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Q: We never got the old lilac flowers cut off last summer. Now it is time to prune, and they are hanging there, looking brown. Will they keep our lilacs from blooming this year? What should we do about them?

A: You should prune the lilacs the way you always do. Some people think that those spent blossoms will take energy from the lilac and shrink the size of the next year's bloom. Possibly that is true when a lilac is small and making its first flowers. When the bush grows to any appreciable size, it has plenty of energy to develop flower buds and seedpods at the same time.

If a lilac does not bloom well in any year, sparse flowers are almost certainly the result of unfavorable weather. Flower buds for this year were started last fall. Unusual weather events can threaten them all through winter and spring. Sometimes it seems amazing that anything as small and delicate as a lilac flower bud can ever survive a winter in Montana, but most of the time they do.

If the old seedpods offend you when you look at them now, you can prune them off. If you do not find them ugly, you can leave them alone. The choice is purely one of aesthetics. If those seedpods are so high in the air that you need a ladder to reach them, probably they do need pruning. That whole stem needs pruning. Unpruned lilacs grow taller and taller, their flowers higher and higher in the air. The flower clusters also grow fewer and fewer, simply because their stem is old.

When a lilac stem is blooming out of reach, it is probably one of the oldest stems on the bush. It should be cut, as close to the ground as possible, to make room for new stems, which will be shorter and will have more flowers. However, if you have been pruning your lilacs regularly, you will not need to cut out old stems every year.

The one kind of lilac pruning that is a yearly necessity is thinning the suckers. Lilacs learned to survive by suckering in prehistoric Europe, their native land. They shared the countryside with aurochs, giant cattle which browsed on foliage. By continually growing new shoots and spreading ever outward, the lilacs stayed ahead of the auroch appetites. Now the aurochs are gone, but the lilacs are still here. They have not forgotten the benefits of suckering.

Q: I am trying to get rid of cheatgrass on unirrigated land. So far, I have been mowing it, then raking up the piles and composting them. I still have some cheatgrass. What do you think of my method of controlling it?

A: Your principle is fine, but you are working harder than necessary. When I was dealing with a few big patches of cheatgrass, mowing worked well for me. I waited until the flowering heads appeared before I mowed; then I cut the stalks at about four inches. That height removed all the green seeds that were going to turn into the next year's crop of cheatgrass.

Some of the cheatgrass plants flowered later than the majority of them. I watched for late seedheads and mowed them again. After two years of mowing, only scattered cheatgrass plants remained, and that has continued to be true. I keep checking the area, occasionally seeing a small patch and cutting it with a string trimmer. Meanwhile, perennial grass clumps have expanded to cover any bare soil in the area. That makes it unlikely that cheatgrass seeds can find a landing zone.

You need not rake and remove the mowed cheatgrass plants. They will provide a good mulch if left where they fell, and they will break down into topsoil. There is no worry about leaving green seedheads where the cheatgrass was growing. Once cut from the plant, the seeds cannot ripen and therefore cannot sprout. A cheatgrass plant mature enough to have ripe seeds is dark red, and the seeds have ripened from green to tan.

Since cheatgrass is an annual, it must grow from fresh seed every year, just like marigolds. Nor does cheatgrass establish a seed bank in the soil, the way that perennial weeds often do. Cheatgrass seed has a short lifespan. Most of it is dead after one or two years. Preventing existing plants from making ripe seed is the only requirement for eliminating a patch of cheatgrass. If the ground is covered with other green plants, cheatgrass seeds which blow in from upwind will not find bare ground on which to sprout.

I never thought of it

Although I love to prune at this time of year, the one part of pruning that I find difficult and frustrating is trimming tall fruit trees. I can see what I want to cut off, but how to reach it is a separate issue. This year I needed to prune off half a dozen high branches on an apple tree. A fox squirrel had eaten their bark last winter and they were dying.

I own a pole pruner, which has a lopping mechanism at the end of a telescoping fiberglass pole. And I own a six-foot stepladder, which I have used for pruning, although it is difficult to find a steady spot for it on the bumpy ground under an apple tree. I was all too aware of the problem of getting to the branches that needed to be pruned, and I asked my son what he thought were the best tools I had for the job. He replied, "Why don't you get a fruit ladder?"

I knew about those three-legged ladders for picking fruit. I had even used them in a cherry orchard. But I had never thought of them for pruning. The eight-foot ladder I bought has revolutionized my pruning. I discovered that I could actually get into the tree and could actually reach--easily--the places I wanted to cut. Because of its tripod base, a steady spot for the ladder is easy to find. I also discovered that modern fruit ladders are made of aluminum, much lighter to carry and easier to set up than the old wooden ones.

The fruit trees are pruned now, and I wish that I had thought about using a three-legged ladder years ago. For anyone trying to use one for the first time, I recommend a helper on the ground to assist in setting up the ladder and carrying away branches. I also recommend a pruning saw for cutting even small branches. With its narrow blade and its ability to cut on the pull stroke, I found the saw easier to use than loppers when I was up the ladder in the tree. Next year I look forward to pruning the high fruit tree branches.

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