Drifting Leaves: They’re all legs

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    Old rhododendrons get new life as small trees.
    Photos courtesy of Penelope O'Sullivan.
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One of my favorite pruning techniques is limbing up, or removing low twigs and branches on a tree or large shrub.

I do it to river birches to better see the bark. I’ve seen it done to a button willow to give it mini-tree proportions. Some conifers in a home landscape get limbed up after the upper branches shade out the lower ones, which die. Gardeners prune up other trees for headroom and planting space.

But last week when I visited Joy Creek Nursery’s lush public gardens in Scappoose, Ore., I saw an example of limbing up that’s both practical and charming. Notably, the rhododendrons in front of co-owner Mike Smith’s house had been pruned with two ideas in mind: framing views and walking under their canopies.

Mike, who moved there in 1991, says these pink-flowered rhodos were about 35 years old and neglected when he arrived.

“They were horribly fed and pendulous because the little branches couldn’t support the weight of the leaves,” Mike says. “I pruned them to nubs twice to train some vertical stems.”  He explained that he cut them back to the major trunks, which were an inch to an inch and a half in diameter.

Because Mike didn’t like pink rhododendrons, he didn’t care whether they lived or died after these drastic prunings.

They lived.

At the nursery, Mike led me to the inner walk by the house, where we strolled along the narrow rhododendron-lined path. The rhododendrons, now 12 to 15 feet tall, had been limbed up and turned into multi-stemmed trees with crooked trunks.

“I love to look through the windows now,” Mike says. “The trunks frame different views of the garden from inside the house.

“Now [the rhododendrons] are too good to kill, and I’ve softened my stance on the pink flowers. I see them from my bedroom on the second floor. They bloom for three weeks and then I don’t have to look at them any more.”

You can visit Joy Creek’s gardens and decide for yourself whether you like the effect of pruning rhododendrons into small trees. The 4-1/2-acre gardens and stock fields are a cooperative effort between Mike and the nursery’s co-owner Maurice Horn, with input from John Caine, Joy Creek’s lead designer. Read some of their thoughts on plants by clicking here.

Penelope O'Sullivan, who will be writing about trees and shrubs at Diggin' It, is the author of "The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook: The Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting, and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants." She has a landscape design business on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Editor's note: To read more by Penelope O'Sullivan, check our blog archive. For more Monitor gardening, see our main gardening page and our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We'll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer's blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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