Living Columns & Blogs

How to keep plants alive until planting; now is time to prune

Groundskeeper Greg Smit prunes a sunset maple tree at the Blaine Harbor in March 2011.
Groundskeeper Greg Smit prunes a sunset maple tree at the Blaine Harbor in March 2011. The Bellingham Herald

Question: This year I’ve ordered some plants that will be delivered when I’m leaving on a trip and won’t have time to plant them. What’s the best way to treat them so they’ll last a couple of weeks without being planted?

Answer: There are a few things you can do if you must delay planting your new purchases.

Many plants are sent bare-root — without any soil around the roots. The plants are dormant. Check the roots and the packing material around them. If it’s dried out, lightly re-moisten it. Make sure the roots are completely covered by the packing material. Keep plants in a cool, dry place until you can plant them.

But what to do if a friend digs a plant out of his yard as a present for you, and you can’t plant it for a while because you’re going away or your soil is still half frozen or sodden?

Heel your plant in. You do this by digging a hole or trench deep enough to cover the roots and then covering the roots with some good soil. Do this in a protected place, where the soil is not overly wet. Your plants will be fine for a reasonable amount of time.

Question: When’s the best time to prune, and what special care do I need to give to trees I want to plant?

Answer: Now is a good time to prune trees and shrubs, as in late winter the plants’ metabolism is on the rise and trees and shrubs will best close their own pruning wounds, averting insect and fungus problems.

There is no benefit to using a commercial wound-covering paint. Trees and shrubs are quite able to heal themselves, and you could even do damage by enclosing bad microorganisms in the wound.

Walk around your neighborhood and you’ll no doubt see many examples of poorly pruned plants. Here are a few general rules to follow:

▪  Take out any dead or damaged limbs.

▪  Remove any branch that crosses another branch.

▪  Eliminate all suckers, or branches that grow straight up.

Beyond these rules, I’d suggest you find a book or DVD on pruning (there are many in the library) or sign up for a class on pruning — of which there are several, offered by nurseries and the community college. Or you may have a friend who is a good pruner and who would be willing to help you learn.

If you don’t get to it this season, don’t panic. There’s always fall, the next best time to prune. But don’t hesitate to take away that branch that is bothering you. Minor pruning can be done year-round in our mild climate.

Question: I’m going to be planting a new orchard and wonder if I should stake my new trees.

Answer: Wind and movement make for strong trunks. However, new trees should be staked for a short period. Normally, only one year is necessary. If you live in an area that gets strong wind, you might have to keep some kind of staking and loose tie for much longer.

No matter how long you keep your trees staked, don’t tie them tightly directly to the stake. Better to put up two stakes and encircle the tree between the stakes. It helps the tree to move freely, albeit not too freely, enabling it to develop both a strong root and trunk.

Trees and shrubs that are staked too long will grow tall, but they’ll have smaller trunks and a smaller root system. Tying the plant too tightly and/or not removing the ties soon enough can result in rubbing and girdling of the trunk. This can result in the plant becoming more likely to snap in a high wind after the stake is removed.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a lifelong gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you’d like answered in the column, please email it to For more gardening information online, go to