Itching to prune your azalea bush now? Not so fast

Meet Mike in February

Mike will appear on Saturday, Feb. 23 and Sunday, Feb. 24 at the Capital Home & Remodel Show at the Dulles Expo Canter in Chantilly, Virginia.

Leave that old azalea alone!

Terry in North Potomac writes: “Is now a good time to cut back and prune an old azalea bush? It’s very much alive, but in really bad shape, with dead branches and open, empty spots. I want to try and salvage this shrub, if possible.”

No cutting now, Terry — for two reasons.

The first, of course, is that azaleas are spring bloomers whose buds are already fully set and timed to open in early spring. Any pruning now will remove many of those buds and diminish or eliminate the flowering display.

And, next, if it is really ragged, it might be difficult to decide what’s really dead and what’s not in the middle of winter.

Wait until the azalea starts to bloom in the spring, and then work around the flowers to remove obviously dead areas. Then prune it again for shape a few weeks later, after the flowers have faded.

Bad winter for shrubs so far

There’s another reason Terry in North Potomac should not cut back his raggedy old azalea right now.

Azaleas are shallow-rooted plants that don’t store a lot of water. The cold, harsh winter wind this region has been experiencing is sucking water out of the smaller landscape plants at a rapid pace. Removing branches now could expose the plant to even more severe winter injury via evaporation.

It may seem counterintuitive, but winters with constant snow cover are very protective of plants. The worst stress occurs when winter is cold and windy but without protective layers of snow.

So … what can Terry do outdoors?!

I’ve been urging Terry in North Potomac to not prune his overgrown azaleas until after they bloom in the spring. But he must have pretty itchy pruning fingers, because he immediately wrote back: “Well then, other than general yard cleaning (picking up remaining leaves, dead twigs and branches, etc.), what kind of spring yard prep can I do now? Especially when the ground is unfrozen and soft from all the rain. I also still have a bag of corn gluten I could spread.

Save the corn gluten in a mouse-proof container until March; it’s illegal (and foolish) to feed lawns when they’re dormant in the winter. (The fertilizer just goes right into the Chesapeake Bay.)

Yes, you can clean up leaves, twigs and other debris, but be careful about the timing of such chores. Walking on a soaking wet lawn is bad for the grass, and putting weight on a solidly frozen lawn can smash the blades of grass like pieces of glass.

My suggestion? Netflix. And lots of it.

‘Stick out your can. Here comes the wood ash man!’

C.J. in Fredericksburg has a perennial question for this time of year. He writes: “What are some uses for wood ashes in the garden?

In the actual garden, the uses are very few, C.J.

Hardwood ash from a wood stove or fireplace is very alkaline (a high pH), and most of our plants grow best in a neutral to slightly acidic soil (specifically a lower pH of 6.5 to 7). One big exception is boxwood, which thrives when you add a couple of cups of wood ash to its soil in the spring.

Lawns, however, are another matter. Their soils can become overly acidic over time, especially in the Northeast and especially in years of heavy rainfall.

So get your lawn’s soil pH tested. If it needs adjustment (which would be any number under pH 6 or 6.5), apply one and one-third the amount of wood ash that the soil test recommends for lime. (For instance, if the test says to spread 10 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet of turf, spread 13 pounds of ash.)

The ash will raise the soil pH and bring small amounts of other nutrients to the mix.

Heavyweight fight: honeysuckle vs. raspberries!

C.J. in Fredericksburg has another question. He writes: “I have a section of my garden that was once a nice raspberry patch, but it’s been taken over by honeysuckle that jumped my neighbor’s fence. Are there any effective ways to remove it? My plan was to try and dig up any raspberry vines I can save, and then try to dig or plow the honeysuckle up.”

Don’t do anything now, C.J. Wait until spring, when new raspberry canes will pop up all throughout your patch. Carefully and slowly pull out these new plants, roots and all, and use them to establish a new patch nearby.

Then, rip out all the honeysuckle you can. Rip it off the fence. Rip it out of your raspberries. Rip, rip, rip until it seems to be all gone. If any honeysuckle vines regrow in the old raspberry patch, soak the soil and carefully pull them out, roots and all. Don’t till up the patch, or you’ll have honeysuckle forever.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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