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

For my mother, Thanksgiving décor meant a white tablecloth and fine crystal. But as a child, I longed for more. So once I had my own household, I added the cornucopia. The horn-shaped basket packed with fall fruits and vegetables filled my spirit with holiday joy. In my mind, it was 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.


Cornucopia, or cornu copiae, translates literally to horn (cornu) of plenty (copiae). In the English language, it also means abundance. But while the word may have Latin roots, its origins are firmly rooted in Greek mythology.

In Greek legend, the cornucopia refers to the horn of Amalthea, the name of the goat who fed the infant Zeus on Crete. According to one version of the myth, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns and gave it to the nymph daughters of Melisseus. In so doing, he endowed it with the power to be filled with whatever its owners desired. 

Cretan goat

The Cretan goat known as Kri Kri/Photo: Evita Kouts

Other accounts say Amalthea was herself a nymph, and it was she who fed the god (with goat’s milk). When the goat accidentally broke off one of her horns, the nymph filled it with fresh herbs and fruit and gave it to Zeus as a gift. 

The Childhood of Zeus by Jacob Jordaens/Louvre Museum

Whatever the reason for the horn being separated from the goat, Zeus is said to have so loved Amalthea that he placed her among the stars as the constellation Capra, (which is Latin for goat). Today we know her as Capricornus (horned goat), or Capricorn.

constellation capricorn

The constellation Capricorn


Other legends associate the horn of plenty with Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, fate and fortune. As the giver of abundance, she is often depicted bearing a cornucopia.

Fortuna holding a cornucopia/Istanbul Archeology Museum/Photo:

Throughout the ages, the cornucopia has been a fixture in classical art. You’ll find it in paintings and on buildings and coins where it has become synonymous with the harvest and abundance. In fact, there are entire towns, businesses, jails and temples named after it. And here in Washington, DC, it appears five times on the U.S. Capitol

An ancient bas relief depicting a goat’s horn overflowing with fruits

Statue of Zeus with a cornucopia

Cornucopia sculpture in Greece


While it is unlikely that the Pilgrims had a cornucopia, Americans have nonetheless adopted the vessel as one of the most popular Thanksgiving decorations. As a symbol of plenty, it’s a natural fit for a lavish table. Nowadays, however, it usually takes the form of a basket rather than an actual horn (although there other materials available.) People traditionally fill it with fruits, but vegetables, nuts, flowers and leaves are also popular. 

ceramic cornucopia

A ceramic cornucopia

Still, there’s something about the story of the goat Amalthea that I find especially heart-warming. This Thanksgiving when I set the table, I’ll be thinking of her and the abundance she represents, a harvest wish for plenty to cultures throughout the ages.


Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, when those big boxes of gourds hit stores in October, your mind whirls with possibilities. The curious shapes seem to embody the spirit of fall. The problem is that, once you get them home, the little vegetables seem somehow lacking. Sure, you can just toss them in a bowl. But, if you really want to get creative, decorating with gourds requires some additional  ingredients.


Have you ever wondered where these little guys come from? The soft-shell gourds belong to a family of plants called cucurbita. Native to the Andes and Mesoamerica, cucurbitas include both ornamental and non-ornamental gourds as well as melons, squash and pumpkins. People grew and ate these plants over 10,000 years ago in the region of present-day Mexico. 

Cantine variety of ornamental gourds

Nowadays, though, we value gourds more for their curious sizes and shapes than for their culinary uses. These include bottle, kettle, pear, Crown-of-Thorns, egg and the popular cantine (that looks like a tiny pumpkin.)  Incalculable in number, the different shapes are the result of gourds’ tendency to cross-pollinate not only with each other, but also with pumpkins and squash. And this provides for all kinds of design possibilities.


So if you’re looking to create something special, how do you spice things up? By adding some seasonal ingredients. Luckily, autumn provides a wealth of natural materials to choose from. Here are the key elements:


Decorative accents like feathers, twigs, nuts and leaves are one way to add interesting texture and color to your gourd arrangements. They are also great signs of the season. Ringneck pheasant tail feathers, curly willow branches, walnuts and various size pinecones all heighten the appeal.

Ringneck pheasant tail feathers

Curly willow branches 


Walnuts’ large size make them the perfect accompaniment to gourds


Did you know that ornamental gourds make great vases? You can carve them out and fill them with flowers, berries and vines. Hypericum berries, orange bittersweet, purple, red or orange dahlias or yellow lilies all make great fillers while adding pops of seasonal color.

Hypericum berries

Hypericum berries

Orange bittersweet

Assorted dahlias

Yellow lilies provide good color contrast


Not interested in florals, feathers or berries? Carve out your ornamental gourds and add votive candles for a warm and toasty look.


Below are some great ideas from around the web for decorating with gourds. Click on the links for more detailed information.


There aren’t any extra seasonal ingredients here. But what makes this wreath interesting is the combination of shapes and colors. Gourd wreath, Southern Living


White gourds pop against dark green leaves such as ornamental kale. Below, pine cones and a wood bowl add warmth to this rustic look. 


There’s no mistaking the vase-like shape of this mini gourd. Not only does the spray of red flowers complement the gourd’s green color, but it is in perfect proportion to the base of this natural container.


A miniature take on the traditional hollowed-out pumpkin, these different sized gourds glow with the warm light of votive candles. 


When selecting flowers and berries for your gourd vases, keep in mind the color of the ‘container’. Below, purple and orange dahlias, bittersweet berries and green leaves provide great color contrast to the butter-hued gourd.


What makes this arrangement work is the fall coloration and striking similarity in texture of the gourds and basket. 


This modernist arrangement with orange zinnias, flax leaf and feathery grass may not be for everyone, but it sure is eye-catching.


Looking for a great table arrangement? These slender glass vases filled with stacked orange gourds and single strands of ivy are clean and elegant.


In the world of garden design, texture is almost more important than flowers. Texture makes plant combinations visually arresting while adding a ‘warmth’ to the overall arrangement. Below, a white gourd ‘vase’ is the perfect complement to frilly gerbera daisies, magnolia leaves, mottled cantines, prickly kale and spiky evergreen sprigs.


If you have the space, these glamorous arrangements are sure to amaze. At Longwood Gardens, designers stacked gourds in black metal towers and accented them with potted yellow mums . (Notice how the pots and towers are the same color.)

Happy designing!



Feed The Birds: 10 Plants With Great Winter Seedheads

Once their petals fade, cut flowers tend to end up in the garbage. But outside, it’s a different story. Not only do dried blooms enhance a garden, but their seedheads provide food to birds and wildlife. And those two reasons alone should make us think twice before cutting our plants back for winter.


It’s true. When left uncut, dried flower stalks can be every bit as striking as bare winter trees. Much like a sepia photo, their rich brown tint lends a warm, comforting feel to the garden. 

Winter interest doesn’t have to be all about evergreens. Take a second look at these faded beauties and see them for their sculptural forms. They’ll provide structure to your cold-weather garden.


That being said, the primary reason to leave certain plants uncut is for their seedheads. During the winter months, the dried flowers of many summer and fall-blooming perennials provide food to many insects, birds and wildlife. Small birds often perch right on top of the seedhead to forage, while larger birds rummage for seeds on the ground.

And many birds that eat insects in summer switch to seeds in winter once these resources are no longer available.

Sunflower seeds rank high among seed-eating birds like cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches and red-bellied woodpeckers. Birds like American goldfinches, by contrast, tend to gravitate towards smaller composite flowers like asters and coreopsis. And for most birds, the dried inflorescences of ornamental grasses furnish essential food, while the plants themselves provide great wildlife habitats.

rabbit sheltering in dried grass

A rabbit sheltering in dried grass/Photo: shutterstock

Winter is a harsh season for many animals since natural food sources are scarce. Waiting to cut back dried plants directly benefits your local wildlife.


Of course, you should still prune those plants whose stems collapse or decay. But when it come to the sturdier plants, like the ones listed below, let them remain upright in the garden during the winter. You’ll be rewarded with a flurry of wildlife activity. Chop these plants down in the early spring when new growth starts to appear.


The beautiful seedheads of burdock/Photo: shutterstock


Stripped of its pink petals, echinacea’s (coneflower) magnificent pyramidal cone is hard to ignore. Blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches all enjoy eating its seeds. The larger the group, the better. 

Echinacea seedhead


Late to the scene, rudbeckias (Black-eyed Susans) add a welcome blast of color to the late-summer garden. And some would say that their distinctive black seedheads are every bit as beautiful as their flowers. Like coneflowers, these sturdy plants will remain standing for much of the winter. And goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees and towhees all enjoy feasting on their tiny dark cones.

Black-eyed Susans are veritable bird-feeders


Joe Pye Weed is as happy growing on the roadside as it is in the garden. In the summer, its mauve blooms are covered with pollinators. Once its flowers have faded, the seedheads also provide seeds to chickadees, wrens and titmice as well as the fluff to build their winter nests.

American goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed

Goldfinch feasting on Joe Pye Weed/Photo: shutterstock


Scabiosa columnaria’s distinctive prickly round seedhead leaves no doubt as to how it acquired its common name, pincushion flower. Birds eat its ripe seeds in the fall.

scabiosa seedhead

Scabiosa seedhead/Photo: shutterstock


During the winter, many native birds like sparrows and finches forage for seeds from ornamental grasses, just as they do in the wild. The plants’ brown flowerheads furnish seeds throughout the winter. And their dense foliage provides great shelter to wildlife. 

snow on ornamental grass

Dried flowers of ornamental grass/Photo: shutterstock


Almost more beautiful in autumn than in summer, sedum’s flat, brick-red flower clusters last well into the winter. During the hot weather months, they’re covered with pollinators. But in the winter, upright varieties like ‘Autumn Joy’ provide an abundance of food to finches, chickadees and other seed-eating birds. 

dried flowerheads of sedum

Dried flowerheads of Sedum/Photo: shutterstock


In the summer, this cheerful plant with nectar-rich blooms is a magnet for pollinators, including hummingbirds. And in the fall and early winter, its dried flowers provide food for sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and other seed-eating birds.

coreopsis seedhead

Coreopsis seedheads/Photo: shutterstock


As its name implies, evening primrose is known for its flowers that open at night and generally close in late morning. Its stiff seed pods have four chambers, each of which contains 300+ reddish brown seeds. Produced in September, the seeds are favorites of wildlife and goldfinches, in particular.

evening primrose

Evening Primrose


This silver, velvety leaved plant with tall yellow flowers often appears unannounced in the garden. Originally from Europe, it has naturalized all over the world. Since its large rosettes survive the cold weather, mullein makes a great home for overwintering insects like ladybugs. Its seeds are also eaten by many birds.

Mullein growing wild in a field


Aster Flowers: Your Guide To Who’s Who In The Family

One of the many things I love about late summer are the throngs of colorful, star-shaped flowers that pop up all over the landscape. Most of us are familiar with the yellow ones (sunflowers). But did you know that the same family also produces flowers in purple, red, pink and white? These plants are all part of the Aster family, Asteraceae, the largest and most diverse group in the plant kingdom.


Indeed, the Aster family (also known as Compositae and daisy) is exceedingly large. There are estimated to be over 27,000 known species. They may differ in color, shape and form, but most share two key characteristics. Most plants are composed of two types of flowers, disc and ray.

Gaillardia is a member of the aster family.

Yes, they may look like one flower, but asters are actually composed of many, all fused onto a single flower head. Disc flowers are located in the center and ray flowers are found at the perimeter. The ray flowers are what we commonly refer to as petals.

Zoom in on the photo and you’ll see that the disk is not flat, but domed. And it’s made up of hundreds of tiny flowers.

Leucanthemum (daisy) displaying both tubular and ray florets.

That said, within the family, there are also deviations. Some species consist of only disc flowers while others have only ray. 

The flower head of Globe Thistle contains no petal flowers.

Scientists believe that the aster flower head, which also contains seeds and nutrients, helps the plants store energy during periods of drought. It also may contribute to their longevity. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that once established, my Aster family members like coneflower, daisy and blanket flower require very little water. And certainly the many roadside sunflowers, daisies and asters are living proof of these flowers’ remarkable survival ability.


Of course every family has its outliers, and the Aster family has a few. These include the food crops lettuce, chicory and globe artichokes. Notice the two types of flowers, both tubular and ray, on the mountain lettuce bloom below.

Mountain lettuce


Despite all these variations, I still find the yellow asters the hardest to identify. At first glance, many of the flowers look alike. But on closer inspection, their flowers are all slightly different.

Below are some well-known Aster family members that bloom in late summer and early fall. Can you identify them? (For answers, please see below.)

Answers: (from top) Coreopsis grandiflora, Golden Marguerite, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Helianthus tuberosis (Jerusalem artichoke), Helenium autumnale (Common Sneezeweed), Helianthus annum (Sunflower), Heliopsis helianthoides (Smooth Oxeye), Gaillardia (Indian Blanket Flower), Arnica montana


Ready to add some of these beautiful flowers to your garden? (or just be able to identify some more members of the family). Following is a list of well-known aster species and their value in the garden.


echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea

These popular flowers can be found in gardens all over the world. Popular members include: New England Aster, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, Cosmos, Daisy, Fleabane, Dahlia, Coreopsis, Liatris, Blanket Flower, Fleabane, Zinnia, Chrysanthemum, Oxeye daisy and Yarrow.


arnica flower

Arnica flower

Aster flowers, leaves and roots have been used for millennia to treat various ailments and diseases. These species include Calendula (Pot marigold), Chamomile, Echinacea, Arnica, Endive, Lettuce and Artemisia.




Since they bloom late in the summer and into the fall, asters are a great source of nectar and pollen for pollinators. Some of the best producers are Helianthus annus (Sunflower), Goldenrod, New England Aster and Fleabane.


French marigold

French marigold, Tagetes patula

Some asters are great at repelling insects. The most well-known among them are marigolds. French marigolds are known to repel whiteflies while Mexican marigolds are said to not only stave off insects but rabbits as well. Other effective ‘insecticidal’ species include Tanacetum, False Fleabane and Chrysanthemum.



Ragweed is a member of the aster family.

Weeds are members, too. Dandelion, Ragwort, Ragweed and Sneezeweed are all part of the Aster family.

Want to know more? For a detailed list of Asteraceae, its genera and where the family fits in the plant kingdom, click here for the USDA Natural Resources Conversation Service.

Looking for garden inspiration? To see photos of my designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall. 


Top Topiary Tips From Mike ‘Gibby-Siz’ Gibson

I hadn’t heard of Mike “Gibby-Siz” Gibson (short for scissor hands) until recently. But among those in the know, he’s been causing a sensation. Adept at clipping with both hands, the self-taught topiary artist not only boasts multiple awards but is also a regular on HGTV’s “Clipped.” And his playful, cutting-edge approach has made him one of the most sought-after topiary artists of the moment.

Not your garden-variety topiary, Gibson’s creations are creative and fun while exhibiting a high level of technical skill. Ranging from representational to purely abstract, they invite conversation. Gibson believes this same creative energy can contribute to man’s overall well-being. Or, as he likes to say,

“The more topiary in any given space, the more peaceful it becomes.”

Below, Gibson provides helpful tools and tricks of the trade to get you started on your own topiary garden.


So what is topiary? Simply put, it’s the art of sculpting and pruning trees and shrubs into shapes. Most any tree or shrub will suit, although typical subjects for topiary are evergreens as they remain a permanent feature throughout the seasons. Gibson believes topiary not only beautifies a property, but it also gives its creators a sense of confidence and freedom.

In fact, topiary is one of the best things you can do for the health of a plant. It lets in more air and sunlight, which encourages growth from the inside, making trees and shrubs more bushy and full. It’s a win-win situation.

“It’s almost as if they’re crying out ‘Cut me, please!’” says Gibson.


Before beginning a topiary project, Gibson always starts with a sketch. And his solid grasp of geometry is crucial to this endeavor. By understanding the different shapes and spirals (the latter of which appear in nature in all plants), he is able to visualize new shapes and angles which he then applies to his work. He says,

“See the shape and visualize it first before you start clipping. Be confident in your vision. Take your time and allow the design to develop. There’s no mistake in topiary. It will always grow back if you don’t like it.” 


Gibson’s whimsical take on a high school logo

To assist in making shapes, Gibson will often use tomato or Velcro tape to bunch and tie different branches together. (See photo below). Or, he will use wire to bend branches into forms. You can do this by attaching a wire to a branch and then pulling it down to another to create shapes.


Gibson purchases his tools from the Japanese company Niwaki (Japanese for ‘highly sculpting trees”.). He sharpens them every day before beginning a project. Following are some of his favorites and how and when he uses them.


“Think of these like extra appendages,” Gibson says. He prefers Niwaki clippers. Easy-to-use with a single spring, they’re like mini samurai swords.

Bypass Pruners

For tough, sticky stems and branches, Gibson switches to bypass pruners. His three favorites are Niwaki’s GR Pro Clippers, Tobisho Topiary Clippers and GR Pro Secateurs. To prevent muscle fatigue, he advises always cutting with the blade up.


For branches of 1” or more, he switches to Niwaki Loppers.  Loppers allow better balance and more control when pruning larger trees and shrubs. To minimize movement, Gibson recommends holding onto the tool with a firm grip and using only one arm/hand to cut while using the other to stabilize.

Topiary Sheers/Hedge Trimmers

Finally, on really big plants Gibson employs topiary sheers. And for hedge trimming he uses electric ones with zero emissions.


Ready to give topiary a try? Following are five of Gibson’s favorite plants to prune and why.

Emerald Green Arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis

Emerald Green Arborvitae  features rich, green foliage and a narrow, pyramidal form that makes it a perfect candidate for topiary. It keeps its dark green color all year long and can tolerate both hot and cold temperatures. 

Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca

Wonderfully dense and slow-growing, Alberta spruce is naturally pyramidal. As a specimen plant, it needs little pruning. 

Golden Cypress, Chamacyparis pisifera

A very forgiving plant, golden cypress is perfect for beginners who want to try their hand at topiary. It responds well to frequent pruning by pushing flushes of golden new growth.

Golden Cypress serves as a great medium for carving family initials, names of schools and professions and other shapes as well as the traditional spiral.

Yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria

Gibson says you can sculpt Yaupon hollies like stone. Dense and compact, they’re also far less disease-prone than boxwood.

Yew, Taxus

Yew is the most common topiary plant. It loves pruning and can be shaped into almost any shape imaginable. Naturally dense and compact, it allows the topiary artist more options.


For more information on Mike ‘Gibby-Siz’ Gibson, check out this great gallery of his work at Gibson Works.



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.


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 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.


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.


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, 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 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!


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


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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 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. 


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