Are you like me, longing to get out into the garden again? Especially on the warm, spring-like days we’ve been having, it is hard to resist. But it is only March 1, and we need to be careful about what we do in the garden this early. It is too soon to dig, and we should avoid walking on the soil. Since the temperatures have been above freezing, the soil is soft and wet and susceptible to compaction. But there are a few tasks we can accomplish now.
First, if we haven’t done it already, we can take down the holiday décor. Then cut a few branches to force for a harbinger of spring: forsythia, cherry, quince and pussy willows can be cut and put in water to bloom indoors. Bringing forsythia inside is like capturing sunshine.
Next we can tackle some late winter pruning. This is a fine time to attend to late blooming shrubs before they put out their new growth. We can thin suckering shrubs like lilac (Syringa species) and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), cleaning out suckers and removing some of the oldest wood back to the ground. This allows light into the plant and encourages vigorous blooming on the newer branches. Along the way we can saw off the oldest stems of the Elderberry (Sambucus). The mild weather has brought leaf buds already, so the future shoots we are boosting by removing the old are already visible. A swelling bud is still a thrilling sight—especially this early in the year.
Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) is another shrub that can be cut back now. To keep it compact and to enhance the leaves’ color, we can go back as far as two or three buds from the base.
Late winter is also the time to consider renovating our native Mountain Laurels (Kalmia latifolia). Their natural habit is loose and airy. We should take a good look to decide what works best in our landscapes. If all we want to do is tame them slightly, encouraging more compact, dense growth, we can prune conservatively right after they bloom in June.
Another approach is to highlight the mountain laurel’s architecture by allowing it to remain tall and spare, revealing its wonderfully craggy trunks and weathered, finely shredding bark. This is almost an Asian, sculptural look. (A fringe benefit of this taller form is that the foliage grows above the level of deer browsing. Though all parts of the plant are poisonous, deer are known to feed lightly on Kalmias when their options are few.)
Tags: Bllue Mist Spirea, Caryopteris, Buddleia, Butterfly bush, burl, Kalmia latifolia, Mountain Laurel, Cotinus Coggygria, Smokebush, Ilex verticillata, Winterberry, Syringa, Lilac, forsythia, winter pruning
If, however, our mountain laurels have become scraggly or were damaged by last fall’s storms, we can take advantage of a special feature of this shrub. Kalmias have a swollen collar at the base of the trunk, a burl, which allows for drastic renovation. The burl enables even mature mountain laurels to generate new growth from their woody stems. Now is the time, before they put out any new growth, to prune them back to a few inches above the ground, even down to the burl itself. Numerous new stems will emerge to create a fresh, compact shrub in several seasons. Unfortunately, there will be no blossoms this year.*
Finally, once there is new growth on Butterfly bushes (Buddleia) and Blur Mist Spirea (Caryopteris), they can be pruned back to about 18 inches from the ground. These will recover quickly and bloom this summer.
*The mountain laurel’s craggy branches can be saved for building charming arbors, fences, gates and trellises.