Category Archives: Gardening Advice

Good advice never gets old – WHEN TO RENOVATE THE GARDEN

Looking back through our blog archives, I came across this great article that Nadine wrote a few years ago. This has been my first year in a new house, so I have been patiently watching the changing light and shade, adjusting the irrigation system and taking note of the evolution of colors in the garden.  All summer long, I’ve been making mental notes of things to move and remove, as well as scouting out the nursery for new plants to fill holes and breath new life into my landscaping.  There are some things that clearly need to be removed, like gangly, overgrown Rhododendrons and azaleas. Other things I will try to work into a more cohesive plan.  I hope this article inspires you to take a fresh look at your landscape as well.  -Dana

There comes a time in the life of every garden when the gardener begins to wonder if a renovation is due. It usually sneaks up on you because you planted those trees and shrubs when they were “babies”. The expectation was that it would take forever for them to mature. All of a sudden, they’re blocking the windows and threatening to take over the drive-way! It’s time.

Winter is very good for taking stock of how the landscape has matured. All of the “bones” of the garden (the tree trunks and canopies, the shapes of the major shrubs and shadows of the conifers) stand out. Because the days are cloudy and the sun is low, you also get a good sense of how much the interior of the house is being affected by mature plants. If you sit in your living room, look out and get a closed in feeling, it’s time to take action.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself: 1) Are the trees doing what I want them to do? I.e.: shade, flowers, fruit, anchoring beds, shelter for birds? 2) Are the conifers filling the spaces the way I envisioned when they were planted? I.e.: are they growing straight, interfering with other plants, blocking views or paths? 3) Are the shrubs looking good and blooming well? 4) Are the perennials filling the bed? Are they blooming well? Are the crowns dense and healthy? 5) Are the vines doing their jobs? I.e.: Hiding fences, providing shade, fragrance, flower and fruit? 6) Are the paths clearly visible, easy to walk on and unobstructed by plants? 7) Are the ornamental walls, pergolas, trellises etc. in good repair, clearly visible and functioning as planned? 8) Is the water feature easy to maintain, safe and attractive?

You had a plan when all these elements of the garden went in. Being a living, functioning organism, the garden does things you don’t plan. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes a detriment. If you spend a lot of time working and living in your garden, you are in tune with it. Pay attention to the feeling you get when you look at your garden. This will help you answer the above questions and lead to a decision about major changes.

I never thought I would get to the place where I would have to move or take out major plants. This year, I have taken out two very large shrubs, moved established shrubs from one place to another and begun severe pruning of one of my large clematis vines. What has surprised me is that these changes have led to other major decisions for change. I discovered in an effort to move one of my very favorite small confers, that it had been growing sideways for many years and had a horizontal trunk. It was very unhappy. Trying to transplant it would do no good. Sadly, I have to give it up to the compost pile and wood pile. Gladly, the plants around it will be happier and look better.

My water feature has been a source of satisfaction and great consternation almost since we installed it. The fiberglass reservoir was tipping more and more to one side every year. I was convinced that roots from one of the large firs or cedars were pushing it out of shape. This fall, we finally took the whole thing apart. This entailed moving a lot of rocks! We discovered no roots at all! It was a puzzle. It took a few days of prodding my memory of the initial installation to remember that we really hadn’t set the reservoir properly to begin with. Because of excessive heat and troublesome tree roots, we had dug a shallow hole and decide to prop up the sides. Gravity had done the rest. We’ll do it right when we reinstall.

Making major changes can often be difficult. The decision to remove a large plant that you’ve become accustomed to is often put off until you hate the plant. This is not always a bad thing! Another way to make these changes easier is to assess your property carefully. You will almost always discover a choice plant languishing for want of a better location. (You know, the wonderful specimen bought on impulse.) When the over grown plant is removed and the new put in, the feeling is one of satisfaction and accomplishment rather than loss.

I had a Viburnum that I loved planted to fill a large bare space at the front of the house. It did exactly what I wanted it to…..and more. When I found myself contemplating a very harsh pruning, I knew it was time to remove it. I put it off. Then, I discovered that a lovely variegated Pieris on my property was being overrun by the plants around it. It was ideal for the Viburnum spot. Since it is a slow grower, I also planted a climbing Hydrangea behind the Pieris and against the brick wall of the house. These two plants will fill the space and also light up the north exposure with the white of the leaves and flowers. The claustrophobic feeling of the Viburnum is gone.

This is what to look forward to when you get to the renovation stage. Hard choices are made but a refreshed garden leads to a refreshed gardener. The cycle of learning, discovery and satisfaction continues.

Nadine Black

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Blast from the Past: Adventures in Hiring a Gardener

I have officially reached that point in the year when my garden overwhelms me.

Where to start?

Where to start?

We just moved into our house last fall, so this is the first year I have seen the garden in action.  Up until now I have been diligently watering almost everyday desperately trying to keep things alive in this heat. My husband and I have been learning our new irrigation system, fixing broken sprinklers, and readjusting spray patterns as brown spots appear.  We have taken out a few things that were obviously dead or dying and trimmed up some trees that were in desperate need (More on that in another post!). I have brought home a few plants from the nursery, but I have been trying really hard to wait to make any big plant decisions until I can see a full year in the garden, a very difficult thing when you work at Joy Creek!

IMG_1663

Hill of Weeds

But last week pushed me over the edge. I walked through the backyard, down the hill overgrown with spent flowers, weeds, and a general mish-mash of random plants thrown in over the years, most towering over my head.  I was almost in tears with the immensity of the project ahead.  I came into work the following day and I started reading the old blogs on our website.  I found this gem from Nadine, one of our landscape consultants. It reminded me that it is ok to ask for help, it leaves more energy for the fun part of gardening! I hope you enjoy this little blast from Joy Creek Blogging past as well.

Dana Pricher

Originally published May 30, 2012

“Well, I finally did it. I called for help in my garden. The weeds
finally pushed me over the edge. It is a relief to have made the
decision . So this is how my process went.

My garden is on a large city lot and is complicated. There is a lot
to be done, so I had to prioritize my needs before I called anyone.
As I said earlier, the weeds are my priority. I determined that what
I would ask my would-be gardener to do was weed (most of it by hand)
and spread mulch. I didn’t decide until during the interviews whether
I wanted the bids with mulch delivered or whether I would arrange for
the mulch delivery. I realized that a lot of this process is about
control.

A Garden in Need of Help

When I shop for services like this, I always shop in 3’s. I had been
collecting fliers for years from landscapers who had either put them
in the paper or my door. I picked three that listed the services I
needed and called each one for an appointment. #1 wanted to have an
hour spread during which he would show up. (It turned out at the
latest time.) Numbers 2 and 3 made a specific time commitment.

#1) Showed up with his book and was raring to go. As we walked
around the garden I realized he was not listening to me and was
wrapped up in assessing the property according to what he wanted to do
with it. He even wanted to relocate my blueberries so that he could
put Caseron in the bed! Needless to say, I DON’T DO CASERON. After
10 minutes, he handed me my bid and left.

#2) Showed up promptly. I showed him some of my trouble spots ie: a
clematis that I have growing on the ground with weeds growing up
through it. He understood that there were complications like that all
over. He was very enthusiastic but in a different way from #1. He
was interested in my plants! He was also interested in the way I did
things and why. After 30 minutes he gave me my bid. I really liked
him.

#3) Was a young man with a brief case full of receipts. He seemed
tired. He wanted to put down a large amount of mulch. I could tell
he had done this many times before and he knew what he was talking
about. He said he ran 2 crews in the Portland/Vancouver area. He
gave me his estimate after about 20 minutes.

The first estimate I got took my breath away! Even including the
delivery of the mulch, it seemed extremely high. The amount was about
4 times the amount I budgeted. The other 2 estimates were much more
in my ball-park. One with mulch and the other without. The second 2
offered either payment plans or senior discounts, and one said if you
don’t like my work, you don’t have to pay me.

You might have deduced by this time that I chose to hire #2. He was
competent, interested and he just struck a chord with me. I took 3
references from the last 2 people but confess that I did not contact
them. When I called to tell him, he was very grateful. He will be
doing the job in a couple of weeks. That is when we shall see if my
instincts were right.

So, some tips: Know what you want and stick to it; Talk to neighbors
or friends for their experiences and references; Contact the local
high school or community college if they have a horticulture program;
keep meticulous records of all contacts; Be sure to have a number of
contacts and Do let your instincts instruct you. I’ll let you know
the results in a few weeks. Thanks to the members of my Aging in the
Garden class for many of the suggestions.

Nadine Black

I have to add that Joy Creek has a wonderful maintenance crew.  Nadine didn’t consider them, but I feel like I will get in trouble if I don’t mention it. And I will probably be giving them a call myself!

Hebes for Northwest Gardens

Hebes are small evergreen shrubs from New Zealand. There are around a 100 species and about 750 cultivars. With so many species they cover a wide array of terrain and climates. In Oregon I have had the best luck with species from the cooler South Island of New Zealand. I am basing this advice off of personal experience. I keep close tabs on the hebes at my house, Joy Creek, and all around the Portland area. They grow wonderfully along the Oregon and Washington Coast and through the Puget Sound basin. I want to first look at what to look for in a plant, then go through growing conditions, and finish with the most common question, “How do I keep this alive?”

Hebe blue mist 2

Foliage:

The main attraction of hebes for me is their evergreen foliage. The variety of leaf sizes and shapes is incredible. When dealing with hardiness, generally the smaller the leaf, the hardier the plant. It has also been found that hebes with gray leaves tend to survive drought better than others. Some hebes have foliage that changes color in the colder months to provide further winter interest.

The red foliage darkens in winter.

The red foliage darkens in winter.

Hebe boughton silver sm

Bloom:

I tend to view bloom as secondary when growing hebes in the yard. This is because when chasing the showiest bloom you tend to lose hardiness. Many hardy hebes do bloom profusely but they tend to be smaller

Hebe Walter Buccleigh with title sm

Growing Conditions:

Sun- Grow in full sun to open shade. Hebes do well in deciduous shade so that they can get sun in the winter but dappled light in the summer. When grown in too much shade they tend to get leggy and one sided as and stretch toward the light.

Soil- Any decent semi well drained soil will do. I have not found them to be too picky as long as they are not underwater. They do grow much quicker in well amended soil.

I have a downspout that empties onto this all winter and it has put up with it. I would not recommend this, but it still hasn't killed the plant.

I have a downspout that empties onto this all winter and it has put up with it. I would not recommend this, but it still hasn’t killed the plant.

Water- Hebes are not excessively drought tolerant on the whole. Certain varieties are more tolerant that than others, but most like bi-weekly water during the summer. When grown in part shade you can get away with a lot less water. Whipchord types are less drought tolerant than others.

I have had this survive in very dry conditions, and never had winter damage.

I have had this survive in very dry conditions, and never had winter damage.

Pruning- Cut out dead material after heavy frosts are past. Prune for shape in early spring and give some fertilizer or compost after to feed new growth. Though this might reduce flowering in certain varieties, I don’t want to risk late season due to the likelihood of young growth being damaged in the winter.

Propagation- Hebes root very easily from cuttings. Take semi-hardwood cuttings in August to October. Leave two nodes on top and one below soil level. They can also be rooted in water. This is a great way to protect against winter losses. They can also be done through layering.

Pests and Disease- Some deer eat hebes and some do not. They are currently one of their favorites at Joy Creek. Septoria leaf spot (black spots on the leaves) is more of a problem in nursery settings than the garden. I would accept a little on a plant I purchase, but avoid anything that is too ugly.

Tips to Keep Your Hebe Alive;

1.Pick the right one. Some cultivars seem to croak every year while other similar looking ones just keep on trucking.

An ice storm is no match for Hebe 'Greensleeves'.

An ice storm is no match for Hebe ‘Greensleeves’.

2. Plant in the spring. This allows the plant to establish before winter but this also means you have to water the first summer.

3.Give all hebes some water when it hasn’t rained in months. A good deep soak goes a long way. They are from New Zealand, not the Mediterranean. I admit to babying mine a little, but there is a difference between surviving and looking good.

4. Site your plant where it is protected from cold winds. The Arctic blast coming down the gorge is death for hebes. It dries out the fleshy evergreen foliage and they cannot survive. Plant next to wind breaks or on the west side of tree, hedge, or house. Salty ocean breeze does not seem to effect them. You can grow all the hebes you want at the coast.

I kept this alive by planting it out of the wind on the west side of my house.  It survived 12 degrees with a little help from a garbage can.

I kept this alive by planting it out of the wind on the west side of my house. It survived 12 degrees with a little help from a garbage can.

5. When it gets cold quickly in November and early December give them a little extra protection from a bucket or fir boughs. Once they have been through a good frost they are unlikely to get damaged unless it is below 15 degrees. Give the same protection if there is a late frost. They often just need to be a little warmer and out of the wind. A little protection goes a long way.

Don’t give up on hebes just because one died on you, there are great ones out there.

Thanks, Andy

Attracting Songbirds into the Garden with Nadine Black

We are excited to have Nadine Black teaching our class this Sunday, May 24th, on Attracting Songbirds into the Garden. I caught up with her and asked a few questions about the class.

What are a few steps to attract more birds to your yard?

Like any living creature, birds need food, water and a safe place to raise their young.

A Hummingbird Enjoying Crocosmia 'Orangeade'

A Hummingbird Enjoying Crocosmia ‘Orangeade’

What plants do birds love?

They like plants that provide food such as Aronia, Cottoneaster, Blueberries,and Coneflowers.  Humming birds love any nectar-heavy plant such as Honeysuckle, Fuchsia, Crocosmia, Penstemon, and Lavender just to mention a few.

Are there aspects to attracting birds that often get overlooked?

I think there are two things that may not come to mind readily.  The first is thicket.  There are many song birds that nest on the ground.  They need a dense shrub or a pile of debris, preferably with thorns, to provide protection.  This leads me into the second item.  Being aware of what predators might be in the area is important.  Sometimes, the predators can’t be foiled, but we need to try.

What plant and bird combinations stand out the most to you?

The two that jump out at me are Cottoneasterfranchetti and Robins and Humming birds and Penstemon.  The fruit and nectar of these two plants seem irresistible to the respective birds.

What birds bring you the most joy in your own yard?

I would have to say, the singing Finches and Sparrows.  Although I am delighted by the sight of a zipping Humming bird or the dramatic Flicker and I get a big kick out of discovering something new to me like a Ruby Crowned Kinglet, the pleasure of hearing the songs and how they are often answered from afar, is truly joyful.  All I have to do is go out on my back porch and listen.

Sparrow on Hydrangea

Sparrow on Hydrangea

I would like to thank Nadine for taking the time to answer these questions and assure you that she will have lots more information in her class. She is a wonderful speaker and I highly recommend all of her talks. We hope to see lots of people this Sunday, May 24, but if you can’t make it we hope this still provided lots of helpful information.

Portable Table Gardens – Richie Steffen

Portable Table Gardens – Richie Steffen  Sunday May 17th 1pm

Have you admired our table gardens at the nursery? They are small wonderlands that add interest to shady spots in the garden. Want to know how to make your own? Come on out to the nursery this Sunday at 1 pm for a free class with Richie Steffen.

Inspired by local Northwest Gardener George Schenk, author of Gardening on Pavement, Tables, & Hard Surfaces, Richie Steffen is creating his own unique miniature landscapes on portable tabletops.  Richie will demonstrate the principles and techniques, using small plants, moss, rocks and weathered pieces of wood, to craft a distinctive focal point for your patio, deck, or entryway.  He will also show how to care for them as they mature.

Garden with Saxifraga

Garden with Saxifraga in bloom

Richie Steffen is the Curator for the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden where he manages the rare plant collections and heads acquisitions of new plants for the garden.  He currently serves as a selection committee member of the Great Plant Picks™ program and is always ready to share his enthusiasm for this excellent regional resource. He is also the co-author and co-photographer of the recently published “Plant Lover’s Guide to Ferns” from Timber Press.  He will have signed copies of the book for sale for $25. 

Hope to see you there!

9781604694741 Richie's Book Cover

EASY-CARE BLUESTARS

Some gardeners are afraid of large herbaceous perennials because they leave gaping holes when they go dormant in the winter.  In the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest where we are blessed with relatively mild weather and can easily achieve an all-but evergreen garden, this is perhaps a relevant complaint.

That said, there is still the sheer thrill of growing herbaceous perennials for the sense of seasonal change they give us.  Among the very easiest of underused and very hardy herbaceous perennials are the Bluestars, genus Amsonia.    At Joy Creek Nursery, we have been growing these delightful, billowing plants for almost twenty years.   The tongue-tying species Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia was our introduction to the genus.  (By the way, A. tabernaemontana is commonly calledWillow bluestar and it is odd that the varietal name also means “willow-like foliage.”  Perhaps this is simply to amplify our understanding of its appearance.)  From there we graduated to A. illustris and later to A. cilliata and A. hubrechtii.  Along the way we tried to grow the dry-land species Amsonia peblesii from seed but did not have much luck.  We have only grown the North American species although there are species from Asia, Europe and theMiddle East as well.

Amsonia huprectii

These are not plants like lilies that announce their arrival with large blaring trumpets.  They are much subtler than that.  Their stems emerge in early spring from well-developed clumps much as those of milkweeds do.  (In fact, the common name for one species is blue milkweed.)     Instead of trumpets, the willowy, upright stems bear constellations of small soft blue stars in panicles at their tips.  The blooms arrive in late spring or early summer depending on the species.  During the course of the summer, the fertilized flowers form numerous long, narrow, papery seed pods that are also of interest.

The foliage and height of these various species is what makes them distinct from one another.   A. tabernaemontana has fairly broad leaves that are up to three inches long.  In our garden, it stands four feet tall or better.  A. Illustris is also in the four foot range with similar lance-shaped leaves.  A. ciliata (called the Blue milkweed) has much narrower leaves and it ascends to three feet or more.  (There is a selection from this species called ‘Halfway toArkansas’ that is much shorter than the species and has slightly broader foliage.)  Of all of the forms we grow, A. hubrechtii, from the central to the northeast part of the States, has the most feathery foliage.  This plant only gets to about three feet.

All of these species have lovely fall color.  The more sun they get, the more pronounced their transformations.  Generally, their leaves turn yellow, but in A. tabernaemontana, A. illustris, and even somewhat in A. ciliata, there is also bronze and a little purple in the mix.  A. hubrechtii seems to turn uniformly golden in our garden.

Amsonia ‘Halfway to Arkansas Fall Color

Amsonia do not ask much more than average summer water.  Over time our specimens have become somewhat drought tolerant.  Further, we have never had to down-size our plants although it did take several years for them to develop into generous clumps.  We use them in the background and as specimen plants.  Their stems move gracefully in the wind.  Their flowers are attractive to pollinators and birds and they offer us a sense of the changing season from spring green through delicate bloom and brilliant autumn coloration to winter dormancy.

Maurice

Red Pig Garden Tools

We are excited to have Bob Denman, owner of Red Pig Garden Tools, as our speaker this Sunday (June 10th).  His talk is titled “Price Is Not The Only Difference” where he will go into depth about how tools are made and how to tell the difference in quality.  Maurice was able to convince him to bring a few tools to sell as well.  I am looking forward to it and hope that we get a few people to come out.

Bob at the Forge

This winter I decided that I wanted a trowel for Christmas.  I looked at all the tools available online and had settled on something made in Holland that was going to cost quite a bit.  I was ok with this but then I came across this tool company that made handcrafted tools and was located fairly close in Boring, Oregon.

My wife and I drove out on a Saturday in November and wound our way out into the countryside.  We pulled up to a barn, which I found out is actually constructed out of two old barns, and rung a bell to let them know we were there.  We were first greeted by a friendly dog and then Bob showed up.  The store is packed full of all kinds of garden tools from huge warrior ax looking things to small Japanese propagation scissors.  We looked around for a bit and I picked up nearly every tool in the place to look at.

Eventually I got to chatting with Bob  and told him what I was looking for.  The conversation turned in many directions and he covered the history of garden tools for the last 150 years, how each tool is made and the materials that go into them (many are made out of old sawmill blades), the different methods of weeding depending on the planting environment, and on and on it went.  We talked for around two hours and I felt thoroughly enlightened on the subject of garden tools.

I didn’t buy the trowel I had drove out for, there is one I am building in my head that I will probably have him custom make, but I did not leave empty handed.  I bought the Cape Cod Weeder and have loved using it this spring.  It looks like a crazy sharpened hook and really takes out weeds.  More importantly I got a file to sharpen all my tools.  Having well maintained tools has made me enjoy gardening even more.

I hope you can make it out for the class on Sunday, but if not I would definitely check out  Red Pig Garden Tools.

Andy

Coast Silk-tassel’s Late Winter Tresses

The Silk-tassel is a familiar enough shrub often encountered in the Coastal Ranges of California and southwestern Oregon.    We have grown the species for many years in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery.  Although it is a worthy evergreen native shrub that makes a fine background plant in the summer I have often thought that its incredible winter bloom gets lost in the dense foliage.

Six years ago, I bought Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ to go into the native plant border at my home.  I was pleased that it grew quickly and created a thick screen between me and the driveway next-door even if its habit was ungainly.  Branches curved in a drooping fashion back down to the ground.  Others twisted themselves around neighboring branches as if they were seeking a way out of the evergreen tangle.  Because much of the growth was lateral and downward, I began to contemplate what I could do to encourage upward growth.   I wanted to see the tassels drape the shrub like tinsel on a Christmas tree.

Once the shrub had gotten five feet tall, I began to prune it with an eye toward opening it up.  My goal was to take out unattractive twisted branches and branches that descended.  Because there were so few truly upward growing branches, I did this task cautiously at first.  As the shrub matured, I became bolder.  Finally early this winter, even though the tassels had already started to form, I began removing all unwanted branches.   When I was done, I had an open, airy Silk-tassel that looked nothing like the dense shrub I was familiar with.

By the beginning of February, the tassels began to extend until they reached their full length of 12 to 13 inches which is the characteristic of ‘James Roof’.  These tassels often come in terminal sets of five accompanied by two sets of three additional tassels at the leaf axils immediately behind the terminal.  The tightly-scaled tassels are grey green at this point but toward the middle of February the scales loosen to reveal tiny flowers so full of pollen that a slight brush of the hand releases a small cloud.  ‘James Roof’ is a male clone and does not develop fruit.

To my delight, my pruning worked.  The tassels blew in the breeze and did exactly what I hoped for as you can see in the accompanying pictures.  By opening up the shrub, and giving it a sense of transparency, I have come to really appreciate the glory of this native.  I have become a true believer.

Maurice Horn

 

Interview with Mike Smith about his Pruning Class

We are having our first class of the year Sunday March 4th.  Mike Smith, co-owner of Joy Creek and pruning guru, will be talking and demonstrating the finer points of pruning.  It is at 1pm and make sure to dress for the weather.

Why do we have this class at this time of year?

In most gardens, as the winter draws to an end, there are a significant number of plants that require pruning.  Whether the source of the need is the repair of winter damage, plant health or aesthetics pruning just before a plant breaks dormancy gives the plant a fresh start at the beginning of the season.  This time of year also lets the pruner see more clearly where and what to prune.

What aspects of pruning do you plan on covering during the class?

In the class I will begin by spending a short time covering pruning basics and the equipment needed.  The majority of the class will then be spent on demonstrating my approach to pruning various shrubs and small trees.  I will also review the progress made on several plants that have been pruned during previous years pruning classes.  The class will end with a quesiton and answer period.

Is there a specific area of the gardens that you plan to address?

The plan is to thin and shape a grouping of shrubs and small trees that over time have grown together so that each plant has lost its individuality.  The goal is to bring back visual balance back to the planting.

What is your favorite type of plant to prune?

My favorite plant to prune depends entirely upon my frame of mind at the time.  If I am frustrated and want to release some aggression then an English laurel hedge is a good target.  If I am feeling creative and thoughtful then pruning a Japanese laceleaf maple is always fun and interesting.

Late Spring/Summer Pruning at Joy Creek Nursery

Most often, when we gardeners in temperate climates think of pruning we concentrate on the late fall and winter period of the year.  It is the time when the plants are dormant that we trim, shape, or otherwise modify how our shrubs and trees will grow in the following years.  Yet, a large number of shrubs and trees respond very favorably to being pruned, sometimes aggressively, during the active growing period in the late spring and summer.

Many shrubs and small trees respond best to being pruned directly after they finish blooming.  Some examples of these are Rhododendrons, Syringa cultivars (Lilacs), early flowering Viburnums, Rosa forms and many others.  Pruning directly after bloom allows a gardener to preserve or encourage more potential blooms for the following growing season while allowing the plant in question to be shaped or downsized.

In the case of trees, summer is an excellent time to adjust the height of the understory.  Overtime branches that grow in the interior of a tree’s structure often grow horizontally towards the light available at the edges of the canopy.  Many of these branches are moderate to weak growers that only add weight to the load carried by the tree’s trunk.  These same horizontal branches often droop towards the ground at the ends creating both a visual and spatial heaviness to the eye plus restricting the available light for plants we might want to grow beneath a tree. (Note: To avoid suckering, pruning out the top of the canopy is usually best left for when the plant of dormant,)

The extent of adjustment in height from the ground to the lowest edge of the understory will obviously vary depending on the size of the tree involved. For example I will lift the canopy by two to three feet on a Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (Purple leafed eastern redbud) and up to fifteen or so feet for Juglans regia (English walnut tree)*.  Here in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery I rotate our summer pruning through our trees and shrubs on about a three year cycle or as needed in my judgment.

Sometimes pruning back the ends of lower hanging branches as well as removing the secondary and tertiary branches that hang down from a main branch will lessen the weight on the branch and allow it raise up sometimes by several feet.  This approach works well on smaller trees and shrubs.

One side effect of pruning back and limbing up trees and shrubs is that the overall width of the plants is often significantly reduced.  This process can change significantly the exposure to sunlight for surrounding plants.   The added sunlight will allow sun loving and partial sun loving plants to thrive while for shade lovers a move to a new location may be the order of the day.

Below are some examples of recent pruning in our display gardens.

Fagus sylvatica purpurea (Purple leafed Beech or Blood Beech) (Height about 25-30 feet, diameter before pruning about 25 feet while closer to 18 feet after pruning, understory height before pruning 7 feet, after pruning about 12 feet)

Rhododendron ‘Cotton Candy’ and ‘Pink Chiffon’ (A mixed planting averaging about 15 feet in height, Width before pruning 10-12 feet, after pruning 8-9 feet, understory before pruning 6-7 feet, after pruning 10-11 feet)

Fraxinus not ‘Raywood’** (Height about 25 feet, Width before pruning about 15 feet, width after pruning about 13 feet, understory height before pruning about 8-9 feet, after pruning about 15-16 feet.) I usually prune up the understory on this tree in alternating years.

Magnolia ‘Ann’ (Height about 10 feet, Width before pruning 20-25 feet, width after pruning about 15-17 feet, understory height before pruning 3.5-4 feet, after pruning 6-7 feet.) To somewhat control the lax nature of this tree habit we have staked and supported selected trunks on this plant so that we can grow other plants around and beneath it.

*I do not recommend planting English walnut trees in an ornamental flower garden.  We have them in our gardens because they were the only large established trees in the area of the house when I bought the property and we established our flower beds.  The tree blooms in the spring and the nuts and nut casings in the fall make a mess.

**Fraxinus not ‘Raywood’  When it came time to replace a walnut tree that died in the garden, I chose to purchase a specimen dormant Raywood ash as a replacement.  Unfortunately, when spring arrived and it leafed out, the plant was certainly an ash but was definitely not Fraxinus ‘Raywood’.  I like the tree and while we have had several tree experts look at the tree no one has been able to give it a positive identification.  I’m certain that at some point we will get a correct identification for the tree but for now since we do not sell the plant, not ‘Raywood’ works just fine.

Mike