Monday, January 27, 2014

It's time to prune shrubs and trees

Unlike last winter, this winter has brought us cold weather.  Last January, I wrote about flowers that were beginning to bud and blossom out of season, and I was afraid that frost would come while they were in a vulnerable state and kill them.  All my plants are convinced that they should remain dormant this winter, and I see no buds on plants that should be dormant.
This 'Mahonia' my grandmother dug from her woods is supposed to have buds.  Honeybees visit it when it flowers on days its warm enough for them to fly during February.

According to my own experience and according to the Columbia Garden Club’s book “Gardening Notes for South Carolina,” January and early February are a good time to prune trees and shrubs that do not bloom in the spring such as evergreen shrubs and many trees.  Because my shrubs are dormant now, I can prune them without worrying that the pruning will spur new growth that the frost might kill.  I pruned my ligustrum topiaries a few weeks ago, and I am glad they will remain in their neat spherical shape until they resume growth in the spring. 

On any shrub or tree, at any time of the year, I remove dead, diseased, or broken branches. If I have difficulty determining whether branches on deciduous trees or shrubs are dead or just dormant, I bend the branch gently.  If the branch is pliable, it is alive and if it snaps, it is dead.  If the branch is too large to bend, I scratch the bark with my fingernail; a live branch is green inside and a dead branch is gray or brown.

A favorite activity of landscapers this time of year is mauling crape myrtle trees and pruning otherwise naturally-shaped shrubs into cubes.  People cut off the top branches of crape myrtle trees very short, so that the trees look like a slender pincushion with pins protruding off the top instead of enjoying the graceful, natural form of the tree.  
My natural-looking crape myrtle.  Would you rather look at it all winter, or would you rather see

these poor trees?

Pruning the tree this way is supposed to promote more blossoms than allowing it to grow naturally, but my trees have abundant blossoms and are attractive all year.  I prune mine by cutting off branches that cross or are diseased or broken, but I leave the long graceful form of the branches alone.  I also thin the tree by cutting off branches at the trunk.  Thinning the tree allows air to circulate and helps prevent mold. 

“Prune after bloom” is a good rule of thumb, so do not prune forsythia, hydrangeas, azaleas, and camellias, among other spring-blooming shrubs, until after they bloom.  If you prune them before they bloom, you will cut of the flower buds and will have to wait until next year for blossoms. 

Use hedge trimmers to shape boxwoods and hollies into squared-off shapes, if you prefer it, but please do not prune azaleas, camellias, forsythia, loropetalum, and other shrubs with graceful, flowing branches into little squares or balls.  Flowering shrubs are much more attractive, and easier to maintain, if you allow them to maintain their natural form.  Reduce size by cutting off entire branches with loppers, not by giving them a haircut with hedge trimmers. 

If you must prune shrubs several times a year to keep them under control, the repeated chore is a sign that you have a shrub in the wrong place.  It may be too big for its spot, or it may have an unruly nature in a place where you would like a neat shrub.  Perhaps both you and the shrub would be happier if you removed it and put something more appropriate to the space in its place.  
My poor loropetalum that I butchered to get to a manageable size.  Actually I tried to cut it back and kill it, because it was an ongoing obstacle in the driveway.  I paid $25 per shrub to get the dwarf variety, but they are enormous shrubs and not appropriate for the space.

Monday, January 20, 2014

It’s warm enough for bees to fly!

Living in the South is wonderful.  Today, the high was 68 degrees F, with beautiful sunshine.  My girls had adventures outside in the woods and in the creek, and I was able to harvest some vegetables (kale and carrots) from the garden for dinner.

I love honeybees, and I miss them during the winter, when it's too cold for them to fly.  When temperatures reach about 60 degrees F outside, they leave the hive to search for a midwinter snack.  On lovely days, such as today,  I check my Mahonia, and I usually find bees.  It blooms in winter with a sweet fragrance that attracts the bees.  Whenever I see it, I remember my great-aunt, who brought the original plant to my grandmother from her home in Oregon, and I cherish the memory of digging the baby plant from my grandmother's woods a couple of years before she died.  Honey bees visited the original plant at my grandmother's home, pollinated the flowers on some lovely winter day, and the plant produced its fruit, the "Oregon grape," which, transported by a bird or animal, fell to the ground and sprouted, and then transformed into my baby plant.



I am the mother who has unfortunately sent my children's friends home with muddy clothes after a day of playing in the country.  I do try to warn unwary mothers of what messes children might get into at my house, and I encourage them to dress appropriately.  On a day like today, my girls wanted to play in the creek, and when their rain boots filled with water, they took them off.  Logical solution for small children, right?  Even in January.  

Those of you who live in colder climates: don't be too envious because tomorrow night the low is supposed to dip into the twenties, and our barefoot-creek-playing days will be over for awhile.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Easy method of cutting back dead perennials...and some chickens

After a pleasant evening with friends on New Year’s Eve, I spent several hours outside on New Year’s Day working in the garden.  I tried to move the chickens to a new spot, but they didn’t follow me and enjoyed a day of freedom destroying my flowerbeds. The chickens follow me around the yard trying to see if my activities will produce food.  If I’m digging, I have to watch out for them to avoid injuring one.
Curious chickens!

I realized that I can use a string trimmer to trim back dead plants rapidly.  Below is the pre-trimmed flower bed.
Five minutes later, pictured below, the bed is cut back.  The string trimmer pulverizes most of the plants into small enough pieces I don't have to remove them and I allow them to compost in place.  I'll put some dead leaves or mulch on top, and the bed will be ready for spring.

I got a little too close to this rosebush with the trimmer and I'll have to cut back the mangled branches.  I also recommend staying away from stringy plants; the trimmer tears them and they become wrapped around the head of the string trimmer.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It’s cold enough to freeze bubbles!


Perhaps you have seen the photos going around on Facebook of people freezing bubbles.  I don’t know who had the insane idea to blow bubbles on a cold day, but after I saw the pictures I had to try.  It did work, provided  I was able to keep the children away from the bubbles long enough for them to freeze!


It was 12 degrees F here this morning, which is the coldest temperature I remember experiencing in SC in several years.  And it’s still below freezing in midafternoon.  I know many of you may scoff at my complaints, but I’m not used to this crazy cold, and I don’t want to become used to it either.

Last night I tucked my chickens into their chicken tractor, gave them extra feed, and covered the entire thing with plastic.  This morning I put on my warmest clothes (I don’t have many of them!) and put on the only hat and gloves I could find, and went outside to give them more food and water.  They came through the cold night fine, and, thank God, we’ll return to our more normal January temperatures of highs in the 50s and 60s by the end of the week. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A little New Year’s cheer and good luck

On this dreary January day, I thought you’d like to see these brave yellow flowers of the winter Jasmine that bloom throughout the coldest months of the year and remind us that spring will come.  Camellias and Mahonia are or are will soon bloom, adding more color and fragrance to the garden.  Ignore the dreary skies and visit the garden.

Yesterday, my girls each found one four-leaf-clover, and combined with our black-eyed peas and collard greens, we are  to a pleasant start to the new year.