Pruning Hydrangeas: A Step-By-Step Guide For Old And New Wood

To prune or not to prune? This is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently, I asked a top landscaper in Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without cutting off next year’s flowers?” I asked. 

“Never,” she replied with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, identifying what kind of shrubs you own. And it all starts with determining whether they flower on old or new wood. Continue reading

Why Star Magnolia Deserves A Spot In Your Garden

When it comes to stunning, early-flowering trees, it’s hard to beat the star magnolia. Every spring, it lights up the landscape in a flash of bright white. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stature. I love how the blossoms hang like fallen stars from the tree’s smooth, bare branches.

THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA

Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! What’s more, a star magnolia is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, it makes an excellent specimen tree while also providing a great backdrop to any mixed shrub border. 

And who can resist those early-spring blossoms? Typically flowering in early March, star magnolia is heavy with blooms when most other trees are scarcely beginning to bud. Moreover, the flowers are long-lasting and fragrant; each composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals, with some cultivars boasting as many as 30.

White flowers not your thing? There are also a number of pink varieties. All are magnets for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.

FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS

But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, then bronze, providing an interesting complement to other fall colors.

Moreover, star magnolia’s pleasing, multi-branched form provides great winter interest. Twiggy, shiny brown branches contrast beautifully with a gray trunk that turns silver with age. And masses of fat, fuzzy buds appear in late winter. 

TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY

Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular varieties that offer reliable, low-maintenance early-spring color. Deciduous magnolias are best planted when dormant, typically in late fall.

‘Centennial’ produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’

‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.

Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’

‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April. 

Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’

HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT

Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil. 

Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’  Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.

 

Lespedeza: The Best Fall-Flowering Shrub You’ve Never Heard Of

lespedeza thunbergii

Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. The plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading

How To Cope With Boxwood Blight: An Expert Weighs In

It’s not every day you get to discuss your problems with an international expert. But Lynn Batdorf is the real deal. Batdorf is the world’s top resource on everything boxwood, including all of the diseases and pests that affect this diverse species. Recently he spoke to me about how to deal with the latest threat to our gardens, the dreaded boxwood blight. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica 'Cheryl Lynn'

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

For the Love of Forsythia: Five Great New Varieties

Couple strolling past cascading forsythia hedge

My sister Cindy was born in March. And every spring, when the forsythias bloomed, we celebrated with a family-coined phrase. My mother would say: These are for-Cynthia. My sister would puff up with pride and it wasn’t long before she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I’ll never forget the canary carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.

Although I was secretly jealous that a flower bloomed especially for my sister, I grew to welcome the arrival of the sunny blooms. In my mind, forsythia will be forever linked to my sister, to March and the happy return of warm weather.

 

IT’S NOT THE BEST IN A MARTINI

It doesn’t taste good in tapenade either, but forsythia nevertheless belongs to the olive family, Oleaceae. Along with other showy members like lilac and jasmine, it is grown primarily for its bright, fragrant flowers. There are about 11 species, most of which are native to eastern Asia with one hailing from southeastern Europe.

Large flowering forsythia in a botanic garden

ALL ABOUT THE FLOWERS

Forsythia’s early yellow blooms are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this multi-branched, deciduous shrub. Developing before the leaves, they are produced in brilliant clusters on the previous year’s wood.

Forsythia buds on a bare branch

Forsythias flower on last year’s wood

Each flower is composed of four elongated petals and may range in color from pale to deep yellow. 

Close-up of a forsythia flower

The flowers are followed by bright green foliage that turns shades of yellow or purple in the fall.

Leaves follow the blooms on a forsythia shrub

Forsythia foliage follows blooms

Barring a cold snap, forsythia flowers will last for two to three weeks. And if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to force them indoors

Forced forsythia blooms in a glass vase

Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors

WHY ISN’T MY FORSYTHIA BLOOMING?

As a garden designer, I am often asked this question. The answer usually lies in when the shrub was pruned. Since forsythias produce their buds on the prior year’s growth, it’s crucial to prune them right after they flower. Otherwise, you risk cutting off next year’s blooms.

Less frequently, prolonged periods of unusually cold weather can negatively affect flowering for the coming season.

Close-up of forsythia leaves

If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll cut off next year’s blooms

Forsythias are fast-growing. When left untended, they easily become leggy. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine back by a third every spring right after flowering.) The shrubs will quickly bounce back and push out new growth the following year.

WHAT ARE THE BEST VARIETIES AVAILABLE TODAY?

Most of today’s varieties are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. These were the first species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. 

Forsythia suspensa, commonly known as Weeping Forsythia, is a popular plant all on its own. It is widely grown for its large size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows 8- to 10-feet tall. Its weeping habit makes it an excellent hedging plant. And it looks great on a slope or hanging over a wall where its cascading blooms can be fully appreciated.

Forsythia suspensa

Forsythia suspensa

That being said, it is the hybrid Forsythia x intermedia that is the origin of many of the most popular cultivars today. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border Forsythia, the medium-sized, upright shrub has the bright yellow flowers most commonly associated with the species. Forsythia x intermedia has also produced many new varieties, including a number of lower-maintenance, more compact forms. 

Golden yellow Forsythia x intermedia

Golden Bells

If you’re looking to create a hedge, I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow cultivars Arnold Giant, Lynwood Gold, Karl Sax and Spectabilis. They’ll happily grow unimpeded to 8- to 10-feet or more. The dwarf varieties Arnold Dwarf and Gold Tide are two popular forms that grow to just 3 feet and are often used as groundcovers. However, in my experience, Gold Tide likes to be wider than tall. So beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.

Golden Peep and Goldilocks are small and have compact branching. They look great close up to the house or in the flower border.  They also make great container plants. The slightly larger Sunrise is a great choice if you’re looking for fall leaf color.

FORSYTHIA LIKES TO PUT DOWN ROOTS

Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not so desirable in a garden. Most springs, I chop off these offspring to keep things under control.

Close-up of forsythia flower

BEST BLOOMS IN FULL SUN

For the best blooms, plant Forsythia x intermedia varieties in full sun to part shade. The shrubs need a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day to flower. Like most plants, forsythias perform best in well-drained soil.

 

Boxwood Care: How To Identify And Treat 4 Common Pests and Diseases

Boxwood balls in the landscape

Boxwood has been a garden staple for centuries. Not only does it add structure to outdoor spaces, but its dense, evergreen foliage can be sheared into almost any shape imaginable. For those of us on the East Coast, the fact that deer won’t eat it only heightens its appeal. There’s just one problem: boxwood is often plagued by a host of pests and diseases. Continue reading