A Pruning Strategy

The best time to prune deciduous shrubs is whenever you have the time available to prune. But no doubt some pruning dates are better than others. Late March is the perfect time time in my zone, provided the ground is dry enough be walked on. The bare branches make it easy to spot what is dead or weak. Or which cuts would result in a better looking or more graceful shape. In general, the shag haircut theory of pruning promotes good shrub health. Big at the bottom, and narrower at the top. Pruning such that no two branches are the same height or forced to  occupy the same space helps to insure that every bud ready to leaf out will have its own light and air space. A place to grow without interference is an ideal place for a branch to be. I like to leave the branches near the ground long, and the branches on the top shorter. Visualizing what has to be cut back on the top so the lower branches get the light they need will result in a shrub that is green and growing from top to bottom. If you think the Limelight hydrangeas above do not look like I took my own advice, you are right.

There is a story behind these leggy Limelights.  Planted as a 5 plant by 5 plant block of 25 some 12 years ago, they had overgrown their space. The lesson here? A shrub that will grow 6 feet tall by 6 feet wide probably will top out at 8′ by 8′ left to its own devices. Keeping a plant smaller than its genetically determined size is, over time, a losing battle. My 25 plants had become a single organism. Removing any of them from the mix would expose a not so lovely look at a dark and bare interior. It was time to take out the outer front and side rows. Once I reduced the size of the block to a four plant by 4 plant block, I could see what I had left over was a mass of hydrangeas on 3′ tall bare stalks. As in, a block of multi-trunked hydrangeas on standard.

Of course these hydrangeas had gotten leggy in the interior. I am sure no light reached the ground during the summer. The outside rows has been pruned to facilitate growth from top to bottom. The interior shrubs has been pruned to encourage growth on the tops. All very predictable, this. Last spring I planted Little Lime hydrangeas in from of those Limelight legs, thinking this shorter version would create a coverup.

That strategy left more that a little to be desired. Little Lime is by no means a smaller growing version of Limelight. The flowers are a different shape and color. I was not crazy about the two plants side by side. Hydrangea Bobo might have been a better choice. That said, I knew my only real option with the limelights was to take a renovation strategy. Hard pruning old hydrangeas hard is only shocking if you do not take into account how fast and much they grow between April and the late July bloom time. A single branch may grow 3 or 4 feet in one season.

This is a radical and grim look, but I suspect they will be full of flowers by the beginning of August. How so? The renovation plan calls for a second pruning in June. I am not interested in long single branches with few and hugely ungainly flowers. Cutting back a long branch midway to the bloom time will result in side branching at the cut. This may result in a delayed flowering, but there will be flowers nonetheless. Next year they will regain their fulsome look.

Hydrangeas respond much more quickly to renovation pruning than other less vigorous shrubs. It won’t be long before they start growing out of this.

Knowing the best time to prune doesn’t necessarily result in action. I should have pruned these hydrangeas harder last spring, when the extra rows of plants came out. If you are like me, what I need to do in the garden routinely gets away from me. How indulgent hydrangeas are of less than stellar care is just one of the reasons to like them. Pruning times depend on whether they bloom on new or old wood. Since the Limelights bloom on new, or the current season’s growth, no matter how much or how little you prune, you are not removing flower buds. Just buds which will become leaves. So prune away.

 Pruning is a paradox. We sometimes prune back shrubs to limit their size, not realizing that a pruning cut, from a shrub’s point of view, is a call to grow. To branch out. A single pruning cut on a large sized branch results in lots of buds breaking in every direction below that cut. This late winter photograph of a hedge in my neighborhood tells the story. A hedge of substantial size was cut back for a number of years-at the height this gardener could reach. The result was lots of branching at the top, which eventually shaded out the branches at the bottom. Once the hedge became too tall to prune without a good sized ladder, the pruning stopped. The result is a rather interesting mix of bare sticks at the bottom,  dense branching at the mid level, and long unbranched growth at the top. Add to that mix, some weed trees that got a foothold in the hedge, and have grown to a large size. In this location, a very tall vase shaped hedge is probably a good idea. The traffic on both sides can come in and out the driveways under the umbrella shaped part of the hedge. I will be interested to see the summer look.To prune or not to prune-now is a good time to decide.

Buds

You know it is the dead of winter in Michigan when the garden is a place to long for from afar. Most of my garden views now are through the windows. Not that I didn’t plan for good views from inside, but the sheer thrill of a landscape is being in it, or experiencing it up close. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the winter as much as the other three seasons. Ha!~ I hate being cooped up, and I am not a skier or an ice fisherman. Being outside now is a necessity to get from one place to another. I do not walk my garden in the winter. I cannot really explain this, but I do not want to disturb my dormant landscape. In my opinion, the winter is the time to let everything as it is, be. As it is, to see this part of the garden in winter requires gearing up – as in coat, hat, boots and gloves. Today I jump tromped through the snow rather that shoveling the upper deck, to take this picture. Was it worth the effort? But for a gorgeous circa 1920 Jarre de Biot, from the now closed Poterie Provencale that makes my heart beat faster every time I look at it, this scene is not that scenic. A garden growing and representing is a tough act to follow.

The best part of it may be the Parrotia Persica. There are four of them in the driveway garden. I planted them close to 20 years ago. This means they are old enough to exhibit that beautiful exfoliating bark prized by gardeners. They also hang on to their leaves throughout all but the windiest of winters. Those copper color leaves are a sight for winter sore eyes.

Even these dead leaves look good to me. But the fact of the matter is I am not looking at anything that is dead. Hibernating would be a better and much less emotionally charged word. Every woody plant in my yard grew and set buds for the spring of 2018 last summer. Some buds, on spring flowering trees are flower buds.  Smaller buds will surely become leaves once the weather breaks. The dead leaves from 2017 on the parrotias will be pushed off in the spring, when the 2018 leaf buds set in 2017, swell and grow. The parrotias were ready for this winter long before I was.

The flower buds on magnolia trees are large and fuzzy. No big fuzzy oval buds on a magnolia going in to winter means there will be no flowers. Terribly cold weather can damage or destroy those flower buds, while the leaf buds survive. A flower bud is a big and vulnerable structure, whereas every tree keeps their leaf buds close to their vest until the winter passes. It is an easy matter to spot magnolia flower buds in winter, especially when a light and dry snow falls. You can see your future in the garden if you see the signs. Happily, I see magnolia flowers in my future.

Nature does not wait until the last minute to make a move. As no growth goes on during the winter months, the formation of buds for the spring to come have to be made many months in advance. This is why watering trees and shrubs in August and on through the fall is so important. Once the leaves drop, and the ground freezes, there will be no more activity until the season turns to spring. It only makes sense that the growth of any woody plant instigated by the spring of one year culminates in the readiness for the spring of the following year. This is not in any way magical.  It is survival.

The dogwoods are the easiest to read. The big fat round buds set in September are flower buds. The small pointed buds will eventually unfurl and become leaves. In a way, I regret knowing in advance whether there will be a heavy dogwood bloom 6 months in advance of the fact. But I do like knowing in advance that if I water my trees properly at the time they are setting flower and leaf buds, I am giving them a helping hand.

Though it might appear that all there is to see here are sticks and snow, nothing could be further from the truth. Thousands upon thousands of fully formed but dormant buds are ready and waiting for the light to turn green. Imagine that.The spring season every gardener longs for will finally arrive, and will be impossible to keep up with.

The spring is a rush of events almost impossible to keep track of. I am sure there are moments I miss, no matter how much effort I put towards experiencing it all. Today I took note of the columnar fruiting pear tree in the foreground of this picture, and imagined what it will be to see it it in full bloom with the leaf shoots not far behind. I had time for that today. Those flowers in spring will last but a moment.

I also had time to think about how nature is a consummate engineer. Very little of the story of survival is left to chance. That is a big topic best left to the dog days of winter to think about. All the bare branches outlined in snow today were beautiful. But what is simmering beneath the surface is better than beautiful.

These evergreen Frazier fir boughs were cut in November. They were stuffed in to dry floral foam set in the containers I have at the end of my driveway. Though they were cut from the tree 3 months ago, the dormant buds are still plump, juicy, and viable. This is what I would call the miracle of the will to live. That will to live and prosper is so strong in every living thing. Nature makes the plant world, in all of its forms, possible. Viable.

Though the view out my window is this shade of blah and that shade of blah, and all that blah dusted with a fresh layer of snow from grey skies, what lies in wait beneath the surface is very exciting, indeed. Waiting out the winter is an exercise in restraint and appreciation. Truly.

 

Fall Planting

If you garden in southeastern Michigan, your garden is drenched. We have had the kind of steady hard rain spanning a good many days that I call mushroom rain. I see them popping up everywhere. I am not complaining. We have had a very dry summer, and a hot and dry early fall. The cabbage and kale at the shop have needed daily water. My pots at home needed water just about that often. I have worried about the dogwoods that need water in September to set good buds for the following spring, and the evergreens that need to be water loaded and juicy before the ground freezes. I know from my large tree contractor that our ground is dust dry, down deep. The trees he has been digging with a large tree mover have dry rootballs. This has made me very uneasy about what a very cold and windy winter might mean to a plant that has not had sufficient water during the growing season. Few perennials, shrubs or trees are prepared for the winter having gone through the summer and fall bone dry. But for those few plants that rely on dryer winter conditions for survival – though I am sure there are plenty, I am thinking some species of iris, and lavender that do not tolerate wet winter conditions –  most plants like a little stored water and nutrients before they have to face the winter. Perennials whose tops die back to the ground in the fall still have a robust and juicy root system that sustains them through the winter. Deciduous shrubs shed their leaves in the fall-yes.  But their living stems will need to survive all the harsh conditions that a winter has to dish out, and enough stored energy left over to leaf out in the spring.

The dormant/winter season for plants is nothing like my winter sleep. My blankets and a dose of house heat keeps me warm. Nothing about me or around me freezes. A usual night’s sleep is 8 hours or so. A temporary respite. Mammals that hibernate the entire winter season astonish me. They do not come out of hibernation especially ready to face the day. They have lost a lot of weight, and are very hungry and thirsty. Hibernation is not at all like a good night’s sleep. I am reminded of the time a surgeon advised me that I would not be “asleep” for my surgery. I would be unconscious, and all of my normal functions paralyzed. A machine would breathe for me. The surgical team would see to it that my life was sustained. Though I appreciated his candor, I was frightened by this. No plant has a surgical team standing by. Their condition going into the winter will either be enough to sustain them throughout, or not. Our winter is not a big sleep. Dormant means shut down. Strong winter winds and low temperatures take their toll on plants whose only defense against the winter was a kindly summer and fall season. Needless to say, I have been watering like crazy.

I have no idea if the torrential rains we have had the past week will be enough to sustain my shrubs and trees through the winter, but it can’t hurt. I have not dug down to see how deep this rain has penetrated, but I know enough to be happy for every drop we have had.

Our fall is usually cool, and the rain is somewhat regular. It is a perfect time to plant. The weather is mild. The plants are no longer in active growth, so moving them is less stressful. Unlike the spring season, when planting conditions can be less than ideal. The soil is freezing cold even though the ground has thawed. Sopping wet spring soil can be a poor environment for newly planted plants. The act of planting compacts the wet soil, driving out much needed air. The night time temperatures can swing up and down without warning. Spring is a sweet season for established plants, but can be very tough on new plantings. Who in Michigan has not witnessed tulips in full bloom encased in ice, and snow on the ground? So many times, my hope to plant a landscape in late March has had to wait until May. Michigan summers can be brutal. The heat and dry in the summer can be hard on transplanted trees, shrubs and perennials. No matter how much I water, the plants look grief stricken. Fall planting is a recipe for success in my zone. Though the daytime/night time temperatures are cool, the soil is much warmer than it was in the spring. The water from the sky seems like it is packed with vitamins and minerals, doesn’t it?

I am delighted with the prolonged rain. I hope that water has made some inroads on our dry soil. Cool fall temperatures mean that rain does not evaporate very quickly. The effects of our heavy rains will surely persist. I could have never delivered this volume and quality of water from my hose. My container plantings are most certainly coming to the end of their season. But the recent rains have endowed them with some saturated fall color.

A rain drenched garden is a good looking garden. Even these drought tolerant variegated kalanchoes look invigorated by the rain.   I can think of only a very few times when my garden was threatened by excessive rain. In most cases, water distress has more to do with poor drainage than too much rain. Our parched ground may not be restored to a normal moisture content by our recent rains, but every drop of it is appreciated.

Chilly, windy and rainy fall weather-bring it on. We have more to plant.

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The Last On The Limelight Hydrangeas

Given that close to 7000 gardeners have read my last post on hydrangeas in the past few days, I am encouraged to write again.  I went back out last night to rephotograph my hydrangeas with a specific purpose in mind. How do I site them in the landscape, and how do I take care of them? I have a significant disclaimer up front. How I grow hydrangeas is not the be all and end all. How I grow them works for me.  What will work for you involves a lot of independent thought, trial, and error. I would be the first to suggest that you trust your own experience over mine. That said, first up is a discussion about how to grow and manage these big shrubs. No matter where you plant them, hydrangeas reward a gardener who is willing to prune. I only prune in the spring, when the buds are beginning to swell. Limelight hydrangeas that have gotten leggy and ungainly will respond to a pruning to within 18″-24″ above grade. Just be advised that a hard pruning is a restorative pruning that may take 2 years to bring them back up to heavy blooming stage. A yearly pruning down to 18″-24″ results in fewer, and larger flowers.

Want more flowers rather than large flowers? Prune the topmost branches shorter than the bottom branches-so every branch is exposed to the light. Prune several times early in the season to promote branching. Come mid May, I stop pruning.This hydrangea on standard has a beautiful branchy structure as a result of multiple pruning sessions. Notice how the flowers are much smaller than my hydrangeas at home? Post an early spring pruning, a lighter pruning over the course of a few spring weeks results in an embarrassment of riches in smaller flowers.

In love with the giant flowers? Prune vigorously. Pruning deciduous shrubs is not just a matter of style, and it certainly is not a matter of control. Pruning promotes growth that maximizes the opportunity for good blooming. A Limelight left to its own devices will have lots of growth on the top that eventually results in leggy and leafless lower branches.

Big shrubs do and will grow big. Harder pruning may result in a finished size and height at the low end of their growth range. Severe pruning-as in pruning right down to the ground, forces growth from below ground, from what are called basal shoots. I never prune hydrangeas that hard. I like having some old wood to support all those new branches to come. Pruning is all about what the future. The Limelights bloom on new wood – the current year’s growth. If you grow hydrangeas that bloom on the previous year’s growth, prune right after they bloom. This enables them to grow and set flowers for the season to come before winter. Leave them be until after they bloom the following year. But no matter what cultivar you grow, adequate light and water will reward your effort to grow them.

Hydrangeas are big growing shrubs with course leaves and giant flowers. This means they are eminently able to hold down a spot in the garden all on their own. But how does a gardener beautifully integrate them into a garden and landscape?  I make sure they have lots of company-both taller and shorter. My landscape can accommodate them at their full height. I have a much larger and taller hedge of arborvitae planted behind them. That dark green foliage highlights the flowers in a dramatic way.

There are several more layers of plantings in front of them. A hedge of Hicks yews whose health had been declining for years was removed. A series of planter boxes were put in their place. This years planting of nicotiana and angelonia is as loose and airy as the hydrangeas are solid and stiff. Companions to hydrangeas that have a looser habit of growth compliment them. A middle layer of loosely pruned taxus densiformis is faced down with clipped boxwood shapes. 4 layers of companionship is none too few for a shrub that grows 6-8 feet tall.

Limelight hydrangeas integrated into a garden

Limelight hydrangea hedge faced down with boxwood

Limelight hydrangeas faced down with anemone “Honorine Jobert”

hedge of Limelights as a border to a large group of mixed evergreens

These hydrangeas are pruned to keep them at a 5.5-6 foot height.

Between the large evergreens and the hydrangeas is a mass of boltonia asteroides.

Limelights and boxwood

Limelights in a garden

new planting of annabelles and limelights together

Limelights blooming top to bottom

Limelights massed in containers

My client’s containers featuring Limelights on standard are robust and showy this early part of September. We will heel them in the ground at our landscape yard late in the fall, and plant them back in these pots come spring. I do have clients who have and do winter them over in their containers.  I am not that nervy with plants that do not belong to me, but I am not surprised to hear this. Hydrangeas ask for little, and are so satisfying to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

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