WHAT TO DO WHEN THE GARDENER IS READY TO WRAP UP BUT THE GARDEN ISN'T

This is a challenging time in the garden for me. We've not yet had a frost, so although things are looking a little ragged, there's nothing that's dead and looking terrible. Which means I'm faced with the conundrum of going against my gardener's gut reaction to do everything I can to keep plants looking good and the practical voice in my head reminding me that there is a lot of work to be done in the garden before the snow flies.

And of course, the lovely fall weather we've been having makes it all that much more difficult. Because when it turns, it's going to turn quickly. And even a hardy Wisconsin gardener like myself doesn't really relish being in the garden with winter gloves on.

The Calamintha 'Montrose White' in the foreground of this photo has finished flowering, but it still looks good otherwise. It will be difficult to cut it back at this point, but there's so much to be done in the garden. 

I was formulating a plan of attack for the fall garden chores the other night at 4 a.m. as I stood in the back yard begging the newest member of the family to pleeeeaaaase go to the bathroom. We got a 3-month-old Newfoundland puppy last weekend so we are in the throes of potty training, which is far more tedious than I had remembered. Anyway, I was noticing that other than a bit of flopping here and there, most of the perennials are looking fine and it seems a little sad to be planning to go in there and hack things back.

I know this picture is blurry but little Dorothy is in the perpetual motion stage of life so it could be awhile before she sits still enough for a good picture.

There are a lot of different ideas about cutting back perennials in fall, and from what I've read I believe it probably is better for the health of the plants to let them stand for winter. But sometimes the health of the gardener is more important that the health of the garden (which probably will be OK no matter what), and in my case I know that spring is so busy that anything I can do in fall to decrease the spring workload is well worth doing.

So, even though things are still green, I think this weekend I'll start dismantling beds one by one. I'll cut back things like Nepeta, but I will leave Sedums and Echinacea standing for winter interest. Dahlias, of course, have several more weeks in the garden. Not only are they still flowering, they need to be killed off by a good frost before you can dig them for storage.

As I go through, bed by bed, I'll also pull as many weeds as I, again so it's one less thing to do in spring. In a few weeks, when we're drowning in fallen leaves, I'll run them through the chipper-shredder and create a lovely mulch for my beds. The areas that I mulched with chopped leaves last fall had noticeably fewer weeds in spring, so that's another investment in my spring time.

Still, cutting back plants that still look OK is hard to do. But the knowledge that it will be far more tolerable a job at 60 degrees than at 35 degrees is enough for me to get over it.



THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO GUIDE TO PRUNING

To my knowledge there is no garden task that strikes fear into the heart of gardeners so much as pruning. By my estimation, the two most likely explanations for this are:
  1. We've all been scolded and made to feel bad/silly/stupid for pruning incorrectly.
  2. We live in perpetual fear of killing plants by pruning incorrectly.
There are rules for pruning. Oh boy are there rules. Start with the hardest: When to prune? There's no doubt that there is a better time to prune to maximize future flowering and keep the shrub or plant looking its best. But how is a gardener supposed to keep track of what to prune when, when everything seems to have its own very specific set of rules?

This is a newer cultivar of Spirea that only gets lightly shaped after blooming, but older varieties can turn into woody, ugly behemoths if not pruned at all. 

Then there is the question of how much we're supposed to be pruning, and how should we physically prune?

Most of the answers aren't that hard to remember:

WHEN: Spring-blooming shrubs generally set their flowers on "old wood," aka the previous year's growth, so if you prune anytime between late summer and early the following spring, you'll be cutting of the flower buds. Summer- and fall-blooming shrubs can be cut back in very late winter or very early spring (in my zone 5 garden this typically involves walking through a bit of snow). It's generally safe to prune right after flowering, but on something like Virburnums, you would be cutting off the branches where beautiful berries will form.

HOW MUCH: The general rule of thumb is to not prune more than 25 percent of a shrub or tree's growth in a year. Some push that to 33 percent, but I err on the side of a quarter.

HOW: To keep it simple, you at least want to prune back to something, usually a branch but maybe a leaf node at least. Often you may want to consider something called rejuvenation pruning, where you remove some of the oldest branches/stems all the way to the ground.

Of course there are finer points that go well beyond these. As gardeners get more into gardening, as is usually the case, these details become second nature. But in the meantime I feel like the gardeners who know those details are doing a good job of scaring the pants off new gardeners who may quickly decide that gardening is too complicated and they don't have time or space in their brain for such details. And that's sad, because while it is certainly better to have intimate knowledge of how and when to prune every plant we grow, the world will not end if you don't.

In other words, let's stop spreading the fear of pruning.

In fact, while some people may tell you that you MUST prune at a certain time, I'd like to challenge that idea. And by the way, I'm not alone. Christopher Lloyd, the late, great British gardener who did much to influence how we think of gardens today at his Great Dixter, has said that the best time to prune is when you have the tools in your hand and you think of it.

"The wrong time may be the only opportunity and a preferable alternative to not doing something at all," he wrote in The Adventurous Gardener. "Or it may not be the wrong time, contrary to accepted practice as quoted in gardening literature, if you act cannily. It's all very well to accept received advice and opinions gratefully and at face value when you're starting, but we graduate. You'll make mistakes but you'll perhaps learn not to mind making them. That's a great release from all sorts of inhibitions."

In other words, it's far better to prune at the wrong time than it is to not prune at all, which is a far more common and possibly egregious crime against horticulture. (Exception: There are many shrubs, that, when planted in an appropriate location can and should be allowed to live their lives with little to no pruning, short of removing dead wood.)

I planted this Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' in an area where it will be allowed to grow to its full size, maybe 10 feet tall and wide or more, so I will never need to prune it for size. 

Sometimes, when considering doing something in life that I'm not entirely comfortable with, I think, "What's the worst that could happen?"

And I believe that might be a good approach to pruning as well. If you have the time and the tools handy, what's the worst that could happen if you prune a shrub at a less than optimal time? And in most cases the answer is that you'd negatively affect its next flowering period. So is that so terrible? Well, it probably is if it's the shrub around which you planned your entire garden, or if you have a garden wedding planned specifically for when a particular shrub blooms.

Hydrangeas, perhaps more than any other shrub, strike fear into the hearts of gardeners when it comes time for pruning. This is Hydrangea panniculata Limelight, which blooms on new wood at the ends of branches. I cut it back somewhat hard (some years more than others) in late winter, and in recent years have taken out the oldest stem all the way to the base to encourage new growth. What's the worst that would happen if I didn't prune it that way? If I failed to prune it all it would still flower, but it would get to its full size, 8 or more feet tall and eventually dead wood, if not removed, would sully its appearance. If I pruned at the wrong time, I would probably get later, fewer and smaller flowers (if pruned well into spring) or maybe nothing different would happen if I pruned in fall instead of winter.
To me, the worst-case scenario of something that could happen to a shrub is that you'd kill it, and providing that you follow the other two rules (particularly the one about how much to prune), it's unlikely you'll do that.

Now think about the worst-case scenario if, year after year, you forget to prune a shrub when you are supposed to and never touch it because you don't want to prune at the wrong time. You may end up with an overgrown shrub that outgrows its location and is so badly shaped that it can't be salvaged. And then you end up taking it out, probably after several years of looking at a pretty ugly shrub. In effect, you make the decision to end it's life.

The point is this: No one wants to reduce flowering accidentally, but I think it's time we stop acting like pruning at the wrong time is one of the seven deadly sins. Not to mention, Lloyd's point about making mistakes is a good one: Sometimes it's the best way to learn in the garden.

Rather, I'd counsel gardeners to check a good gardening reference book or even Google (add .edu to the end of your search and you're more likely to quickly get to more reliable information) for pruning information for their specific plant if they know what it is. But if you don't and you have the tools in your hand and you know it's likely the only time you'll have for the job, go for it.

What's the worst that can happen?




FRIDAY FINDS

It's been awhile since I've done a Friday Finds, so I thought I'd pop in quickly to share some of my favorites for the week.

First off, a bit of a programming note. I haven't been posting a lot lately simply because it's been one of those busy times in life. I was out of town last week (in beautiful Annapolis, Maryland, where it was 80 degrees!) and then catching up this week and blah, blah, blah. I've got some posts in the works and a video I'm editing, so you should see those all soon. I'm also working on a new website for the blog. I'm changing platforms and sprucing up the design just a bit. In the past some of you have written to tell me that you've had a problem leaving comments and hopefully those issues should be gone and the entire user experience should be better. No launch date to announce yet, but hopefully it won't be long. If anyone has requests that you'd like to see on a new website, please give me a holler!

But let's get on with the fun bits, shall we?


This frog, or perhaps a whole bunch of frogs, seems to be living in my rose containers on the driveway and I keep catching him out sunning himself. I have all kinds of pictures of him now, but I love this one. I worry about what will happen to them when I move the container in the garage for winter. Is it safe to assume they'll move on before I do that (after a hard frost)?

It's pumpkin season and of course the folks at Detroit Garden Works have the most amazing collection of interesting pumpkin varieties, which you can see in this post. I will say that a couple of the price tags had me thinking I should start growing fancy pumpkins!


Ricardo Labougle/NYT photo
If you didn't catch this article about an amazing English garden New York Times, check it out now. Can you say gorgeous?

Check out Matt's beautiful vegetable harvest. This is why I want to redo my veggie garden.

Lauren Liess, who is one of the few design bloggers I still like, is getting a show on HGTV and I'm thrilled. I don't have cable since we cut the cord, but occasionally HGTV offers shows on their app even if you don't have cable, and I hope this is one of them.

That's it from here. There is work, work, work to be done in the garden but honestly I'm not sure how much will actually happen as between the weather (rainy) and a lot of other things on the agenda, I don't see that there will be much time for garden chores. When will they all get done, one wonders?

What's on your agenda for the weekend?
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THE HOUSEPLANT SHUFFLE (AKA WINTER IS COMING)

For as much as I love plants, my relationship with houseplants is, as they say on Facebook, complicated. I love having them, because a house devoid of plant life would be depressing. But at the same time I don't love the space they take up nor their neediness. And because of that it is only due to their summer vacation outside that they survive.

It's a good thing houseplants, in general, survive on benign neglect because that's certainly what they get in my house. I water less than I should and start fertilizing later than I should. By the time they are summarily shoved out the door onto the deck in June, they are in a sad state.

Still, I strive to keep them alive during the time they are in the house. That mostly means I water them when I remember and fertilize them starting in late winter, also when I remember. It is, perhaps, not exactly the makings of a how-to book.

But I do have a few personal guidelines I follow for bringing my houseplants back in, which is on my agenda for this coming weekend. Nighttime temperatures haven't dipped much below the low 50s here yet, but they certainly will in coming weeks.

The houseplant corner on the deck is still fully occupied. The split-leaf Philodendron was repotted this summer and seems happy about it. Behind that is the ficus tree I took from my grandmother's house when she died, and the only houseplant I really worry about. Then there are a handful of spider plants (one that I bought the day I moved to college more than 20 years ago) and a few other plants. 

1. I wait as long as I can to bring plants in. This isn't something you should probably do, as the best thing to do for plants is to gradually acclimate them to their new surroundings. But the fact is, there's no way I'm going to haul plants in and out, so when they come in, they stay. Because I don't have a great place for houseplants to live light-wise, I leave them outside for the maximum amount of light they can get.

2. Water them really well, but then let them dry out. That seems counterintuitive, but well-watered plants will manage the stress of the move better than plants that are drought stressed. In a recent podcast with Margaret Roach, Ken Druse said he overwaters all his houseplants before bringing them in to help flush out creepy crawlies that may be camping out. I think it's a good idea. The drying out part means I won't be dripping water all over the house and I'll save my back a little bit.

3. Give them a shower. I give everything a really good spray with the hose the day before I bring things in. This helps get rid of bugs, but also just dirt and pollen that might be laying on the leaves.

4. Clean them up. I prune off any dead or dying leaves before I bring plants inside. This might be a good thing to do for the plant's health but I just do it because it's a lot easier to clean that up outside than inside.

I love my staghorn fern and was happy to see that it shot up several new fronds this summer. That's good, because the less attractive fronds will be cut off before it comes inside. 
After that it's just of finding a spot for everything and making sure I have proper trays under all the pots. I have ruined more floors in my life from houseplants so I've learned that a $2 plastic tray is a much better option than taking chances when watering.

Most of my plants end up in the east-facing office/den and I do close the heat vent in that room unless we happen to be sitting in it because houseplants don't really want to be at the temperature we keep the house. It's still not cool enough or bright enough for them, but it's the best I can do. And, as I said, I underwater out of forgetfulness, but I believe it's better for the plants. Think of winter as a time for houseplants to rest, rather than to force them into active growth.

And that's it. It's hardly houseplant heaven here, but I do the best I can, and sometimes that's enough.

If you're in need of far better houseplant information, check out this article/podcast on A Way to Garden.


What's your houseplant care plan? If you have any great tips, please share them!