There are some forms of gardening, gardening practices, and a number of plants that require us to pay close attention to the weather or season. For instance, here in North Texas, winter would not be a good time to pot some petunias for the front porch. Pansies, on the other hand generally will bloom through the winter if planted in the fall. If you read instructions on a seed packet of tomatoes it will recommend waiting until all danger of frost is past which in my neck of the woods would be mid-April but any veteran tomato grower in Texas knows it best to start them indoors (or in a greenhouse) as early as January. What’s up with that? As a person that does weekly call-in radio and cable TV programs I am well aware that “When should I prune, plant, water, fertilize, etc.” is not well understood by the general public. Here are a few stock answers.
I think the most often asked questions are regarding pruning. People seem to think that they will somehow cause irreparable damage by pruning in the wrong season. Yet if we look at how plants get pruned by natural occurrence we find fire, high wind, hail, ice, insects, disease, and grazing animals. Plants can have any or all of their above ground parts compromised or removed entirely by any one or several of these natural events. These random events can occur at any time of year so the ability of plants to regenerate (and they do) is nothing short of phenomenal.
Another good example is to watch your tree and lawn maintenance guys. These guys are out there twelve months of the year hauling tree limbs and shrub clippings every day. You can rest assured that what they are pruning is not in danger of death or they would be out of a job pronto. So when the gardening guy starts talking about WHEN to prune, just be aware that he is talking about the OPTIMUM time. Yes I do tell people to prune their roses and fruit trees in February. However, if someone has a situation in mid-summer where that same rose needs cutting back I say, “Have at it.”
No way are you going to kill a plant by removing a few limbs or excessive vegetation. On the other hand, bear in mind that any time (even the optimum recommended time) you prune any living parts of any plant, it is damaging. You are in fact removing the food manufacturing and storage parts while creating a wound that must be healed. Something to think about.
Yes, pruning is an art and to really get good at it you must study it, but for practical purposes you may prune any plant at any time of year without fear of death or permanent damage. It will grow back.
The second most often asked questions deal with planting times. To simplify this I say that any plant that is not your lawn grass but has a life span of more than one year is best planted in the fall, winter, or very early spring. When you think about it, our trees, shrubs, and perennial beds are the big players in our landscape. These are the things that give our landscape character and color. The real killer of these valuable plants is usually not the winter but that first hot, dry, Texas Summer. The best time to plant is in the fall once we are fairly certain the truly hot weather is past.
My main job is designing and installing landscapes. Just like the maintenance guys I am out there putting plants in year round. I never stop. I am the first one to know if new plantings become stressed or die. We take our heaviest losses during summer without a doubt. I am quick to tell my clients the optimum time to plant is during the fall and winter to give those roots some establishment time before the stress of summer but we can plant at any time with a reasonable chance at success. Just bear in mind that it is always best to have the optimum season working for you if you can. By the time the local Megamarts start their big Spring ad campaigns in April you should be done planting. Your plants will then be able to take full advantage of the spring rains instead of having to get over transplant shock with summer just ahead.
The exceptions to optimum fall planting are of course warm season veggies, warm season bedding plants, and lawn grasses. Although many folks still want to attempt sod or seeding lawns in March or April, the ground in North Texas is usually still too cold. Buffalo grass, Zoysia, Bermuda, and St. Augustine all need soil temps of 65 degrees or better to germinate seed or to establish sod quickly. Contrary to popular belief, the hotter it gets the faster these grasses will establish. The heat of summer is just what they want provided they get plenty of water. Plant grasses from late spring on into early fall.
Warm season veggies and annual bedding plants are a different issue. It is best to plant them after the last frost but before the really hot weather arrives. This will give them the advantage of cooler temps and (hopefully) help from beneficial spring rains. This naturally raises the question of knowing exactly when spring has sprung.
Most veteran Texas gardeners know to rely on signs from Nature rather than to depend on the calendar and/or average first/last frost dates. I have come to rely on flowering trees for spring. When the first flowers appear on local fruit trees, I know there are usually one or two more light freezes in store, but the time is near. In the Fall I look for the annual migration of monarch butterflies as the first sign and migrating geese honking by to tell me truly cold weather is at hand. I find these natural occurrences much more reliable than weather averages. If you will pay attention to record highs and lows given on the weather report you will grasp my meaning. The true arrival of spring and fall can easily vary 4 to 6 weeks from year to year.
Texas weather allows us two good growing seasons (Spring/Fall) and two dormant seasons (Summer/Winter) yet in reality there are plants actively growing here in all seasons. Our native plants can be put in three basic categories. Cool season plants which tend to come up in the fall, grow through winter, and flower in spring. These would include our spring wildflowers and winter grasses. Then we have the warm season plants that generally come up in spring to bloom in summer or fall. Finally we have a number of trees, shrubs, and perennial plants that put on growth during the spring and fall rains. These plants will flower at different times during the year. Some can flower sporadically throughout the warm season.
I hope what you have gathered from this so far is that landscaping and pruning can be done at any time of year. There are optimum times when it is best to pursue these activities but no such thing as guaranteed failure because you did it in the wrong season. Of course there are exceptions and finer points to these issues and for that reason the folks who do call-in gardening shows, magazine articles, and other information media continue to be popular. In general, planting perennials and pruning are kind of like going fishing. Sometimes the fish bite better but you still go whenever you have the time and inclination to fish, regardless of the season.
I’ve used my allotted space for this month, but I will continue with my discussion of seasonal gardening next month. I will cover some of the other aspects of gardening that my callers ask about frequently. I hope you will make sure to reserve a copy of next month’s issue. Until then…………go on ahead and prune.