The Shape of Things

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You may find winter’s landscape a bit stark.  Some might observe we are down to the ‘bones’ of the garden: trunks, branches, hardscape and often frozen ground.

Much of that is colored dull brown or grey, brightened here and there by our evergreens, holly berries, Nandina clusters, and rosy swelling buds.

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There’s little left that looks or feels soft.  The ground may still be littered with crumbling leaves blowing about.

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Skeletons of last May’s Hydrangeas linger here and there; an ethereal bit of Solidago shivers in the wind.  Sharp edges everywhere: sticks, thorns, spines on holly leaves and brittle branches.

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This is a sober and thoughtful turn of the seasons.  I find myself studying a crape myrtle tree as I unload groceries from the car.  Which branches need pruning next month?

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My eye wanders over to the hedge of rose of Sharon shrubs leaning at an unlikely angle towards the butterfly garden.  They’ve grown too tall and top heavy for their spot.  I’m making a mental list of things to do while the garden is sleeping.

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With the garden stripped bare and most of it slumbering, I can see the shape of things.  I can see things I like, and things that must be fixed.  I can wade into beds once filled with Canna and Hedychium, grasses and flowering stems.  Now I see the roots exposed on this leaning Camellia, and the brazen honeysuckle vines climbing up through the center of a venerable old Azalea shrub.

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I can see branches that may be damaged, diseased, already dead, or dangerous in some way.  With the leaves gone, I can finally see problems that may have been hidden before.

This is the time to fix it all.  This is the time to prune woodies, while they are dormant.  This is a good time to find and eliminate invasive vines or shrubs.  This is the time to remake the borders of the beds, study the layout, figure out where new shrubs might go and which old ones need to go.

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I learned an interesting fact this week:  Most home landscapes are only expected to grow for 20-25 years before the main shrubs must be replaced.  I’m so used to hearing about planned obsolescence in everything from cars to toasters, that the shock at hearing that statistic is mild.

You see, I happen to know that some of the Azaleas growing along our foundation were planted before 1970.  We won’t do the math there, OK? 

But a case can be made for shrubs and trees having a life span, just as a pet or any other living thing grows, ages, and eventually will die.  I look around and see a lot of things that have maybe grown too big, or grown here too long.

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Some older shrubs may be ‘fixed’ with rejuvenation pruning.  By cutting out older branches, new ones may grow.   We do this with roses, with Hydrangeas and with some holly shrubs.  I cut the beautyberry and butterfly bush back to just a couple of feet each spring, knowing it will reward me with fresh new branches.  When flowers grow from new wood, this will work.

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Other shrubs, that set their flowers in the autumn, won’t bloom if you cut their buds away by pruning now.  Azaleas, Hydrangea, Forsythia and Camellia have their buds set and ready to open once the weather warms.  After bloom, we can cut out the older, taller canes from those that send up new shoots each year.  We can head back branches grown too long, shape, direct, and guide future growth.

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This is the time to walk around with a notepad and a critical eye, making decisions about what plants may stay, which need a bit of pruning, and which must go before another spring distracts us.

I’ve been reading about ‘tidying up’ in our homes, according to Marie Kondo’s KonMari method.  I’m not yet piling all my clothes or books in the floor to sort them, but the idea of making peaceful living spaces by identifying what gives us joy- and what does not- has value.

I wonder if she has a similar method for tidying up one’s garden?

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I wonder if we wander around our own yard in January noticing what ‘brings us joy’, and what leaves us feeling anxious or annoyed, if we might be inspired to make some changes?

How often do you begin a new project to solve an old problem?  How often do you wait for a calamity to edit the structure of your garden?

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January is a good time to embrace change.  We have a fresh start by the calendar and by the wheel of the natural year, too.

Now that the garden has undressed itself and settled in for a good long rest, we can take a breath and ‘see’ what is and isn’t there.

We can see the shape of things, and dream it into any shape we choose for the many seasons yet to come.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Winter Gardening

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

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Yes, it’s January, but there is still plenty to do in the garden.  When we get a fairly nice day, like today, you might feel the itch to get outside and get gardening again.  Even when the weather isn’t fine, there are still preps for the season ahead that can be done indoors, while the pace remains decidedly unhurried.

The most important winter gardening work can be accomplished from an armchair:  planning ahead.  Every year we tweak and revise; opening new ground, moving plants, refining the design.  This is a good time of year to photograph every part of the garden with an eye to its bones.  Study those photos for inspiration and instruction.  Look with fresh eyes to see new possibilities in your familiar turf.

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I also spend quite a bit of time studying plant catalogs as they come in.  I read about newly introduced cultivars of familiar plants.   I consider what perennials or shrubs I might want to add, and  plan designs for our  pots and baskets.

I try to keep notes and drawings from these winter musings.  Ideally, a binder proves helpful over time to track the evolution of one’s garden.  Include photos, receipts, tags, a site plan and notes of what is planted, and when.

January through early March prove the best months for pruning woody plants here in Williamsburg.  There is less shock when a tree is dormant, and spring growth, when it breaks, will prove more vigorous.

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Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

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Some shrubs, like Beautyberry, Callipcarpa,  respond well to very hard pruning.  Cut these back by 30% or more and they will reward you with abundant growth and heavy fruiting the following year.    I make the rounds of our Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus; Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia; Buddleia, roses, fruit trees and small ornamental trees like Japanese Maples in winter when it is easiest to see their structure.  All of these bloom on new wood.

Remove crossed or crowded branches.  Thin and direct growth.  Remove suckers growing straight up from a mostly horizontal branch, and cut back long branches to encourage bushier growth.  Thinning, to allow sunlight and air to circulate through the plant both controls diseases before they can take hold, but also produces a stronger plant.

Wait to prune shrubs like Hydrangea and Lilac, which bloom on old wood, until after they bloom each summer.  If you remove old Hydrangea blossoms before spring, carefully cut above the first dormant bud.

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Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring's growth.

Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring’s growth.  Any serious pruning can remove next season’s flowers.

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Remove any perennial stems still standing in the garden before new growth begins in early spring.  Emerging growth, especially spring  bulbs, looks neater after last year’s perennial remains have been cut and composted.

Some of us leave our Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Lantana and other late flowering seed heads to feed the birds over winter.  These will be mostly picked clean by early February and their time has passed.  Remove old leaves from Hellebores as new ones emerge to rejuvenate the plant.

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Building the soil can be done year round.  Adding organic matter, especially when working with heavy clay, brings the soil, and the garden, to life.   Whether you keep a compost pile, add mulch,  or simply sheet compost fallen and shredded leaves; do something each season to improve the soil in some part of the garden.  We save our coffee grounds and spread them on beds or around shrubs every few weeks.   Feeding the soil pays dividends much longer than does spreading any chemical fertilizer.

If you are starting a new planting area, consider building a raised bed with cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, or even fallen wood as a base.  “Sheet compost” the area over the winter months by adding coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, shredded leaves, and fruit and vegetable trimmings as they come available.  Keep adding layers of materials, topping the bed with straw or even bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.  There are many, many ways to do this.

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Earthworms, drawn to the organic matter on the soil, begin to work their way through the pile, speeding the process and enriching the ground with their castings.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly crumbled into humus before you plant in spring.  If necessary, pile a few inches of bagged soil on top of your pile and plant directly into this finished soil, confident that the composting layers will break down in the weeks ahead.

This is a better way to begin a new bed than tilling or digging because it leaves the organisms already living in the soil intact.  The roots of your newly planted garden will stretch and grow, loosening the soil as they expand.  Earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures will also loosen its structure over time.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of broken limbs will rot into good compost over time.  We built this raised Hugelkulture bed in July of 2013, and it has been productive ever since.

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Winter is also a good time for building new garden structures.  Whether you are adding walls, steps, raised beds, pergolas, paths or a patio, consider beginning in late winter before the trees leaf out.  You can see the structure of things better, and your construction mess won’t detract from the beauty of your spring or summer garden.

Finally, begin planting for the coming season.  Although autumn is the best time for planting new trees and perennials in our area so they can establish during the cool and wet winter months; we find our best selection at local garden centers in the spring.  The selection of shrubs, fruiting vines, annuals, perennials trees and summer bulbs at local garden centers can feel dizzying by late March.  Ride the crest of this wave, seeking out small perennial starts and bare root nursery stock in late February or March.

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Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by may.

Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by May.

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Many garden centers will offer popular perennials in 2″-3″ pots at very low prices in early spring.  These will establish and grow to full sized plants by summer.  Planting early on will give your new plants a chance to establish and expand their root system before summer’s heat and drought.

If you’ve ordered bulbs, tubers, or bare root stock from catalogs, you can plant these up in nursery pots and keep them in a garage or basement for a few weeks until it is warm enough to set them out.   For example, many tropical tubers,  ordered in early spring, can be gotten at much lower prices than you’ll find for the leafed out plants in early summer.  Order Caladiums, Colocasia, Canna, Alocasia, Dahlias and many other beautiful plants early for the best selection of cultivars.  You can easily pot these up yourself in soil and have them ready to plant out when it warms enough for them in May.

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Caladium

Caladium

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Seedling trees from mail order nurseries may also be potted up and allowed to grow in a protected area of your garden for the summer, and then planted into their permanent spot in the garden next autumn.

As our summers grow hotter each year, I’ve come to appreciate the winter months even more.   A lot can be accomplished in relative comfort, without the distraction of biting insects or broiling sun, on warmish winter days.  It feels good to get out of doors and work in the garden.

Whether you are cleaning up, building up, planting up, or pruning; enjoy the time you spend preparing for spring’s beauty to unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3: Deadhead!

Snap the stem of spent Pelargonium flowers where it meets the main stem to 'deadhead' as the flowers fade.

Snap the stem of a spent Pelargonium flower cluster where it meets the main stem to ‘deadhead,’ as the flowers fade.

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We may grow flowers for their beauty, but from the plants’ point of view, a flower has but one purpose:  to produce seeds. 

Now, it is a noble purpose; the continuation of the species.  And that is why our beds are filled right now with little seedling trees and other ‘weeds.’ Our flowering trees do a fine job of seed production!

And certainly, there are many plants which we want to produce fruit and seeds.  Tomatoes come to mind...  But as you might imagine, it takes a lot of a plant’s energy and attention to produce those seeds; energy it might otherwise invest in producing more growth.

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Pears grow from spring's flowers. Deer grazed these branches last summer.

Pears grow from spring’s flowers. Deer grazed these branches last summer.

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If a plant produces flowers only once each year, say an apple tree, it is unlikely you’ll choose to deadhead spent flowers.  You might remove some to allow those left to grow  into larger and healthier fruit; but you’ll leave a few flowers to transform into apples!

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Fuchsia flowers wither quickly, but more are waiting to open. Keep the faded ones trim away to keep new buds forming.

A Fuchsia flower withers quickly, but more are waiting to open. Trim faded ones away to keep new buds forming.

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But many plants in our garden are grown for their flowers, not for their seeds.  And to keep those flowers coming, we need to ‘deadhead.’   The more we cut back the flowers once faded, the more flowers many plants will produce.  Along with ‘pinching,’ this frequent cutting inspires more branching, more growth, and more flowers!

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Dahlia is a 'cut and come again,' flower: The more you cut, the more will grow for you to come and cut again!

Dahlia is a ‘cut and come again,’ flower: The more you cut, the more will grow for you to come and cut again!

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This holds true for cutting flowers for a vase as well.  In this case we cut the flower just as it is opening to enjoy its beauty indoors.  But cutting the stem will still stimulate more flower production during ‘the season.’  This is true for many favorites in our ‘cutting gardens’ such as Dahlias, Zinnias, Coreopsis, Roses, and even for some Hydrangeas.

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Columbine flowers will reliably produce seed when left on the plant.

Columbine flowers will reliably produce seed when left on the plant.

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Sadly, it won’t work this way for most Iris, Columbine or Glads, which produce but one flush of blooms annually.

But beyond the utility of keeping our flowers coming on for a longer season, deadheading also keeps our plants looking their best.  Faded and drooping flowers are not very attractive.  Annuals, especially, look pretty ragged if we leave the dying flowers in place.  A little grooming, every few days, helps keep our flowering plants in top condition.  It is fairly easy and quick to do with a pair of garden scissors while watering the pots.

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Petunias respond well to frequent grooming to remove faded flowers and elongating stems.

Petunias respond well to frequent grooming,  removing faded flowers and pruning elongating stems.

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Some plants, like  Coleus and Basil, grown for their leaves; should have flowers spikes removed as they form, before they even ‘bloom.’  Basil leaves grow sparse once it blooms and seeds set.  It has accomplished its life’s work at this point, and is ready to ‘retire.’  Cutting the flower spikes before they bloom will encourage a longer season of leaf production and better quality leaves.

Most Coleus cultivars will also stretch out and get ‘leggy,’ with less impressive leaves, once allowed to bloom.  While those flowers are enjoyed by pollinators, each gardener must decide whether or not they want flowers on their Coleus.  If allowed to bloom, it is important to cut off the bloom spikes as the flowers fade.

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When allowed to flower freely, Basil leaf production suffers. This Basil was grown for its flowers last summer. Pollinators love it and it is nice in cut flower arrangements. Goldfinches enjoy the seeds if they are allowed to grow.

When allowed to flower freely, Basil leaf production suffers. This Basil was grown for its flowers last summer. Pollinators love it and it is nice in cut flower arrangements. Goldfinches enjoy the seeds if they are left to grow.

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Perennial flowers, which produce attractive seed heads and seeds enjoyed by our songbirds can present a special case.  Many of us want to leave Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Coreopsis, Asclepias,  and other perennial flowers to ‘go to seed’ in the autumn, giving some winter interest to the beds where they grow.

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Coreopsis should be deadheaded until late in the season, when flowers may be left to go to seed for the birds.

Coreopsis should be deadheaded until late in the season, when flowers may be left to go to seed for the birds.

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We enjoy watching Goldfinches and other small birds feeding on the seeds.  While we may choose to stop deadheading in mid- to late summer, deadheading spent blooms in the first half of summer will keep flower production going longer into the season.

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Seed production is one of the many beauties of Arum Italicum. All from a single flower, these beautiful seeds will grow red by late summer. If collected and sown, each seed can produce a new plant by next spring.

Seed production is one of the many beauties of Arum Italicum. All from a single flower, these eye-catching seeds will grow red by late summer. If collected and sown, each seed can produce a new plant by next spring.

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Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  Many flowers will ‘self-seed’ if left alone.  When spent flowers are left on the plant, nature takes its course, producing viable seed, which will germinate to populate the garden for another season. 

We regularly find seedling ornamental peppers in pots where they grew the year before.  We also enjoy Petunias from seed, Violas, Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, and Columbine.  You can help this process along by harvesting and re-sowing desirable seed by hand.  Or, just ‘allow’ seedlings to sprout and grow on undisturbed soil. 

These self-sown gifts of nature  often prove hardier and stronger than anything brought home from the garden center.

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Both this ornamental pepper, and the Petunia growing with it, came up as volunteers from seeds dropped by last year's annuals in pots.

Both this ornamental pepper, and the Petunia growing with it, came up as volunteers from seeds dropped by the previous year’s annuals.

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

Many thanks to Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios, who posted her first tip today:  ‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots!  Please visit her post for beautiful instructions on how to prepare roots for re-potting.

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!

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Yucca filamentosa blooms only once each year. But it will grow large and distinctive seed pods when left alone. We often cut back the stalks when flowering finishes for a neater appearance, enjoying just the leaves through the rest of the year.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2015-2016

Awakening

Columbine begins its annual growth in our garden.

Columbine begins its annual growth in our garden.

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Warmer days this week drew us outside to begin cutting back the dead branches of perennials, pull mouldering leaves out of planting beds, and look for the many tiny signs of spring.  Autumn leaves have found lodging everywhere, it seems.  Too wet to shred, we will leave them to mulch the soil a bit longer.

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Catmint has reappeared in the stump garden.

Catmint has reappeared in the stump garden.

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I was a little surprised to see abundant growth of new leaves on the catmint once last summer’s stems were cleared away.  Tiny green shoots of Comphrey poke a few inches above the moist soil.  New daffodil leaves emerge each day.

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Tete-a-Tete daffodils bloom in a pot with a budding Clematis vine.

Tete-a-Tete daffodils bloom in a pot with a budding Clematis vine.

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A single bright yellow daffodil blossom magically appeared over night on Tuesday in a pot near the drive, and a spray of tiny Tete-a-Tete daffodils opened the following day in the pot where a Clematis vine has already budded out.  Their cheerful golden trumpets brighten up this soggy Saturday.  Mid-March is muddy here in Williamsburg.

We are happy for the mud, however, as it shows us the ground has thawed.  Our last snow-pile finally melted by Thursday morning.

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Now little bits of fresh growth have begun to emerge in the oddest places.  Bright moss shines along the front walk.  Deep rosy red buds appeared this week on the roses, beckoning me to finally trust that the worst of winter has passed and cut them back.

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We’re walking around, taking stock; cleaning up what winter left behind.

Somehow a box of bare root Siberian Iris came home with us from Sam’s Club, and I scooped out moist holes for their roots yesterday.  I love their deep purple flowers waving in the warm May breeze.  They spread and multiply rapidly, making thick stands of saturated color as the Azaleas fade each year.  A bare root white Clematis from the same package now grows along a fence.

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A fitting surprise waited for me in the old bag of potting soil which has lingered beneath the wheelbarrow these last frozen months.  I opened it to fill a pot for the second Clematis yesterday, and found little shoots of green already growing in the mix.  Apparently, this was soil I had scooped out of a pot at the end of the season to save, forgetting there were tiny bulbs mixed in from another spring.  The bulbs sprouted anyway, and their leaves were poking out of the moist soil.  I rescued them from the bag and tucked them into pots where they can prosper in the sun.

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Crocus emerge beneath a woody web of Lantana stems.  We want to wait until the weather settles a bit more before cutting the Lantana back for spring.

Crocus emerge beneath a woody web of Lantana stems. We want to wait until the weather settles a bit more before cutting the Lantana back for spring.

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Always filled with interesting surprises, spring cheers me like no other season.  As each perennial emerges from its winter rest, as each bulb breaks the Earth with its brilliant green leaves and each fruit tree bursts into flowers; I am reminded again that life is full of beautiful surprises.

Our gardens, like our own lives, remain perennially capable of new growth.  Although we don’t find it in every season, the potential remains.

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When the soil is warm  and moist, things always grow.  Whether that growth is what we planned or whether it ends up a straggler which blew in from elsewhere; the soil covers itself with interesting leaves, spreading stems, and sometimes a delicate flower.

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I've transplanted Hellebores seedlings to grow beneath this Camellia shrub.  They will make a lovely ground cover in a few years.

I’ve transplanted Hellebores seedlings to grow beneath this Camellia shrub. They will make a lovely ground cover in a few years.

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The sun beckons, even as rain clouds mute its life giving rays.

March: the month when our garden awakens to spring.  May all of its verdant possibilities inspire you.

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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Wisteria

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One of the most beautiful spectacles of springtime in Virginia is Wisteria  in full bloom.

These huge, showy vines climb through trees along the roadside, blanket pergolas, and ornament old gardens throughout the state.  The long, pendulous racemes of orchid like flowers taunt from the tops of pine trees, so delicately beautiful, and yet so tough!

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There are actually three different types of Wisteria found growing throughout the Southeastern United states.

The native North American Wisteria frutescens is the latest variety to bloom.  It is also the best behaved.

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This woody deciduous perennial climbing vine twists itself in a clockwise direction around any support it can find.  It grows to over 50′, getting longer and thicker with each passing year.

A member of the pea family, the flowers are delicate, and in form much like any other pea flowers.  Wisteria Frutescens’s flowers are soft shades of blue-purple. The vines of the North American native Wisteria are only two-thirds as long as Asian Wisteria varieties, and the flower racemes are only half as long.  The flowers aren’t fragrant.  The long bean-like pods which follow the flowers are poisonous.

Wisteria grows through through a stand of bamboo and pines near Jamestown on the Colonial Parkway.

Wisteria grows through through a stand of bamboo and pines near Jamestown on the Colonial Parkway.

The most common Wisteria varieties in the garden trade are Asian.  Chinese Wisteria, Wisteria Sinensis, produces fragrant  flowers in shades of white, lilac, and blue.  It twists around its supports in a counter-clockwise direction.

It can grow over a variety of supports, but can also be pruned and trained into a standard, or free-standing tree like shape.   It was introduced to Europe and the United States in 1816, and is much loved for its beautiful flowers.

Wisteria growing on a pergola near the library in Williamsburg.

Wisteria growing on a pergola at the municipal center, near the library, in Williamsburg.  This structure was dedicated in May of 1999 for the 300th anniversary of the City of Williamsburg.

Japanese Wisteria, Wisteria floribunda, has the longest racemes of beautiful and fragrant flowers.   The white, pink, violet, or blue racemes of delicate flowers may reach over 2 feet in length.

Introduced to the United States in the 1830s,  this exceptionally showy spring blooming vine became hugely popular growing on walls and pergolas in nineteenth century American and European gardens.  The woody, clockwise turning stems, wrap tightly around any support.

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All Wisteria varieties enjoy full sun to partial shade.  They like moderately fertile, moist soil, and require strong support.

Long lived, these vines will eventually grow into enormous plants.  They require regular pruning to keep them in bounds.

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All parts of the Wisteria plants are poisonous.  Even so, their flowers are popular with nectar loving insects.  Wisteria is an important host plant for many species of butterflies and moths.

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Wisteria, which grows in Zones 5-9, is considered an invasive species in some areas.  When grown in the wild, its long, heavy vines will choke out nearby trees and shrubs.

Wisteria vines are notorious for taking a long time to mature enough to produce blooms.  A gardener may wait ten years for a vine to bloom.  Although most bloom  in mid-spring to early summer, sometimes a late frost will destroy the flowers for that year.

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Vines grown from cuttings bloom much sooner than vines grown from seed.  With many named cultivars available, it is possible to select  a Wisteria with the color, form, and size required for a particular garden.

Wisteria vines require careful training and pruning, but are hardy and easy plants to grow once established.  As a member of the pea family, the roots fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.  Any fertilizer used should be higher in potassium and phosphorus than in nitrogen, since the plant provides for itself whatever nitrogen is needed for growth.

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I once planted a Chinese Wistera vine along the wooden railing of a deck.  I love the Wisteria’s flowers, and thought it would be pretty there.  When I planted it, I didn’t give much thought to the size of the mature vine.  Once established, this is a rampant grower and requires large and strong support.  It also requires unapologetic pruning when it begins to take over a house and deck with its long tendrils!

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That said, my advice to any gardener yearning for a Wisteria vine in their garden is to give careful thought to where it will grow before planting it.  Provide the sturdy support it needs, choose the cultivar carefully, and then patiently wait for your vine to mature into its magnificent spring beauty!

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All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Hypertufa Pot: Ready For Action

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I began working with hypertufa to cast pots and stepping stones about a month ago.

Hypertufa is a mix of Portland Cement with other ingredients more commonly used in potting soil, to create a light but durable material with which one can cast pots, birdbaths, stepping stones, troughs and other items for the garden.

This will be a trough, probably planted with succulents since it is shallow.  It is large enough that I set the plastic bucket inside to support the long walls as they dry.

This will be a trough, probably planted with succulents since it is shallow. It is large enough that I set the plastic bucket inside to support the long walls as they dry.

Over these past few weeks I’ve experimented with different ways to cast  and embellish garden accoutrement.  The same much loved friend who went with me to purchase the bulk of the materials has returned to help mix and shape some of the batches.

Each piece sets up for 36 to 48 hours before it is turned out of its mold.  Then the pieces continue to dry and cure for several more weeks before coming into service in the garden.

A sand cast hypertufa pot, inlaid with glass scallop shells.  The corks in the bottom are to hold the drainage holes open while the cement hardens.

A sand cast hypertufa pot, inlaid with glass scallop shells. The corks in the bottom are to hold the drainage holes open while the cement hardens.

This beautiful trough is from the very first batch I mixed up in March.  It is hard, lightweight, and many shades lighter in color than the dark graphite grey of the wet hypertufa mix from which it is formed.  Cast on March 24, this piece has had a little more than three weeks of time to cure.

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The drainage holes were made with wine corks.   The glass shells were pressed into the wet  hypertufa when it was cast.  There are bits of blue and green glass pressed into the sides which don’t show as much as I had hoped.  I’ve since learned to cast pieces like this in sand so that the glass is visible.

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I made this very shallow trough to hold succulents.  I took cuttings from my succulents in October to decorate pumpkins, and had several cuttings left over which have overwintered in the garage.  I made this to hold them, along with freshly taken cuttings from other  overwintered succulents, which need cutting back.

These are such large drainage holes that I covered them with mesh fabric, and then with handfuls of pea gravel.  Then I filled the container with a good quality potting mix.  Since this container is very shallow, I didn’t mix sand into the soil.  I want it to to be a little moisture retentive while  this trough gets baked in our summer heat.

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Next the cuttings were set into the soil , keeping in mind they all will grow much larger.  It always amazes me how bits of succulent will survive for months out of soil, often drawing moisture directly out of the air.  Many of these pieces simply sat in a plastic bowl for more than 5 months, before I re-planted them today.

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So here is our first hypertufa trough, planted up with cuttings, and ready for action in the garden this season.  

A light mulch of pea gravel keeps the plants clean, reflects light to help them dry faster after a rain, and protects their roots.

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I’m still making a few batches each week.  In fact, I mixed up two batches of the hypertufa mix this morning and cast three large planters from them.

Some pieces will find homes in our garden, but others are made for sale at an event next month.  I’ll be planting most with a mixture of Caladiums and hardy ferns to live in partial shade.  Some will be planted with edible herbs to live in the sun.

I will be offering about a dozen of these hypertufa planters for sale in mid-May.

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As these beautiful pieces come out of the basement and into use I’ll show them to you from time to time.  My partner has been infinitely patient with the huge mess I’ve made, the hours spent “playing in the mud,” and my very achy back, sore from all of the lifting; but it has been a very rewarding experiment.  We’re both pleased with the resulting containers and stepping stones.

And yes, my friend already has a stepping stone we made together in her beautiful garden.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Herbs: Scented Geraniums

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This morning Linda Lucas, a Williamsburg Master Gardener, talked to our neighborhood  garden club about herbs.  We all discussed what a terribly rough winter it has been here for herbs.  Rosemary and Lavender plants which have weathered several recent winters died out during this one.  Our Bay trees have taken a hard hit, and many need to be replaced.

I am taking a very slow and patient approach to everything  in the garden this spring.  I still believe we may have at least one more bout of extremely cold weather before warm weather settles in for good.

 

Bronze fennel overwintered in our garden, and has begun good strong growth this spring.  Not only is this a delicious herb, it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.

Bronze fennel overwintered in our garden, and has begun good strong growth this spring.   Not only is this a delicious herb, it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.

Many of my beds still have a light covering of leaves.  The Ginger Lily stalks still lie where they fell, mulching their tubers.  And, I haven’t cut back a single Rosemary or Lavender this season.

Cutting back herbs is an important part of their care.  Long lived herbs like Lavender live longer, and look better with two or three annual shearings, where at least a third of the plant is removed.

But, I’ve learned the hard way that cutting back too early, before the last freezing weather,  can kill a plant which has survived the winter.

Comfrey has shown itself in these last few warm days.

Comfrey has shown itself in these last few warm days.

And so I’m waiting.  And watching to see  signs of new growth on woody stems, what is poking up out of the ground.

Inspired by the conversations this morning, I headed out to the Homestead Garden Center this afternoon to look over their herbs one more time.  They have had an excellent selection this spring, and I’ve already  bought out their first shipment of a certain cultivar of scented geranium last week.

Lemon balm purchased at Homestead as a birthday gift for a friend.

Cat nip purchased at Homestead Garden Center as a birthday gift for a friend.

With a friend’s birthday later in the week, which I promised to honor with some herb plants, I had some shopping to do!

While many of the warm season annual herbs, like Basil, aren’t widely available yet; hardy herbs, like Parsley, Rosemary, Germander, Savory, and Thyme have shown up at garden centers and big-box stores.

In honor of spring, I will write a few posts featuring some of my favorite herbs.

We all grow herbs for a variety of reasons.  Most of us cook with herbs, and some use them for healing.  Many of us enjoy the fragrance living herbs bring to the garden.

This cat mint overwintered out in the garden.  It was one of the earliest perennials to awaken this spring.  With gorgeous blue flowers, this plant will grow to 3' or more if planted in the ground.

This cat mint overwintered out in the garden.   It was one of the earliest perennials to awaken this spring. With gorgeous blue flowers, this plant will grow to 3′ or more if planted in the ground.

Although most herbs need at least six hours of direct sun a day, I’ve found them a valuable part of our Forest Garden.   I don’t just grow herbs I’ll use in cooking. We also grow a variety of other herbs for their beautiful leaves, flowers, and form.

Most herbs aren’t very fussy about soil, don’t require a great deal of fertilizer to grow well, and can withstand some degree of drought and heat.  In fact the so called “Mediterranean herbs” like Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, Germander, Marjoram, and Savory prefer poor, somewhat dry, alkaline soil.  They thrive in full sun, and too much water will drown their roots.

Perhaps the most pressing reason we have planted more herbs than anything else lately has to do with critter control.  You see, deer not only avoid nibbling on herbs, but the herbs’ strong fragrance often serves as a deterrent to prevent deer from grazing  other plants growing nearby.

Purple culinary sage is one of the easiest herbs to grow.  It will grow to about 18" tall and wide within a season.

Purple culinary sage is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It will grow to about 18″ tall and wide within a season.

The Lavenders and Rosemaries I planted around new roses last summer didn’t keep the deer completely away from them, but I believe it gave some measure of protection to reduce the grazing.

I learned this autumn that scented geraniums do an excellent job of keeping deer from grazing plants they protect, and over the winter I’ve had nearly 100% success with using garlic cloves in pots of flowers to keep deer from nibbling at our Violas.

As the days grow longer and warmer, you are probably browsing the garden center herb displays as avidly as am I.  So I’ll begin this series of posts on herbs with a bit of information about my current favorite, scented geraniums.

This rose scented geranium grows in a pot next to a rose bed.  Planted here with Alyssum, also strongly scented, it will fill the pot within a few weeks.

This rose scented geranium grows in a pot next to a rose bed. Planted here with Alyssum, also strongly scented, it will fill the pot within a few weeks.

Scented Geraniums

Technically known as Pelargonium species, there are over 200 cultivars of scented geraniums.   Although grown primarily for their beautiful and fragrant leaves, most have small, but delicate and lovely flowers.  Fragrances commonly available include Citronella, the most common which has a lemony smell; rose, mint, apple, ginger, nutmeg, cedar, strawberry, coconut, orange and lime.

I tend to grow mostly rose scented geraniums, and there are several different cultivars with different leaves available which smell like roses.

Rose scented geraniums often have variegated leaves.  I particularly like this large cultivar with burgundy markings.

Rose scented geraniums often have variegated leaves.  I particularly like this large cultivar with burgundy markings.

Although you purchase a little 3″ or 4″ pot in early spring, these plants can grow quite large in a single season.  Depending on the cultivar, your plant may be 4” tall and wide by September.  In our Zone 7B, and even in Zone 8, plants left outside over the winter will die back to the ground.  Plants can be overwintered in bright or medium light inside.  I have been delighted to discover those geraniums left out of doors coming back from the roots for the last several springs.

I grow scented geraniums both in pots and in garden beds.  They weave beautifully around other plants, and are especially nice grown around roses.  Work a little compost into the planting hole if planting into the ground.  Use a good quality potting mix if planting in pots.  I top dress the soil with some Osmocote, and then a mulch of gravel whether planting into a pot or into the garden.  I also feed every few weeks with a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest.

This summer I plan to plant up some arrangements with scented geraniums, annual zonal geraniums, and ivy geraniums all in the same pot.  This should give a beautiful mix of color, scent, and interesting foliage in a really big, but easy to maintain potted garden.

This geranium has grown large and rangy in the reduced light of our garage over the winter.  I've already taken cuttings from it once, and likely will again.

This geranium has grown large and rangy in the reduced light of our garage over the winter. I’ve already taken cuttings from it once, and likely will again.

Pelargoniums are enormously easy to root.  Cut off the tip of a branch, at a leaf node, and dip it into rooting hormone powder.  Then stick this little cutting into any good, moist potting mix, and wait for new roots to grow.

It isn’t necessary to cover the cutting, apply bottom heat, or do anything fussy and meticulous.  These are hardy plants which want to live.

I haven’t had great success rooting Pelargoniums in water.  The stems often rot before roots grow.  I’ve learned to root them in potting soil, although a mixture rich in sand or vermiculite might work even better.

Rooting cuttings

Rooting cuttings

I love cutting stems of Pelargoniums to use in summer flower arrangements.  They make wonderful filler both because they are beautiful, but they also make the bouquet more fragrant.  When they are in bloom, they are an especially nice addition to an arrangement.

The leaves can be harvested, washed, dried and used in tea and other cooking projects.  Dried leaves can be layered in an air tight container with sugar.  After a few weeks, the sugar is nicely flavored.

Use their flowers to decorate cakes.  Slice the washed leaves into small slivers to add to stir fries, rice, puddings, cakes,  or add to lemonade or cocktails.

Dried leaves make an excellent base for potpourri because the leaves lose very little volume when they dry.  Dried leaves can be stacked between linens or used in bureau drawers to scent cleaned laundry.  The volatile oils are very strong in most varieties.  While they freshen, they offer protection from moths.

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The volatile oils of scented geraniums make them a good insect repellant.  When going out into the garden, pick a leaf or two of citrus scented varieties and rub on your exposed skin as a non -toxic repellant.  Then tuck the crushed leaf into your pocket or hat for even more lasting protection.

Scented geraniums are the first herb I’ve planted this year, after parsley.  I’ve scattered them generously, especially in areas I want to protect from deer.  I’ve taken cuttings from two which overwintered in the garage, and I’ll keep my eye out for new growth coming up from the roots of scented geraniums which remained outside over the winter.

Two citronella scented geraniums planted to offer some protection to this Oakleaf hydrangea, which is just beginning to leaf out for spring.

Two citronella scented geraniums planted to offer some protection to this Oakleaf hydrangea, which is just beginning to leaf out for spring.

We had  long stretches of very cold days and nights, but these are tough plants, and I hope to see them return from the roots, for another year in our forest garden.

Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Forsythia

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Have you noticed the shrubs full of tiny yellow flowers just coming into bloom in our gardens? 

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The first Forsythia shrubs observed in Japan were misidentified by Carl Thunberg in his 1794 Flora Japonica as a new species of Lilac.

They are most likely Forsythia.  Commonly called by its genus name, Forsythia made its way into the gardens of Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century from Eastern Asia.  Found growing in gardens in both Japan and China, and exported to Holland and Great Britain, Forsythia quickly spread from garden to garden on its new continent, and then on to North America.

Absolutely easy to grow, Forsythia , like daffodils, gives us a shot of bold yellow in the garden just as we feel like we can’t stand another day of winter’s greys and browns.

The tiny yellow flowers just burst with the message of spring as they open during the earliest of “almost warm” days.  I’ve seen a whole bank of golden Forsythia bushes  come into bloom, together, in earliest spring along a major roadway in southern Virginia Beach (Zone 8b).  A magnificent sight.  And once they open, a little snow and freezing rain doesn’t faze them, as we saw earlier this week.

This large clump of Forsythia is decades old.  It has spread to cover a huge area.  Of the weeping variety, it lights up the garden in early spring.  It provides shelter for small animals year round.

This large clump of Forsythia is decades old. It has spread to cover a huge area. Of the weeping variety, it lights up the garden in early spring. It provides shelter for small animals year round.

Honestly, deer will nibble Forsythia .  Nibble, but not destroy.  Some of our Forsythia shrubs look oddly misshapen from grazing, but a few patches are massive.

Although not a native, these shrubs have naturalized in many areas of the United States.  They provide an early nectar source for bees and other early nectar loving insects.  Older shrubs, grown thick over the years, provide excellent cover and nesting areas for small birds and mammals.

This much younger plant shows that it is frequently grazed by deer.

This much younger plant shows that it is frequently grazed by deer.  Notice the multiple stems already growing from its crown.

Plant Forsythia in average soil in late fall or early spring in partial to full sun.  Like any shrub, they need care until they establish.  That means keeping the shrub irrigated during at least the first year.  Once the roots take hold and spread, the Forsythia becomes quite tough and independent.

Beyond that initial care, the only thing you might do is trim the Forsythia up from time to time, after it blooms, to keep it from overgrowing its spot.  These aren’t large shrubs, but they sucker.  In other words, additional stems begin to grow around the original stem, and the shrub spreads laterally as it ages. Most stay under 6′  tall, but old shrubs may grow larger. Some gardeners rejuvenate older shrubs, and control their size, by cutting a few stems of established shrubs to the ground each year, after the shrub has leafed out in late spring.  This stimulates new canes to grow from the crown.

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Cut during the first week of March, these Forsythia branches began opening after only a few hours inside.

I tend to cut my Forsythia back in late winter, before they bloom.  I cut very judiciously, and only long branches covered in flower buds.

It isn’t so much pruning as harvesting.  I love to bring those branches inside and keep them in a vase of water.  They open very quickly in the heat of a home, and last for several weeks.  Even after the flowers fade, the branches with leaves remain attractive.  If they root before I’m ready to switch them out for something else, all the better.  I can plant the rooted stems.

By the middle of March, these forced branches were completely open indoors, while the buds on the parent shrubs outside were still tightly closed.

By the middle of March, these forced branches were completely open indoors, while the buds on the parent shrubs outside were still tightly closed.

After losing a few of these newly rooted shrubs in recent sizzling summers, I would recommend planting these rooted cuttings into a pot.  They will form a nice back drop against summer annuals.  In autumn, when you’re cleaning the annuals out of the pot, either move the Forsythia out to the garden, or leave it in place for structure through the winter, planted with Violas, flowering Kale, bulbs, Heuchera, and snaps.

You can enjoy spring bloom in your potted arrangement, and then move the Forsythia to a location in the garden when you switch out the pot  with your summer plants.

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March 19 is the latest I can remember for the Forsythia to come into bloom.

There are two main original species of Forsythia  imported from Asia between the 1780’s and 1890’s.  These plants had already been cultivated garden plants for centuries before they were “discovered” and imported to Europe.  Since  then, a great deal of hybridization has taken place.  So one can purchase Forsythia with different growth habits, and with some variation in the shade of yellow of their blooms.  Some Forsythia cultivars are more weeping and other cultivars more upright.

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By March 23, more flowers are visible.

Personally, I’ve never purchased a Forsythia .  Not only have they naturalized in Virginia, but they start easily from cuttings, or by layering.

This is another shrub common in our neighborhood.  When the leaves come out after the blooms fade, these deciduous shrubs just fade into the background.  They are completely unremarkable until autumn, when the leaves turn gold before they fall.

Forsythia leaves turn yellow gold in November.

Forsythia leaves turn yellow gold in November.

If one grows Forsythia , it is for the golden glow they reliably bring to the garden in earliest spring!

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Miniature daffodil

Miniature daffodil

 

In Bud

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Dogwood and peach buds

The tightly closed buds on trees and shrubs have begun to loosen a little during these few days of  warmth.

A pear tree in bud

A pear tree in bud

The growth of new scarlet twigs has accelerated, and one day soon our shrubs and early trees will finally allow their blossoms and tiny leaves to open.

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The yellow  Forsythia began opening up overnight.

This is the perfect time to cut branches for indoor arrangements.  Forsythia, flowering quince, witch hazel, apple, peach, and cherry trees will all accelerate their opening when cut and brought into the warmth of the house.

Inside, in a vase, it is easier to appreciate the beauty of their blossoms up close.  And, when the next blast of winter comes later in the week, we will still have a bit of spring inside to enjoy until the storms pass.

This is the simplest of arrangements to make.  Choose branches with slightly swollen flower buds, and using sharp pruners,  make an angular cut just above a bud.

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I cut our branches yesterday while doing a little pruning in the garden.  Follow all of the regular rules of thumb for pruning fruit trees when cutting these branches to force, so the tree is shaped and aided in its growth, not damaged.

I cut a variety of three different branches for this arrangement.  I used branches of pear, peach, and Forsythia.  Some might work in stems of daffodil or fern, but we’re happy with the sculptural simplicity of this cluster of branches just as it is.

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Use a large vase for branches 3′-4′ long.  Trimmings from these branches can be used in smaller vases.  Branches can  be cut, placed in water and kept in a garage or laundry room until they open a little more, or in a cold basement to hold off their opening for several additional days if needed.

I use warm water in the vase mixed with a little floral preservative.  The warm water speeds the opening.  These woody stems might have trouble taking up water.  Always re-cut the branches as you assemble the arrangement.

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Make a fresh cut, as you assemble the branches into your arrangement, at a much steeper angle than the pruning cut. I often make a second cut, parallel to the stem, to open up a deeper channel for the stem to absorb water.

Cut a very steep angle to expose more of the interior of the stem.  This steep angle would be too steep for the initial cut which severs the branch from the tree, exposing too much living wood to disease.  Some people crush the stem with a hammer to expose more wood and aid the taking in of water.

I have had success with just making a steep cut before plunging the branch into warm water.  Be careful to remove side branches and buds which will be below the water line in  the vase.  These smaller side branches can then be tucked into tiny vases of water.  Nothing need be wasted.

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Place the arrangement where you will pass it frequently throughout the day.  You will find this dynamic arrangement of living branches changes hour to hour as the flowers begin to open and the leaves unfurl.  It will do best where it can get natural light.  The branches are very much alive, and will continue to grow for several weeks.  I’ve even had Forsythia root in a spring arrangement, and have taken it from the vase to the garden to replant it.

Pear blossoms, newly brought inside.

Pear blossoms, newly brought inside.  Bowls by Beth Turbeville of Williamsburg.

You may want to change the water in your vase every week or so to keep it clean and fresh.  Using a floral preservative limits the growth of bacteria, and preserves the freshness a little longer.

Our garden is in bud.  Newness is bursting out from branch, pot, and Earth.  Celebrate this season of fresh beginnings by bringing in a few flowering  branches to open inside, where you and your loved ones can enjoy them up close.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

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Peach buds

Winter Pruning

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When winter days turn warmish and dry in the afternoon, many of us like to get outside and do some small thing in the garden.

This is the perfect time to begin pruning hardwood trees and shrubs to shape them up for the coming season.  Why prune at all?

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

Pruned shrubs have put on new growth and buds by mid-May.

– Improve the plant’s shape and general appearance

-Control the plant’s size

-Improve the plant’s health

-Increase the plant’s vigor and bloom in the coming season

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm.  Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.

This little Crepe Myrtle put on a lot of growth after its June damage in a storm. Now is the time to prune and shape the new growth.  Much of the new, twiggy growth needs to go so energy is channeled into growing a new structure for this tree.

Many small trees, like Crepe Myrtle and Rose of Sharon, produce lots of chaotic, twiggy growth during the summer season.  With the leaves gone, we can take a moment to examine each one and determine what to leave and what to prune.

Before pruning any flowering shrub, please make sure you know whether it blooms on old wood left from the previous season, or on new wood.  Shrubs like Forsythia, Azalea, Hydrangea, and Lilacs set buds for the coming spring blooms during the previous autumn.  Any late winter pruning removes the branches set to bloom in the coming spring.  A hard pruning will sacrifice that season’s bloom.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

The same Crepe Myrtle, after pruning.

An unpruned shrub is a confusing mass of little twigs and larger branches.  Before making the first cut, take a few moments to study the plant.  Look for its structure; the  main skeleton which gives it shape and form.  If you are new to pruning, take photos of the plant and spend some time studying them on your computer before making any pruning cuts.  As you examine the plant you’ll begin to see what should be left behind to support the new season’s growth.

Here are the general things to consider before beginning to prune any woody plant:

Size:  Is this plant at its mature size?  If a plant is still growing into itself, you want to help it develop a strong structural skeleton of branches.  Consider whether you want one main trunk with side  branches, a main trunk which forks and bushes out into several main branches as it gets taller, or whether you want a clump of main stems which branch out into a large canopy of branches.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood.  These English shrub roses don't require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Roses respond to pruning with abundant bloom on new wood. These English shrub roses don’t require the same hard pruning a tea rose requires.

Any time you cut the tip off of a branch, you will activate the buds lower on the branch so they grow into new lateral branches.  If you cut the tip off of a main vertical stem, two, three, or more new man stems will grow from the buds below that cut in the coming year.  A “fork” will develop, multiplying your one main stem into several.  The canopy will grow broader.

Crepe Myrtle will "sucker" with new vertical growth around the main stem.  Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk.  Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

Crepe Myrtle will “sucker” with new vertical growth around the main stem. Remove this new growth to grow a single trunk. Leave only a few strong stems to grow as a clump.

If you want to keep a clumping shrub, like Crepe Myrtle, to a single trunk; remove the new smaller vertical growth coming from the base.  If you want a ‘ clump”, remove all but the strongest few vertical stems.

If grazing deer attack your garden, as they do mine, remember to “limb up” trees as they grow so the lowest limbs are too high for the deer to reach.
This is especially important if you have any fruit trees, so tasty leaves and fruits are out of reach.  If you don’t do it, deer are attracted to graze in your garden and will do the pruning for you…

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March.  These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Thin Rose of Sharon, and remove seed heads at the ends of branches any time now through early March. These shrubs bloom on new wood, so light pruning increases the number of blooms.

Density:  Most shrubs and small trees need light to penetrate through the canopy to the interior of the shrub.  Keeping the branch structure somewhat open will increase flowering and improve the plant’s health.  Air circulation allows the plant to dry faster after a rain, reducing fungal disease.  An open structure allows strong winds to pass right through, limiting damage in storms.

Remove branches growing towards the plant’s interior.  Keep all lateral branches growing outward towards the periphery.

Where branches cross, select one to keep and one to remove.  Don’t leave branches touching one another, or crossing in the interior of the shrub.

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Very old, and damaged trees and shrubs might need heavy pruning. All damage and dead wood should be removed, then the remaining branches thinned. In extreme cases rejuvenate by cutting the tree down to a stump. New growth will come from the stump in most cases.

Where many tiny twiggy branches have grown, especially on a vertical stem, remove all but a few strong ones placed where you want new branches.  If the shrub is small, and these twiggy branches are close to the ground, you can safely remove them all.  Remove up to a third of the wood on most small trees and shrubs.

If a shrub must be pruned to keep it smaller than its natural size to fit its spot in the garden, keep in mind that every cut stimulates new growth.   Cut the main vertical stems shorter than you want the plant to be by mid-summer, since the pruning cut will stimulate new vertical growth.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning.  Its buds are set in autumn and should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom.  Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

This Josee Lilac is still young and requires little or no pruning. Its buds are set in autumn and so it should be pruned in early summer after its first bloom. Removing spent blossoms will cause it to rebloom several times during the summer.

It is better to remove a branch all the way back to a main stem than it is to “head it back” part way, unless you intend to stimulate new lateral branches.  If you prune off the tip, all of the buds below the tip are activated to give new branches.

Appearance:  Remove any branch or stem which is obviously dead.  Cut back any broken or damaged branches to an inch or so below the damage.  Remove or head back any branch which ruins the silhouette of the plant, or conflicts with the general lines and shape you have established.

“Dead head” seed heads left from last year’s flowers.  Remember that when you cut back a branch, you stimulate growth of new wood, and therefore new spots where flowers will emerge.

Butterfly bush, Buddhleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub's size and get abundant bloom.  This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia, blooms on new wood.  Cut the plants hard, within a foot or two of the ground, to control the shrub’s size and get abundant bloom. This shrub will continue to bloom until frost if you cut the dead flowers away throughout the summer.

A fine point:  Examine a branch before making the pruning cut.  Notice the tiny buds along the branch.  Choose the bud you want to stimulate to grow and make the pruning cut just above it.

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Notice three new stems are left in addition to the original trunk of this Crepe Myrtle tree, cut off when the tree was crushed in June. I could remove all of these, but left them to form a clump to eventually hide the damage. Notice how little wood is left after pruning. All of the plant’s energy will pour into these branches in spring, and the tree will grow by several feet in the coming season.

Notice the buds are positioned all around the circumference of the branch.  Some point inwards, others outwards.  Choose a bud growing in the direction you wish the dominant new branch to grow, and cut just above this bud.  Make a diagonal, angled cut just a millimeter or so above the chosen bud.

Your newly pruned plant will look very clean and open when you are finished.  Remember this is just the plant’s skeleton.  Spring will clothe these branches not only in leaves, but also in new wood.  The shrub will fill out very quickly through spring and early summer.  Vigorous new growth is a hormonal response to pruning.  A pruned plant will actually grow larger and more vigorous in the following season.

Exceptions to the rules:

Some shrubs, such as Butterfly Bush, want to be cut back nearly to the ground.  Use heavy pruners or a small saw to cut the entire plant back to only a foot or two tall.  This is called “coppicing,” and this form of pruning is used to rejuvenate many species of shrub and tree.  New growth from the remaining trunk will be fresh and vigorous.  Butterfly Bush often grows too large for its space, and flower production declines when it is left unpruned or is pruned too lightly.  Do this in late winter, but after the worst of the freezing weather is over.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn.  Winter pruning removes the spring flowers.  If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Forsythia buds were set by late autumn. Winter pruning removes the spring flowers. If you must trim a Forsythia back in winter, save the branches to force blooms inside in a vase of water.

Roses are often coppiced.  Tea roses respond well to hard winter pruning, giving more blossoms on the newly grown wood.  Climbing roses and
English shrub roses shouldn’t be pruned so hard.  Shaping, removing dead or damaged wood and crossed branches are all that is required.  An old, thick rose may be rejuvenated by pruning up to a third of the older stems back to just above the bud union.  Younger plants don’t require such drastic treatment.

Spring blooming shrubs, like Forsythia, should be pruned in late spring, after they bloom.  If you do tidy up a Forsythia with light pruning in late winter, bring the pruned branches inside in a vase of water and enjoy them indoors as cut flowers.  I’ve had these forced branches eventually form roots, and have planted them outside where they grew into new shrubs.  All woody spring blooming shrubs can be forced to bloom early indoors in this way.  If you have fruit trees to prune, you might want to bring some of the branches indoors, in a vase of water, to enjoy their early blossoms.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Beauty Berry responds well when it is pruned hard in winter with abundant summer growth and flowers, followed by autumn berries.

Tools:  There are many brands and styles of hand pruners on the market.  Choose pruners which feel comfortable in your hand, have a sharp blade, and are sturdy enough to trim the shrubs you need to prune.

Keep the pruners cleaned by disinfecting the blade from time to time, and keep them sharp.  Ragged or torn cuts allow disease to enter a stem.  Make sure your pruners make clean, sharp cuts.  Use loppers or a pruning saw for larger branches.

Gather your cut branches on a tarp on in a large bag and remove them from the garden.  There are many traditional uses for larger branches.  Some may be used to build trellises, small fences, stakes, or may be used in building a raised bed.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all.  Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month.  These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Grape Mahonia shrubs need no pruning at all. Their winter flowers will open sometime in the next month. These shrubs remain compact and neat.

Use or dispose of all your trimmings.  Just leaving them lying about on the ground encourages disease and insects.

Pruning can be done a little at a time over the next two months in Zone 7b.  Further north, it pays to wait until February or March so plants aren’t stimulated to grow too soon.  Further south, pruning is an ongoing task in the garden.  Winter allows us to see the bones of our gardens, and the structure of our plants.  It is a good time to shape, refine, and lay the ground work for the garden we will enjoy this coming spring.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife.  However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

Sumac berries are still an important food source for wildlife. However, cut away the old to make way for new growth by early spring.

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