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OPINION | BREAKING GROUND: Pruning shears come out in February, but don’t cut too soon

by Janet B. Carson February 4, 2023 at 1:31 a.m.
Commercial growers have started pruning their peach trees, but home gardeners should wait until winter passes. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)


We are beginning to see some spots of color in our winter-damaged, brown yards. Here and there, you see early daffodils, yellow blooms on winter jasmine and some forsythia, white fragrant flowers on winter honeysuckle and blooms on the hellebores.

While we are all fairly certain we have significant damage in our landscapes, these early blooms give us much needed hope.

◼️ Traditionally, February is one of the biggest pruning months of the year. It should be this year, too, but don't be too quick to start pruning. Winter is not over, as we experienced again this past week, unfortunately. Leaving dead leaves and damaged tops in place can provide protection for the plants.

◼️ Growers have already started pruning fruit trees, grapevines and blueberry bushes, but home gardeners that just have a few trees or bushes can wait until new growth is on the horizon — late February into early March. Late pruning is not going to hurt the trees, and if a late freeze does come in, your plants will be a bit more protected. Same is true on roses and summer blooming shrubs, including crape myrtle, althea, abelia and panicle hydrangeas.

◼️ Be sure you know what type of hydrangeas you have. The white-flowering smooth and panicle hydrangeas bloom on their new growth and so should be pruned before that new growth kicks in, while the oakleaf and big leaf (pink or blue) hydrangeas bloom on old wood. The flowers have already been set on those, and we are all keeping our fingers crossed that they made it through the December cold snap without damage. Time will tell.

◼️ It is possible that crape myrtles also suffered from the cold, but we won't know until new growth has a chance to start growing — in late spring or early summer. The same can be said for many other plants in our gardens.

◼️ Late in February is the time to cut back all your ornamental grasses. Before you start cutting, pull back the dead foliage to see how tall the new growth has gotten so you don't shear it off.

◼️ Monkey grass (liriope) and mondo grass (Ophiopogon) look pretty bleak this winter as well. While they aren't true grasses, they are grown as an ornamental grass, and while they can be evergreen, this year they weren't — so pruning off the old, dead growth on those is needed this year.

◼️ Other ground-covers that will need some sprucing up after the cold include ajuga, pachysandra and Asiatic jasmine. Some could be permanently damaged, while others are already starting to put up green foliage. Again, wait until the bulk of winter weather is over before you start shearing. A strong weeder or raised lawnmower can be used if you have large beds of ground-cover that need shearing.

◼️ I was actually pleased when I noticed that winter weeds including henbit and chickweed were zapped by the December cold, but unfortunately, they have rebounded faster and better than many of our desirable plants. If you need a weed-free lawn, you need to pull or spray those winter weeds this month before they get any bigger, bloom and set seeds for even more weeds next year.

◼️ This month is also the time to prevent summer weeds by applying pre-emergent herbicide. Make sure you read and follow label directions before applying any chemical — and do keep herbicides away from ornamental and vegetable gardens.

◼️ While many gardeners planted a fall/winter vegetable garden, few had any that survived the cold.

◼️ Even garlic plants were nipped and turned brown, but they have re-greened and started growing again. Fertilize your garlic on a warmer day.

◼️ By mid-to late month, vegetable transplants will be on the market to plant. You can seed peas, greens and spinach now. Even if you see tomatoes and basil for sale in February or early March, don't be tempted to plant them unless you have a greenhouse. Warm-season vegetables won't be safe to plant outdoors until April.

◼️ While a few businesses found replacement pansies and actually have some blooming winter annuals, most of our landscapes have little to no winter annual color this year. Some pansies and violas survived, but they are small, green plants. Chances are they will have rebounded enough to start blooming about the time we need to pull and replant.

◼️ By late February we should see some temporary winter color for sale that we can use in the garden, from replacement pansies to dianthus, primroses and ranunculus.

◼️ February is a time we start to garden. Gardeners everywhere are wondering about the extent of their winter losses, but for now, do normal maintenance and keep your fingers crossed that the damage looks worse than it actually is.

Janet Carson's blog is at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.


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