How To Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

It’s that time of year again when we stock up on flowers for our containers. And the plants always start out looking great. But in no time, the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a landscape designer, this is the most common question I get: How do I keep my potted plants in shape all summer?

The Three-Step Rule

There are three key steps to remember when caring for potted plants. In order to grow successfully in containers, they require:

Would you go a day without water or a month without food? Your flowers depend on you to provide them with all they need. Follow these steps and you’ll have blooms all summer.

Water, Water and then Water Again

Annuals are called annuals for a reason. They have no permanent root system. In order to survive, they need a regular supply of water. In fact, shallow roots, which have limited capacity to store water, require water daily. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! As soon as the top of the soil dries out, potted flowers do, too.

Annuals have shallow roots that require water daily

When watering your potted plants, water at the soil level to avoid wetting the leaves. Wet foliage can encourage fungus to develop. A good rule of thumb is to water at the soil level until excess water seeps out of the pot. That way, you’ll know you’ve completely moistened all of the potting mix. 

Feed For More Blooms

Even though potting mixes come packed with ingredients, containers quickly lose nutrients to hungry plants and frequent watering. As a result, potted plants need to be fed so they can keep on growing. I feed my flowers twice a month, from spring to fall, with a water soluble fertilizer.

That said, it’s important not to overdo things. Too much fertilizer will produce lots of lush foliage, but fewer blooms.

Groom To Keep The Shape

A great haircut can be transformative. And after just a few weeks in a container, flowers can start looking shaggy. You can control for this with proper grooming. 

Groom your plants by regularly deadheading faded flowers and pruning leggy stems. Make sure to pinch or snip back stems to an intersecting branch at a 45 degree angle. This key task will help maintain the form of your plants and stimulate them to keep on blooming.

Below are three popular potted plants and how to keep them in shape all summer.

Geraniums

Though grown as an annual in most areas, the common geranium is actually a ‘tender perennial’, meaning it won’t survive cold temperatures outdoors. While it’s tempting to buy this beautiful plant in early spring, it’s usually best to hold off until around Mother’s Day when there’s less risk of it getting zapped by frost.

A healthy geranium has a few central stems and lots of side shoots (which is the optimum structure for a strong plant that will produce lots of flowers.) To keep your geranium looking good, prune back the central stems by about a third a week or two after potting it. This will encourage more side shoots to develop and maintain the plant’s fullness.

As the season progresses, regularly pinch the side branches of your geranium down to the angle where the branches fork. This will prevent the plant from becoming leggy. And deadhead (pinch at the base) all flower stems as soon as they have faded. This will encourage new flowering.

Petunias

Petunias quickly become leggy without some prudent intervention. They can also quit blooming almost entirely after an initial colorful flush. No worries, though. With proper watering, feeding and grooming, you can keep your petunias looking good all summer.

Like all flowers, petunias must be regularly deadheaded to encourage new blooms. However, unlike most flowers, removing the dead blooms accomplishes only part of the job. That’s because at the base of the petunia flower there is a small, nugget-sized pod that produces seeds. If you leave the pod on the plant, the petunia will stop blooming.

So in order to get your petunia to produce more flowers, remove the entire flower stem.

Deadheading the flowers (with stems) on a regular basis will keep your petunias blooming: however, it won’t solve the leggy problem. To control legginess, prune your plant every week, cutting back about a third of the petunia. You can do this by pinching branches selectively or grabbing clumps and shearing them off. Each week, cut the plant back by another third. Rejuvenating petunias in this way will encourage new stems and blooms to sprout from the interior branches.

Begonias

These bright-colored flowers require less care than geraniums or petunias, but still need regular pruning to maintain their compact shape. The same goes for the indoor varieties, by the way.

To keep your begonias looking their best, prune the outer branches (called canes) harder than the interior ones, pinching back the growing tips of new shoots to encourage new stems to develop. Prune the interior canes at varied heights and prune the outer canes at the lowest. This will encourage new growth at the base of the plant and prevent it from looking bare at the bottom.

If your begonia has lost all of its lower leaves, you can cut it back all the way to the soil. This will force the plant to send up new shoots. You can then continue pinching new stems as they grow until you achieve the desired shape and fullness.

A note on begonias, both indoors and out. They don’t like to be overwatered.

 

When and How To Prune Azaleas

I like to think of azaleas as mixed on an artist’s palette. Come mid-spring, they paint the landscape in broad strokes of brilliant color. Most seldom require pruning. That said, older shrubs can outgrow their space or become unruly. Before giving them a haircut, though, it’s key to know when and how to prune.

The Main Types of Azaleas

Azaleas are part of the Rhododendron family, a large genus of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. In April and May, they produce masses of long-lasting flowers ranging from bright white to crimson. Some deciduous varieties produce unusual tones of orange and yellow. 

Evergreen azaleas are mostly native to Japan. They tend to be smallish in size, ranging in height from 4 to 6 feet.  

Deciduous azaleas, on the other hand, tend to be larger. Some can grow as tall as 15 feet. All native North American azaleas are deciduous.

Native azalea ‘Stonewall Jackson’

Although some varieties do well in full sun, most azaleas prefer high shade. Like hydrangeas, they favor slightly acid soil (a pH of 5.5 – 6). Before planting, do a soil test to determine if your soil is acidic enough. If not, add an amendment like HollyTone, making sure to follow the directions carefully.

Azaleas can be planted in early spring or fall. But in my experience, most are happiest with fall planting as they can develop their root structure over the winter. 

How To Prune Azaleas

Most azaleas seldom require pruning. But if you must – always prune them right after their flowers have faded and before next year’s buds start forming. This is typically around the beginning of July. Cutting azaleas back in late summer, fall or winter will remove next spring’s flowers. 

In my view, azaleas look best when pruned in a natural shape. Unlike rhododendrons that flower at the end of a stem, azaleas flower along the sides as well as the end. That means you don’t have to worry about pruning them back to another branch. They’ll grow a new stem right above where you cut. 

If, however, you observe damaged or dead branches, the strategy is slightly different. Cut damaged branches to just beyond the break where it joins a leaf. And cut dead branches back to their point of origin.

How To Prune Encore Azaleas

Encore Azaleas appeared in the 1990’s, the result of a cross between two Asian varieties by a Louisiana plantsman name Buddy Lee.  Unlike the usual varieties that set buds once a year, Encore Azaleas produce buds each time they produce new growth, which can be several times during the season. As a result, you can prune these azaleas two and even three times from spring to mid summer.

Do not, however, prune your Encore Azaleas after they have finished flowering in the fall. This will stimulate new growth which can be damaged by falling temperatures. As a general rule, stop your pruning two months before the frost date in your area.

How To Prune Overgrown Azaleas

Many times old shrubs outgrow their locations, or turn spindly or sparse. You can ‘heavy’ prune them in winter or very early spring before the leaves start to appear. This is called rejuvenation pruning. 

To do this all at once, cut the branches back by a third or one-half, trimming all of the branches to maintain a uniform shape.

Most experts spread heavy pruning out over several years. This prevents the shrubs from becoming eyesores during their rejuvenation. To employ this method, prune a third of the longest, oldest branches down to within 12 inches of the ground each year for three years. This will encourage the shrub to branch out and fill in over the seasons as you continue your pruning.

By the end of three years, all of the old wood will be removed and you’ll be left with a strong, healthy shrub.

 

 

How To Build A Perfect Lawn: A Turf Expert Speaks Out

When it comes to experts on lawns, University of Maryland’s Chuck Schuster is a cut above. Not only is he an educator in commercial horticulture, but he also consults on grass with many nursery, greenhouse, turf and garden center industries. And in his spare time, he provides guidance on turf protection to some of the largest stadiums and sports complexes in the Washington, DC area.

I was lucky to have Schuster educate me recently on the differences between cool and warm season grasses and how to build the perfect lawn.

COOL SEASON GRASSES

Most lawns grown in the mid Atlantic region consist of cool season grasses. These include fescue, bluegrass and ryegrass, all of which go dormant in January and February. But in early March, when temperatures climb above 32°F, these grasses become active. And from March to June, they are actively growing, with 60 percent of their top growth occurring in the first six weeks they break dormancy.

Cool season grasses put on 60% of their top growth from March to June.

In late June and July, however, when temperatures reach 85° F and above, cool season grasses undergo what Schuster terms the ‘Summer Slump.’ During this period, they don’t actively grow.  As a result, they often turn brown. 

Cool season grasses often turn brown during the ‘Summer Slump’.

Cool season grasses turn green again (resuming growth), once temperatures cool and soil moisture is replenished. This usually occurs in September, when they also begin developing roots for the winter. In fact, cool season grasses will continue growing underground all the way through December until the soil freezes.

Cool season grasses will continue growing until the soil freezes.

WARM SEASON GRASSES

Warm season grasses, on the other hand, prefer drier soils and have a high tolerance for drought. The most common of these are zoysia and Bermuda grass. These varieties tend to handle heavy traffic better and can tolerate closer mowing. In fact, Bermuda grass’s high resiliency and ability to heal itself quickly make it one of the top choices for many sports complexes.

“Warm season grasses are so resilient they’ll even creep over asphalt,” says Schuster.

Bermuda grass lawn

The downside for homeowners is that Bermuda grass and zoysia lawns turn brown when they go dormant, which usually occurs once temperatures dip below 50° F. On the East Coast, this isn’t the best look for a perfect lawn. Growth begins again when temperatures rise in the spring, with warm season grasses experiencing active growth from April through September. 

Warm season grasses go dormant in the winter.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Why care what type of grass you have? Because, according to Schuster, understanding what type of turf you have determines its care. Building a perfect lawn involves controlling for mowing height, water needs and perhaps most importantly, fertilization requirements.

Before doing anything to your lawn (especially fertilization) determine whether you are working with cool or warm season grass!

THINGS THAT BUILD A PERFECT LAWN

According to Schuster, these are the five building blocks that go into making a great lawn.

  1. Good soil 
  2. Adequate moisture
  3. Proper mowing height
  4. Yearly aeration
  5. Proper fertilization

GOOD SOIL

Maintaining soil pH in an optimum range helps lawns absorb nutrients properly. Moreover, it reduces the threat from diseases and weeds. Generally a soil pH of 5.8 to 6.4 is considered ideal. Depending on your grass species, turf problems may start to occur when your soil pH is either above 7.8 or below 5.6,

To mitigate this problem, Schuster recommends doing a soil test to determine your soil pH before applying nutrients.

Determine your soil pH first before applying nutrients.

ADEQUATE MOISTURE 

According to the Lawn Institute, most lawns grow best with a maximum total of one inch (2.5 cm) of water a week. This amount can come from rain or irrigation, or a combination of both. This will saturate the underlying soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm), allowing the roots to create a ‘soil-water bank’ to draw moisture from during periods of hot weather and drought.

Proper irrigation helps your lawn develop deep, strong roots. 

PROPER LAWN MOWING HEIGHTS (Hint: Mow High)

Longer grass helps shade out weeds and keeps the soil cooler. Schuster recommends mowing cool season grasses a little higher, at 3- 3 ½ inches. This keeps grass greener in the summer and reduces thatch. Mow when the lawn is dry, removing no more than 1/3 of the height.

Warm season grasses, on the other hand, can be mown close to the ground due to their high resiliency and preference for drier soil.

Mow cool season grasses high to shade out weeds and diseases.

Either way, don’t forget to sharpen your blades once a year. Dull mower blades tear the grass blades, increasing the chances of disease and leaving a brown tint on the lawn.

YEARLY AERATION

Aeration helps a lawn maintain its health and vigor. It also reduces maintenance requirements by improving air exchange between soil and atmosphere while facilitating water and fertilizer uptake. Perhaps most importantly, it improves root development by reducing soil compaction. This in turn helps a lawn battle heat and drought better.

It also accelerates thatch break down.

Aeration graphic before and after

According to Schuster, every good lawn benefits from a good aeration. It can be done in spring or fall. However, never aerate when the lawn is dried out or too wet, it will tear up the ground.

PROPER FERTILIZATION

Spring fertilization encourages top growth (and mowing) at the expense of root growth. It produces lush turf, but it also makes a lawn more susceptible to insects and disease. Depriving the roots of proper development increases risk during dry times in the late summer.

Fertilize cool season grasses in the fall for optimum root growth.

On the other hand, when you fertilize a lawn in the fall, the nutrients go mainly towards root growth. And healthy roots mean healthy plants. Grasses build a reserve to help survive the winter and start out strong in the spring.

“It’s the best bang for your nutrient dollar,” says Schuster.

BONUS: LEAVE THE CLIPPINGS ON YOUR LAWN

Who doesn’t like free fertilizer? Leave the clippings on the lawn to put nitrogen back into the turf. It bears noting that soil amendments like LeafGro are simply products made from our own discarded leaves and grass (and sold back to us by nurseries.)

Glass clippings return nutrients to the soil and contribute to healthy turf.

Grass clippings contribute to healthy turf by returning nutrients to the soil in a slow-release form. In fact, returning grass clippings to the lawn ‘credits’ it with as much as one pound of nitrogen per year, says Schuster.

TO RECAP

To build a perfect lawn, make sure to do the following:

Figure out what type of turf you have.

Do a soil test to determine pH needs.

Fertilize at the optimum time. 

Mow at a height to benefit the lawn, not the weeds.

Aerate once a year to build strong and healthy roots. 

And enjoy your lawn!

Our family dog, Winston, enjoying our cool-season lawn. 

Photos/shutterstock.com

D.C. In Bloom: The Story of Our Nation’s Cherry Trees

Having lived in Washington, D.C. for decades, I’ve come to mark spring by the blooming of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin. And due to this long-lived tradition, I am an avid observer of the weather. Some years, I’ve donned a heavy jacket to see the flowers. Other times, I’ve worn shorts. Still other years, fickle spring winds have spelled the early demise of the delicate pink blossoms.

To avoid the crowds, we always arrive early on the National Mall. And by early, I mean right after sunrise. By 8:00 am, there are usually thousands of people already snapping pictures under the fluffy pink canopy. It is estimated that more than 1,500,000 visitors descend on the National Mall each year to take in the magnificent blossoms. Continue reading

How To Protect Your Evergreens From Winter Damage

Last week, it snowed overnight. The heavy flakes quickly blanketed the landscape, transforming my garden into a field of glistening white. But the next morning, I woke to discover my boxwood splayed open under the weight of it, a pile of broken stems at their base. Snow is beautiful, but it can be tough on evergreens.

In fact, without proper preparation, cold weather can spell disaster for plants; especially broad leaved species like boxwood, rhododendrons and hollies. Here are five steps you can take now to your protect your evergreens from winter damage. Continue reading

How To Create Winter Interest In The Garden

I grew up near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. The painter, Andrew Wyeth, drew inspiration from this place, beautifully capturing the winter landscape in a moody mix of soft browns and grays. My growing years were painted in the same palette, enhanced by the crisp outline of bare branches against a snowy white sky. Nature sure knew how to create a lot of winter interest. Continue reading

The Story Of The Cornucopia: It’s All Greek To Me

Thanksgiving décor for my mother was a white tablecloth and fine crystal. But as a child, I longed for more. So the moment I had my own household, I added the cornucopia. The sight of all those colorful fruits spilling from a basket filled my spirit with holiday joy. In my mind, the horn-shaped vessel embodied the very essence of the harvest season.

That being said, I later discovered that the origins of the cornucopia had nothing to do with a basket, nor was it meant to contain fruit. It all started with a goat named Amalthea. Continue reading