By Michael Alliger
The clouds, cold and late rains seem to do what they can to stanch the onset of spring yet plums begin blooming on Valentine’s day as usual and cherries to flower by April with a host of magnolias in between. Our California natives join the fray in the form of pink-flowering currant and blue ceanothus. We meet again the urge of the world to become itself and we gardeners see to our preparations: tools are sharpened, irrigation supplies are inventoried, fertilizers applied and the weeding begins!
Spring pruning of deciduous trees like dogwood and Japanese maple usually begins around April 15th once the new leaves have come out and hardened up, that is, acclimated to sunand weather. The goal of Japanese garden pruning is to maintain an appropriate size (human scale) while instilling a look of age. This look is often a stylized version of much older trees that have been subjected to their environment’s gifts and trials: rain, snow, wind, heat, and drought. While much control and refinement is done in winter, spring follow up pruning is critical to maintaining this vision. While managing size by cutting back ends is paramount, inner foliage is thinned showing the intricacies of branching and the interplay of light and shadow.
Sheared plants are a staple in a Japanese style garden and proper shearing is an art. Along with stone, they are a fundamental grounding element bringing stasis amidst change. While sometimes overlooked, low sheared plants, called tamamono (horizontal oval in shape) can be many. The hard-edged contour is an integral counterpoint to the more natural forms of other trees and shrubs. In Japan, azaleas largely fill this need. Here at Osmosis, for ecological reasons, we use replacements such as escallonia compacta, dwarf berberis and euonymus microphylla. Once new growth emerges they look shaggy, blurring the crisp edge so important to their function. Consequently, a round of shearing is necessary in spring addressing some individuals 2 or 3 times as needed.
Of all plants in our garden pines are the one group allowed to look somewhat unruly in spring. Their new shoots emerge from buds beginning in
February and elongate into a tubular shape known as candles. Though there are many approaches to pine pruning, at Osmosis we allow the candles to extend fully until needles unfold from them. At this time they are removed (cut or snapped off by hand). This technique controls size while the subsequent summer growth is used to develop foliage density and limited incremental extension.
The balance of plants such as nandina, pieris, flowering quince and juniper are pruned as their new growth arises. These complementary shrubs are pruned in a more general way to add context and a natural feel to the garden.
Spring work can be busy here at Osmosis as in most gardens but the softening weather and vibrant life bring joy to every day!
By Michael Alliger, Master Pruner
With the softening of the light and cooling of temperatures comes a time for an out-breath in the garden. Autumn at Osmosis brings a relaxing sigh after the hurried intensity of summer. In the calm expanse of golden light, we look back to what has been: the surprises, accomplishments, and challenges; and we look ahead to the opportunities that winter rains will offer.
Here at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Sonoma County, California, Spring was enlivened by deep and late rains. Trees especially came out with a robust vigor. This was an expectation gratefully rewarded. The surprise was that this vigor did not translate into increased health throughout a very hot summer. Many trees seemed inexplicably weaker as the season progressed. Autumn, therefore, brings welcome relief for the garden as well as the gardeners.
Bamboo’s Falling Leaves
Though plant growth has slowed, the rain of falling leaves keeps gardeners busy raking. Raking of the paths and grounds is expected but benches, lanterns, stones and the plants themselves must be kept as pristine as possible. It’s interesting to observe that broadleaf evergreen trees (such as bays), as well as conifers, are losing countless leaves at this time. Bamboo, an evergreen, is dropping leaves at a surprising rate. For good hygiene and appearance groves must be raked and mulched. Pines, redwoods, and hinokis all display an inner browning of foliage that may drop eventually with winter storms if not cleaned by garden staff.
Lack of Rain
Anticipation of winter may stir in us the realization of how long the garden has gone without rain. Lack of rain combined with extremely low atmospheric humidity makes this the driest time of the year for plants. It’s important that irrigation be regularly monitored for accurate operation and that container plants be watered assiduously sometimes being dunked in large tubs or troughs where possible. Again in anticipation of winter rains the garden is freshly mulched with nutrient rich amendment. When percolated in by rain a mulch of composted humus and manure not only enriches to plant growth but helps keep the soil alive with microbes, insects and all manner of healthful fungi.
Fall Pruning of Evergreens
Garden pruning in the fall hasn’t the pace of summer yet opportunities for care and improvement abound. In Japanese-inspired gardens like Osmosis, many trees are pruned for human scale. This reduction often stimulates a reaction growth which must be addressed. As this growth slows in summer water sprouts on plum, crabapple and persimmon, for example, can be removed or cut back. On Magnolia, heavy summer growth is also removed in preparation for early winter flowering. In addition, fruit tress such as pear, apple and apricot may be thinned and cut back. At Osmosis, we have a large naturalized apple tree growing along the bank of Salmon Creek which is pruned as an ornamental, not to interfere with a vigorous fruit production.
Evergreens are also pruned at this time. Pines are thinned, shaped and cleaned of old needles. The same can be done with various Chamaecyparis.
The thinning of bamboo groves not only improves appearance by removing dead, dying, and spindly culms but also can help (along with fertilizing) to increase the size of next year’s shoots for added drama. Similarly, drifts of Nandina may be thinned to display their vertical canes from which they get their common name “sacred bamboo”, though not a true bamboo.
Yes, in gardening there is the Zen moment of NOW, but we are also keeping an eye on what has been and what will be. Winter will bring an ideal opportunity for planting and transplanting. Autumn is the time to be looking ahead to the possibility of these, often dramatic, adjustments.
Learn More about pruning Nandina in the following video! Get ready to be inspired!
By Michael Alliger
The garden in spring is a growing thing; never more apparent than following a rainy winter such as we’ve experienced here in West Sonoma County.
Pruning is the subject at hand. The question is often asked whether winter is the best season for pruning. It is one of them but a spring such as this should put paid to the question. From maples and pines to hedges and ground covers, the garden’s plants are burgeoning: encroaching on paths, nudging neighbors, blurring definitions, feeling themselves in such abundance that nature’s drive is palpable. It’s a celebration in the garden! An explosion of flowers and tender new foliage. Yet at the same time a garden without defined space soon reverts to the wildness of nature. So not only are we weeding at full tilt, but the ebullience of spring alerts us to the need for pruning. With its absence of leaves winter asks for pruning, but with its leafy eruption spring demands it.
One of the most interesting forms of new growth occurs on pine trees. The Japanese Black Pine, the rounded Mugo Pine and our native Shore Pine all have very prominent spring shoots standing straight up like fingers or “candles” as they are referred to by garden pruners. From the thousand-year old tradition of Japanese gardens to today scores of techniques have developed for embracing the pine tree’s growth habit in the interest of control and style. Control and style are the watchwords of Aesthetic Pruning.
Here at Osmosis, an Asian-inspired garden, our approach to these enthusiastic candles is to remove them entirely banking on their replacement shoots over the summer months for health and style.
Indeed, the single candle removed will be replaced by a multiplicity of shorter shoots more conducive to the size and shape of the garden’s requirements.
Maples are another genus of trees prominent in Asian gardens and we have several varieties here at Osmosis. Even with winter pruning these trees need a spring thinning. There are generally two flushes of growth: one in early spring (April-May) and another in late summer (July-August). Spring growth on maples is usually fine textured and thick while summer growth can be more coarse and rangy.
Two broad categories of maples are upright and mounding (umbrella-style). Upright maples are reduced and opened at the top to control size as well as let light and air into lower and inner branches. The middle of the tree is thinned to reveal graceful structure and to enhance the interplay of light and shadow. Lower branches are pruned for horizontal effect, creating layers or planes. Mounding maples are usually of the dissectum type with finely cut leaves. Their weeping habit allows for increase in size (especially height) much more gradually than upright trees. This makes control less important while thinning is emphasized to show structure. The beautifully arching branches can be obscured as they lay on top of each other sometimes creating a dense mound. Pruning is approached in two ways: the outer branches may be gently lifted and cut back to reveal those beneath while the inner branches are thinned (surprisingly enough!) by working beneath and inside the tree where possible.
The focus here has been on two focal point trees as they are, being the most noticeable, the first to be pruned. As the season progresses and time allows, the background and other supporting plants are groomed. So now, take heart, and answer the call of spring’s beckoning!
Norman Fischer Leads Ceremony at Osmosis
by Michael Stusser
October 6th was a perfect fall day in Freestone. Thirty people gathered in our meditation garden to honor Steve Stucky, a remarkable landscape artist and Zen priest who helped develop the natural beauty of Osmosis. Steve served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center where he promoted gratitude in daily life. He passed in 2013, yet his legacy is alive as our gardens mature.
Steve understood that Osmosis would become a meditative environment where guests would feel the benefits of silent contemplation. He spoke clearly at our garden dedication ceremony in 2003,
Norman Fischer, Wendy Johnson and Michael Stusser at Steve Stücky Altar Dedication
“Very few people in our nation’s healing professions understand the importance of place and of the natural world in healing. The primary reason our work here is so meaningful…is the fact that this garden is a place of healing the body, soothing and calming the mind, and spiritual nourishment—a truly sacred space that recognizes the whole person and may serve many people over many years. I believe that we Americans, in our busy acquisitiveness, need to drink deeply from resources within the natural world to develop an indigenous culture of wisdom.”
Steve Stücky Laying Out the Osmosis Meditation Garden, 2001
I feel certain no one on the planet was better qualified and more able to translate the vision for the Osmosis gardens into reality. Steve wanted to create special environments that would evoke the calming healing quality of our True Nature. It was deeply moving and satisfying to have a companion on the journey that understood these intentions and was able to help actualize them. No words can begin to express my gratitude to Steve.
New Altar at Osmosis
As our celebrated meditation garden was being built, Steve suggested that we incorporate an altar to a allow guests to offer incense. An offering of incense is considered a simple act of generosity within the Zen tradition. Unlit incense represents the potential for enlightenment. Once lit, its ephemeral smoke mirrors the transitory nature of life. Incense purifies the atmosphere and may inspire us to develop a pure mind. Its fragrance spreads far and wide, just as a good deed benefits many.
Our October 6th ceremony included many of Steve’s lifelong friends and fellow practitioners who unveiled an altar dedicated to him. It is inscribed with his favorite Zen saying,
Steve Stücky with Osmosis Gardeners Michael Alliger and Louis Fameli, 2009
“To what shall I liken this world?
Moonlight reflected in dewdrops
Flung from a crane’s bill”
– Dogen Zenji
by Michael Alliger
Astrologers say that August is the gateway to autumn and here in Sonoma County that seems to be so true as we see the light become more golden, trees turning color and we sense the occasional cool lilt to a breeze. Changing seasons always brings pause to the garden and the gardener. Autumn is especially a time for reflection; spiritually, soulfully, and in the garden. Looking back we may ask: what have we accomplished? Which of our plans have reached fruition? Which are still developing? And our reflection may lead us forward. What will we be focusing on this winter, time of dormancy, by way of preparation for spring?
Yet autumnal weather also offers us some opportunities for pruning and general garden care. Here in Northern California while the season becomes milder we know that there is a likely possibility for high temperatures still to come. This is an excellent time to replenish garden mulch with a nutrient rich compost or humus-y blend. This will help retain precious moisture as we enter the driest period of the year. Here at Osmosis we prefer composted material rather than mere bark for mulching because plants get the added benefit of natural fertilizing as the winter rains leach nutrients into the soil. Along similar lines it’s important that drip irrigation remain functional and on even as expectations of rain increase.
Hinoki Tree – Unpruned and Pruned
It may go without saying that the falling autumn leaves demand regular raking and sweeping. Not only the paths and beds are swept, but the plants themselves which collect fallen leaves must be groomed daily. The large bay trees along Salmon Creek bordering our garden seem to be among the first to drop, though being evergreen their color show is limited to a cinnamon brown. It is interesting to note that nearby redwood trees are also losing leaves at this time. Even evergreen trees lose leaves in autumn; though with conifers and other evergreens it is subtler than with deciduous trees and may even bring alarm at first sight. At Osmosis we have a number of hinoki trees (a species of Chamaecyparis) whose inner leaves turn brown though they tend to persist until brushed off, another seasonal chore.
Hinoki Tree – Unpruned & Pruned
With regards to pruning this is an excellent time to attend to some of the projects that the busy spring and summer postpone. Many of our conifers (junipers, spruce, cedar) are tended to now. In the event of a spike in heat they are generally tough enough to bear it without signs of stress while their slow-growing nature allows them to be pruned just once a year. We also find time to address some of the background material: a large domed English laurel, California myrtle hedges, and sheared yews, for example.
“At Osmosis we employ the Japanese garden approach to these shrubs wherein we value the older wood for its character and clear some of the young upstart shoots. “
A number of other semi-focal or auxiliary plants receive attention now. Nandinas may be thinned and shaped. The European or western approach might be to cut away the old growth in an effort to “renovate” the plant. A beautiful and delicate plant is the Pieris japonica which is actually related to manzanita and rhododendron. Like it’s two relatives pieris sets its spring flowers in summer/fall.
Conflicting with these developing flowers are last springs spent flower parts and this is a perfect opportunity to clean these off though it takes a careful eye to distinguish the two at first. Late summer/fall is an excellent time for cutback, thinning and styling of magnolia trees. Magnolias represent another instance of a plant setting flower buds in fall for spring show. Magnolias are amongst the first of the spring blooms and here in Northern California they’ll actually be opening in January and February. This limits the notion of winter pruning since we try to interfere with flowering as little as possible while making the tree’s overall appearance exemplary. Pruning in late summer allows enough time for the tree to establish flower buds to replace any lost through shaping.
Fall is the recommended time for thinning bamboo. Thinning bamboo is important because it allows the coming spring’s energy to go into making sturdier more demonstrative culms (shoots). Thinning also reduces the plant’s urge to spread as it has more internal space with less crowding. Fall is also a good time to apply slow release organic fertilizer to bamboo thus encouraging the best new growth in spring.
While there are specific tasks for fall the brief pause can be welcomed with an out-breath of gratitude for all that has gone before and the deep rest that garden life will receive during the coming winter.