Why now is not a good time to start pruning your garden

Meet McGrath in Fredericksburg This Weekend!

Mike will appear at the Fredericksburg Home and Craft Show, at the Fredericksburg Expo Center, on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 15 and 16. He’ll speak at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturday and at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Bad time to mess with hydrangeas!

Tom in Germantown writes: “I understand your position on not cutting anything back until mid-winter, but I desperately need to radically reduce and relocate an oakleaf hydrangea that has become far too large for its location.”

Pruning anything at this time of year is the worst thing you could do, Tom. It’s certain to stimulate new growth that will be very susceptible to winter damage; and it would prevent the plant from going fully dormant, which it also needs to do to protect itself from winter.

And your oakleaf hydrangea blooms on the previous year’s wood (not on “new wood” like the mophead types) so any pruning — now or in the winter — would remove next year’s flowers.

What gardeners need to do more often: STALL!

Tom in Germantown says that he knows that this is the worst time of year to prune plants but “desperately” needs to reduce an oakleaf hydrangia in size so he can locate it to a better space.

We repeat: Pruning now could well be the end of the plant—especially with the unusually warm weather predicted for early next week, which would ensure that vulnerable new growth is stimulated. It would be better to try and simply move it without pruning — which you should be able to do with some help. (See below.)

But whatever you choose to do, try to stall. There’s something about this time of year that gives gardeners very itchy fingers, but a month from now would be a much better time to try and move this — or any other — plant.

And a month after that — mid-December — would be close to ideal. That’s when plants are fully dormant but the ground typically isn’t yet frozen hard.

Plan your move now

Tom in Germantown has an oakleaf hydrangea that has “become far too large for its location” and he ‘desperately needs to reduce it in size and move it.’ (This is a very common “problem” with these plants — it’s like people don’t expect them to grow or something…)

Now — it’s hard to imagine how this could be a true “emergency.” So let’s take a deep breath and prepare for a move in December — the ideal time for this kind of work.

Locate the new site for the plant now; an area that drains well and gets morning sun and afternoon shade is the ideal situation for an oakleaf hydrangea. (A native plant, by the way).

Then make the move in mid-December. But instead of pruning it down and losing all of next year’s flowers, wrap the plant tightly in burlap to reduce it in size (and protect it a bit). Then begin digging it up from at least a foot away on all sides. Go deeper than you think is necessary; you’re trying to get it out of the ground with an island of soil still attached to most of the roots.

Then (with some help), place this big hunking root ball gently in the center of a tarp, lift up the tarp by all four edges (that’s the help) and carry the plant to its new space on the tarp. Don’t drag it over! Drop it into the new spot, fill the hole back up with the same soil you removed (don’t improve the soil in the hole), cut away and remove the burlap and let a hose drip at the base of the plant for several hours.

You can clean up any truly broken branches the next day, but wait to actually prune until after the new flowers form next year. Then follow that schedule—pruning after all the flowers are open every year—to keep the plant in relative bounds.

But it’s a great time to install truly new plants

We’re begging Tom in Germantown not to try and move an overgrown hydrangea until after Thanksgiving — ideally mid-December. Our plants are trying to go dormant, and digging them up or pruning them now could prove fatal.

BUT this is a great time to install new plants from the garden center. Fall-planted trees and shrubs have a much better survival rate than ones planted in the Spring; and bargains abound!

When you get your new plants home, remove and discard any burlap or other wrappings and dig a wide hole but not a deep one. With trees, you want to make sure the root flare is visible above ground. (If the planted tree looks like a lollipop, its planted too deep! Take it out and put more dirt in the hole until the planted tree sits higher.)

Then let a hose drip slowly at the base of the plant for several hours, and repeat this slow deep watering weekly for a month if we don’t get good rain.

Mulch is not necessary, but if you want to apply mulch anyway, keep these tips in mind:

  • Wait until after the soil freezes hard for the season.
  • Do not let any mulch touch the trunk or the stem of any plant. Volcano mulching will shorten the life of those plants.
  • Never apply mulch in a layer thicker than two inches; overly deep mulch prevents rain from getting through to the roots.

My pansies can beat up your mums!

As Donovan once sang, “it must be the season of the mums!” Those ubiquitous plants that look suspiciously like 1950’s rubber bathing caps are popping up all over the place again. Brrrr!

Interested in a longer-lasting, less artificial-looking and much more useful fall bloomer? Buy yourself some packs of pansies and plant them where you’ll see them every day. Cold-weather loving pansies will keep blooming through Christmas — and often survive to bloom again all spring.

And those flowers aren’t just pretty, they’re edible! The flowers of all members of the viola family — violets, violas, pansies and Johnny Jump-ups are totally safe to eat, super-nutritious — and beautiful. A handful of pansy flowers can make 50 cents worth of lettuce look like a million bucks!

Oh — and those pansy flowers are the only natural source of rutin — a hard-to-get nutrient that prevents and/or reverses the visible effects of varicose and spider veins.

Take that, you ugly mums!

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