In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Even thin grass blades will compost faster when chopped into smaller pieces.

Do Some Heavy Pruning

For anyone who has tried to stop a relative from pruning too severely or at the wrong time, take heart. Some plants can and should be pruned hard this month.

Cut the Grass
Ornamental grasses and smaller clumping ground covers need rejuvenation, preferably every winter. Large grasses like pampas and maidenhair left unpruned will be crowded, and new growth will suffer. Often the new plumes will shoot out of the sides instead of crowning the grass clump, and the result is beyond messy in the landscape. Liriope and monkey grasses can get very thick in a few years, stop blooming, and show off only their leaves shredded by age.

Prune the big grasses down to footstools and trim the smaller ones to remove damaged leaves and lower their height. Look into the clump to be sure you do not trim off new shoots coming from the center, but otherwise, feel free to work them over. Sharpen the hand pruners and cut down perennial plants and annual flowers that were hit by unusually cold weather earlier this month.

Get ready to shear the hedges, too. In an ideal garden, hedges are thick with leaves from top to bottom, inside and out. Give hollies, ligustrum, pittosporum, and other hedges a good look and then turn them over to the Mad Pruner at your house with these instructions. It is safe to remove up to one third of the overall width and height of established shrubs. Doing so will kick off lots of new growth when accompanied by regular watering, fertilizer, and mulch. Shearing the top and sides only can result in naked inner shrubs with leaves only at the edges. You can solve this problem by not pruning as hard and being aggressive with fertilizer and water this year. That will produce plenty of material to be pruned next year. Slope hedges slightly so they are about an inch narrower at the top than at the bottom. This practice lets more sunlight into the hedge, helps direct water to the root zone, and works to keep new growth coming so the Pruner can shear it again next year.

Prune for More Flowers
Gardeners who love to prune should grow more flowering trees and shrubs because they need fairly serious attention annually. This pruning is done to produce more flowers and fruit on plants as varied as flowering cherries, peaches, and butterfly bushes. These and many more woody specimens bloom on new wood and can tend towards leafy overgrowth without flower buds if the new must compete with the old.

Every Cooperative Extension Service and many tree nurseries provide instructions complete with drawings to explain how to prune particular fruit trees for best production. For example, peach trees are pruned into an open vase shape to bring more sun to the interior canopy, while apples, muscadines, and wisteria are clipped to form T shapes along their fruiting branches. It may sound arcane, but the drawings make it simple to do and the Pruner at your house will enjoy the challenge. You will like the results.

Handle Debris Wisely
The usual advice is to compost the debris from pruning unless it is diseased or infected with insect issues. The challenges to composting are the diameters of branches and the need for a mix of brown and green matter to speed the process. You can chop small, twiggy stems into pieces about two inches long as easily as you can the debris from ornamental grasses and clumping groundcovers. To make the cutting go faster, put the small materials into a plastic garbage can. Put on your safety glasses, grab the string trimmer, and carefully turn the trash can into a blender.

If the branches are bigger around than half an inch, they will need to run through a shredder grinder machine before they can be used as mulch or added to the compost. A few people own these machines, a few companies rent them, and some gardeners go in with their neighbors to buy this and other seldom-used tools, such as tillers. If all of this sounds like a lot of trouble, remember that these larger branches may be better used as part of a wattle fence or to create a thicket for wildlife in the back corner of your property.

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