Archive for October, 2014

Woolly Bear

Personally, I haven’t seen very many woolly bears this fall but a lot of people visiting the nursery lately have and they say that these fat, furry caterpillars are mostly black this year. “What does that mean about the coming winter?”, they often ask. It’s hard for people to remember how this little tale goes.

So, in honor of Halloween and the imminent end of Daylight Savings, I thought I’d re-post my woolly bear story.

Here you go – from September 2010 …

Can woolly bears really predict the weather?

Do woolly bears really predict the weather?

They’re beginning to cross the road in front of my car as I drive to work in the morning – everyday I see more of them. It has gotten me thinking about these beloved fuzzy caterpillars that children of ALL ages find irresistible. You have to admit – they really are pretty cute!

Most of us have heard the story about how woolly bears can predict the severity of the coming winter by the pattern of the orange and black stripes on their fuzzy bodies . . .
but is there any truth in the tale? And how does the story go – does a wide orange band mean a harder winter or is it a narrow orange band and lots of black that predicts the hard winter? I, for one, can never remember!

Well here’s the scoop straight from the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

The longer the middle orange band on the woolly bear, the milder and shorter the winter will be. Conversely, the shorter the orange band, hence the more black on the woolly bear, the longer and harsher the winter will be.

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

This woolly bear would predict a short, mild
winter. Boy was he off on his prediction!

Now, is there any scientific evidence to back this bit of folklore? In a word – no!

Well, I mean not really. The lengths of the orange and black bands are really a function of the age of the caterpillar. Woolly bears are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, a not-very-impressive moth that you might see fluttering around your porch lights at night during the summer. The woolly bear caterpillars molt (shed their skin) several times as they grow and each time they do, the orange band gets longer and the black ends get shorter. So if you see a woolly bear that is mostly orange, that just means it’s older and more mature!

So much for their prediction of the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly  bears were way off last year!

So much for their prediction of
the winter of 2009-2010! Our woolly
bears were way off last year!

But here’s some food for thought … what if you have a long, mild fall? The woolly bears will stay active longer and keep growing and molting. The orange band will become wider and wider! Hmmmm, does a mild fall predict a mild winter? And what if winter comes early? A shorter fall season will mean that the woolly bears are younger/haven’t molted as often before they seek shelter for the winter, resulting in a relatively narrow orange band and more black on their fuzzy bodies. Is a harsh winter on the way?

The woolly bears I found around the nursery last year were an epic failure as far as predicting our winter – most had a lot of orange and very little black! A mild winter? Not by a long shot! We had one of the hardest, snowiest winters on record in the Shenandoah Valley!

I wonder if they’ll do any better this year. I haven’t seen any close enough yet to see their color pattern – have you?

Happy Halloween everybody!

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Native dogwoods have beautiful fall color

The trees are donning their brilliant fall colors, the fields of corn and soybeans are being harvested, the last tomatoes and beans are being picked from the garden – fall is here!

pruning with hand shearsThese beautiful, crisp, cool days of autumn are when we begin to put our gardens to bed for the season. This has many gardeners venturing out with shears in hand to primp and prune and otherwise tidy up in the garden.
While it is a great idea to cut back some of your herbaceous perennials in the fall, you should keep your pruning shears and loppers away from your trees and shrubs for a while yet.

Why? Because pruning stimulates regrowth. Plants respond to pruning with a burst of new growth; the more severe the pruning, the heavier the regrowth. If this growth occurs during the warm days of fall, the tender new shoots that develop will not have time to harden before the winter cold sets in and they become prone to winter damage.

A majestic oak silhouetted against the winter sky

A majestic oak silhouetted
against the winter sky

In general, woody plants should be pruned when they are dormant. This usually means in late fall, winter, or early spring.

How do you know when trees and shrubs are dormant?

It’s easy enough to tell when deciduous trees and shrubs are dormant because they lose their leaves but it’s not as clear cut with evergreens since they keep their leaves through the winter. Luckily, evergreen trees and shrubs normally enter dormancy in the late fall around the same time as deciduous plants.

Not all pruning is done during the dormant period

Pruning quince at the wrong time leads to loss of bloom

Pruning flowering quince at the wrong
time leads to loss of the bloom

Though trees and shrubs can always be pruned when they are dormant, there are good reasons to delay pruning of some species. This is especially true when it comes to the spring flowering trees and shrubs. If you prune these during the dormant period, you will be removing many if not all of the flower buds and this will obviously impact the spring bloom!

Many gardeners are tempted to prune their trees and shrubs in the fall as part of their fall clean-up chores – to tidy up scraggly looking or overgrown plants. Before you cut (even if they are dormant), it is important to think about when they flower and the age of the wood that produces the flowers.

Spring blooming shrubs like rhododendron should be pruned after flowering

Spring blooming shrubs like
rhododendron should be pruned
right after they finish flowering

Generally, trees and shrubs that flower in the spring form their flower buds in the previous season, usually in the late summer or early fall. These plants flower on “old wood” or growth that was produced the summer before. Because the flower buds are already set on the branches, you should try to avoid pruning them in the fall, winter, or spring. Shrubs like azalea, rhododendron, lilac, some hydrangea, forsythia, viburnum, and trees like dogwood, redbud, and crabapple fall into this category.

The best time to prune these spring bloomers is right after they finish blooming. Pruning at this time can range from simple deadheading of spent blooms to heading back branches and thinning to reshape or reduce the size of the plant. Here are some tips for pruning spring blooming shrubs.

American holly tree after severe pruning

American holly after severe pruning

The exception to this rule is if you want to do any heavy pruning. Severe pruning, including rejuvenation pruning where you might cut a shrub down to 12″ to 24″ or lower, should be done when the plant is dormant – usually in March. Obviously you must sacrifice the bloom for that season and possibly the following season as well but in most cases, you will be rewarded with a beautiful “new” shrub. Not all shrubs can be pruned hard like this so be sure to do some research before you start chopping!

Summer flowering trees and shrubs form flower buds on the new growth that is produced in the spring and summer. These are normally pruned in the spring before growth begins. However in colder regions, we often recommend that you delay pruning until the threat of very cold weather is past. This sometimes means pruning after growth has begun but don’t worry, it won’t hurt the plant.

Summer pruning

Summer is a good time to prune certain trees and shrubs if you don’t want to encourage a lot of new growth. As I mentioned earlier, pruning stimulates growth, especially when it is done in the spring. Pruning in summer has a dwarfing effect because growth is slower at this time.

This Kieffer pear was pruned in winter. This resulted in vigorous water sprout growth.

This Kieffer pear was pruned in winter.
This resulted in vigorous water sprout
growth in the spring.

For instance, summer is a great time to prune water sprouts – those vigorous stems that grow straight up parallel to the main stem. Pruning them out in the summer can reduce the number of water sprouts that will develop the following season.

Summer is also a good time to prune trees that are heavy bleeders like maple, birch, and dogwood. It is best to avoid pruning these trees just before and during active growth in the spring because they have a heavy sap flow at this time.

A good pruning book will give you recommendations on the timing and techniques for pruning specific trees and shrubs. A handbook like this is a valuable addition to your gardening library.

For more pruning tips, visit our website.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Hydrangea macrophylla is blue when grown in acidic soil

Recently, several questions related to pruning different trees and shrubs have come to my inbox or have been posted to our Discussion Board. One of these questions was regarding Endless Summer hydrangea.

I have 7 Endless Summer Hydrangeas that did not bloom at all this year. In previous years, I had tons of blooms, so I did something wrong when I pruned them. I can’t remember what time of year it was the last time I pruned them, but I have not touched them at all this year. They are lush and green and growing, but no flowers. When should I prune them to ensure flowers next spring and summer? I live in Southern NH, about 50 miles north of Boston.”

Lacecaps are beautiful in summer as long as the flower buds survive the winter.

Lacecaps are beautiful as long as
the flower buds survive the winter.

Hydrangea macrophylla, which includes the mophead and lacecap hydrangeas, normally blooms on “old wood”; that is, growth that was produced in the previous season. At the northern edge of their hardiness range, the flower buds of these hydrangeas, which are formed in August and September, are sometimes damaged or killed during severe winters. This means few or no blooms the following season. This happened to my lacecaps this year. In addition, if these shrubs are pruned at the wrong time (in the fall or spring), all those flower buds will be removed and oops – again, no flowers!

The Endless Summer Series is a unique group of Hydrangea macrophylla that blooms on both old wood and new wood. How cool is that? They are also hardier than lacecaps and other mopheads, surviving and blooming even as far north as Zone 4!

Endless Summer flowers are pink in less acidic soils

Endless Summer flowers are pink
in soils that have a higher pH.

If the flower buds that are produced in the fall are killed during a severe winter, no problem! These Endless Summer hydrangeas will still bloom later in the summer, since they readily produce flower buds on the current season’s growth. Because of this trait, they normally flower reliably every year regardless of winter severity.

Then what is happening with these seven Endless Summer hydrangeas?
Why didn’t they bloom?

That’s a good question but I suspect that it is not an issue of improper pruning. Regardless of how you prune these shrubs (unless you keep whacking back the new growth all summer), you should still get at least some summer blooms as long as they are healthy, get enough sun, and are fed and watered properly.

Beautiful, healthy green growth but no flowers.

Beautiful, healthy green growth
but no flowers.

The problem here is more likely to be related to nutrition. Since these shrubs have lush leafy growth, it seems that they are healthy and growing well – perhaps too well. If a flowering plant receives too much nitrogen, it will grow like gangbusters and “forget about” producing flowers. This is what you want for your grass – not your flowering plants.

In fact, this is sometimes what happens when flowering trees and shrubs are planted in the lawn rather than in designated flowerbeds. Your lawn is fertilized with a high nitrogen fertilizer so it grows lush and green but guess what? If your flowering plants are growing in the lawn, they are getting the same high nitrogen food. What’s their response? Grow lots of foliage and no flowers! The nutrient responsible for flower bud production is phosphorus, an element that has recently been removed from most lawn fertilizers.

I have no idea if this is the situation for these particular Endless Summer hydrangeas, but regardless of where they are growing, these shrubs may just need a shot of phosphorus in order to initiate flower bud production. A bloom booster fertilizer or Espoma Triple Super Phosphate (0-45-0) might do the trick. I suggested that she feed them with a good quality organic fertilizer such as Espoma Holly-tone plus an application of Super Phosphate according to the label directions. Hopefully, this will help and her Endless Summer hydrangeas will bloom next season.

So what about pruning?

How and when DO you prune Endless Summer hydrangeas?
The best time to do any structural pruning is just after they finish their initial bloom in early summer.

Dead stems should be cut back to live wood with healthy buds.

Dead stems should be cut back to
live green wood with healthy buds.

In the spring once the new leaves have fully expanded, any branch tips that were killed over the winter should be pruned back to live wood. In more northern areas, this may mean more extensive pruning and the loss of the early bloom.

When the first blooms fade, do any necessary pruning to reshape or reduce their size or just deadhead the flowers. This pruning will stimulate new growth and the formation of flower buds for the summer rebloom. Deadhead the flowers throughout the summer to encourage the production of additional blooms. You can even cut flowering stems for indoor arrangements and this will stimulate the production of more flowers!

All pruning of Hydrangea macrophylla, including the Endless Summer varieties,  should be completed by the end of July because after that, in August and September, the flower buds for the next season’s early bloom will be forming.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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