Pruning Shrubs and Small Trees

Gardening in the Mountains Class:
Pruning Shrubs and Small Trees

February 18, 2016
11:30 am – 1:00 pm

North Carolina Cooperative Extension
49 Mt Carmel Road, Asheville, NC

Presenter: Alan Wagner, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

pruning_tools_sqaurePruning in the landscape is different than pruning tomatoes or doing bonsai pruning. However, it still requires the uses of time-tested techniques, good tools, and knowledge of the right time to prune a particular plant. And it requires practice.
Join Alan Wagner as he demonstrates the tools and techniques of pruning shrubs and small trees.

The talk is free but pre-registration is requested by calling 828-255-5522.

Winter Garden Chores

It’s January and we’ve had our first taste of winter weather. Have you laid your garden to rest? There are still things that can be done, both inside and out.

Sharpen and oil tools, also checking them to see how well they function. Previously used empty pots need to be scrubbed with a stiff brush and clean water. Then sanitize the pots using a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts water. Submerge and soak the pots for 10 to 15 minutes. Then remove and rinse the pots. Dry for 24 hours before reusing them. Why all this bother? Dirty pots can host bacteria, fungus or mold from previous plants and soil that can infect new plants.

Outside, continue to weed if the soil isn’t too wet. To check for wetness, dig a 6 inch hole and gather some of that soil into a ball. If the ball remains intact when you release pressure, the soil is too wet to be worked. Give it another couple of days and try again. Trees and shrubs can be planted if the ground isn’t frozen. Water them well afterwards. Check your lawn for broadleaf weeds, pulling them or, if the weather is warm enough for the weeds to be actively growing, spot treat with a broadleaf herbicide.

Because the weather has been so warm this year, wait until February to prune trees and shrubs. Don’t prune spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, camellia, azalea, rhododendron and some hydrangea until after they flower. Otherwise, you are cutting off this year’s buds. Perennials are dormant and can be cut back. I leave some, like coneflowers and black eyed susans, for the birds to forage for seed.

Look at seed and plant catalogs and plan next season’s garden. You can prepare the vegetable garden if the ground isn’t frozen or too wet. Remember that working wet soil results in compacted soil. Be patient.

Inside, check houseplants for insects that might have been brought in after spending the summer outdoors. Treat as needed.

But most importantly, spend time walking in your garden. The bare bones of the garden shine in the winter. Give yourself time to think. What did well last year? What did poorly and why? What was missing? What would add interest, beauty or taste good? Enjoy this time reflecting and preparing for the spring. It will come sooner than you think.

Written by Lorraine Cipriano, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

A prudent gardener regards the first snow as a harbinger…

Ice_Damage…of what lies ahead. Regardless, the calendar says that by now we should have located our snow removal gear and made sure that it’s in good repair, ready for action. If you’re mechanized make sure you’ve got the right oil in the engine and a full tank of gas.

How about your supply of sand or ice melter? In an emergency you can use a pelletized fertilizer but the runoff may put more nutrients in places you don’t need them. And refresh your memory by reading the directions on the ice melter you have. Generally they are salts and may damage concrete.

Think back over winters past. What problems did you have? And what should you do differently? Was your plow or shoveling pattern really the best? Did you find yourself walking over the same territory again and again? Or did you have to pick up and carry too much? Where did you pile the snow? Was it all in one pile that turned to ice and took months to melt when spring finally arrived?

Did any of your woody plants have problems with snow or ice? Should your plan include gently brushing or shaking any particular shrubs to dislodge snow while it’s still fluffy?

Do you, should you, make special arrangements for your pets? Are you feeding wildlife? While you’re at it, where’s your own Arctic weather outfit?

But my bottom line is the recommendation that if snow is in the forecast you should plan to get up early. Get outside before breakfast and get the snow removed before people drive or walk on it, compacting it, turning it to dangerous ice and making it much more difficult to remove.

Written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Kids Post: Growing a Sweet Potato Vine

Welcome to Kids Post, the newest item on the Buncombe County Master Gardener blog! Our hope is to help you interest children in the wonders of gardening. This year we will be showing you easy, inexpensive activities to do with a child. You won’t necessarily need a lot of space, think shoebox salads. How about letting the children chose vegetables they want to grow, maybe a pizza garden or taco garden? We will help you teach kids how and why gardening is an important job. We hope to educate and have some fun with kid-friendly crafts and plantings for the garden.



Whose mother or grandmother did not have a sweet potato vine on the window over the kitchen sink? This easy, quick and fun idea is a good way to introduce gardening and how plants grow. ​​​​You will need a raw sweet potato, a glass or plastic jar a little bigger than the potato, 5 or 6 toothpicks, water and a sunny window. Stick the toothpicks around the middle of the potatoes to hold the top of the potato out of the water.​​ Fill the jar half way with water and place your potato in the jar or glass so the bottom of the potato is covered in water.​​​​​​​​​​​​ Move to a sunny windowsill where you can watch it sprout. Add water every few days to keep the bottom underwater.​​​​​​​​​​​​ The potato will soon sprout thin white roots, then green stems with leaves will grow out of the top. If you want to plant it outside in the spring, pick a sunny spot. It will also grow in a 5 gallon bucket filled with potting soil. Remember to drill a few holes for drainage in the bucket.

Have fun!

A Project to Replace Recreational Pruning

Now that cold weather has eliminated recreational pruning for 2016 here’s an outdoor landscape challenge for you, one that also involves your trees and shrubs: Survey your property to see how those plants add to or reduce the security of your home. Then make plans to rectify the situation. A few alterations to your landscaping can be enough to put off potential offenders.

Start by standing back and imagining you are a professional burglar. To avoid getting caught, intruders look for property they can get into and out of quickly. Their ideal target is a house surrounded by large hedges and shrubs, hampering visibility from the street and neighbor’s houses. Too often we use boundary plantings that serve as walls for privacy – evergreen walls!


Shrubs close to a house or along walkways are other potential shields and should be low, not more than four feet tall and set back.

Trees that could be climbed and allow access to open second story windows are tempting. Trellises might be used as ladders too. And those trees might  be limiting coverage from your exterior lighting more than you want. Check that out, and while you’re at it, are there other places where lighting, perhaps motion-controlled, would be appropriate?

You might plan to place spiny (thorny) plants along fences, under windows and to block pathways being used as shortcuts. Such plants will discourage even the most nimble intruder. Protecting with spiny plants is as effective as the use of barbed wire and a lot more attractive.

This could become a community project, bringing neighbors together on nice, non-football, weekends. And that would bring up questions like “Are our fire hydrants easily visible?” Or has someone try to hide that ugly thing? Also ensure street signs and house numbers are clearly visible so visitors and the fire or police departments can easily find you in all seasons.

Written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Coming Change in Weather!

winter-gardenFor those of you tempted by our weather over the last few months, here’s a bullet from the National Weather Service:

“By January 12-14 a strong Eastern US storm is expected to pull extremely cold, well below normal temperatures into the region with below normal temperatures expected to last through the remander of the month.”

You might want to hold off on those plans for an early start to the growing season!

Hints for Kitchen Gardening in an Erratic Spring

imageGiven our on again – off again weather patterns recently here are a few tips on how you might get your early vegetables to the table nearly on schedule:

First, use early varieties if they’re available. Read the catalog description carefully. An example: “Arugula: Quick to bolt in summer, best growth in fall” sounds like a fast grower and arugula likes cool weather. I’d go for it.

One I don’t really care for but since Maggie does: “Famous for exceptional cold tolerance, kale’s sweet flavor is enhanced by frost and cold weather. The frilly hybrids are best for full-size production whereas the open-pollinated varieties are also excellent for baby leaf.” The open-pollinated baby leaves would probably be ready sooner so I’ll pass on the “frilly hybrids”.

We’ve had great luck with chard. “Lightly savoyed, green or bronze leaves with stems of gold, pink, orange, purple, red, and white with bright and pastel variations. Consistent growth rate and strong bolt resistance across all colors makes this a superior mix. Direct seed or transplant to allow separating out the individual colors. Suitable for production year round, but somewhat less frost hardy than normal for chard.” Maybe we should skip the gaudy variety and go for the standard but more hardy green. We can buy plants of the rainbow variety later.

Peas! My favorite, and can be planted as early as the ground can be worked. Here’s “An earlier, somewhat shorter-vined version of Sugar Snap with the important addition of resistance to powdery mildew. The vines average 5′ or more and need trellising. Early yields are heavier than Sugar Snap but the harvest period is shorter. High resistance to pea leaf roll virus and powdery mildew.” Peas don’t transplant well so it’s a gamble. Maybe use a somewhat larger starting pot to avoid bothering the roots.

Secondly, grow larger transplants. That means starting seedlings indoors under lights three weeks earlier than normal by sowing seed directly into 4” plastic containers with potting soil and a smidgen of fertilizer. Sprinkle a few seeds and then thin the seedlings so you can skip a transplant step, putting out plants that are further along. And make multiple plantings for seedlings, two weeks apart, as insurance.

Or, keep checking with your favorite supplier to get their seedlings just as soon as they’re available.

Once you have your seeds ordered there are some other things you can do to extend the growing season in your kitchen garden. And even though it’s too late for this season you might take a look at your homestead and determine if you’re using the best site. Best in that it takes advantage of the sun and the slope if you have options.

For the exposure now is the time to start mapping the potential sites to see which offer the best use of sunny areas. Make a sketch of your property and during the course of the day draw lines to indicate the division between shade and sun each hour. Ideally that spot will have a slope so that cold air flows downhill; it takes advantage of the angle the sun’s rays hit the ground and the rows run east to west.
When you find that perfect spot you may have to adjust your priorities – veggies versus ornamental plants. And decide if a structure, from cold frame to greenhouse could be installed. Even just a raised bed would offer significant advantages.

Row covers, tunnels or hoop houses using plastic or spun bond material can provide temporary greenhouses but require vigilance on sunny days to avoid overheating and baking the plants
Hot caps constructed of plastic or cardboard provide shelter and heat retention for individual plants. Like a greenhouse though, they may have to be “opened”- removed on warm days.

Get to work! And Happy Gardening in 2016.
Bon appetite!

By Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

Looking for Bones in the Garden

Photo by Diane PuckettDid you ever think about your garden having a skeleton? Look at it during the winter when most trees are bare, and frost has killed back tender plants, and you’ll see the “bones” that serve as the framework for your landscape.

One advantage of taking a careful look is to evaluate this underlying structure for landscape planning. Too often, we plant things for immediate gratification, with little attention to their long-term impact. Are the evergreens you hoped would screen a distant view now obscuring everything or getting so scraggly that you can see right through them? Is the lawn you envisioned carpeting the front yard struggling with too little sun? Do the flowerbeds and vegetable garden look like weed patches?

Think about what each planting adds to the landscape. Sometimes overgrown trees or shrubs need to go, or the lawn needs replacing with groundcover. Conversely, maybe you need something more: Adding two more lavender plants to the lone one standing your flowerbed will show you the value of repetition in creating continuity. Planting a cover crop might make your vegetable garden look like something in progress rather abandoned.

How about the “hardscape”? Are the driveway and sidewalks or paths working for you? Do they take traffic where you want it go and provide an inviting way through your property? Are arbors, benches, containers, garden art and window boxes well-integrated with your plantings? Using a tuteur in your flowerbed or garden statuary in a clearing will create focal points that can lead viewers on a visual journey through the landscape.

HelleboreA winter look at our gardens not only shows us what endures from season to season and what is and isn’t working, but reveals where we can provide winter interest. Here in the mountains, our gardens can shine through all four seasons. Shrubs and trees with winter berries, cones or fruits can brighten dull corners, as can those with interesting or colorful bark or stems. Early-flowering bulbs and perennials can even add a few flowers throughout the winter months.

by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer


Your Shrubbery Might Enjoy a Blanket


With all the vagaries of our weather in recent years, my winter forecast is that it will be either warmer than normal or lots colder, leaning toward the latter. In either case, it would be wise to survey your landscape to see where some protection might be a good investment.

The wisest approach is to select hardy Zone 5 plants for your landscape, then place them in a site that will take advantage of the terrain—or perhaps consider buildings for additional protection. South-facing slopes are great because of sun all year long, with cold air drifting downhill. In front of a stone wall is also an option because the wall retains heat.

Cold damage takes different forms and affects foliage, buds, limbs, and trunks in different ways. Often it’s not the lowest temperature that does the damage, but instead, the duration and timing of cold weather.

Boxwood in the snowThe 2007 Easter Freeze came after a prolonged warm spell, long enough to convince some plant species, like Japanese Maples, that spring had already arrived. Even short variations in temperatures can cause buds to break dormancy and lose their hardiness.

For the roots, a good layer of mulch is the appropriate defense. Mulch doesn’t keep the soil warmer but it does slow the freeze-thaw cycles. Once the soil gets cold it stays cold.

You can protect the upper part of a tender plant by surroundings it with a blanket. To do this, drive stakes into the ground around the plant and staple burlap to the stakes as a curtain. Gently stuff the spaces between the branches and the burlap with straw. The intent is to keep the plant cool on warm days, not warm on cool days, which is why burlap is better than plastic. Burlap breathes, keeping the temperature more in line with the ambient, eliminating sudden, short periods of heat. Plastic, whether black or clear, traps the air and allows it to swing above ambient for short periods of time.

Leyland-cypress-with-winter-colorThe same concept can be used to protect evergreen plants against sun or wind burn. Waxy chemical sprays on the leaves can also help prevent desiccation from the wind. This is particularly appropriate for Rhododendrons in windy locations.

To help prevent snow or ice from bending long, pliant branches on a tree or shrub, one can wrap the plant with tape or twine, like a Christmas tree.

Written by Glenn Palmer, originally published in the Asheville Citizen Times.


Q: We have a really beautiful poinsettia this year. Can we save it and have it bloom again next December?

imageA: Getting a poinsettia to bloom on schedule can be a little tricky. But for those who enjoy a challenge it can be done.

After the colored bracts fall, you can keep it like any house plant, in good light and warm temperatures. Some people find it easier to put the plant in a cool place out of direct sun and let it go semi-dormant. In this case you would water only when it gets completely dry.

Next spring, after the last frost, pot it up to a larger container using fresh potting soil and cut back all of the stems, leaving the plants only a few inches tall. Put the plant outside where it will get at least a half-day of good sun and begin feeding with a balanced fertilizer according to the label. Pinch back the stems several times during the summer to make a bushier plant, which will have more flowers.

The real trick to getting a poinsettia to bloom will come next fall. Poinsettias need “long nights” to trigger them to bloom. One way or another you’ll need to provide about 14 hours of total darkness each night for about six weeks starting in mid-September. You can do this by placing it in a room with good sunlight, but which will have no lights turned on at night. Or if you can remember to do it every day, you can cover it with a box at 5:00 or 6:00 every night and uncover it in the morning. Make sure the plant has good sunlight during the day. Let it get a little dry between waterings.

Once the bracts begin to show a little color, probably in late October or early November, you can bring the poinsettia back to civilization to enjoy again.

Some other facts about poinsettias: they were named after Joel Poinsett, the American Ambassador to Mexico who carried plants home to South Carolina about 1830. While they’re often classified as toxic, a person or animal would have to eat a lot of poinsettia to become ill.

Written by Glenn Palmer, originally published in the Asheville Citizen Times.