Spring renewal…

Gardening friends…this post was actually written on the day before my March Filoli visit and so I held it for the weekend.

A valuable garden strategy I have adopted is to have at least a few areas where minimal care is needed to keep them looking good so that I have the time and energy to garden more intensively in other areas. As a general statement, beds filled with evergreen or deciduous blooming shrubs and ground cover require less time on your knees than those filled with roses, perennials and annuals! As I have matured as a gardener I have much more appreciation for flowering shrubs than I did when I had to have every new perennial that caught my eye. There is a quiet grace about a grouping of viburnum, gardenias or rhaphiolepis which just reward you every year with their leaves and  blooms and demand little from you in return.

One such autopilot garden area for me runs for about 40 feet along the western fence of my back yard. At the far north end sits our pool equipment which is surround by a screening hedge of glossy privet–almost my least favorite plant but fulfilling its purpose with only one or two clippings a year. A relatively young coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) snuggles up to the privet giving some vertical interest to the fence line. Also original to the landscape are four Podocarpus macrophyllus flanked by pink flowering Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica.) When we purchase the home in 2008 the south end was anchored by a Photinia x fraseri tree, commonly called a redtip, which succumbed to the fungal disease Entomosporium maculatum shortly after. Rather than digging out the quite large dead tree we pruned back the smaller branches and its trunk now acts as support for a climbing ‘Fourth of July’ rose which I featured in a post last spring. As the years have gone by we have been blessed with a lovely borrowed landscape backdrop provided by our neighbor’s 2 pineapple guava trees (Feijoa)–these barely peeked over the fence in 2008. Other than the climbing rose, our only two additions to this bed have been three Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ in front of the podocarpus and a few Cuphea hyssiopifolia ‘Lavendar Lace’. Every year all of this gets a little nip or tuck here and there to neaten things up–only the cuphea have gotten a consistent yearly hard cutting back.

So here we are 8 years later and the removal of a couple of low hanging sequoia branches has shed light on how out of shape things have gotten. This area is the antithesis of the squeaky wheel and thus is always last on my to do list. Most of the Indian hawthorns are in total shade under the sequoia and have not bloomed in years. All of the podocarpus are locked in a death battle with the over the fence trees and although the abelia look fine on the outside, close inspection reveals their interiors to be masses of leafless twigs and I reflect that I haven’t seen these bloom in recent years either.

Abelia x grandiflora is a semi-evergreen to evergreen serviceable shrub which does well in both sun and shade with minimal care. Its white to pale pink tubular flowers open on new growth starting in the late spring. The heaviest bloom is May through early fall but in temperate winter areas like mine some flowers can persist all year. Plants are evergreen in milder winter areas and half hardy in colder climates. The species can grow quite large, often to 6 ft. tall and wide. Many relatively new cultivars have been bred for both more compact size and for variation in leaf coloration. I chose the the cultivar ‘Kaleidoscope’  for its leaves with yellow gold margins and green centers which turn rose pink in cooler weather. Of note is that the coloration is somewhat dependent on sun. In the photo below you can see that the leaves on the lower part of one of the plants which was hidden underneath its neighbor are bright, clear green rather than the yellow for which this variety is known. Its 3 ft. height and similar spread make it well suited to smaller gardens.

The preferred pruning strategy for these plants to keep their open, arching shape is to prune selected branches to the ground yearly, encouraging new growth which will flower. Shearing is not recommended. That window has long closed for my plants as I can’t even get my hand through the bramble of central twigs to trace any single branch to the ground! Fortunately abelia are receptive to what gardeners call renewal pruning or renovation pruning. This is a well orchestrated take no prisoners and leave very few men standing pruning technique of the gardening world. In the picture below I have made an initial pass at about half of the first plant of the three.

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The little cupheas in the foreground get a haircut at the same time! The twiggyness of the interiors of the abelia was amazing. A bonus was finally locating the source for some pesky bermuda grass which had been growing up through the abelia for a few years.

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After several hours of clipper work the three abelias are reduced to about 8-10″ tall. Clearing all the old top growth reveals that the one on the far right is now practically under a mature Indian hawthorne which has tripled in size from 2008.

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If these had been selectively pruned yearly at least a little over the last 5 years or so, I should have seen a good amount of new season’s growth from the base of each plant. In fact, I saw only 4 new shoots–3 on the middle plant and one on the far right plant. You can see in the photo below the new growth is dark green brown in contrast to the tan of the old branches and this intrepid shoot was struggling its way to the sun!

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There is perhaps a bit more work to do on these. I think even more of the smaller twigs could be cut to the ground but as renewal pruning is pretty drastic in itself I think I’ll leave it at this for now. Once I see new growth emerging from the base and whether the existing branches start to put on new leaf buds, I’ll make the call on more cuts. I’ll let you know how they do down the road!

P.S. Well, after my Filoli pruning afternoon I know that I was doing a lot of things right: My shrub was identified and I knew its natural growth and flowering habit including its recommended pruning technique and I knew my purpose was to encourage new growth which would produce more flowers. I believe now I did not go far enough in eliminating much of the existing twiggy growth (30-50%) from the crown. I will go back and take out more and see how the plant responds. Stay tuned and I’ll share a follow up picture in 2-3 weeks.

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