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Time is right for pruning trees

Cooking

My trees look ratty. Can I prune now before the leaves come out? Should I put that black gunk on the cuts? I've never done this before.

March is an excellent time to prune trees. Without leaves, you have a much better view of what needs to be done. Altogether, don't remove more than one-fourth of the tree canopy in one year. First remove dead limbs. Where two branches rub across each other creating an entry wound for disease, remove one of the branches. Young trees need to be trained to one trunk, unless it's a multi-trunk species such as river birch. However, saplings need lots of leaves to build up their root system, so don't be too fast to create a small pompom of leaves at the top. When removing branches, always leave the branch collar, which is the raised area where the branch attaches to the trunk or a large limb. The collar contains chemicals which help pruning cuts "heal." At the same time, don't leave a stub protruding out from the collar. Stubs will rot and provide entrance for disease and pests. For simple tips and diagrams, see our website's publication HG84 Pruning Ornamental Plants. As for the "black gunk", research shows that "wound dressings" actually slow down the healing process.

We always grow "King of the Garden" pole lima beans. Last year they started well from seed, but then the blooms disappeared without developing any pods. This happened to my two brothers' beans, too. Have you had other complaints about pole limas?

We got loads of questions about pole limas not producing beans. The problem for large-seeded limas, such as "King of the Garden," was the high daytime temperatures (90s) that lasted for days and also the high nighttime temperatures (70s). These past few summers have been brutal on limas. High temperatures kill pollen and make blossoms drop.

Lima beans evolved in the mountains of Peru. To reach maturity, the plants need cooler weather than we've had lately. Smaller-size lima varieties have had time later in summer, when temperatures fall, to grow beans to maturity, but the large-size beans haven't had enough time.

What we're seeing is the result of climate change. Many growers are trying more heat-tolerant varieties such as "Carolina" or Sieva types for pole limas. Bush limas also seem to do better. If temperatures are good and you're still not seeing fruit set, or the pods are disappearing, then the brown marmorated stink bug may be a problem, too.

I saw instructions for constructing a raised vegetable garden on your Grow It Eat It website, but what should I fill it with? Peat moss or what?

You need mineral soil, whether a loam, sand, or clay top soil, to give the garden soil structure and help it hold moisture. The other primary component will be compost in some form. You can use composted leaves, kitchen scraps, manure, etc. However, compost should not be more than half of the volume — about one-fourth is good. A raised bed filled with only compost will dry out more quickly and, by season's end, pack down too tightly for good root growth. One thrifty tip is to remove about 2 inches of the topsoil between raised beds, where you'll be putting a path of mulch or other material, and use that topsoil to help fill the raised bed. You can also purchase mixes of soil and compost at some mulch or garden stores. We do not recommend adding peat moss, a nonsustainable resource that is hydrophobic (repels water when bone dry) and can be hard to remoisten. Also lime is required to counteract its acidity.

Plant of the weekEscarole

Cichorium endivia

Looking for a vegetable with the tenderness to enhance a fresh salad and the toughness to withstand 20 minutes cooking in a soup? Try escarole. This leafy green member of the chickory family has a slight bitter flavor. For salad, use the inner lighter-colored leaves. The more mature darker leaves are suitable for braising with olive oil and garlic or its more popular use in escarole-bean soup. Escarole is high in folic acid, fiber, vitamins A and K. Seeding, spacing and fertility requirements are similar to growing lettuce. One outstanding quality is its tolerance to high temperatures, extending use later into the summer when other greens peter out. Batavian broad leaf cultivars are recommended for summer. Start seeds indoors in March. Direct seed in mid-July for a fall crop. —Bob Orazi

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