As Mother Nature begins to usher in warmer temperatures, it is the perfect time to get into the garden to start any winter cleanup necessary from those few dips in temperature we’ve seen in this relatively mild winter. If some of your subtropical and tropical plants and tender perennials show any signs of injured and dead foliage (banana, ginger, crinum lily, ornamental grasses, perennial salvia, canna, cast iron plant, fern, lantana), that material should be removed before new growth appears. Generally, plants that flower before May are pruned after they bloom. Plants that flower after May are the ones you will want to prune now (except for late season azaleas that bloom May-June, and summer flowering oak leaf hydrangea). Our frost-free date falls somewhere between Feb. 15-March 15.
Our assortment of pruning equipment includes double-edged hand pruning shears (Felco F-2 sharpened annually by a carpenter friend), folding pruning saw (Corona RS 7255 6” or PS4050 10”), and pole pruner and saw (Corona 16’ Fiberglass Bypass Pole Pruner). These tools are not inexpensive but have served us well for many years and the quality is topnotch. We have just added a brand new lightweight cordless hedge trimmer by Stihl HSA 45. It came highly recommended by Trey Tait, owner of Tait Lawn Products, on Newcastle Street, because of its quality and long-lasting lithium ion battery. No matter which tool is used, it is always checked for blade sharpness. A dull pruning tool can do more damage than leaving the plant unpruned.
For 2020, we will start our process with that new Stihl hedge trimmer, tackling the perennial ornamental grasses like Maidengrass, Pink Muhly, Fountaingrass, and Inland Sea Oats. The plants will have the brown blades removed as far down as possible. This usually will be about a foot or two from the base at ground level, depending on the size of the specimen. Pampas grass, which is a much larger ornamental grass cannot always be cut that low. If you are diligent in the timing of pruning, smaller plant species including many fern species, (Aspargus, holly, Southern Sword), liriope and cast-iron plant can be pruned back with hedge trimmers as well. Alternatively, hand pruning can be done, albeit painstakingly, with hand shears. My husband will always choose the fast and furious; I tend to grab the hand shears. When cutting back evergreen liriope, cut it back to 8-12” above ground; the luscious new growth will quickly give the planting a bright look. Ferns will also take on a fresh look as the old fronds are cut back to ground level and the new fronds begin to unfurl.
Tender perennials such as salvia, lantana, ginger and canna will soon send up new growth from the base or from underground rhizomes, so just use hand shears to cut away all the dead growth. With crinum lily, I cut back all the dead leaves near the leaf base; new leaves will quickly fill in. Banana plants will actually produce bananas in our area if given10-15 months of frost-free weather. If winter damage is limited to only the leaves, remove them without harming the main trunk (known as the pseudo-trunk). If the winter damage has extended into the pseudo-trunk, it will be soft and need to be cut down to its firm uninjured tissue. Believe it or not, a new shoot will emerge and new leaves will unfurl as the temperatures warm up.
When it comes to the pruning of individual woody plants (shrubs and trees), you’ll want to prune correctly. Through school training and years of working as a horticulturist, I am pretty proficient at pruning, knowing how to use the tool and which tool to use when. However, we all don’t have that benefit. The UGA Extension (www.extension.uga.edu) publishes many bulletins on many topics; Bulletin 961 on pruning is a great starting point for you DIY folks. For those of you who have lawn maintenance companies, don’t assume they know how to prune correctly. I often see three glaring mistakes in home landscapes. If your palm trees have had the fronds recently removed and the only ones left are a few emerging at the top of the crown, too many fronds have been removed. Palm frond removal should leave fronds in a 9-3 sweep of a clock face. Any more removal results in a plant that has lost valuable food producing tissue and has left the only growing point (heart of the palm) located at the top of the trunk subject to injury. Another popularly pruned plant is the crape myrtle, which is often pruned annually because blooms appear on new growth. If you own a crape myrtle, does yours look like a 6-foot tall individual took hedge trimmers and cut off everything above that height? We call that “crape murder.” Selected pruning, branch by branch, is the correct method; it allows a gracefully shaped tree to emerge with more blooms held upright on strong stems. If you have a hedge, height reduction should never remove more that one-third of the height and the top of the hedge should be narrower than the base. This helps the plant to maintain bottom foliage. An inverted pyramid shape where the top of the hedge is broader than the bottom shades the lower branches which will eventually thin out. And unless you desire your plant to look like a ball or some other formal shape, pruning should reflect a smaller version of the natural unpruned mature size.