Life or death decisions in August

It’s late summer, and time for the garden to wind down. But this summer’s child isn’t ready to quit just yet, thank you very much. We had a miserable winter and cold spring, and my garden – and I – are running way behind schedule.

I’ve been practicing garden triage so far this year, cutting back deep-rooted weeds instead of digging them up. I can’t be everywhere, so that’s going to have to do for a while. I don’t feel terribly guilty about this – and neither should you. If you chop the dang things down, at least you’ll keep them from flowering and spreading their kind even more. Dig when you’re able.

Pruning basics

I really, really need to do some pruning, and that involves some life or death decisions.

I learned the general rules of pruning from a talk by New York State gardener Lee Reich years ago. (His book, The Pruning Book, is wonderful.) Basically:

• Pruning stimulates new growth at the place where the cut was made.

• Prune spring-bloomers right after they bloom.

• Prune late-bloomers in early spring.

• Prune roses just when the leaf buds break in spring.

• Prune mophead hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) in early spring, because they bloom in late summer

• Leave Hydrangea paniculata alone.

But, Lord help me. This spring was chaotic, and I now have a riot of meshing branches all over the place.

The spirea is trying to take over the front garden, hiding masses of deadwood behind its advancing front line. The forsythia is reaching out to grab passers-by on the sidewalk. The cotoneaster is attacking at ground level, spreading out to carpet the pavement. And my Little Lamb H. paniculata is flopping all about.

Thank heavens I did my duty and chopped back the Annabelle H. arborescens in early summer before they grew to the size of an elephant.

Yes, folks, those dark green shrubs with big white balls of bloom are nearly impossible to kill – chop away at them to your heart’s content early on.

Breaking the rules

So what to do with my remaining problem children shrubs? I consulted a fabulous Facebook resource, The Garden Professors Blog, where you can ask weird questions without shame. And I learned some helpful new things. (A quick note here: Facebook is not only for seeing pictures of babies, cats and puppies; there are hugely useful garden pages there, too.)

At this time of year, most of the pesky plants I mentioned are getting ready for winter dormancy. So I don‘t have to worry so much about my cuts stimulating new growth. The Garden Professors (real PhDs at four US universities) tell me that plants that can take low winter temperatures won’t be much disturbed by my mistimed pruning.

Worth the gamble

The worst that will happen is that they may be somewhat dwarfed next year, because I’ll be removing some of the growth resources stored in their stems. Good. Maybe they’ll behave themselves better next time.

I will lose spring flowers if I trim the forsythia. That’s because they flower on the previous year’s wood (e.g., next year’s flowers come from the branches that grew this year). But the bits in question are so spindly and unattractive that I think I can do without any sparse blooms they may squeezer out.

As for those sprawling cotoneasters, the sprigs will simply have to go. They’re hardy up to Barrie, so I think I can risk it. Any deadwood, I know I can safely chop out – zombie plants can’t hurt me.


Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer

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