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

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Clean up fallen camellia flowers to prevent petal blight as part of good garden sanitation.

Long Life for Shrubs

When it comes to woody plants, I am a nursery-hopping fool. Shrubs, especially, intrigue me with their variety of colors, shapes, and flowers. The time I spend on them in spring pays off all year.

Prepare for Dry Weather
There is no way to predict whether the summer will be rainy, so it is up to you to prepare as if drought is already underway. Pick a watering method that is practical for your garden and put it into place where it will be ready when you need it. If needed, expand the inground system, string soaker hoses, or set up a drip system. Test them all now and rest easy knowing there will be no dragging of hoses and sprinklers or failed systems. If dry weather persists for more than a few weeks, I will use conventional sprinklers, but the point of watering is not to evaporate the precious resource into the air. It is most important to get water to the root zone of the plants.

When plant roots hit soil, the soil food web is begun and water is essential to its activity. When you build a rich, organic soil, roots are able to push deeper in and can better survive hot, dry weather. Start spring shrub care with a one inch blanket of compost and fresh mulch now. Follow that with a complete formula organic product, preferably one with high amino acid content. If you grow acid-loving shrubs like azalea, holly, camellia, or gardenia, it is good to know that organic fertilizers are acid by nature. If you grow shrubs that prefer a more alkaline environment, it may be necessary to add lime occasionally.

Fertilize as Needed
Organic gardeners nurture the soil food web with regular additions of organic materials, including fertilizers, which do not disrupt the natural processes. In fact, shrubs are a good example of plants that can often outgrow the need for fertilizer when grown organically. But young shrubs and struggling older ones do need fertilizer, one way or another. Unless your soil is luscious, shrubs left on their own will grow for awhile and then just sit there. Leaves can pale, fewer flowers appear, and they may be smaller and growth stunted if inadequate amounts of nutrients are available.

There are two ways to approach this challenge. Conventional garden advice says to put a chemical product around the shrub each spring. Gardeners in our regions often combine that with annual replenishments of organic matter by working in mulch or compost. That strategy works, but because chemical fertilizers contain salts, they are an assault on the soil food web. The conventional gardener is constantly replacing what is lost while organic gardeners continuously build better soil.

Prune, Pickup, and Watch
Gardeners who resist pruning pay the price with overgrown, poorly shaped, barely growing, or hardly flowering shrubs. Prune evergreen shrubs each year as new growth is popping out to keep them neat and prevent twiggy, naked interiors. You can prune away as much as one third of the shrub if needed to rejuvenate it or control its growth. A better practice is to prune off a few inches each year so heavy pruning is never necessary. Flowering shrubs begin growing buds for next year's blooms within a month of the current season. That means you must prune them within that first month after the flowers finish or risk losing the future blooms.

After pruning, clear away the debris, including fallen flowers and leaves, to keep the garden floor clear of anything but mulch. Use your favorite organic mulch, but limit its depth to 2 inches under shrubs.

It is a wise strategy to walk the garden everyday to see its beauty unfold, but also to see changes in plants that indicate pests or other problems may be beginning. Survey shrubs for cracks near ground level that would indicate cold damage. Turn the leaves over to look for webs or black specks with corresponding white spots on the upper surface, indicating azalea lace bugs. If webs are present, and even if they are not, look now for little greenish yellow crawling critters. They are scale crawlers, the most vulnerable state of these insidious buggers. Right now, they can be controlled with two or three sprays of insecticidal soap with pyrethrin or Neem. Avoid spraying plants where ladybug eggs have hatched. Their babies, called aphid lions, are hungry and will eat every aphid on your shrubs and roses, too, if you just let them.

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