In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
March, 2011
Regional Report

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Crape myrtle suckers serve no purpose and should be removed as soon as possible.

Pruning Particulars

Pruning is an either/or enterprise for gardeners. They consider it either necessary or optional, and both have a point. But some plants just cannot live up to their potential without annual pruning.

Crape Myrtle Care
Human "suckers" may be "born every minute," but in the case of crape myrtle trees, it can seem like new ones pop up at least every day. The true definition of those stems that pop up around the base of these trees usually includes the term "vigorous shoot." That confirms their speedy growth, but reveals nothing about why they grow or how to control them. Suckers sprout from the root or from buds at the base of the tree waiting for the chance to grow. Once they get plenty of water and ample nitrogen, up they come. Rainfall is usually plentiful in winter and fallen leaves left at the base of the tree soon release nitrogen. The suckers (aka water sprouts and whips) should be removed as soon as they emerge. Not only will the tree look much better without the surrounding stems, it will be better able to use that rainfall and nitrogen for itself. If the suckers are gone, you might even weed around the tree and plant some flowers.

Reasons to Prune
Some pruning is necessary for safety's sake, as when we remove storm damaged or diseased branches from trees. It is also necessary to prune to maintain lines of sight and access along driveways, streets, and paths, although better plant choices initially can eliminate that need. Most pruning, however, is done to effect plant growth -- to limit, direct, or channel it. Pinching perennials like Joe Pye weed and 'Country Girl' chrysanthemum is done to accomplish all three in one season. By removing the tips each time the plant puts on two strong sets of leaves, we limit its height and direct the growth to branch instead. We stop pinching in June to channel the growth into flowers for fall.

You can hear the buzz of power hedge shears in many neighborhoods right after the azaleas finish blooming. Homeowners who don't prune anything else will shear these shrubs into boxes and bubbles. So long as it is done within one month of flowering, the shrub just assumes the shape and keeps growing. The same principle applies to most spring flowering shrubs and trees; prune right after flowering each year. If a shrub blooms but once a year, its buds require nearly the entire year to prepare. Later pruning can limit next year's flowers.

A small group of plants requires pruning to keep producing flowering branches or stems, such as butterfly bush and vitex. Left on their own, these woody perennials grow into thickets with small or no flowers.

Broad-leaf Evergreens
Perhaps the most forgiving plant group to prune is the broad-leaf evergreen shrubs. Strong and vigorous plants such as holly, ligustrum, cleyera, and wax myrtle respond to annual clipping or shearing done in early spring. Get to the hollies right after the berries are shriveled or gone to be sure pruning is done before they flower and begin the process of berry formation once again. The point of pruning evergreens is to keep them bushy and to allow light into the lower parts of the plant. Prune evergreens again, lightly, in summer to shape them and remove old flowers. That also stimulates growth to go out, rather than only up. Left alone, these shrubs grow tall with bare stems near the ground. Should you find yourself with such scraggly specimens, the choice is up or down. You can prune severely to rejuvenate the shrubs or turn them into small trees by removing all lower growth and shaping the top into a canopy.


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