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Hydrangea macrophylla, Shrub

How to Prune Your Hydrangea

Winter or early spring is the ideal time to prune your hydrangea macrophylla. These plants bloom best on last year’s growth, so pruning them back a bit will allow them to show off their blooms better later this year. In this video, Peg Bier reviews her method for pruning these beautiful plants.

3 Step Pruning for Deciduous Trees

Winter is the best time of year to prune deciduous trees and shrubs, since the trees are dormant and you can easily see the form and structure of the branches. In this video, David Yost reviews the three main steps to take when pruning your trees to ensure you do so in a way that will improve their overall health and appearance.

Pruning, Winter

Getting Your Garden into Spring Shape

Spring is almost here and it’s time to start getting our gardens ready for the season. As you plan your March and early April gardening projects, here are some tasks you may need to complete.

Ornamental Grass Pruned

Prune Perennials and Shrubs

Cut back the old, browned growth of perennials and groundcovers and trim the leaves of grasses and liriope back to almost ground level. Removing the old growth will make way for fresh, green growth that will emerge this spring. Remove old stems of sedum, coneflower, chrysanthemums and other perennials back to where the new buds are beginning to emerge. This will help keep your perennials full and stocky while giving your garden a fresh look. After cutting back your perennials, thin boxwoods and prune hollies and yews. Needled evergreens such as junipers and cypress can be lightly sheared or thinned, but avoid any extensive pruning. If you prune back into the old growth on these plants, they will not fill back in. This is also a great time to prune crape myrtle, roses and other summer blooming shrubs, with the exception of bigleaf and oakleaf hydrangeas. Avoid heavy pruning for these plants, as this will interfere with their flowering. If you are looking for more detailed information on pruning times and methods for some of our most popular landscape plants in our northern Virginia region,check out our tree and shrub pruning guide.

Clean Up Landscape Beds

Give your landscape beds a professional look using a spade or edging tool to define borders with smooth, sweeping curves or straight lines. After this is complete, add fresh mulch to protect and improve the soil, conserve moisture and discourage weeds. There are several different types of mulch to choose from, and they all do a good job. Pick the one with the color, texture and price that suits your taste. As a note: never layer more than 3 inches of mulch in your landscape beds – it is possible to have too much of a good thing!

Eliminate Weeds

Get ahead of the weeds! As you are cleaning up your established landscape beds, pull out any weeds that crept in this winter and apply a weed preventer. Weed preventers create a chemical barrier in the surface of the soil to inhibit germinating seeds from becoming established. Just be sure not to use weed preventers in any beds where you will be adding new plantings this spring. For more information check our blog posts on treating winter weeds and preventing summer weeds.

Prepare Garden Beds for New Plantings

Amend the soil of garden beds where you will be adding new plantings with fertilizer and soil conditioner. We recommend using Merrifield Starter Plant Food for your fertilizer and Merrifield Planting Mix for the soil conditioner. Preparing beds now will make it easier and more enjoyable when you are ready to start planting.

Plant Cold Hardy Trees, Shrubs, Perennials, Vegetables and Annuals

You can begin planting cold hardy trees, shrubs, perennials, vegetables and annuals. Be aware that we will continue to have freezing temperatures and frosty mornings throughout our area until late April. If you have plants with tender new foliage or flowers, be prepared to cover them with a frost cloth on those cold nights and days. Pansies, violas and primroses will all provide spring color, but are cold tolerant and can handle the chill of early spring. We get new plants all the time, so you can always stop by and ask our plant specialists about what will work well in your garden. Improve the growth, color and flowering of your favorite garden plants by fertilizing now as the growing season begins. We have made this super easy. If you want to promote blooms, use Merrifield Flowering Plant Food, if you want to promote lush, green vegetative growth, use Merrifield Tree and Shrub Food.

If you have any questions about preparing your garden for spring, give us a call, email us at service@mgcmail.com, or drop by the store and talk to us!

Azalea 'Kaempo Pink', Shrub

Bring Out the Best in Your Azaleas and Rhododendron

David Yost, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Summer is almost here, and our beautiful azaleas and rhododendron are done or almost done blooming. This is the perfect time to prune your plants to increase fullness, promote overall health, and encourage a beautiful bloom in the upcoming year. Azaleas and rhododendron both respond well to pruning, and if done right, the plants will produce more blooms in a concentrated form next year.

For many of us, pruning back our prized shrubs can be a daunting task. Before you begin, analyze your goals and objectives for the task. Most people prune to manage the shape and size of their shrubs. Here are a few simple tips to assist you in preparing your plants for a full and beautiful bloom next year.

The best time to prune is at the end of your plants’ bloom cycle. 

Rhododendron before pruning

Rhododendron after pruning

Your azaleas and rhododendron will set their buds for next year by the end of August. To avoid cutting off next year’s blooms, trim your plant soon after the current blooms fade. For most of us, this will be now or in the next couple of weeks. I recommend completing your pruning project by the fourth of July holiday.

The correct tools make a difference.

For the sake of the plant—and your hands—you will want to make sure that you have both hand pruners and a pruning saw. Hand pruners work well for limbs under ¾ inch in diameter. If you use your hand pruners on limbs larger than that, you run the risk of ruining your pruners and mangling the branches of your plant. For the best results, switch to your pruning saw for all branches over ¾ inch in diameter. Also, before you begin pruning, clean your pruners and pruning saw with rubbing alcohol to ensure they are free of any contaminants that may harm your shrubs.

Prioritize dead branches for removal.

Before you begin shaping your plant, check it for dead branches. Unhealthy branches pose a risk to your plant’s overall health by increasing its exposure to infection and bugs. Dead branches will have no living leaves or new growth. It’s best to remove these first. Use your pruners or pruning saw to remove any dead branches, and remember to clean your pruners before moving on to complete additional pruning on your plant.

After you remove the dead branches, prune away overgrown branches to bring the plant to the size and shape you wish to achieve. Cut just above the node where branches separate with your hand pruners.

Beware of over trimming rhododendron. 

Azaleas respond well to pruning and even thrive with a major trim, provided you prune the plant before it sets its buds for next year. If your azalea is overgrown and needs a significant pruning, you can continue trimming branches as far down the plant as needed.

Rhododendron, however, prefer a light pruning rather than a heavy trimming. Remove dead blooms from your rhododendron plant, then prune lightly, using selective thinning to lightly prune the plant. If your rhododendron is overgrown, you can remove half the stems from the next older layer of the plant (below the one you just pruned). Save the second half for the following year. If your rhododendron are very overgrown, it may take a few years to prune your plants to a desirable height.

For even better blooms next year fertilize your plant after pruning.

After pruning I recommend fertilizing your plant to promote growth and increased blooms next year. You can use the Merrifield Flowering Plant Food or Holly Tone if you’re looking for an organic option.

Understand common issues and how to treat them.

When your azalea plant blooms during damp, rainy weather it may suffer from a common, but preventable, fungal infection: Ovulinia petal blight. If dead blooms remain on your azalea when you begin pruning, this fungal infection is the cause. To enable the blooms to fall off the plant before the bloom cycle ends and extend the bloom time of your plant next year, try spraying your plant with fungicide just before the bloom cycle begins next year. We recommend using Bonide Infuse.

Another common problem is caused by tiny insects called lace bugs. These critters may feed on your azaleas and rhododendron during the summer months. You’ll know if you have a lace bug problem as they suck the sap and bleach the color from your foliage causing the leaves to turn a yellowish-white color. You can also see these tiny bugs on the underside of the leaf if you flip the leaf over.

I recommend using Bayer Advanced Tree & Shrub Protect & Feed to treat these bugs if you encounter them. This product is a systemic drench control product that you put into the soil for the plant to absorb through the roots. One application will last all season. Apply this about once every three years to keep the lace bugs under control.

The Art of Pruning Shrubs

David Yost, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Pruning is one of the best things you can do for your shrubs. Well-pruned shrubs will grow fuller with a more attractive shape, produce more flowers, and be healthier overall. While pruning has some wonderful benefits, it’s often one of the most skipped gardening tasks. That’s likely because we’re all scared of making the cut!

You can calm this fear by going into your pruning project with a clear objective. For example, you need to determine if you’d like to:

  • Manage the size of the plant to prevent it from overgrowth
  • Increase flower production
  • Correct structural problems
  • Highlight the form

The most common reason people prune is to manage overgrowth. But, what many don’t realize is that regular pruning can prevent the overgrowth issue in the first place. Regular pruning maintains the shrub size and prevents breakage during the winter months by managing the structure. It even creates more flowers as the shrub redirects its energy into flower production rather than overgrowth.

Once you know what you want to achieve, you can determine the proper technique and place to make the cut. Common pruning techniques include:

  • Heading: Trimming long, unbranched stems by cutting above a healthy bud. This encourages lower branches to develop.
  • Renewal: Cutting back all of the stems to within an inch of the ground during dormancy. Come spring, the plants will produce new shoots from the base. Often people do this with vigorous growers, such as roses and butterfly bush, to keep them smaller, more compact and fuller with blooms.
  • Thinning: Removing selected shoots or the main stem to open up the middle of the plant to more sunlight. This helps to maintain the natural form, keeps the interior branches healthy and encourages new growth
  • Shearing: Trimming the plant around the outside to restore structure in the landscape setting.

The actual art of pruning comes in with the limb selection process. You can use your own personal judgement to select the limbs to remove to create the shape and look you’re trying to achieve. Proper pruning can turn your landscape into a work of art with all of the elements fitting together properly within the composition.

Once you’ve mastered the techniques, it’s just a matter of timing. Most people prune when it’s convenient for them, but the key is pruning when it’s best for the plant. The right timing will ensure you don’t end up chopping off all of your viburnum buds or leaving your juniper with a bald spot.

Pruning Tools for the Pros

David Yost, Merrifield Plant Specialist

Shopping for pruning tools is like shopping for a new pair of shoes. It seems like a simple task, but once you get started it’s easy to get a little confused about all the choices. Just like shoes, pruners are designed for a specific purpose, size, comfort and style.

Here are some things to consider when buying pruners:

One-Handed Pruning Shear

For most of us, this will be our most important pruner. This versatile tool can be used to cut back flowers, rose bushes, shrubs and branches that are 1” in diameter.

There are two types of one-handed pruning shears: bypass or anvil. Bypass pruners cut with a scissors action, which leaves a cleaner, smoother cut than anvil pruners. They’re available in a wide range of sizes and styles to fit personal preferences and uses. You can even find left-handed ones. Many companies now offer ergonomic designs with lightweight composite materials, cushioned grips and ratcheting or gearing to supplement hand strength.

With anvil pruners, the blade cuts against a fixed (stationary) block. Anvil pruners make cutting easier and require less effort than bypass pruners. They pinch the stem between the blade and the anvil, which often results in bruising on tender plants, such as roses. That’s why most gardeners prefer bypass pruners to cut back live plants and anvil pruners to remove tough, dry, dead stems and branches.

Pruning Saw

The second most important pruning tool is a pruning saw. Avoid the temptation to overwork your hand pruners by trying to cut branches larger than what they’re designed for. This will wear out both you and your tools. If you’re straining to make a cut, stop and reach for your pruning saw.

Pruning saws feature large, open teeth angled to cut as you pull the saw towards you. This allows you to slice through the sap and sawdust of fresh, green wood. Pruning saws also are available in a wide variety of styles and sizes.

Garden Scissors

Joyce Chen flower shears are designed for precise cutting and are perfect for deadheading annuals and perennials, cutting flowers to bring in your home and shaping bonsai.

Loppers

Loppers serve a similar purpose as one-handed pruners. But loppers have long handles and you use both hands when making a cut, which enables you to cut larger branches and reach farther. They are especially useful for removing old, large canes on shrubs, such as butterfly bush, forsythia, red twig dogwood, etc. You can reach down inside the shrub and remove branches without getting down on your hands and knees to reach in with your pruning saw.

Pole Pruners

Pole pruners combine a pruning saw with a bypass pruner on the end of a pole that allows the user to reach up into tall trees. Pole pruners often use telescoping poles that can reach lengths of 6 to 14 feet. This tool can be very useful, but requires some skill and strength to operate. Keep in mind that as you reach farther away from your body, the pruner feels heavier and becomes more difficult to use.

Hedge Shears

Hedge shears are essentially scissors that allow you to shape and sculpt hedges or trim ground covers. Shearing is most often used in formal garden settings or large landscapes where using hand pruners would be too time consuming. Shears with lightweight materials and cushioned grips can reduce fatigue during use.

With pruning tools, there’s a wide range in price and quality. Top quality pruners can be expensive, but they’re an investment that will last for years. Brands such as Felco and Corona use high quality, stainless steel blades that hold a sharp edge through long hours of use. Fiskars specializes in lightweight, ergonomic tools and other companies emphasize affordability.

Pruners require very little maintenance. Wiping them clean with alcohol after every use removes most sap and sanitizes the blade to help extend the life of the tool and prevent the spread of plant diseases. Sharpen or replace blades as needed and apply a light oil to all moving parts to keep your pruners in good shape and make them easier to use.

At Merrifield Garden Center, we offer a complete selection of pruning tools for all your needs. Let us help you find the right tools to prune like a pro.

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