Caring for Your Shrubs

A well-cared-for shrub is beautiful and healthy, and it remains so. Frequent attention to the plant's needs is crucial the first year or two, less so as the years go by and the plant becomes an established part of your yard. The following sections give you the basic information that you need to take very good care of your bushes.


When first planted and indeed throughout the entire first growing season, water your new shrubs deeply and often. Deliver the water directly to the root area (a hose trickling slowly into the basin you created on planting day is perfect). Twice-a-week watering may be necessary through the spring and summer months — slow down and stop at the beginning of fall, sending the plants into winter with one last good soaking.

A young plant can't tolerate dry spells and drought because its roots are still developing and may not dive very deep into the ground. An older, established plant can withstand drought better but shows signs of distress by dropping petals, unopened buds, and dried, curled, or yellowing leaves — don't let the situation come to that. (Dramatic cycles of soaking and drying out are also stressful for a plant and weaken it, making the shrub more vulnerable to pests and disease. Neglect becomes a downward spiral.)

Lay down a layer of mulch, at least an inch or two thick, in spring or summer, all across the shrub's root zone. This mulch helps retain soil moisture. It also keeps encroaching weeds or lawn grass, competitors for soil moisture, at bay. Keep mulch 1 inch away from stems.

Fertilizing your shrubs

For newly planted shrubs, some people have found starter solutions useful. They consist of water soluble fertilizers (usually high in phosphorous) and vitamins and hormones that stimulate new root growth. Regular fertilizing can begin the second year

1 To boost overall plant health and vigor 1 To help green up the leaves and encourage thicker foliage 1 To promote more buds and thus more flowers

Apply a general-purpose garden fertilizer, diluted according to the label directions. For best results, feed every two weeks or monthly throughout the growing season.

If your yard's soil is good or the plants seem fine without fertilizer, of course, leave well enough alone.

Shearing hedges

Shearing is a term used to describe the pruning method used most frequently to create or shape hedges. Instead of hand pruners, you use hedge shears, the hand or electric type, to do the job.

In pruning shrubs, try to maintain the natural shape of the plant. A common mistake is to shape shrubs with a wide top and narrow base. Lack of sunlight shades out lower interior growth, resulting in a woody base.

Unfortunately, many gardeners use or misuse this same technique, shearing, to shape shrubs into balls or other geometric shapes. Your shrubs beg you not to do this! It results in a yard full of shrub lollipops! They look very artificial, and after you start this process, you're forced to keep it up every year. Save yourself work and your shrubs embarrassment by pruning them to their natural form.

Pruning for shape and rejuvenation

Most shrubs require at least some pruning to control growth and to shape the plants. Always use sharp, clean tools; try clippers for the smaller branches and loppers for the larger ones. Electric hedge trimmers can be useful when shearing hedges (see the sidebar) but are not recommended for other pruning. Hand tools do the job more precisely with cleaner cuts (see Chapter 5 for info on tools).

Late winter or early spring is the best time to work on your shrubs because they're dormant then. Also, if the shrubs are deciduous, they aren't cloaked in foliage at these times and you're better able to see and assess the branches' forms and condition and the plant's overall profile.

Shrubs grown for their flowers that bloom in spring and early summer are an exception to the spring-pruning rule. If you cut them in early spring, you remove the coming season's show. Wait until just after blooming is finished. The shrub gets time to recover and to generate new flower buds for the coming year's blossoms before winter comes.

Knowing when to prune shrubs that you enjoy for both fruits and flowers (such as viburnum and rose) is hard because you're forced to sacrifice either some of the flowers or some of the berries or hips. Your best bet is to split the difference: Do some trimming right after bloom and cut the plant a bit more in the fall (in the case of viburnums, you can call the fall pruning berry harvesting — the berries are very decorative, nice for holiday swags and wreaths).

Getting an overgrown shrub — one that's too big, too wide, or growing thick and wild — back into shape takes time and patience, but it's possible, and you'll be so proud of the results. This pruning is not hard work, but it does take several years. Follow these steps and the illustration in Figure 11-7:

1. Remove all non-negotiable growth.

Cut out all dead, diseased, broken, or damaged wood. Cut this growth right down to the ground and get it out of there. The shrub should look better immediately!

2. Take out a few of the older stems.

Don't remove all of them — not more than about a third for starters. Let the plant recover for a year before you decide to remove even more.

3. The next winter, shorten the remaining stems to just a bit lower than the height you want the shrub to be.

Then let the shrub grow — the wounds will soon be hidden from view and in ensuing years, you can maintain the plant at the size you want.

Figure 11-7:

Rejuvenation pruning, or thinning, for shrubs. Left is the bush before pruning, and right is the bush after pruning.

Figure 11-7:

Rejuvenation pruning, or thinning, for shrubs. Left is the bush before pruning, and right is the bush after pruning.

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