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Say goodbye to blackberry winter and get out your pruning shears

ROY ODOM • May 18, 2020 at 6:00 PM

Here is to surviving the coldest blackberry winter that I can remember. When I was a child, we were never allowed to go barefoot or remove the quilts from the bed before May 10. I guess those old folks knew what is good for us.

I protected most of my plants with frost cloth and making sure they were properly watered. I am afraid to say anything about the weather. The year 2020 has been saying "hold my beer," as the kids say. Let us hope and pray the rest of the spring and summer are kinder than last week.


I have been receiving so many questions on pruning. Pruning plants is kind of like getting a haircut. The only difference between a good one and a bad one is about six weeks. Now there are exceptions to that. We must never prune below a graft on a plant such as a weeping cherry or many of the weeping Japanese maples. The understocks are a totally different variety. I have gone to look at more cherries with the understock growing out than I care to think about. When you get those tall, straight stems on cherries or maples, then you are losing your graft and you must remove those as soon as possible.

The rule of thumb on other shrubs is no more than a third of the total height of the plant. I usually tell people no more than three to six inches just to make sure they don't butcher the plant. We can always go in and take out more but we can't glue it back on.

Now is the time to prune those azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythia, quinces, and other spring blooming shrubs. Most of these shrubs produce their bloom buds the previous summer. A summer or fall pruning on these removes the blooms for the next season. The cut off date is the middle of June. I would say do it now if those shrubs have finished up blooming and any pruning is necessary.


Now on to hydrangeas. Lawd, these are a troublesome group. If you have the mop head or French hydrangeas, the hydrangeas that usually bloom blue or pink, DO NOT prune them back to the ground in the fall or spring. Leave as much live wood as possible. Those blooms are already in those buds. If y'all will notice, the prettiest hydrangeas are near a downspout on the front of some house with a porch. Some gardener 60 years ago lovingly planted them and then left them alone. I know they are unsightly in the winter but just resist the urge to cut them. In the spring, remove any dead or damaged stems and just stand back. French hydrangeas will also bloom on new wood so a late summer show is possible. That is the beauty of the 'Endless Summer' hydrangea. It continues to grow and bloom all season.

The other group of hydrangeas include the paniculatas and the oak leaf. Both of these can be pruned in early spring to summer because they bloom on new or current season's growth. The paniculatas include the wildly popular 'Limelight', 'Strawberry Sundae' and 'Bobo'. These are amazing hydrangeas. They can be enjoyed in the landscape and also make a great cut and dried flower. The oak leaf hydrangeas also have beautiful blooms and amazing fall foliage. My only complaint as a cut is that they shed so much. These shrubs can be cut nearly to the ground or just given a once over to make them a wee bit neater. I have cut a 'Limelight' to within a foot of the ground and was rewarded with hundreds of smaller blooms. The one I left alone gave me 50 or so huge blooms. I love to leave the blooms in the garden over the winter. They almost take on a golden hue.


With our lawns, now is the time to give them a good looking over and decide if you want to put that other half of lawn fertilizer on or just let it ride. This advice is only for those who followed my advice and put half the recommended rate on their lawns earlier. I have found that I get better results with this method. The fertilizer isn't dumped on the grass all at once to cause excessive growth and excessive mowing. This also helps to keep extra nitrogen and other chemicals out of our streams from leaching off our lawns. Slow and steady wins the race. We must also begin thinking about raising those blades if you dropped them earlier. Grass grows much thicker and weeds are discouraged at a minimum of a 3.5 inch cut. This allows the roots to be shaded and weed seeds need light to germinate. Mowing at this height also helps the soil to stay cooler and more moist. It is a win win. Also, please mulch those clippings if you possibly can. I just think it is wasteful to put fertilizer, lime and other things on a lawn to just remove them. Grasslands and prairies have existed for as long as grass has grown without bagging the clippings. The animals who lived there mowed and fertilized in one step.

I have been hearing good news from many of our locally owned greenhouses and nurseries. Please do try to shop from them. Make sure of their hours and if they have any restrictions on visitation before you head out. Many have scaled back hours or are doing visits by appointment to help with the social distancing.

I sure hope that some of this information has been of use. Keep those gardens growing. Gardening is good for us and the planet.

Roy H. Odom II of Kingsport holds a bachelor of science degree in ornamental horticulture and landscape design from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. With an interest in all aspects of gardening from soil amendments to floral design, he is familiar with the challenges and rewards of gardening in this area. Herbs and vegetable production are his favorite subjects. He is a member of the Creative Thymes Garden Club and Keep Kingsport Beautiful. E-mail him at alittlethymeinthegarden@hotmail.com

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