The lone voice of horticultural reason

Spring Shrub Care

Attending to numerous subtle chores in and around the garden this first week of May is not the glamour part of our peaceful passion, but it sure makes our yards and gardens look better later on. Here are a few essential pursuits that come with the territory:

Shrub Care – Ranks right up there with garage door and gutter care, I know, but way too many homeowners in my neighborhood pay way too little attention to their shrubs.

Your evergreen shrubs-arborvitae, junipers, yews, and the rest-need an annual spring cleaning if you want them to look good and to last. Wearing long sleeves and a pair of tight-fitting gloves, reach in all the way to the trunk(s) and pull out all the old, brown needles, branches, and tree leaves, from top to bottom. While you’re at it, grab the pruning shears and remove any dead branches. Be sure the ground around the bases of shrubs-particularly spreading junipers-are free of dead branches and debris. Shrubs, like trees, need good air circulation through and through.

Now is also a good time to give any evergreen shrub a haircut. An earlier haircut in April would not have been too soon. I just broke down and bought an electric hedge trimmer, a good one, for well under a hundred bucks, and the amount of time it has saved me shearing my arborvitae hedge versus the hand shears I’ve used is well worth the cost. When clipping any evergreen shrub in the spring, the goal is to cut last year’s still-green growth in half. Another way to remember it is to cut only into the green part of the newer branch, never all the way down to the brown. The brown branches on your evergreens, no matter how small, are old growth, and shearing into them will not cause new growth from nodes. It will cause death to the shrub, so pay attention. Only cut green.

An electric trimmer allows you to repeat the process again in June and even once in July without too much effort. In each case, you are now cutting off half of the new spring growth. Cutting a living branch, coniferous or deciduous, jazzes the plant up and spurs new, thicker growth. Remember to shear the bottom branches of any hedge so they are the widest point, like a mild version of a Christmas tree-shape. The bottom branches need sun too, and mustn’t be shaded by branches from above, or they will die out. You want your hedges widest at the base (extra credit to those who look up the word “batter” in a good dictionary).

For arborvitae, shearing three times from April to early July is essential, particularly if you want that English-style, tightly textured hedge look. Just drive down Ferndale Avenue in Wayzata some sunny Sunday afternoon and look at the arborvitae hedges in that neck of the woods, particularly that one stretch of eighteen-footers on the left as you head down the hill. They don’t look like that by plopping them in the ground and leaving them alone, I assure you.

Next, fertilize all your shrubs, deciduous and evergreen. Granular shrub fertilizer is fine, rake it in around the drip line and up to two feet out on all sides. Reapply in late June. I apply a water-soluble acidizing fertilizer to all my evergreen shrubs every two weeks from mid-April to June 1, then I hit them with a granular fertilizer to take them through mid-summer.

Spring rains have come again tonight while I sit at the computer. Tomorrow I am going to divide quite a few perennials and renew the quest for the perfect garden. Let the games begin!

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener