A Nod to Pruning, an Ode to Dandelions, and Other Plant Talk

Three pieces of news: The National Garden Assn. just reported that in 2002 the garden industry outpaced the U.S. Economy, growing 8% to the economy's 5%.

On a similar note, Time Magazine reported on May 5th that container gardening is increasing annually at a rate close to 20%. Why? It's easy to design, select plants (flowers or vegetables or a mix), weed, and choose from a wide array of containers to suit every taste.

Thirdly, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency which in March found evidence of exotic borers in bonsai trees originating in Korea and being imported for sale in North America. Maple, hornbean and juniper bonsais were returned to Korea. I'm sure you recall how the Asian Longhorn Beetle, the Gypsy moth, Japanese beetle and hosts of other non-native pests arrived as stowaways. Bravo to the CFIA.

I know there are some of you who suffer from "fear of pruning". I mentioned a few pruning chores in my last column, and after reading it again, I want to put some of those fears to rest. First, not pruning can be a much greater mistake than poor, improper or excessive pruning. Failure to prune when plants need it may result in trees and shrubs that become leggy and weedy looking and prone to mechanical injury from winds and subject to disease problems. We've all had a bad haircut in our lifetimes. Some of us more than one. Our hair grew out again and we lived to have many more better cuts. Over-pruning or a bad cut on that tree or shrub will not really hurt it as long as the tool used is sharp and clean. Recovery is just a matter of time.

Looking around me these past few weeks prompts me to briefly mention the Rodney Dangerfield of the plant world. If you haven't guessed which one it is, I'll bet by telling you that some Chinese refer to them as yellow-flowered earth nails you'll know I'm speaking of the ubiquitous dandelion. Obscene amounts of money are spent annually in efforts to eradicate this, perhaps most well known and often celebrated, flowering food plant and medicine. Fortunately, an enlightened segment of our population spends millions of dollars purchasing this valuable crop instead of trying to kill it. The health benefits of Taraxacum officinale are legendary. And then there's dandelion wine which is ready to drink and warm you all over just as the snow begins to fly. C'mon, a little respect!

I could say the same for Mother Nature's tete-a-tete with Old Man Winter. For nearly two weeks our normal temperatures for this time of year have stayed depressed by ten to fifteen degrees. Wool shirts and down vests are more conspicuous than shorts and shirtsleeves. This weather is great for new plantings, however, as their is less stress on the plants and the planter. The heat is coming, make no mistake about it, and will probably stay for its normal duration.

Have the mayflies been bothering you lately? Their life span is only a few hours, and they'll be gone in another week or so. But, caution. Taking their place in June are the black flies. Caution, because these guys give a powerful bite. They are most common near running water and are less attracted to high, dry, breezy areas; they are also least attracted to yellow and florescent orange. Cover skin as much as you can considering warmer temperatures, and use repellents (on hats and fabric only, if it contains DEET). They'll be around for a month or so. It's one of the prices we pay to live in such glorious surroundings. You won't find them in the City.

Every year I'm asked why this or that plant won't bloom. There are a variety of reasons why plants fail to bloom. In a nutshell, the reasons for blossom failure are the following: insufficient sunlight; wrong time pruning; winter injury from frost or freezing; lack of or improper fertilization; wrong soil pH; insufficient or excess moisture; plant immaturity; poor planting; variable flowering habit; disease; mechanical or insect injury to the plant.

This nutshell is quite condensed, but I think, covers all the reasons. I give a few examples. Planting peonies too deep will always result in poor growth and failure to produce flowers. Pruning forsythia in fall will always result in reduced flowering. Hard freezes just before blossoming will kill flowers of wisteria, magnolia and many other tender victims. Blueberries will flower and produce fruit very poorly, if at all, in alkaline soil. The plant will likely die. And so on. Look closely at all the plant requirements. Excessive nitrogen will almost always tend to keep the plant material in the vegetative mode. Flowers and fruit are the important results of the reproductive mode.

A few notes on vegetable fertilizing, since that time is getting close. Fertilizers of choice are 5-10-5 or 5-10-10. (See? The nitrogen is lower than the phosphorous and potassium.) A reasonable rate is one and a half pounds per hundred square feet. Heavy feeders (those that require a second feeding or side dressing) include cole crops, tomatoes, sweet corn, celery, carrots, onions, beets and potatoes. Those that require less are peas and beans (legumes), and radishes, turnips and watermelons.

Hort hint: Small piles of wood and stone placed randomly throughout the garden will provide natural hiding places for garden snakes that will keep slug populations at or near zero.

Happy planting and happy gardening.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on May 21, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.