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Brenda's Garden
by Brenda Beust Smith

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Pruning Shears Rule in Brenda's Garden

Althaea and Underpruned Hamelia (hummingbird bush)

God made rainy days so gardeners could get the housework done.
  ~Author Unknown

Two email questions close to my heart came in from readers.  I used to "make standards" a lot out of shrubs.  Now that I'm older, and less inclined to bend my garden to my own will, I do this less, 'cause it's a lot of work.

But if you've got the energy, underpruning is a fun way to expand your garden spaces and create unusual focal points for your garden.

DEAR BRENDA:  I want to plant some daylilies and other lower-growers around my althaeas.  But they keep sending out these lower branches.  Can I cut them off?  SALLY

DEAR BRENDA:  At a public garden, I saw this gorgeous hummingbird shrub pruned into a tree.  It was so impressive!  How did they do that?  CAROLE

DEAR CAROLE & SALLY.  You're both talking about underpruning which is a great way to make gardens more vertical.  Most landscapes tend to be horizontal, with lots of ground level, or slightly taller plants.  Creating colorful focal points up high expands the horizons of your yard upward, making it more visually interesting.

This also gives you more planting room underneath.

Underpruning is a technique for taking traditional shrubs — such as hamelia (hummingbird bush) and althaeas — and turning them into trees. 

Study the structure of the shrub over winter when stalks are bare of leaves.  The younger the shrub when you start, the better.  But there's no reason why you can't do this on established shrubs as well. 

Select three to five strong vertical stalks.  Prune away all the horizontal side branches from the bottom two-thirds.  As the leaves appear, pluck them off the lower two-thirds. 

You don't want to remove all the leaves, because the root system needs some to replenish itself.

Removing all this lower growth will force new top growth.  As the shrub gets taller, gradually remove more of the lowest branches. When the lowest part reaches the height you want, quit removing side branches and let the canopy fill out. 

You'll have to continue removing lower sprouting branches and leaves for maybe a few years.  Gradually the lower stalks will harden and form "trunks."

It's a good idea to stake the "trunks" at first.  These are going to be weaker than they would have been if left alone and would be more susceptible to wind damage.

Also mulch them well to get them through the hot dry summer in good shape.

These shrub/trees will get taller than the shrub would have if left alone.  But the beauty of all those overhead flowers will more than compensate for the extra work.

DEAR BRENDA:  We live in southwest Houston.  Our avocado tree has had fruit for the past few years.  But this past winter really knocked it out.  Here it is late summer and it's finally starting to show some hardy regrowth.  Will it return and bear again? Ditto for my plumerias!  JAMES

DEAR JAMES:  Wish I could tell you for sure.  Our past decade of short, warm winters lulled all of us into taking for granted plants that, two decades ago, we'd never have expected to live over winter.

If, 20 years ago, you'd told me folks would be planting plumerias and bougainvillea right in their yards, I'd have said, "What crazy folks!"  I'd have been even more shocked if you'd said people would get avocados to bear! 

Just goes to show you how much things have changed.

The answer is, I don't know.  It depends on what our winter is like this year.  Obviously you have good root systems on your avocado and plumerias or they wouldn't have come back at all, even this late.  So they're well worth saving.

On the other hand, those root systems have been terribly stressed, so another winter could be too much for them.

My suggestion is to not expect flowers or fruit this year, or maybe even next year, should they survive again.  Work some good quality compost into the soil around the plants.  Don't fertilize.  You don't want to trigger top growth now, which will put even more stress on the root systems.  You can fertilize next spring if they survive.

Mulch them well now, and add more mulch in December.

If we have hard freezes this winter, water well beforehand.  Dehydrated roots will suffer freeze damage long before well-hydrated ones.  Cover them well, even maybe running a little heater or light bulb out to the plant. 

Then — sorry to have to add this! — think  positive thoughts!

Brazilian red cloakDEAR BRENDA:  At my garden club meeting, I won a Brazilian red cloak.  I'm not even sure what to do with it but the picture on the pot is absolutely gorgeous.  J.T.

DEAR J.T.:  I have one that I absolutely adore.  It was the one plant in the yard that I prayed the most would survive this past winter.  It did, but it's still only about 3 foot high.  Last year it was about 8 foot tall. 

I'm not complaining.  I'm so grateful it's still alive.

These need part sun, but not full blasting sun.  Morning sun would be best.  They like a well drained, friable soil  In Houston, where we have rich-albeit-thick gumbo soil, it's a good idea to raise the bed a bit. Mulch well. 

These are very tropical plants.  So if you can plant where they are sheltered a bit on the north side by thick plantings or a wall, that might help.  Good luck!

I got mine (pictured here) from Jerry Seymore of Jerry's Jungle Gardens, a fabulous resource for tropicals that are Houston-hardy.  (This private garden is also a great place for garden club tours!)  Log on for the details about Jerry's October sale of his excess plants.)

Cosmos with seedsDEAR BRENDA:  My cosmos is full of seeds.  Can I replant them? How?  S. C.

DEAR S. C.:  Nothing could be easier. Just pick them off the plants and scatter them wherever you'd like more plants.  Walk on the soil to guarantee seed-soil contact.  Water well, and watch them sprout.  They're great for children because they sprout so easily and kids love to "dance" on the seeds!

This month you really should . . .
Plant wildflower seed in raised beds as soon as it starts getting a little cooler.
• Refrigerate tulips, hyacinths, muscari and crocus.  They need 4-6 weeks of cold before you plant them in the garden.

If the spirit moves . . .
Remove spent flowers from crepe myrtles and vitex so they'll bloom again. Cut back tomatoes and okra for more fruit production.
• Plant artichokes, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflowers (and other winter vegetables)
• Divide cannas, daylilies, Louisiana iris and violets if they didn't bloom as well as in the past.

If you're feeling REALLY energetic . . .
Leach potted plants to remove accumulated salts.  Set on a raised platform, with the drain hole free.  Repeatedly pour water through the soil.
• Prune off little branches that hide pyracantha berries (ditto for mallow flowers)
• Start cuttings of favorite impatiens, begonias and similar softwood plants.

*Excerpted from the LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD (see below), which contains a lot need-to-do-now monthly chores!

P.S.  Don't miss new posts. Make the Lazy Gardener's Blog ( your home page.

Brenda Beust Smith (Features > Brenda's Garden)
Email Brenda for list of area gardening/environmental speakers ($5) andlist of her topics for garden club presentations ($250-$300)

"THE LAZY GARDENER'S GUIDE ON CD" — a gardening book on CD offers gardening tips plus 12 pre-designed gardens for butterflies, hummers, sun, shade and more. Monthly what-to-do reminders for Greater Houston/Gulf Coast gardens. $20 each. Make checks payable to Brenda B. Smith & mail to: Lazy Gardener's Guide on CD, 14011 Greenranch,
 Houston, TX 77039-2103.

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