Amanda Wilkins, Curator of Plant Collections

MBG has received a plethora of calls all wondering the same things: ‘Should I be cutting back my dead foliage?’  or ‘When should I be pruning [insert plant here]?’

Okay, dead foliage first:

I have been hesitant to encourage people to cut back their dead foliage on their citrus, perennials and woody plants. This week is looking quite “spring-like”, but because of the weird especially cold winter we’ve experience I have been warning caution. The reason being the dead foliage protects the plants from biting wind and bitter cold that can get at the living crown of the plant and desiccate the living tissue. If we get one more cold snap before the end of “winter”, especially after this upcoming week of warm weather, you may have more damage in your garden.

If you have already cut it back, don’t worry! Plants are surprisingly resilient. We also have a plant sale coming up, so you can use it as an opportunity to fill in those new dead spots!

Citrus

Many people have reported their satsumas and kumquats have dead foliage and tips on them after the cold. This is normal, given the crazy weather we’ve had. Your plants will grow new leaves in good time, so don’t worry. To properly cut back the dead tips on any citrus:

  • Identify the where the bark on the tips goes from brown to green
  • Count down four to six buds
  • Make the cut just above one of the buds, making sure it is facing away from the center of the plant!

Sago Palms and Palmettos

Most of the sago palms, Cycas taitungensis and C. revoluta, around Mobile have turned a golden, crispy looking color that certainly stands out as a glaring wound from winter. I know a lot of you are chomping at the bit to get the seemingly standing dead out of your landscape, but I encourage you to be patient with those clippers! Your plants are most likely just fine and they need that foliage to protect their central growing bud from harm (you know, that crazy looking fuzzy swirl in the middle)!

If you are not sure if your plant is still alive, sago or palmetto, look at the foliage. Even if it is brown, if most of the fronds are still standing erectly then your plant is fine. If the foliage is hanging down and starting to fall off, the plant is dead and should be removed. If you’re still not sure, email me at the Gardens (awilkins@mbgardens.org) with a picture of the whole plant.

The best time to cut the dead-looking foliage off is once the center bud starts to elongate. If you can’t wait until then, then wait until you feel confident spring has arrived.

Timing Your Pruning

I wish it was as easy as giving some quick advice when it comes to pruning. I really do. Unfortunately, it is a fairly complicated business and if not understood properly can forever sentence you to a life without flowers in your garden. Who out there has a mophead or lacecap Hydrangea that “never blooms”? Yep, I thought so.

A few tips though:

  • Timing is everything! Make sure(!) you know what species of plant you have before you go after it with the shears. Get to know when it flowers and other habits it has so that way you are not cutting it back at the wrong time. For example, there are three types of Hydrangea we commonly grow on the Gulf Coast. Two of them flower on old wood (Hydrangea macrophylla) and one of them flowers on new wood (Hydrangea paniculata). You can cut back the one that blooms on new wood in the winter without issue, but if you cut back one that blooms on old wood you cut next season’s flowers off!
  • Make sure to keep your tools clean! Spray the blades with isopropyl alcohol in-between plants in your garden. Think about it this way: would you want your doctor going at you with a recycled needle? I think not! Make sure to scrub off debris before storing your tools.
  • There are times when you don’t need to worry about timing: When a plant is getting in the way of your walkway (clearance) or is growing into another plant; and when there is dying, dead or diseased wood (make sure to remove the material completely from your garden!).
  • “Pruning Winter” ends at the end of February/early March. Anything after that you run the risk of

Okay, I will try to give you the quick and dirty on the more common plants you might be going after this time of year.

Crape Myrtles

Winter is the time to prune these back. We won’t talk about “crape murder”. You prune your plants the way you want (or visit the Gardens to see what crape myrtles can really look like)!

Figs

Winter is the time to prune these back as well. I understand a lot of folks are dealing with plant behemoths they may have let go too long. We may have to deal with that at a later date.

Azaleas

“Azaleas after” is all you have to remember. Prune them after they have finished flowering, whatever cultivar you have. Evergreen azaleas are very forgiving with pruning, but if you have any deciduous/native/Aromi azaleas, don’t prune them too harshly. Only prune them if their branches are crossing or if they are growing in the wrong direction.

Camellias

Valentine’s Day is the beginning of pruning season for Camellias. If your Camellias haven’t bloomed by Feb. 14, then hold off until after they do! June is a good time to stop pruning.

Roses

Valentine’s Day is the beginning of the pruning season for roses too. Roses bloom on new growth, so you can cut them back fairly heavily, if your taste dictates. Many rose cultivars will also continue to bloom if you cut off them spent blossoms. Drift® and Knockout® roses are two such types!

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If you have any other questions or concerns, feel free to email them to me at awilkins@mbgardens.org. I always appreciate accompanying photos!

I look forward to seeing you around the Gardens!