Fruit in hand and on stem


Sweet, Juicy, & Tolerant

Nanking cherries (Prunus tomentosa) are now at their peak of perfection, sweet and sprightly flavored, brilliant red in color, still firm, and, as usual, abundant. Nanking cherries are very juicy and not stingy to release the juice. Straight up, it’s the most refreshing juice imaginable.Picking Nanking cherries

You’ve never heard of Nanking cherries? Understandable since they are an uncommon fruit. (And warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, now out of print but in the works for updating and expanding.) As the name tells you, they are native to China, more generally to the cold, semi-arid regions of Asia. This provenance tells you something about the toughness of the plant, where it weathers winter temperatures below minus 20 degrees F. and summer temperatures as high as 110 degrees F. Read more

Wisteria flowers


Shoots vs. Flowers

Around this time of year, few plants are as dramatically beautiful as a well-grown wisteria, whose chains of lavender flowers drip like little waterfalls from the branches. I’ve always wanted one, and now I have one. Wisteria flowersBut I’ll keep in mind a common complaint people have with wisteria: The frustration when a wisteria plant is all shoots and no flowers!

This problem has some causes and some solutions. The common complaint can often be traced to something as simple as a poor plant or a poor site. Perhaps Read more

Heath bed from NE


A Little History

Walking down the path alongside my home first thing this morning, I looked to my right and was wowed. What I saw warranted bragging rights. Flowers in red, pink, white, and a touch of purple against a backdrop of varying shades of green leaves, some sparkling with reflected light, others mat, holding onto any reflections. Heart-shaped leaves, lance-shaped leaves, and compound leaves livened the backdrop. All of it set off against the solid backdrop of the red brick wall.Heath bed from NE

Although I chose and planted all that I admired, not too much credit for it was mine. This was no carefully planned design laid out on paper with squiggly shapes representing plants and their locations, each shape labeled with plant names and varieties, perhaps even a note to flower colors.

Twenty plus years ago, the site was a strip of sloping lawn on the east and north sides of my home. Imagining myself one day slipping while mowing with my foot sliding beneath the mower that birthed a plan for building a rock wall at the base of the slope which would be backfilled with soil. No more slope and no more mowing.

The Heath Family Stays Together for a Reason

And so was borne my “heath bed,” a bed of various plants in the Heath Family, Ericaceae. Grouping such plants together was not just a botanical plaything; it had function. Read more

Apricot trees in bloom


High Hopes

Apple, pear, and plum branches frothing in white blooms this spring foretold of bountiful crops of these fruits. Wrong. They foretold of the potential for bountiful crops. I’ve mentioned before the abundance of insect and disease pests that lurk here, ready for action, and the potential for late spring frosts. So I don’t get my hopes too, too high with these fruits, except for the pears, European and Asian, which are naturally pest-free here.

Lots of things can be blamed for a barren fruit tree, bringing disappointment no matter what the cause.

Apricot trees in bloom

Apricot trees in bloom

If the tree is young and not yet of flowering age, fruitlessness can be forgiven. Pears, for all their qualities, are typically slow to come into bearing.

Who Needs a Mate?

There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Read more

Cardinal flower


A Plant’s Perspective

No matter what you’re growing, and especially if you’re growing most fruits or vegetables, you need to know what “full sun” and “part shade” mean. People with shady yards often have their own definitions.

The tall trees that surrounded my father’s yard created lots of shade; he once planted a grapevine in what he called a sunny spot, which was where the leafy tree canopy spread open enough to let a ray of sunlight peek through for about an hour at 12:30. The grape vine did grow, but bore a paltry crop, and those grapes it did bear were sour.

Grapes need “full sun. “Full sun” to a plant means direct, unobstructed sunlight for at least five or six hours a day. Besides vegetable gardens and most fruit trees, many flowers also require this exposure.

Sometimes Shade is Tolerable

There are plants that are well adapted to, even need, shade in their youth, but require more sunlight as they age. Maples and beeches, for example, as well as other forest trees which start out as seedlings in the shade of existing forests, but eventually reach light and become the canopy itself.Forests of maples in autumn color

Pawpaw, which is a forest tree native throughout the eastern part of this country, is also in this category. That applies to seedling trees, that is, trees Read more

Climbing hydrangea


Get hip. Hydrangeas are all the rage these days. If you do have a plant or plants, you may have to prune them. But hydrangea isn’t just one kind of plants; a number of species are popular. Before you approach your hydrangea or hydrangeas, pruning shears in hand, you’ve got to know what species you are growing. They differ in their pruning needs.Climbing hydrangea

Adapting the text from my book, The Pruning Book, I’m going to give you a (figurative) hand by explaining how to identify each commonly  grown species, and then guiding your hand holding the shears.

You’re Probably Growing…

If you grow just one hydrangea, I’ll bet that it’s Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). This species is most recognizable for sporting electric blue or lively pink flower heads, blue when the soil pH is below 5.5 and pink when the pH is above 6.5. Read more

Juvenile oak trees


Old Skirts

Looking at trees that usually drop their leaves in winter, you might notice that some of them — especially beeches and oaks — wear skirts of foliage all winter long. I say “skirts” because if the trees were human, the leaves would all be at skirt-level. Rather than being lush and green, these skirts are dried and brown or gray, just like their counterparts on the ground.

These trees, still clinging to their leaves, aren’t out of synch with the environment. Nor does this habit reflect the effect of climate change or nighttime lighting. The oak and beech branches cling to their leaves because the branches are “juvenile,” and reluctance to drop leaves is one sign of juvenility in plants.

Juvenile oak trees

Juvenile oak trees

(Artificial lighting and a warming climate have been shown, though, to delay leaf drop in autumn and advance the time when leaves unfold in spring, just how much depending on the tree species and the duration and the color of the light.)

Changes with Maturity

Juvenility in plants is akin to prepuberty in humans: during this period plants grow but are incapable of sexual reproduction, that is, flowering, then setting seed. Read more

Cardoon & Fig


Here’s a backward story and a forward story.

About plants, of course. And the plants are linked in that both of them are native to the Mediterranean region. But for centuries, both plants have been grown world-wide wherever winters are mild. And, with some special attention, by enthusiast (such as me), in gardens where winters are frigid.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the two plants. If not, they are cardoon and fig. Let’s start with the backward story, which is the one about cardoon.

Cardoon & Fig

Cardoon & Fig

A Florific Season in the Offing (I Know It’s not a Word)

The end of the cardoon story begins with my memory of last summer’s very bold plant whose whorl of glaucous, spiny leaves rose three feet or more above ground level. Read more


I Almost Become Very, Very Rich

My vision became blurred with dollar signs as I looked out the car window at mile after mile of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) clambering over trees along a stretch of parkway. That was a few years ago, as I was driving away from a visit to New York City. While there, I had wandered into a florists’ shop, where I had been stunned by the price for a few sprigs of bittersweet. A quick mental calculation as I gazed out the car window told me there was gold in them thar’ trees.Bittersweet on trees

My financial empire crumbled before it even had a chance to grow. In some states, bittersweet is a protected plant. Anyone harvesting a protected plant from private property without the landowner’s permission may be subject to a fine.

To look at bittersweet, you might very well mistake it for a weed. The plant is a rampant, fast-growing vine. Given support, it will climb skyward twenty feet or more. Bittersweet can engulf small trees and shrubs, even kill them by twining around, then strangling them.

And bittersweet isn’t found in restricted ecological niches over a small geographic area. The plant grows wild in thickets and along roadsides over an area bounded by southeastern Canada across to the Dakotas, south to Texas, and then back across to North Carolina.

Read more


Good Answer

When someone asks me how they should prune their hydrangea, I give them the answer that most people don’t like to any question “It depends.” What else can I say? It DOES depend. One or more of a few species of hydrangeas commonly make their home in our yards, and you have to approach each, pruning shears or loppers in hand, differently.

Let me tease apart the answer by, first, taking a look a what hydrangea or hydrangeas we may be growing, and then how they grow and flower, which, in turn, speaks to when and where to start snipping away.Climbing hydrangea at Mohonk Mountain House

Mopheads and Lacecaps, and Oakleafs

If the hydrangea plant in question is a shrub bearing blue or pink flowers, it’s a so-called Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla). Mopheads types, also called hortensias, bear softball to volleyball size clusters of florets. Lacecap types bear flat-topped cluster of small, hardly conspicuous florets surrounded by rims of showy, larger, 4-petalled florets.Mophead hydrangea

Whether mophead or lacecap, Bigleaf Hydrangeas flowers open from buds they set up the previous year. Those buds are big and fat, in contrast to the skinny buds that grow out to become shoots.

Prune Bigleaf Hydrangea stems as far as the fat buds while the plants are leafless (now, for instance). Right after bloom, cut the stems further back to near ground level.

Problem is that while the plants can stand up to bitter cold, the flower buds can’t, expiring at temperatures below about minus 5° Fahrenheit. Some varieties set their flower buds lower on the stem than do others. Their buds might more reliably stand up to winter cold if plants are mulched in late fall with some loose organic material like straw or arborists’ wood chips.

Pushing Bigleaf Hydrangea growing further north are some recently developed varieties that bloom on new, growing shoots. These new varieties — the first one of which was named Endless Summer — will bloom anywhere. Blossoms on new shoots unfurl later in the season than those on older wood, too late in some gardens (like mine, some years). Cutting back older shoots after they flower fuels a better show from the young, growing shoots. 

Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is another hydrangea that is very cold hardy, except for it flower buds. Flowers sit on the ends of stems in elongated clusters, like cotton candy. Oakleaf Hydrangea can be pruned just like Bigleaf Hydrangea, except that it grows as a large shrub so need not be cut back so much.Oakleaf hydrangea

Lack of a flowery show from Oakleaf Hydrangea is no loss because a billowing mound or mounds of the oak-like leaves are attractive in their own right through summer, and also in fall, when the leaves turn rich, burgundy red. Even where winter cold would test the reliability of flowering, Oak Leaf Hydrangea is often planted solely for its form and its leaves.

A Beautiful Climber

Years ago, I planted a Climbing Hydrangea (H. animal petiolaris) at the base of the north wall of my home. It took a couple of years or more to get in gear, but now completely clothes that wall. Though leafless through winter, the peeling, light mahogany bark stands prettily against the brick red backdrop. Hydrangea animala barkSoon the stems will be draped in glossy, green leaves and, a little after that, white flowers that stand proud of the wall on short stalks and glow against their dark backdrop like a starry night.

This time of year my pruning consists of shortening shorten flower stalks that reach too far out from the wall and vigorous stems that keep trying to sneak around the wall to clothe the rest of the house. Twice in summer I prune stems again to restrain the plant to only the north wall.

Perhaps I’ll plant another Climbing Hydrangea at the base of my 90 foot tall Norway spruce that with age is thinning out. The hydrangea tolerates sun or shade, and can climb a tree without causing harm.

And, Easiest of All

Rounding out this romp through pruning hydrangeas are two of the easiest to prune plants of the species. The first, Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens), grows long shoots from ground level, each capped in early summer with half-foot-wide clusters of of white or pastel flowers. To prune, just lop all stems right to the ground in late winter or early spring.Smooth Hydrangea

And finally, we come to PeeGee, sometimes called Panicle, Hydrangea (H. paniculata grandiflora), growing like a small tree or large shrub. This one blossoms in late summer on new growth, so if it is going to be pruned, that needs to be done before growth begins. Hydrangea paniculataWith that said, Panicle Hydrangea develops a permanent trunk or trunks, making it difficult to reach high into its dense head for pruning. No matter, because the plant flowers quite well with little or no pruning.

Hydrangea is only one group of closely related plants where species differ in how they are pruned. Roses would be another example; climbing roses are pruned very differently from rambling roses, which are pruned very differently from . . . you get the picture. Clematis also. For more details about the individual pruning needs of these as well as lots of other trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, fruits, and houseplants, and special pruning techniques like pollarding, mowing and scything (yes, that’s pruning!), and espalier, take a look at my book The Pruning Book. It’s available through the usual sources or, signed, directly from me here.The Pruning Book