I wrote this article about pruning and dead heading hydrangeas a while back. The information still holds true. This is one of my most asked about subjects. Enjoy! John
A rare beautiful January day found us preparing some new flower beds for Ms. Marion, who most people around here refer to as “The hydrangea lady.” I knew she was working in the yard and I really wasn’t paying attention to what she was doing until I walked by a garden cart full of old, brown hydrangea blooms that had been freshly cut.
old hydrangea blooms removed from the garden in January
Since I get asked about cutting, deadheading, and shaping hydrangeas quite often, and since Marion is the most knowledgeable hydrangea grower I ever met, I went looking for her to see what was going on. I found her bent over a planting of hydrangeas, busily working her pruning shears.
Morning coffee conversations with my redneck friend Bubba give me a lot of things to think about. I like to share these stories and observations on occasion.
Bubba comes to my “office” for coffee about three mornings a week. He usually shows up at 7:45. I had told him that 7 until 8:30 in the morning is my quiet time that I use for writing and ciphering and such as that, but he just keeps on coming. One day, I decided to write down some of the things he was telling me in order to make up for the interruption. Bubba doesn’t seem to mind if I am typing while he talks.
Bubba likes them squirrels
Today, Bubba was all excited about training squirrels. He said he was going to make a bunch of money.
I stopped by to visit Bubba the other day and he was hanging lights on the leafless dogwood tree in his front yard. I looked at it admiringly and asked, “Bubba, just what do you call this creation?”
Bubba backed up and grinned and told me “hit’s a Christmas tree.”
He continued, “during most of the year we call it a dogwood tree, but here about Christmas time we call it our Christmas tree. And just to make sure it has the true spirit of Christmas, Look right here….”
He pointed to a limb. “See here, John, here’s a bullet hanging in it.”
I sort of wondered how the bullet made it into a Christmas tree and I could feel my eyebrows rise in a questioning manner. Bubba laughed,
“The tree ain’t got no leaves on it. Ain’t you ever heard of a Cartridge…
Poor Sweetie. She loves her Christmas tree but it’s wide and bushy and I found her trying to figure out how to get water into the Christmas tree stand. John the Plant Man to the rescue
I found poor Sweetie down on her knees wondering how she would get water to the base of the Christmas tree
I waited around for a while to see what she would do and I walked in to see her perplexed.
“What do I do? This is getting to be complicated”
So, I went to Ace Hardware and got a plastic funnel and a roll of Christmas Duct tape. It was rather difficult to find Christmas colored Duct tape but it was there. I found a piece of ¾ pvc pipe in my irrigation left overs.
A funnel, red duct tape, and a piece of pipe should do the job
I rescued an ivy plant the other day. It had obviously been a gift from a florist at one time but had been relegated to a refuse heap. I made up a story about it:
A creative wholesale plant grower had decided to see if he could shape an ivy plant. He worked on it for a while and after a year or so it started looking good. A discerning florist visited the grower’s greenhouse and took a fancy to the plant.
A lady needed to get a gift for a friend “who had everything.” She entered the florist shop and decided that surely her friend didn’t have an ivy plant that had been so lovingly shaped. She bought it and the florist delivered it to her friend who also loved it.
The plant eventually “died” and was thrown away. An over-worked garbage truck worker accidentally dropped the plant on the side of the road and, instead of picking it up, kicked it into the gutter. A puppy that had gotten out of its fence found the plant, shook it around, and took it off to the woods.
After these and several other adventures, the plant ended up in a pile of leaves under an oak tree in some far-distant woods. It turned out that the plant was not all the way dead but was depressed from having to live inside a house so it became introverted and quit growing.
When the plant ended up in some leaves under an oak tree it was happy and it started stretching out its limbs and trying to be pretty again.
A crazy guy named John happened upon the plant and took it home to his wife. He said, “Sweetie, I brought you something that needs fixing.” His wife loved the plant and she knew just what to do and just how to do it.
Sweetie made an educated guess that the plant would like to live under the dappled sunlight of an oak tree and she made a place for it. She cleaned it up and put it in a well-drained pot. The plant was happy.
The ivy copies the oak tree and grows a nice trunk
Tune in next week for more adventures of John the Plant Man.
I was pruning a few bonsai trees for a client. This task allows plenty of time for pondering and I got to thinking about the number of ways I apply bonsai techniques to other pruning situations.
One of my first and most popular articles that I wrote some time ago is about “The Basics of Pruning”(click) which tells about ways in which the plant responds to different pruning actions such as cutting tips and removing side growth. Aside from the fact that I shape and maintain a lot of sculptured plants for clients, My wife Dekie and I enjoy plant shaping as a hobby. I periodically bring home old scraggly plants that nobody wants and we shape them up for our collection. We plan to use our collection for a decorative project in our back yard next spring. (the shoemaker’s children being barefoot applies here). Here’s a picture of Dekie working on a new acquisition:
Someone planted two Leyland cypress in our yard a number of years ago and they are too close together, too close to the property line, and a stupid choice for a small back yard. I was getting ready to take them out 6 years ago when someone told me that if you cut the top out of a Leyland cypress it would die. That didn’t sound right to me so I came home and cut the tops our of ours. That was six years ago. We’ve kept them pruned to the top of the neighbor’s eight foot fence. They ain’t died yet.
On one of my jobs we kept pruning a Hollywood juniper that was in a large pot. It finally got to the point that it needed to get out of the pot and in the ground so we put it in a place that needed a nice plant. I work on it about twice a year. We are working on turning this location into something nice. I will include that before this series is completed.
This dwarf cryptomeria has been in a put and used in a foundation planting for over three years. We will trim it this fall and it will begin a process of miniaturization.
In my work I really abhor the use of Leyland cypress and/or Bradford pear trees. They are over-used, space consuming, smelly, and problematic. They are famous for growing too rapidly and falling apart in storms. I am being kind here. I could say some bad things about these plants.
However, if these trees are shaped properly, they will serve well. I have told you above about the Leylands in my yard. Here is a Bradford pear that my friend Santos planted in his yard 15 years ago. He prunes and shapes it every year. I have seen this tree withstand snow storms that have torn other Bradford pears apart.
And today I’ll finish with a black pine that I plant years ago and have maintained faithfully. This is one of my favorites.
Thanks for visiting Johntheplantman. As I have said, I am currently working on a full-color book on pruning techniques for ornamental plants. My wife and I are excited and we would love your suggestions and recommendations for what you would like to see in it. Leave a comment, if you please—John P. Schulz
In September I wrote an article titled, “Design a Landscape To Be Seen Through the Living Room Window.” My brother, Tom is a gifted artist and I have had paintings of his on my living room walls for years and years. I think it is fun now that, maybe, I can give him something for his wall. It’s not a picture but it is visible through the living room window.
Back in September, I had sprayed the weeds and set the plants out where they needed to be. Tom’s wife, Sheila, got a person to come and help with the labor a couple of weeks later. The window picture started changing rapidly:
The plants were installed and cypress chips were spread for an effective and attractive mulch. I like a shredded wood mulch on a hillside, too. It stays in place well and holds other things in place. The mulch also holds moisture well.
I like the way the color of the mulch turned this mountainside front yard into a river-like illusion.
I had also marked a lot of scrub trees that needed to be removed. I was happy to see a picture of the finished product. Sheila wanted white flowers and the “Emil Moliere” hydrangeas will make quite a show.
Interactions of Tom and Olive remind me of Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear. Olive remarked that things certainly did look different and that there would be no more worry about Tom having an accident while mowing that steep bank.
Sheila admires things from the street. All is well. Tom is grinning because of “happy wife, happy life,”
Every year when the first cool front of October rolls in I get lots and lots of questions about pruning their landscape and house plants. For years I have enjoyed shaping plants while picturing what they will look like next year or after several years have passed.
This week I have gone into my daunting list of past articles on pruning to review. Here are a few of the links. I hope they help.
I got a text message the other day saying that the Japanese maples needed pruning. I had been expecting this so I shifted my schedule around, sharpened my Felco pruning shears, grabbed my camera and headed out.
My friend Tommy called me the other day. It seems that we had planted a large yaupon holly tree in his front yard a number of years ago and I shaped it into a topiary form. Tommy has kept it pruned for a number of years but now he is getting too old to want to get on the ladder any more. Notice the wording—not “too old to get on the ladder”, but “too old to wantto get on the ladder.”
Pruning season is coming up. I wrote this article some time ago in answer to the many questions I receive about pruning. It’s really a very simple process.
Growing a plant is one thing. Shaping plants well is an art form and adds another dimension to your plant growing experience. Here is an article that tells you what happens when you prune. This information applies to just about any kind of shrub or tree.
Even though it was long ago I can still picture the lady. She was bent over and wrinkled. Her skin looked like aged leather. She had a cane that had been carved from a stick that was also bent and twisted from growing with a vine wrapped around it. I was a five-year-old boy growing up in the rural south and I was busy watching, noticing, and learning about the wonders around me.
It is a vivid memory. I was crouched down staring at a most peculiar spider which was spinning a most peculiar web when I heard the old lady’s most peculiar voice as she said, “Don’t point at it.”
“What?” I asked as my hand began moving up to point at the spider. My hand was gently pushed aside by the lady’s cane.
“That’s a writing spider,” she said. “If you point at her she will write your name in the web and you will die.”
That’s all I remember about that particular conversation but I filed the information in my mind under the category of “things not to do.” At that age, that particular category was not over-crowded. I was brave, terribly brave, and I was much more interested in finding things to do than in finding things not to do. I was definitely not interested in dying because I pointed at a writing spider. I had pirates to sword fight with and dragons to slay. I had paint to spill and track all over the hardwood floors and I had a charred stick that I had rescued from a trash fire that I would use to practice my writing lessons on my grandmother’s white carpet. Yes, I was busy. I had no time to be pointing at spiders.
Thirty years flew by and I was walking around one day with my son, J.R. There was a basic difference in J.R. and I in that I looked at things with the literal leanings of a writer and he was an artist. Actually, J.R., at the age of five, was already an accomplished artist and I have found out over the years that an artist looks at things with a different point of view. As we walked along that day I saw a writing spider. I told J.R. to put his hands in his pockets. He did. Then I told him about pointing at a writing spider. I passed on what the old lady had told me when I was about his age. And, believe me, I made sure he didn’t point at that spider. I didn’t want him to die from a spider pointing while I was in charge—what would I tell his mother?
Then, thirty more years went by like a bat out of hell and J.R. is now recognized as an accomplished artist and he has a home of his own. He also has a new daughter. I like to visit him every now and then. I was visiting him yesterday when he told me about his new pet. It was a writing spider that was building a web on the glass door leading to the deck. He crouched down to study the web and to see how it was developing.
“I’ve been feeding it and watching it,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a pet writing spider. My wife is not impressed or excited about it.”
He thought for a moment and looked over at me. “You know, Dad, I never told you because I didn’t want you to worry but after you told me about writing spiders, I wasn’t all that much afraid of dying, I just wanted to see a spider write my name. I used to point at them all the time and I never died and they never once wrote my name in the web. But I still like to watch.”
I like to “paint pictures” with plants and I enjoy the fact that there are four dimensions to these paintings—height, width, depth, and time. With time and plant growth the painting is constantly changing. It is very nice, too, to have a “picture frame”—in this case, the living room window.
My brother, Tom and his lovely wife, Sheila live in a hilltop home in Weaverville, N.C. just outside of Asheville. When I visited last May, Sheila asked me to think about how to plant the front yard and hill in a manner that would create a hillside garden which would look good from her comfy couch in the living room. The garden would also need to serve as a screen. Sheila was a bit picky, too. She asked for a collection of evergreens with something silver, and to have some white flowering plants incorporated into the planting. I collected plants all summer and Dekie and I loaded the truck and took them to the mountains on September 13. We timed the trip around the fact that my sweet mother would also be visiting.
When we got there we realized that there was yet another problem that we had to deal with. The original “landscapers” had installed what I often refer to as a “close the loan special” and had planted not one, but three cute little gold mop cypress plants at the front of the walkway. I guess they didn’t know or didn’t care that these plants grow into giant trees. It looked like this:
I told Tom and Sheila that they would have three choices, Take the trees out, put in a new walkway, or prune and maintain the trees in a nice tree form shape that would get the foliage up above the pedestrian traffic. They wisely chose pruning. Dekie was a wonderful helper. We determined that there were three main trunks in the planting and we began taking off the lower growth to expose them.
Since there had been three individual plants in the original planting we tried to maintain the center trunk from each of them. I stood back to check out the progress.
When we finished Mom came out to give her approval. I explained that at this point in the shaping of the plants, the important part was that the tops of the trees remain uncut. When they reach nine or ten feet high we will trim the tops and the foliage will begin to grow sideways and form a canopy.
It was time to start on the main part of the design. The first thing I do in such a situation is to use my handy paint gun and paint a line to show where the bed will go. After the line is painted I spray all of the weeds and grasses to kill them. Working with the orange line gives me a good reference for spraying and design.
Sheila and I discussed the overall concept of the bank planting as well as the fact that phase two would take out a chunk of the planting by the walk way and replace it with grass.
Then I began laying out the plants. I had chosen a palmatum Japanese maple, dwarf butterfly bushes (buzz series) with white flowers, white hydrangeas (Emily Moliere and white oak leaf), Black Prince cryptomeria, Foster hollies (for red Christmas berries), “plum yew” (cephalotaxus), and for a big splash of silver blue I added an Arizona cypress “Carolina Sapphire.” It’s going to take a few years but this is going to be one fine garden.
Since I am recovering from a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome in my right hand, Sheila made arrangements with someone to come in and install the plants later. My job was to lay them out and then it would be nap time. I got busy. Here is the layout from the side:
After the planting, the garden area will be mulched with shredded cypress mulch. The mulch will finish off the design and the view through the window will be delightful. Here’s how I left it: