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Pretty Plants for Perennial Pleasure
Posted on : August 15, 2016

The Gulf Coast weather experiences “Indian Fall” which is the opposite of “Indian Summer” (transplants understand) and is described as a cloudy day or a break in the heat and drought that lets us know fall COULD BE just around the corner. Our gardens and our bodies have been in survival mode for the last three months, so when a break from the heat occurs we go out to garden to see who is thriving and who has passed. This lesson teaches us about our plant choices and whether to use them again next summer. There is no gardening journal for the Gulf Coast as our weather is unpredictable, so we need to track our actions and choices in our custom composition book along with our camera phones to capture plant images! MORE IMPORTANTLY YOUR GARDEN IS AS UNIQUE AS YOU ARE!!

We are in late summer as the summer solstice has already passed and the fall equinox in mid-September gives us four wonderful months to work in our garden pruning, planting, feeding and nurturing. Our long blooming perennials still have flowers, but they have gotten leggy, so now is the time to prune back to a nice shape so they will come out and bloom until the cold days of winter arrive, if indeed they do!

What plants in my garden get this special treatment? My perennial favorites are: Angelonia, Cuphea ‘David Verity’, Salvias, Thryallis Golden Showers, Pentas, Phlox paniculata, Lantana and Verbena.

Do not be pruning your fall blooming perennials such as Philippine Violet (Barleria) Salvia leucantha (Mexican Sage), Salvia elegans (Pineapple Sage), Mexican Mint Marigold, or Copper Canyon Daisy, as they may not bloom at all if the weather turns to winter. These late-bloomers should have been trimmed and shaped from spring through summer always providing food and soil after each trim.

Now if you have plants that have become pest infested (anytime of the year), the best way to control the little critters without spraying, is to prune most of the plant down – removing all the infested leaves, adding organic fertilizer (4” pot of food) around the root system of each plant and top-dressing with 1-2” of compost. Hand water in with Love using your water hose!

Pruning and shaping your perennial plants is like getting your hair trimmed, you don’t want to cut off too much but you want a new look, Yes?!! For upright growers, my green thumb removes all lateral (horizontal) branches and twiglets that never develop flowers but suck valuable energy from the plant. My final prune and shaping is the removal of the top 1/3 (or more depending on species) of the plant done with finesse. The vascular system (xylem and phloem) is suddenly a smaller race track with lots of energy feeding the entire plant, sprouting where you never thought it would! With all this new found energy, don’t stop there, you want to feed the root system and top dress with 1-2” of compost and now the plant has a complete make-over from top to bottom.

As I prune, I like a nice shape depending on the growth habit of the plant. For low growing and spreading plants (Verbena and Lantana), I do a “bowl cut” using my hand to gather up all the spreading stems or SECTIONS of stems and remove half of the foliage in my hand. When I release and finish pruning the plant, I go back and do some even-ing up to create the nice dome or conical shape for which I am striving.

Pruned AngeloniaPrune Angelonia now (late summer) as the skinny bloom stalks have a few flowers and of course we want more! I prune the skinny stalks down to the main plant (see photo) which redirects the energy back to the base of the plant so it can grow more leaves and stems and a new round of blooms. This practice strengthens the plant and increases the vascular circulation just like the heart on you and me! TIP: Remove the sparsely blooming tips and stems leaving a nice full base to regenerate about 4-6” tall.

After pruning you will add a 4” pot (measurer) of organic fertilizer around each plant and top-dress with compost to enhance the “sweet spot” (zone of active root growth) of each plant. The “sweet spot” for ALL plants is the top 4-6” of soil (not including mulch). This soil space grows new roots which increase the strength and health of Sweet Spot around plantthe upper plant. This supercharged plant can now fight off any pest or disease that might pass by.
NOTE: Plant roots do NOT grow in mulch as you may have observed when moving mulch around the garden.

TIP WITH PERENNIALS: To improve the “sweet spot” of plants, remove mulch to reveal soil area and root zone, add organic fertilizer (using a 4” pot) followed by compost (1-2”) on top of the organic fertilizer to “marry” the food and compost to start the microbial party! No party is complete without drinks and here is where you hand water with love!

Angelonia, Summer Snapdragon, is a wonderful garden perennial so when you originally plant them in the garden, space them at least 12” on-center (O.C. – means from the center of one plant to the center of the other plant) and always use triangular spacing if doing a second or third row. This creates a new planting space to add winter color and interest. (Winter prune Angelonia stems to 1” above the ground) The cool/cold air and soil temperatures keep the plants dormant. Treat your Pentas, lantana, and verbena the same way, as they are perennials too!

My Green Thumb Rule of Pruning – when I remove leaves and stems I always reward with food and soil. It is my way of healing and recovery for the abrupt removal of limbs and leaves. The flowers, stems and leaves are gathered, put into water, and enjoyed until gone.

Angelonia arrangement

Written by Linda Gay

Linda received her Associates Degree in Horticulture from Trident Technical College in Charleston, SC. She moved to Houston the summer of 1979 and worked in the commercial green industry until 1985. October 1985 Linda stared at Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens and retired in May 2011. She was the director for 11 years. Linda is first and foremost a gardener, constantly manipulating soils and putting new plants in the garden, always learning and growing. She has killed plants every which way you can and this experience has made me a plant expert. After 6 months of retirement Linda was very fortuitous and landed in the coolest gardener’s paradise, The Arbor Gate in Tomball, Texas.

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