that drastic cut yearly, or every two or three years, to dwarf spirea (Spiraea bumalda varieties) Potentilla and barberry (Berberis thunbergii). (More in What's Coming Up Issue 139.)
At this same time, we remove several old canes from each lilac, Forsythia, shrub rose, snowball hydrangea, redtwig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) and other fast growers we tend.
For neglected redtwigs such as in the previous photo, we can begin rejuvenation pruning by removing about one third of the canes. We cut out the oldest stems as low to the ground as we can. After three years the whole plant will be new again. Alternatively, we can simply cut the whole shrub to the ground right now.
Wipe your blade with a 10% bleach or peroxide solution between cuts, to avoid spreading disease that older canes may harbor, a canker infection common to old and weak dogwoods.
Why take drastic action rather than gradual renewal pruning? To answer our impatience and desire for wattle wands, and because we know this species is willing to cooperate. The wood in it now is not ideal for wattle work. The canes have become too thick, and lost both flexibility and color.We know it can be full of straight, bright wood that will shine next winter and supply next spring's wattle projects. However, if we do a three year-, three stage rejuvenation, we won't have wattle canes from this shrub until the end of that time.
See more about pruning redtwigs for colorful wood in Prune Redtwig if it's Hard and in What's Coming Up Isssue #34. Our complete pruning guide includes dozens of types of shrubs. It's in What's Coming Up #86.
We don't send all our clippings to the compost. Some of the canes have twiggy projections or side branches that make them useful for staking floppy perennials. Others have the length and flexibility to become wattle fences.
We save redtwig- and yellowtwig dogwood canes for weaving fences. (We use other twigs for wattle, too, including butterfly bush, blue mist spirea, Kerria, etc. But for color plus flexibility, nothing beats the dogwoods.)
If your redtwig dogwood looks like this, it's more than ready to give up some of those canes that have become old. Removing them will net you even more bright red new growth for next winter's show. Old canes' thickness and brown or gray bases give them away. Lop them out or saw them off, cutting as close to the ground as you can. They become our wattle wands, material for sturdy, pretty fences. No worries -- the canes you cut out will be back. The new canes grow several feet in their first year. That's several straight, unbranched, colorful feet.
Wattle makes a very effective edge. It can also be a design asset when the twigs that make it are naturally colorful.
Last year during a January thaw, we harvested a wealth of redtwig dogwood by volunteering to trim the shrubs at Michigan State University's Tollgate Farm.
We wrote a fence weaving how-to for Tollgate's own volunteers. You can download those directions for weaving a wattle fence we call The Tollgate Twist, from our collection of presentation materials. Another pattern, Ziggy Zoo, is in "Wattle we do at the zoo."
January's too cold for weaving and the wood would keep until March or April. So we stockpiled it at our Detroit Zoo gardens.
More about wattle fencing in
What's Coming Up issue #121 ,
What's Coming Up Issue #139 and
at our Garden by Janet and Steven sessions at the Detroit Zoo and other places. Watch for such listings in our calendar, Where We're Appearing, There's more about all our workshops and classes in the About Us section.