Small Plants

Weeding. Planting. Harvesting. Making compost. Spreading compost. Staking. Pruning. Mowing. These are some of the activities I share with my plants this time of year. But, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in his 1870 classic, My Summer in a Garden, “Blessed be agriculture! If one does not have too much of it.” Which prompts me to weed, plant, harvest, etc. most efficiently.

Bush cherry, 1 month after planting

Bush cherry, 1 month after planting

    Let’s take a look at some of the trees and shrubs I’ve planted this spring: Romeo and Carmen Jewel bush cherries, aronia, Grainger shellbark hickory, Great Wall Asian persimmon, Rosa canina, and Hidcote St. Johnswort. Just getting all those plants through their first season could entail lugging around many buckets of water. But it doesn’t.
    Large plants of any of these could possibly be sourced but I chose small plants. And that was the first step to making sure that, paraphrasing C. W., I wasn’t overburdened with my agriculture.
    With smaller root systems, small plants establish more quickly than large plants. In fact, establishing more quickly, smaller plants usually outgrow their larger counterparts after a few years.
    A tree or shrub with a two-foot diameter root ball might require 3 gallons of water weekly until enough roots foraged out into surrounding soil to make the plant self-sufficient water-wise. Two cups of water weekly is enough to keep my newly planted Romeo bush cherry alive since its move from the 4-inch-diameter pot it previously called home.
    By the end of this growing season, all these small plants will be firmly established and pretty much water independent. They’ll get supplemental water only if there’s any extended dry spells in their second season.

Small Planting Holes

    Water for these young plants isn’t all about watering per se.
    Site preparation is also important. Not that, as older gardening books used to suggest, it’s “better to dig a $50 hole for a $5 tree than a $5 hole for a $50 tree,” the dollar amounts reflecting the size of the tree and the hole. No need for such heroic measures. Digging that large a hole breaks up the capillary channels in a large volume of soil, leaving large air gaps in the soil through which water just runs down and out. Capillary channels can move water, down, up, and sideways.

Shellbark hickory, 1 mo. after planting

Shellbark hickory, 1 mo. after planting

   Better — and easier — is to dig a hole only twice as wide as the spread of the roots or root ball (if potted), and only as deep as needed so a plants sits at the same depth as it did its pot or the nursery.
    With few exceptions, no need to add compost, peat moss, fertilizer, or anything else to the soil in the planting hole. After all, the expectation is for roots to eventually extend well beyond the planting hole. Create excessively posh conditions in the hole and roots have no incentive to leave. Then roots grow only in their planting hole, not beyond.
    All soil goodies are best lathered on top of the ground. My first choice is for compost. Nutrients and beneficial soil organisms within the compost, over time, meld with the soil below. Compost also softens impact of raindrops so that water can percolate down into the ground rather than running off in rivulets — lessening my need for watering.
    A mulch is the final icing on this layer cake. I’ll top the compost with wood chips, leaves, straw — any weed-free, organic material. This top layer further softens the impact of raindrops, keeps compost moist and vibrant, and slowly decomposes to nourish soil microorganisms and then  the tree or shrub.
    Yesternight’s rain or 1.25” did a week’s watering for me. A good rule of thumb is to apply one-inch of water once a week, or, equivalently, three-quarters of a gallon per estimated square foot spread of the roots. Potted trees and shrubs need that one-inch of water spread over 2 or 3 days of the week for a couple of weeks after being planted, until their roots begin to spread into surrounding soil. Larger tree and shrub transplants need more water, more frequently, for a longer period of time.

Followup on Drastic, and Less Drastic Pruning

    I recently wrote of “renovating” my old lilac shrub, a no-brainer as far as pruning. You just lop each and every part of the plant right to the ground. My fears that such drastic pruning might also kill the plant were unfounded. Already, new sprouts are growing from the sawed off remains of the plant as well as from some distance away. All that’s needed now is to choose which sprouts to keep to grow into a whole new shrub.

Lilac regrowth from stump

Lilac regrowth from stump

    My blueberry shrubs also received more drastic pruning than usual. To lower their height and to encourage and make space for younger, more fruitful stems, I lopped a few of the oldest stems of each bush right to ground level. Like the lilac, new sprouts soon rose from ground level.

Blueberry, new sprouts

Blueberry, new sprouts

    Late next winter, I’ll save the most vigorous of these new sprouts and lop the rest of them all the way to the ground. And, of course, again lop to ground level some of next year’s oldest stems.
    Such pruning (covered in my book The Pruning Book) keeps blueberry and lilacs perennially renewed, without any stems that are too old to flower or fruit well as well as plenty, but not too many, young replacement stems for the future.


Reader Alert: Invasive Plant

    The sweet scent practically bowled me over. My friend, walking with me along the nearby rail trail, characterized the aroma as citrus-y rather than sweet. Either way, the aroma was delicious and welcome. Too bad the source of the scent, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), is a plant so reviled.Autumn olive blossoms
    “Too bad” because the plant also has other qualities. The olive-green leaves lend a Mediterranean feel to any setting. Microorganisms associated with the shrub’s roots garner nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. And come early fall, the plants are loaded with delicious and nutritious, small, red (sometimes yellow) berries.
    Alas, this non-native plant grows too easily, frequenting fields and waysides. It’s deemed invasive, which it is . . .  but?
  Autumn olive fruit  (Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive, E. angustifolium, a close relative that is more tree-like, less invasive, and with sweet, olive-green fruits. Another equally attractive, fragrant, tasty, and soil-building plant is gumi, E. multiflora, not well known but closely related to the other “olives.”)

And Yet Another Invasive

    Soon, by the time you read this, the rail trail and elsewhere will be suffused by another pleasant aroma, that of honeysuckle. These flowers are also followed by red berries, but they’re not edible. (Other honeysuckle species do yield edible berries, an up and coming fruit called haskaps.)Honeysuckle flower
    How could anyone not like a plant with a name like “honeysuckle?” A lot of people don’t like honeysuckle because it too, despite its qualities, is invasive.

You Call This Renovation

    Before anyone attacks me for heaping praise on invasive plants, let’s sidle off the rail trail and back to the home front, where yet another delicious scent fills the air. This one wafts from a plant that, unlike autumn olive, Russian olive, and gumi, is not invasive and is truly in the olive family: lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
    Actually, for years now, my lilac bush has not been perfuming the air as much as it should. The plant is old, my guess is over 50 years old. Not that age alone is responsible for its poor showing. Lilac, like other shrubs, have long-lived root systems. No stem ever develops into a permanent, long-lived trunk and — important for all flowering and fruiting shrubs — after a certain age stems can’t keep up the flower production of its youth.
    The way to prune any flowering or fruiting shrub is by a renewal method. You cut down some of the oldest stems that are no longer performing well. And then you thin out — that is, reduce the number of — some of the youngest stems so that each can develop to its fullest potential without being crowded.
    How long an old stem is worth keeping and how many new stems spring up each year from ground level depends on the kind of shrub and the growing conditions. A highbush blueberry stem, for example, retains its youthful fecundity for about 6 years; a raspberry, for two years.

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

    I’ve pruned my lilac over the years, but — I have to admit — never cut the old stems close enough to the ground nor thinned out the many young stems sufficiently. (My excuse is that the dense crowding of 5-inch-diameter stems made cutting difficult, the difficulty made more so by the haven they provided for poison ivy vines.)
    A non-blooming lilac shrub isn’t worth keeping, so drastic renovation was in order. This treatment can be applied to any old, decrepit shrub. It’s easy. All that’s needed is to cut everything to the ground. Which I did.
    My lilac’s stumps gave evidence to the shrub’s poor showings over the years with their many thick yet half-rotten, old stubs. Shrubby stems, as I wrote, just aren’t meant to live that long, and over time can’t support good flowering.
    If all goes well, new sprouts should soon poke up from ground level, vigorous new sprouts because they’ll be fueled by a large, old root system. It’ll be a few years before any of those sprouts get old enough to start flowering. But I’ll make sure to thin them out so each has room to develop. I promise.

Win a Copy of My Book

A few weeks ago my plum tree was in full bloom, actually only part of it was in full bloom. Winter’s wacky weather? Spring’s wacky weather? Plum, blossoming branchOffer an explanation and, if correct, you’ll be in the pool of readers, one of whom, randomly selected, gets sent a free copy of my book Grow Fruit Naturally. Respond by midnight, May 31st.
GFN Front Cover

Propagation Mania

And the winner of my book giveaway from last week is  . . . (drum roll) . . . reader Meg Webb. Hey Megg, send me an email with your mailing information and I’ll get the book to you. Thanks to everyone else for their feedback.

I have to admit a certain addiction for propagating plants. You would think that, what with sowing cabbage and Brussels sprouts seeds for transplants last week, starting tomato transplants in early April, grafting to make new Korean mountainash and apple trees and . . . ., any appreciation for propagation would be fulfilled.
But no. The seeds within a freshly eaten kumquat; why not plant them? Some of the seeds within a just eaten hardy passionfruit (Passiflora incarnata); plant them also. Not that every seed gets planted. Just some of the more unusual ones or just a few of those that are more usual. Without any restraints, a forest of apple and pear trees would have long ago inundated me.
My mania came to the fore again yesterday as I was neatening up some houseplants. The rose geranium had grown very leggy, with three or four lanky shoots, almost leafless except near their ends,

stretched out to a very unattractive 2 foot length. All that was needed to bring the plant back to its visual glory was to cut everything back to some tufts of leaves sprouting near its base. Which I did.

But those pruned stems; could I really just toss them into the compost pile? No. “Make new plants,” whispered the devil on my left shoulder. Which I did.
All that was needed to make more of this relatively easy-to-propagate plant was to cut the pruned stems into 4 inch lengths, with each bottom cut just below a node and each top cut just above a node. Best wound healing is at nodes, so such cuts avoid dead stubs with poor healing.
All but 2 or 3 leaves were removed from the 4 inch stem segments at the ends of the stems in order to strike a balance between cutting down water loss from the as yet unrooted stem pieces and allowing for some photosynthesis to feed the stem. To grow new leaves and roots, the leafless stems segments will have to rely on their stored energy reserves. To save space, I filled a flowerpot with potting soil and poked each stem segment about two-thirds of its length deep into the soil, then watered.
A clear plastic cover over the planted pot increases humidity to further reduce transpiration of water from leaves until roots form.
Pruning shrubs, which generates a lot of stems, could be a real test of my restraint.
Shrubs are shrubs because they generally don’t have long-lived permanent trunks, like trees. Every year, new stems arise from at or near ground level. The way to prune shrubs, then, is to capitalize on this characteristic, by so-called renewal pruning, each year removing some oldest stems and excess youngest stems (suckers). Pruning is done near or at ground level. In so doing, the roots get older and older but no stem ever gets very old, and youngest stems have room to develop.
Easy enough. The wrinkle in renewal pruning is knowing when a stem has overstayed its welcome. If you know the plant, you can just look up the information — in my book, THE PRUNING BOOK, for instance, in which I group all shrubs into one of four pruning categories.
Easiest of all is to prune is the category of shrubs that includes witch hazel and tree peony. These shrubs perform well on old stems and make few suckers so no annual pruning is necessary to keep them looking prim and proper.
Lilac and forsythia are in the category of shrubs that flower on one-year-old stems originating up in the plant off older stems. So individual stems need not be cut back until they are a few years old. Each year, though, many new sprouts originate at ground level, too many. Their numbers need to be reduced enough so that those that remain have sufficient elbow room as they age to replace older stems that will be cut away.
Kerria is in the category of shrubs, along with snowberry, abelia, and rambling roses, that blossom best on one-year-old wood growing up right from ground level. Prune them by cutting away all stems 2 years old (and older, if a shrub has not been or is not being pruned annually).
The final category, counting butterfly bush and Hills-of-Snow hydrangea among its members, perform best on each season’s new, growing shoots. They’re also very easy to prune: Just cut the whole shrub down in spring. That’s a lot of stems for propagating. Still, restraint is easy with butterfly bush because the stems anyway are typically dead here by the end of winter. The roots survive, though, giving rise each spring to shoots that flower in summer.
Pruning one of my filbert bushes

My filberts present one more wrinkle in shrub pruning. Filbert can be trained as a tree or as a shrub. But consider: filberts are susceptible to a disease, filbert blight, which can eventually kill a stem. This makes a good case for renewal pruning, i.e. growing them as shrubs. On the other hand, squirrels love filbert nuts, and one way to keep them at bay is with metal squirrel guards, feasible only on filberts trained as trees.
For now, dogs, cats, traps, and high grass have kept squirrels at bay, so I’m opting for filbert shrubs. The stems are very difficult to root so today’s prunings don’t even tempt me.