Monday, May 2, 2011

Candling Pines

Some gardening activities are tied to the calendar.  When it's February, I prune roses.  In March, time to cut back the ferns.  And in April (though our cool spring has delayed the season), I am candling pines.

For those who may have not heard this term, "candling" refers to the very prominent terminal buds that emerge on pine trees and shrubs in spring, as they push out their new growth.  The upright, long slender buds appear like candles on a candelabra.  It is during this period that a gardener can take advantage of the soft new growth to restrict the size and create deliberate shape on plants of this genus.

On the coast, by far the most common Pinus species is the Shore Pine, Pinus contorta var. contorta.  It's worth noting for future gardening trivia games that it is the same species known in inland mountain regions as the Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia).  Which goes to show you what climate will do to cause adaptation in a plant's growth habit.  If you're not sure what pine you have, a key identifying characteristic on Shore Pines is the backward-facing cones on the branches, pointing toward the trunk.  But I digress.

Another common Pinus species on the coast is the Mugo Pine, frequently planted for its small stature, which varies from a low groundcover size to small shrub.  Not all Mugo Pines are alike: many folks select one hoping it will stay low to the ground like the one pictured here.  If this is your goal, choose a cultivar like 'Oregon Jade' which has very short internodal spacing (the length of stem between branches).

For both of these pines, and many others, candling is a technique which will allow a gardener to accomplish a couple important goals:  determine appearance and restrict size.
Mugo Pine, removing the candles

Essentially what you are doing is breaking off the terminal bud before it has expanded into a longer branch with smaller branches and needles.  The closer you break it off to the base, the shorter your eventual branch will be.  The goal isn't to remove every last bit of the bud, as you want the plant to experience a little growth each year for its health.

If you are candling for appearance, the goal might be to create a smooth, even look to the shrub, as if you had used the hedge trimmer.  Some readers might wonder, why don't we just use a hedge trimmer?  What happens with this tool is that instead of breaking off the terminal bud and allowing it to naturally finish expanding, you are cutting through everything including older growth, needles, etc.  The result in a month or two is a "burned" look on the top, where all those cut ends turn brown.
Shore pines at Wecoma Park in Lincoln City

Candling for a smooth look (you might have seen the "cloud"-style pruning favored in Japanese gardening) is simple.  Just start breaking off the soft growth on the uppermost part of your shrub, at the top of the selected plane or curve.  Then work your way along, breaking off the buds to match this general curve or plane as it suits your eye.  In a month or so the pine will have grown out evenly-- though there are always a few buds that stubbornly come out late, just remove them when you see them.

One of the nicest features of Shore Pines is the long internodal spacing between branches, which lends itself to "cloud" pruning.  Select a few widely spaced branches and remove those that are in between.  Then begin your annual regimen of candling to create the "cloud" effect.  As the tree grows too tall to reach, it will still maintain a general look of the pruning style, but if you are really fussy you can get up there on an orchard ladder and remove buds.
Cloud pruning, done less formally

If you have a lot of candling to do, one time saver is to use a pocket pruning saw blade to knock the buds off.  Once there is an established plane or curve, the buds will be easy to knock off with a swift lateral swipe of your saw blade.  You aren't trying to cut anything... but the teeth on your blade will catch the buds and break them off in large numbers.  To make cleanup easy, lay a tarp down under the tree before starting.

A final tip: use an old pair of gloves for this task, or designate some for dirty jobs.  The candles usually produce pitch that is very difficult to remove.

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