Ornamental Grass Pruning – A Winter Task

Ornamental Grass Pruning – A Winter Task

The term “ornamental grass” is a catch-all phrase used to describe grasses and “grass-like” plants.  Individual species are adapted to a wide variety of landscape sites (i.e., wet or dry, sun or shade, hot or cold climates, and varied salt tolerance). Growth habits range from low ground covers to intermediate shrub-like plants to very tall hedge-like plants. Ornamental grasses are very dynamic; the size, shape, texture, and color of grass changes with every season.

Deciduous Ornamental Grass

Grasses with foliage that dies in the winter and remains dormant until the weather warms in the spring are considered deciduous.  The winter character of deciduous ornamental grasses adds tremendous interest to the winter garden when contrasted with evergreen plants or structures such as walls or fences.  The dried foliage of deciduous grasses creates sound as it expands and contracts in response to changes in temperature or moisture, while interaction with wind creates movement in the garden. For these reasons, pruning of the dead foliage and inflorescences is not recommended at the time of the first frost.

Pruning of ornamental grasses should be done in late winter or early spring, just prior to new shoot growth.  In Northwest Florida, gardeners should target the end of February to prune ornamental grasses.  For deciduous grasses, such as Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), the old foliage may be completely removed within inches of the soil. Be cautious to not remove the growth point by leaving the grass clump at least 4 inches high.  For evergreen grasses, such as muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), the ragged leaves can be removed to neaten the appearance of the plant without shortening all the way to the ground. So, depending on the damaged portions, the remaining grass clump can be 6-18 inches high after pruning.  Grasses recover quickly from a heavier pruning.  Within a few months the plant will have completely regrown.  If desired, old flower stalks and seed heads may be removed any time they no longer have a neat appearance.  For more information on ornamental grass species and growing tips, please visit the EDIS Publication: Considerations for Selection and Use of Ornamental Grasses.

Upgrade Your Gardening with Quality Pruners!

Upgrade Your Gardening with Quality Pruners!

There is an old saying that rings true in pretty much any situation – “You get what you pay for.”  Gardening tools, especially pruners, are no exception.  We’ve all been there, fumbling around with a pair of rusty, dull, cheap garden pruners that just barely get the job done.  Unfortunately, they can also do considerable harm to the plants you’re trying to improve, as anything short of a nice, sharp, clean cut introduces the potential for insect/disease infestation and will produce a wound that takes much longer to heal, if it ever heals properly at all.  You wouldn’t want your doctor to start hacking away at you with a dirty, second-rate scalpel.  Don’t subject your plants to the same treatment!  While I’m not advocating blowing hundreds or thousands of dollars outfitting your garden tool shed with top of the line everything, investing in a pair of quality bypass hand pruners will pay dividends many years into the future and make your gardening experience much more enjoyable!

The classic Felco #4 bypass hand pruners. Photo courtesy of Walton County Master Gardener Andrea Schnapp.

Found in three designs, from old-fashioned anvil pruners that smush and smash their way to a cut, to ratcheting pruners that make short work of larger branches but tend to be cumbersome and complicated, to bypass pruners that produce clean cuts in a scissor-like manner, hand pruners accomplish many tasks in the landscape.  From cutting small limbs, to harvesting vegetables, to deadheading annual flowers and everything in between, there isn’t a more frequently used, versatile tool.  Therefore, it makes sense to buy a quality pair that will perform excellently, still be snipping long after your pruning days are over (if you take care of them), and that are comfortable enough you will enjoy using them.  When shopping for your pair of “forever” pruners, there are a few things to look for.

  • Only use bypass style pruners. Your plants will appreciate it.
  • Look for heavy duty pruners with frames made from quality aluminum or stainless steel; they won’t rust and won’t easily bend or break.
  • Buy pruners with replaceable parts. This is especially key because springs eventually rust and gum up and blades break and will eventually lose their ability to hold an edge over time (though you can and should resharpen them).

There are two commonly found brands that fit all three above criteria, albeit at different price points.  For a high quality “budget” blade, various models from Corona do an excellent job for the money ($20-30) and won’t hurt your feelings too badly if you happen to lose a pair.  Should you decide to splurge a little, Felco makes sharp, indestructible pruners, in multiple models around $50 to fit all size hands.  Felco has become the horticulture industry standard and you’d be hard pressed to find a nursery owner or landscaper that didn’t own a pair (or two).

Corona ComfortGel bypass hand pruner. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Regardless of which brand you buy (and there are many more than the two above listed) a pair of well-made pruners, if taken care of, should last a lifetime and make your gardening experience much more enjoyable for you and your plants!  If you have any questions about gardening tools or equipment or any other horticulture or agronomic topic, feel free to contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

 

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

It’s Time to Plant and Prune!

The last several weeks have brought consistently cool weather to the Panhandle, with a few downright cold nights dipping well below freezing.  Though winter isn’t officially here, that won’t happen until December 21st, grass mowing season is definitely over and, if you’re like me and didn’t cover your raised bed garden on those nippy nights, vegetable growing has also slowed significantly.  So, what are us horticulturally minded folks with cold-weather cabin fever to do?  It’s time to take advantage of sweat-free temperatures, break out the shovels and pruners, and get to work in the landscape!

Master Gardeners demonstrate correct tree planting techniques.

The months of December through February are ideal times for planting new trees and shrubs.  The reasons for this are simple.  Days are short, rain tends to be plentiful, temperatures are cool, and plants are mostly dormant.  While newly installed plants need water to become established regardless of when they are planted, demand for supplemental irrigation is significantly less in winter (one of our rainiest seasons) and the chances of a new planting dying from thirst is slim relative to warmer months.  Also, planting in winter gives trees and shrubs several months of above ground dormancy to focus their resources below ground, recover from the shock of transitioning from a nursery container into your native soil, and produce valuable roots that will help it get through its first summer.  Think about it.  Would it be easier for you to start and finish a major outdoor project in July with one bottle of water to drink or in December with an ice chest full?  Plants prefer the same!

Not only is winter perfect for planting, tis the season for pruning many species too, deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in the fall) in particular!  The first reason to prune these species in the winter is to give the plants several months to begin healing before growth resumes in spring and insect and disease pressure ramps up again.  Many serious pests and diseases of trees are most active during warm, wet weather and all of them have easier access to attack trees through open wounds.  Prune in winter to help avoid unwanted pest and disease infestations.  Also, dormancy has conveniently knocked the leaves off deciduous species’ branches, allowing us a clear view of the tree’s crown and giving us the ability to make clear, clean, strategic pruning cuts.  Proper pruning can help maintain a strong central leader that produces a stately, straight tree and remove dead and diseased branches that could cause problems in the future.

While planting in the winter is always ideal and we just outlined several reasons pruning now can be good, not all plants should be pruned when dormant.  For instance, old-fashioned hydrangeas and azaleas that produce blooms from the previous season’s growth.  Pruning these in the winter removes all the flower buds that would have bloomed the next summer and what’s the point of an azalea or hydrangea that doesn’t bloom?  Also, many small trees and shrubs, like Crape Myrtle and Vitex, may never need pruning if you site them where they will have room to mature without encroaching on other plants or structures.

If you have any questions about planting trees and shrubs, what, when, and how to prune, or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office!  Enjoy the weather and happy gardening!

Not all Holly Plants Produce Berries for Christmas

Not all Holly Plants Produce Berries for Christmas

Native yaupon holly with bright red berries

Native yaupon holly with bright red winter berries. Photo credit: Larry Williams

Holly plants are sometimes associated with Christmas. Their dark evergreen leaves and bright red berries fit right in with the Christmas Season. Some people intentionally plant hollies for the purpose of eventually using this desirable combination of green and red to create a more festive Holiday Season. But what if your hollies never produce berries?

The reason may be because you have a male plant. Male holly plants never produce berries. Holly plants are either male or female. The botanical term for this is dioecious.  If a male plant is selected, it will produce male flowers and pollen but never set fruit.

One way to know that you’ve selected a female holly is by purchasing a plant with berries. However, you still will need a male plant nearby or no berries will be produced.  Generally one male plant is adequate to insure pollination and good fruit set of berries on all female plants in a landscape. Your next-door neighbor may have a male holly plant that would serve as a pollinator for your hollies. Pollen produced by male flowers is transported by bees from distances up 2 miles. And because we are blessed with a number of native hollies in North Florida, chances are good that there will be a male holly within the appropriate distance in the wild to take care of the pollination.

The holly genus (Ilex) offers a terrific variety of plants from which to choose. Some horticulturists estimate that there are about 700 species worldwide. And there are a great number of cultivated varieties!  When selecting a holly for your landscape, it is important to know that most dwarf holly cultivars don’t produce fruit as they are propagated by cuttings from male plants.  Not all hollies have spiny leaves. For example, many of the Japanese hollies (Ilex crenata) have spineless leaves. There are hollies that grow tall, eventually making a tree. There are dwarf hollies that grow to only three to five feet in height. There are hollies with variegated leaves. And even though most hollies are evergreen, there are a few deciduous hollies that make nice additions to North Florida landscapes such as Ilex ambigua (Ambiguous Winterberry) and Ilex decidua (Possumhaw holly). Some hollies produce bright red berries but berry color varies from red, orange, yellow and even black or white, depending on variety. There are weeping forms available such as the weeping yaupon holly. There are those that have a very narrow, upright growth habit.

For more info on this diverse and interesting group of plants, visit the below UF/IFAS Extension webpage.

http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/trees-and-shrubs/shrubs/holly.html

Creative Landscape Design Brings Dramatic Change

Creative Landscape Design Brings Dramatic Change

Photo credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

Landscapes are an ever-changing setting that can be fun to view as the seasons come and go.  We all have differing ideas of what an exceptional landscape should be.  The point to always keep in mind is what you and your family like.  Are you considering the Florida-Friendly Landscaping elements?  You always want to keep a healthy, attractive environmental sound landscape.  This brings many interesting design concepts to the table.

The kitchen table is exactly where a landscape design needs to begin.  My dad was just the opposite, he would receive or buy plants on impulse.  Load up all these three-gallon plants, take them home and plant without consideration the long-term growth, color combinations, time of bloom and many more topics.  He just loved working in the yard and growing plants.

Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

There are basic principles of landscape design that are used as a guide. While I may stray from them from time to time, I always return to these principles.  Just keep in mind that a landscape is an ever-changing living setting that we will always work to improve.  The visual elements are based on what you see first when you enter a setting and are usually the vibrant high impact plants that may include bright bloom color, size of plant, focal plantings, leaf size and others.  The other side of the visual is the subtle presence of low impact plants with softer colors, small leaves, lower growing plant size.  This visual group often is planted en mass with a flow of plants to create a calming effect for the visitors to your landscape.

When the form of the plant is being considered, there are several points to keep in mind.  Will it have a three-dimensional impact in the landscape setting?  Is the landscape a small backyard or a one-acre open setting?  What are the maintenance requirements of the plant(s) as they mature in size?  A large tree can dominate a small area, but it may be just what is needed for shade with low plantings around it.   In a large setting, multiple large trees may be needed to create a focal point.  I have seen some wonderful tree alleys that help in directing the flow of the landscape down drives, walks, and paths.  These forms should be considered for all plants in the landscape including, trees, shrubs, groundcovers and even hardscapes.

Photo Credit: Stephen Greer, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

Up next is the texture of the plant(s).  Are you looking for large and coarse or small, “softer” leaves?  You may find finely textured plants along paths or at entry areas to steps, softening the hardscape of the steps.   Are the large leaved plants open and airy, allowing light to flow through?  Large coarse leaved plants may be found at the back of landscape beds with fine textured smaller plants in front creating a three-dimensional look or even used as a focal point to pull the gaze of the eye to a determined location.

Color in the landscape has just as much impact as the plant texture, size and form.  Color can bring a bold or a soft statement.  The color is often thought of from blooms, but leaves too change in color with the seasons, from a fresh new bright green, purple, red or other colors in the spring to deeper, more mature colors as summer comes in.  Trunks can also bring unique colors to the landscape from subtle yellows to cinnamon.

There are so many things to think about when creating a long-term vision for your landscape.  Many options come in the decisions that will need to be made.  Do your research and always contact your local Extension office for more information!

 

 

 

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color:  Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

A Landscape Combo for Native Fall Color: Muhly Grass & Darrow’s Blueberry

In the Panhandle, fall is the prettiest season for wildflowers.  Our roadsides and woodlands are covered with pinks, whites, yellows, blues, purples, and even a little red here and there.  Pretty as it may be, the beautiful wildflower look isn’t super appropriate for most yards.  It would look unkempt, a little “wild” if you will, would be hard to manage and is probably best enjoyed in natural areas.  However, we can bring some of the native colors of fall into our landscapes in a much lower maintenance, refined manner with two Panhandle species that pair excellently together, Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and Darrow’s Blueberry (Vaccineum darrowii).

Muhly Grass and Darrow’s Blueberry in a local landscape. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Muhly Grass, the native grass with the pinkish/purple panicles blooming right now, has gained much popularity in recent years, earning a reputation as a near pest/disease free, drought tolerant, attractive landscape plant.  Operating in lieu of more traditional low growing shrubs in landscapes, Muhly is an airy, greenish gray bunch grass growing about 3-4’ tall and wide, lending informal, coastal texture to landscapes most of the year and really shining in fall during its flowering season.  Once established, it never needs extra water, prefers little fertilizer, and only needs a rejuvenation prune (or burn – the Leonard preferred method.  It’s fun and mimics the role of fire in Muhly’s native ecosystems!) every couple of years to keep it looking tidy.

Unlike Muhly Grass, Darrow’s Blueberry has not caught on broadly in the landscape industry but is no less deserving.  This native blueberry species only grows a couple of feet tall, produces edible fruit that wildlife enjoy, and adds an unusual blue green color to landscapes via its tiny-leaved, evergreen foliage.  It prefers the same sites as Muhly and is part of the reason they pair so well together.  Our mostly sandy, well drained soils work just fine, but both plants can handle soils that are occasionally wet.  A bonus, Darrow’s also has tiny, bell shaped flowers in spring that attract all manner of beneficial bee species.  This makes it a must in any native pollinator garden!

As good as these species are alone, I think they are better together.  In my family’s yard, we created a loose screen of widely spaced (8’ apart) Muhly Grass specimens around a pool, in the spirit of giving the area a “coastal” airy feel, and interspersed Darrow’s Blueberry in between.

The pink Muhly Grass flowers pair nicely with the green blue foliage of Darrow’s Blueberry. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

The look has been outstanding, particularly in the late summer/early fall.  The pinky purple flowers of Muhly Grass complement the green-blue foliage of the blueberries nicely and provide easy, lasting color without having to worry about planting finicky annuals or perennials each season.

Landscaping with natives does not have to look wild and unkempt, nor does it have to be drab and unattractive.  Combining native yet showy plants like Darrow’s Blueberry and Muhly Grass makes for an unusual, refined, nearly no-maintenance feature in your landscape.  Look for these and other neat native plants at native nurseries and independent garden centers around the Panhandle.  If you’d like more information on native grasses, blueberries or any other horticultural topic, please contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office!  Happy Gardening!