Getting overgrown shrubs into shape
Published 10:30 am Sunday, October 24, 2021
Today I’m on a rant after being falsely accused of celebrating a bad plant, which segued into a discussion of pruning before devolving into a blame game.
I had posted, on an online garden site, a photo and comment about how deliciously sweet the little flowers of eleagnus shrubs smell this month. But someone reacting with “Yeah, but the plants are the Devil’s spawn and you should never plant them.”
Okay, let me back up. I realize that the popular plants get huge. You can hide a school bus behind just three of them. And they are informal, to say the least, with long, wild stems that are so scraggly they make my own shoulder-length gray hair look kempt.
Is getting big a bad thing? Nope. See, those “shrubs” are actually vigorous semi-vines that naturally clamber twenty feet or higher; I planted one in the back of my garden just so it would grow up in the trees and screen my neighbors. Plus they smell sweet in the fall, and provide small, delightfully sweet-tart fruits in the winter for me and our wild birds.
It’s how they want to grow, yet we continue to plant them three feet apart under windows and complain because they have to be pruned them every other month (while overlooking how the lawn has to be clipped every other week).
I hear every year from over-wrought gardeners about how utility companies come through and whack trees back from around overhead lines, when they are just doing their job (admittedly sometimes lacking finesse) of keeping things running after ice storms.
This is not the power company or the trees’ fault; the blame, and the price paid later, is on whoever failed to look up when planting in the first place. The onus is on the gardener to practice what, in garden design jargon, is called “right plant, right place.” Shouldn’t plant big plants where you want little ones.
This also applies to larger issues related to “habitat” which I won’t get into here. Just think twice about planting sun-loving vegetables or roses in deep shade, impatiens and hostas in broiling sun, daffodils in wet areas, or hardscrabble prairie wildflowers in good soil.
Still, we all have stuff that needs pruning, and it can be a little tricky, especially going into winter with some shrubs looking like they need a good trim for neatness’ sake. The temptation to just shear everything can mess some plants up.
Here’s a tip for getting overgrown shrubs into shape. Summer bloomers like roses, crape myrtles, vitex, and altheas flower on new growth and can be cut any time from fall until Spring, no problem. But azaleas, spirea, forsythia and other Spring bloomers already have their flower buds, as do blueberries, hollies, and nandinas, so don’t cut them hard from mid-Summer through Winter.
Instead of general shearing, simply reach down below the overall canopy and make a few thinning cuts to remove just the tallest stuff, without pruning everything. Do the harder stuff next spring.
Back to the eleagnus debate. As politely as I could, what I ended up telling the irate man who hates them because they get unruly and require constant pruning, is it’s the fault of humans for planting them where little gumdrop shaped trifles would be easier. Stop blaming the naturally elephantine plants.
Think about this: Next time you find yourself grudgingly pruning an overgrown meatball shaped plant, don’t berate the shrub; instead, consider moving it to a bigger spot.
Meanwhile, don’t the eleagnus smell heavenly right now? Come back in December and sample their delicious little fruits.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.