Episode 77 – Pruning Demystified & How Honey Bees Handle a Weird Winter

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Few garden tasks strike fear in the hearts of gardeners and would-be gardeners than pruning. But understanding the why, what, when, where, and how of pruning is the key to becoming a confident gardener. Join us as we discuss why spring is such a key time for pruning and how pruning impacts plants. Whether you listen to the entire episode or are just skimming these notes, the most important takeaway when it comes to pruning is that when in doubt, don’t prune. If you don’t know precisely why you want to prune something, don’t do it. Why? Because every subsequent decision that you’ll make in the process of pruning – when you’ll cut, why you’ll cut, where you’ll cut, how much you’ll cut off – will be determined by the reason you are pruning in the first place. So without that reason (or reasons, there can be more than one!), it’s impossible to know what to do. And along those lines, here’s this week’s Lim-A-Rick:

Old wood, new wood, dead wood, My!

To prune or not to prune I ask why?

Height and length to measure,

I’m really feeling the pressure,

Do I take action or just stand by? 

And here’s a link to the Pruning Demystified guide that Rick mentioned in the show.

Why: Roses are the poster child for pruning. They are the plants that most people probably think of when they think of pruning, and what’s more is that they are the perfect example of why you prune shrubs in the first place, and vividly show the effects that pruning has on a plant. They are also very forgiving about pruning, so roses are a great place to start when talking about pruning.

Just a reminder: every type of plant can be pruned, but why you would prune annuals versus perennials versus shrubs versus trees are all vastly different reasons. Generally, there are one of four or so reasons:

  1. Size control
  2. Aesthetics – could be creating a more attractive or sculptural habit, or could be neatening the appearance of the plant with deadheading or pruning off portions that have pests or diseases
  3. Improved growth or habit
  4. Damage control

With roses, it’s always number 3. Roses have a strong tendency toward apical dominance, a concept we’ve discussed on the show before, but basically, it just means that plants want to grow upward, with little to no branching, as a result of hormones created by the terminal bud. So, left unpruned, roses get tall and lanky, with few flowers, and the flowers that do form tend to be concentrated at the tops of those skinny branches. When you prune, you not only remove that apical bud and with it, its dominance, you also ensure the growth for the season comes from the thicker buds further down on the plant instead of the skinny ones that formed at the end of the previous season. As a result, you end up with a full, vigorous plant that flowers along its entire height instead of just at the tops.

The approach to pruning roses is pretty much all the same – you’re going to prune in early spring, just as the buds begin to emerge on the stems. This allows you to see exactly where the new growth is emerging, and how thick and vigorous the buds are, so you can make educated decisions about where to cut. The difference is in the different growth habits that various roses exhibit. Which brings me (finally!) to today’s plant on trial, Rise Up Lilac Days rose. As you might be able to tell from the name, it is a climbing rose. But climbing roses are not true climbers in the way that, say, a trumpet vine or ivy or a clematis is. All of those have adaptations to climb structures on their own, but climbing roses simply have a growth habit that can be trained onto structures and, once they are established enough, the canes kind of support one another to transform those structures into columns of flowers. And in the case of Rise Up Lilac Days, those are columns of beautifully fragrant double purple flowers. The color and fragrance are both very unique, making this a plant that is going to be irresistible at retail. We call Rise Up Lilac Days – and the other roses in the Rise Up series – “mini climbers” because they have the right growth habit to be climbers but aren’t going to take over your home like some other popular climbers might. They reach around 5-8’ tall, so you don’t need to worry about them reaching your roof or anything like that.

Rise Up Lilac Days comes to us from Chris Warner of the UK, a talented and passionate rose breeder who is the mastermind behind a huge number of Proven Winners ColorChoice roses. He breeds specifically for the dual goals of beauty and disease resistance, and his facility in England serves as an excellent proving ground for resistance to powdery mildew and black spot. It’s hardy to USDA zone 4 and heat tolerant through zone 9.

If you are growing Rise Up Lilac Days as a climbing rose, you’re still going to prune it in a similar way as you would a hybrid tea rose or even a shrub rose –looking for those thick buds lower down on the stem. What changes is what comes next: once the rose starts to recover from the pruning and those buds break into growth, they’re going to shoot up into long, vigorous, thick canes, and then you can start your training. You can tie them to the structure you want to cover. Like all Proven Winners roses, it does not need deadheading to bloom continuously all summer.

Like nearly all roses, Rise Up Lilac Days rose should be grown in full sun and well-drained soil. And despite what the thorns would lead you to believe, roses are not deer resistant.

If you’d like to add Rise Up Lilac Days climbing rose– or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

There’s no cause for concern. Daylilies are naturally pretty early to emerge in spring, and like daffodils and other spring bulbs, even though their new growth looks delicate and tender, it’s not as susceptible to cold damage as growth that emerges prematurely on trees and shrubs. If you feel like you should, you can shade the plant with shade blankets (available at garden centers or online) or some other kind of fabric – preventing the sun from reaching the plants will slow them down considerably. And remember, this is more likely to happen to plants that are close to your home, which creates a warmer microclimate that encourages more rapid growth. Still not a cause for concern, but wanted to mention it just in case anyone else in zone 5/6 was looking at their daylilies and concerned because theirs weren’t emerging early.

I have to confess, I knew next to nothing about chiggers until I started researching the answer to Erin’s question. And yikes! They may be very tiny and innocent-looking but do their bites ever pack a wallop (I wouldn’t search for it if you’re squeamish, let’s put it that way!). So, first of all, we totally understand and appreciate people avoiding the use of any pesticides in their gardens. However, there are times where they are simply the best solution, and a chigger infestation just may be one of those times. We’re going to give you some things you can do to make your yard less friendly to them, but honestly, it may be a case where a chemical control to eradicate them is best. Chiggers are not actually insects – they’re related to spiders and scorpions – so it’s possible that whatever they use to control chiggers could leave true insects, like the beneficials you want to protect, unharmed. Ask which chemicals they would use and research them. You’ll also want to be sure that their chigger control plan occurs at the right time: adult chiggers are harmless, except of course for the fact that they will lay eggs, which happens in early spring. Once those hatch, it’s that first phase that does all the biting. So the best time for control would be autumn, before the adults go dormant so they never have the chance to lay eggs the following spring, or in spring, when the eggs have hatched and the young (i.e., first instar) chiggers are out and about looking for someone to bite. Once those babies have had their first blood meal (I know, gross, sorry!), they won’t bite again and will simply mature into adults who will then lay eggs the following season.

As for things you can do to make your yard less friendly to chiggers, there are several. First and foremost, they need moisture, so if you have an irrigation system and can keep it off for a summer or only run it when conditions are very dry instead of regularly, that would help a lot. Also, clean up and discard (don’t compost or store on your property) your leaf litter in late winter/early spring, which will remove any adults that are hiding out in it. Finally, try to maintain space in between your plants if possible – that creates places for them to hide, as well as maintains moisture in the leaf litter for more favorable hiding spots. I don’t think you should necessarily dig up plants that touch, but you might consider pruning them for one season, or another idea would be to target those areas of dense vegetation that you don’t want to prune with diatomaceous earth. That way, the powder wouldn’t be visible, and you won’t go broke trying to manage everything with it. And the good news is that most likely, if you deploy a mix of chemical management and these physical controls for just one season, you should hopefully be rid of them for good.

Unfortunately, I did not find any natural enemies of chiggers that you could enlist in your fight.

We sincerely hope this helps you, Erin, and anyone else who has the misfortune of a chigger infestation.

Thanks for your question, Connie – it inspired us to make a video on the fact that smokebush just naturally have a funky growth habit. That becomes particularly apparent in winter, which makes people start wondering if everything’s okay or if it’s something they’ve done or what. The video isn’t quite ready yet, but if you subscribe to our YouTube channel, you’ll get notified when it is. Anyway, let’s get back to Connie’s smokebush, which she mentions she purchased as a one-quart. This is the most common size for online nurseries to send, but it was originally intended for professional growers to pot up into a larger container, trim a couple of times, and grow it on to a larger size to sell the following year. Some plants that are sold in one quarts don’t need much trimming to develop into a nice specimen, but honestly, smokebush isn’t one of them. As you can see in Connie’s photo below, if left untrimmed, it just grows those long shoots and doesn’t branch. So what you should do is simply cut them back. I’d recommend cutting them back by about half their total height, but that’s up to you – just bear in mind that wherever you make your cut is the point at which they will branch. If you want that branching to occur lower, cut closer to the ground. If you want it higher, just take a few inches off the top. Do note that smokebush bloom on old wood so doing this will remove any flower buds it may have formed for this year, though that said, I think such a young plant is unlikely to bloom much anyway, so it’s best to “rip off the Bandaid,” so to speak, and get your plant on its way to become a lush, full, densely-branched beauty.

Two super-straight leafless branches of a young smokebush plant against the backdrop of a house with white siding.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

Today we are joined by the inimitable Don Snoeyink of Thornapple Woodlands LLC, where he keeps bees, makes maple syrup, raises worms for fishing, and teaches others how to do it all. We talk about this year’s highly unusual maple syrup season and how the warm weather is impacting bees. Join us at the YouTube link above or on your favorite podcast platform to hear the whole conversation.