Winter Pruning: It’s All About the Timing

Take a serious look out your windows at your back yard landscape. What do you see? Are the perennials all shriveled and black looking? Are some bushes falling over on top of others?

When you drive into your driveway, what does the front yard and entry-way look like? Is there dead and brown-looking foliage? Are there bushes trying to obscure your windows or push you off the front walkway or sidewalk?

If you imagine tackling all of this in one day, you may feel overwhelmed. However, nothing much is going to grow out there until around March and even then, just a few things will be pushing buds.

So, start with what you see when you drive in the driveway and tackle a section of that when you have a block of time. Then do the other half the next opportunity. When the front is completed, tackle the back yard. Do all of this pruning a section at a time until it is done. Lastly, take on all of those plants that may need attention that you don’t see out your windows. By the time that you do all of this, it will be March and you will have accomplished your tasks!

Here is how you can do this.

  • Cut back the perennials that are brown and ugly and leave about one inch of stem. I simply chop the foliage into two inch pieces and leave them lying on the ground, but you may want to haul them off to the recycle bin.
  • Prune and thin the late season shrubs like Hydrangea and Crape Myrtle.
  • Avoid early spring bloomers like Flowering Quince, Lilac, Forsythia and Daphne, as you will be cutting off their bloom buds, which you are looking forward to seeing! Wait to prune them until right after they bloom and then you will be fitting into their life cycle.
  • Remember to wait on roses till February around President’s Day. If the roses are tall right now and the wind is catching them, cut them back about a 1/3, but in general, roses need to be as dormant as possible for serious pruning.
  • Do not shear any of your plants unless they have tiny leaves and you want a hedge type of look. (Shears are like big scissors). Normally one will prune everything with hand clippers or loppers.
  • If you have big overgrown plants which need rejuvenating, this is the time of the year to do that. (Rejuvenating means cutting back hard with a saw or loppers, so that new growth can occur in the spring). Please note that:
  • If you do it now, you will be looking at the brown stumps till spring, so you may want to take care of this project in March.
  • If you find that you need to regularly cut a plant back this hard, it is probably not located in the right place and should be removed. A new plant or plants should be chosen to take its place, which would be more suitable and manageable.

Approaching your pruning in this fashion at the beginning of January about guarantees that it will all be done by March!

How to Take the Stress Out of Maintaining Your Yard

We’re deep into the holiday season and no one seems to have the time to cut back the perennials, grasses or overgrown bushes while neatening up the beds. Of course, the heavy rains we’ve been having also contribute to our disinclination!

Our front yard, which is visible to us as we drive in, as well as to all our guests, needs to look trimmed and tidy for the Holiday season. That is a given. However, we have learned a trick to get through this time of year: We don’t stress about the entire rest of the yard, which cannot really be seen from inside, if at all.

After the first of the year, I take a hard look at the rest of the yard space. I imagine how many weekends I have ahead of me in order to tackle the work before February 15th. That magical date is the beginning of landscapers’ spring in western Oregon; when many sleepy tender perennials and bulbs are just tentatively extending buds out into the world. It is paramount that we trim and clean before they begin their quest. This gives us about 6 weekends!

I divide the yard up into these weekend chunks, tackling a section/weekend until it has all been completed. Doing it this way, I can usually get what needs to be done in a four-hour block of time each weekend, leaving the rest for other activities.

There is always an emotional letdown after the holidays and this task fills a portion of each weekend, allowing me to retrench and to reload emotionally. It is exercise for which I do not have to pay, without holiday advertisements or digital overloads. it is out in the fresh air and rain. All of these are excellent for my state of mind as I launch into the New Year!

It’s Fall: Gardeners, Get Out Your Pruners!

Let’s talk about pruning, which is accomplished with two main methods:

  • Shearing with a pair of shears. This is normally used with plants that need to be shaped on the outside to some form like a hedge or a topiary. It is best done with plants that have small leaves or tiny foliage to really look good.  Pruning in this fashion causes a plant to thicken up and have many points of growth. Lavender, heather, boxwood and sometimes evergreen azaleas are common examples of plants that respond well to this method of pruning.  Used indiscriminately, however, this can create the lollipop and gumdrop look that some people like and most people hate.
  • Trimming, or selectively or thinning. This type of pruning is accomplished with clippers for smaller branches, loppers for thicker branches or a saw for the biggest branches.  Trimming’s main function is to select out a branch or a twig and remove it to create more internal space. The best miniature example would be a Bonsai plant.  Others that can really look good with this kind of pruning are upright Japanese maples, rhododendron (but not until it is finished blooming in the spring), or a vine maple. Trimming is pruning from the inside out. Most plants would look their best using this method. Don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you, however, and avoid pruning spring blooming plants, such as Rhodies or azaleas during the fall. If you cut off the buds now, you won’t have any glorious blooms come next spring.

In late fall, your pruning efforts should be spent on perennials that have just finished blooming, and certain types of shrubs, such as mop head hydrangeas. Clear away the brown foliage and any seed pods (think, Echinacea, or cone flowers), if the birds haven’t already done that for you.

Here’s how I shear my lavender this time of year:




I’m Just Wild About Saffron…Crocus sativus, That Is

saffron-flowerThe Saffron Crocus, or Crocus sativus, is a fall-blooming lavender colored crocus, whose bloom contains a three-pronged red filamentous (thread-like) pistil. It is this red pistil that is used as an herb in so many great dishes. Probably the most famous use is in the Spanish dish, Paella.

Saffron Crocus grows well here in the northwest, and you can buy it as a dry bulb in most quality nurseries in the fall. If planted immediately, it may produce its first crop of flowers and provide you with saffron to eat in two to three weeks!

Saffron bulbs must be planted in well-drained soil where they can receive sunshine most of the day. In other words, they can grow in ugly gravelly soil, so long as they can bake on a hot day. What they don’t like is any form of shade. Their foliage will appear in the fall around the time of the blooms; stay evergreen all winter, and then turn brown and shrivel when it gets warm in the spring.

When they appear, carefully pull the three bright red pistils out of the flower and immediately place them in a small open container. Nimble fingers work best for this procedure.

Once you have finished harvesting the pistils, keep them in a dry warm place until they have completely shriveled to very fine threads. Then the red threads may be transferred into a dry sealed container such as a small Tupperware piece.

The bulbs produce many flowers. Rain or slugs can quickly damage or destroy the pistils in the field, so harvest them daily!

Click here for a Saffron Rice recipe:


Let’s Talk Compost

I take compost very seriously. It’s a vital part of a sustainable landscape and in the larger picture of our world. Here are some questions I am often asked on the subject:

What is compost?

Compost is aged and broken down organic matter, which in general contains the major macronutrients and the micronutrients needed for healthy plants to grow.

What is the difference between fertilizer and compost?

Compost acts as a fertilizer but it is much more. Most people think of petrochemical products as fertilizer. Fresh manure is another type of fertilizer which has not been composted. It would burn the plants if used freshly laid.

Why is compost a good thing for my garden?

Compost acts chemically to feed the micro-flora and micro-fauna found in the soil naturally, which in turn feed the roots of your plants. The compost acts physically as a bit of a blanket against erosion and increases the ability for the soil to retain moisture, sort of like a sponge.

How do I make good compost?

There are many compost makers that can be purchased.  Generally, broken down plant parts and food parts compost better if oxygen is incorporated into the process. This is why many composters have the ability to turn or move. In our case we simply layer the different kinds of compostable materials and occasionally thrust in a pitch fork to oxygenate the composting process.

Here is a picture of Winterbloom’s composter:

compost bins







Why do you have three bins for your compost?

The bin covered with the blue tarp is the bin that was filled last year. The tarp keeps it protected from the rain in the winter and the sun in the summer. The middle bin is the one that we are filling with compostable materials, such as garden clippings. The far right bin is the last year’s finished compost. That’s what we’re using right now for new plantings or to spread on our garden.

Biochar: A Hotel for Fertilizer and Moisture

7-22-2013 Phil in Biochar veggie garden 007Although it looks like powder to the human eye, Biochar is really extremely tiny honeycombed charcoal briquettes.  It is made from waste wood and agricultural products and is used as a soil amendment.

Its value for the home gardener is that it retains moisture and fertilizer in the soil. I mix it in at the same time as I am working in fertilizer. The Biochar “hosts” these vital nutrients until my plants are ready to use them. It has a neutral pH and I can store bags of it easily.

The larger picture is that Biochar, also called “dark earth,” “soil carbon,” or “terra preta,” is considered by some as another potential tool to help combat climate change. It is made by burning organic crop, wood, and yard wastes, or manures, at very high temperatures and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen, a process known as pyrolysis.

This ancient soil-building method creates humus-rich soil that stores large amounts of carbon that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere. It’s also good for your garden!

If you’re interested in learning a lot more about Biochar, I refer you to the book, Terra Preta: How the World’s Most Fertile Soil Can Help Reverse Climate Change and Reduce World Hunger, Ute Scheub and her co-authors are among those who believe that increasing the humus content of soils worldwide by 10 percent within the next 50 years could reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to pre-industrial levels.

Tall fescue – Festuca arundinacea

Tall fescue is a cool season perennial species bunch grass native to Europe. It is a coarse-textured medium to dark green grass, whose leaves are rolled in a bud (unlike the more flat blades we’re used to in the northwest). The plant appears quite vertical. It handles our long, wet, cool seasons very well and its deep root system also enables it to cope well with our dryer hotter months.

When mixed with other grasses in a pasture, or a coarse grassy lawn in the warmth of a western Oregon summer, it stands out because it tends to be green when other grasses have turned brown and gone dormant. It is well adapted to sunny areas. It has traditionally been an important forage grass throughout Europe because of its ability to stay green during the dry warm months and there are many cultivars which have been grown for different localities and uses. It has been used to some degree as an ornamental grass, for soil conversation, and as a phytoremediation (Phytoremediation refers to the natural ability of certain plants, called hyperaccumulators, to bioaccumulate, degrade or render harmless contaminants in soils, water, or air, such as lead or other toxic materials) plant. Because it naturally has a bunch grass type of growth rather than a creeping or quickly spreading habit, if grown as a stand, it regularly needs an addition of seed to fill in blank spots. In a ryegrass or bent grass lawn this Tall fescue is considered a weed, since its dark vertical and coarse texture stands out against the rest of the sod grasses. It does not mix well. It is not often grown as a lawn in its natural form, because it is so coarse textured and bunchy in appearance.

New varieties that are finer in texture and shorter in stature are known as turf-type Tall fescues and dwarf turf-type Tall Fescues. These fescues are good to plant for general sunny lawn use and are the most common lawn grass types in California. There are also Tall fescue-endophyte assisted varieties available. These varieties are very drought tolerant, disease resistant and also deter predation by insects and mammals. They may be good for lawn areas but are counter productive in pastures, since they’re poisonous to cattle.

Recently some of the turf-type Tall fescues have been developed to the point where several are purported to be spreading. This trait in a Tall fescue lawn is very advantageous, as the standard varieties need to be reseeded occasionally to fill in bare spots. There are several varieties of this group of sod type Tall fescues and they are all Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (RTF). Some varieties of RTF do fill out fairly well, while others do not. This grass is still somewhat in the research stage but there have been some success in the RTF Sods, which are now available. They become thick, green and more drought tolerant as a lawn grass that will fill in naturally (except for the large holes) without having to be reseeded.

Here are some reasons why Northwesterners might become interested in an RTF sod for their own lawn:

  • Tall fescue tolerates more sun and heat before turning brown and going dormant. Most of our native grasses, and particularly the non-native ryegrasses, do go dormant when it becomes hot and dry. However, Tall fescue is not a grass that can be used in shade.
  • This particular selection of Tall fescue tends to crowd out other grasses more than our standard perennial ryegrass and so it has a more uniform appearance after several seasons than most sod types.
  • When damaged, this lawn can repair itself to some degree where many other types of sod would not.
  • Since RTF takes more sun and heat than other grasses, it can handle a south-facing lawn placed at a slight tilt toward the sun, with reflected heat from a sidewalk. This is the hottest aspect for most lawns and one where most grasses would develop dry, dead spots. Not Tall fescue! It seems to relish full robust summer sun in our climate.

Glorious Daphne! A Temporary Treat

This year our Daphne bush burst into profuse and fragrant bloom earlier than usual, due to our mild winter. Its lovely pink blossoms are wafting a wonderful welcome to all visitors. If we could bottle this sensational smell, we would call it something like Delicious Daphne, or Spring Siren.

Daphne odora 1 (2)

We are indeed fortunate here in the Willamette valley to be able to grow several species and varieties of Daphne. Most of them are fragrant; a few of them can live up to at least 10 years and one of them really likes it here well enough to self-sow.   I will focus here on our most well-known Daphne, Daphne odora (Daphne o).

This Daphne has glossy evergreen foliage that in the most common variety available, has variegated leaves. That means they are white and cream, so that even when not in bloom, this wondrous shrub is attractive.  Daphne odora begins to bloom here in March and in a really mild winter, such as the one we just had, it can begin blooming in February.  The fragrance is beguiling, and to me it is a mixture of lemon and jasmine.

It is especially great to establish your Daphne near the front door, so it can be enjoyed as you walk up to the house.  There are some challenges in providing just the right place to keep it happy, though:

  • The location must be well drained, and the ground must be slightly raised around it. Another option is to put it in a raised bed. It works best if the soil has been well worked up with compost. Daphne will die quickly in heavy clay and poor drainage.
  • Daphne odora doesn’t like to be planted in a situation where it gets reflected light in the heat of the day. It will pout, burn, turn yellow, not bloom well and slowly die.
  • Daphne o. doesn’t do well where it gets shade more than half a day. It will bloom only occasionally and the growth will be lanky and unattractive.
  • Daphne o. prefers good strong morning sun and some afternoon shade. It does not mind being planted where it must compete with smaller lower plants as this seems to help its drainage.
  • Daphne o. must be pruned right after it blooms to keep it from getting top-heavy and splitting. The best way to do this is to trim out the extending branches back to a bud. This is easily seen if one looks at the branches with a critical eye. Daphne o. Does not like to be severely pruned, so pruning lightly regularly is best.
  • Daphne o. does not like to be transplanted. I have yet to be successful at this and not have the plant die a year later.
  • The oldest Daphne o. that I have seen is 15 years old. It is not a long lived plant.  If you can get one to live past 10 years you are doing well.
  • Do not over fertilize them or they will only grow excessive foliage and not bloom. Just some good compost and mulch around their roots is all that they need.






The Five Most Common Landscaping Challenges

Over the years we have noticed these common landscaping problems:

Problem: The front entry is hard to find and/or not welcoming.


  • If the main entry door is on the front of the house but it is hidden by plants or structures; often the best solution is to remove those items that can be removed, such as overgrown shrubbery. Then do something with plants, pathways or structures (such as an arbor) to play up and or frame the main entry so that it is more obvious.
  • If, on the other hand, the real entry is around the side of the house and everyone comes to the wrong door, be it the back door, garage door or kitchen door, think of ways to downplay those doors and guide people around to the main entry door with an inviting path, or colorful plants.

Problem: The entertaining area is too small.


  • Consider how many people you’ll be entertaining in the area. This will help to decide how big a space that you will need.
  • Will you be cooking there? You’ll need to allow room for a fireplace, BBQ, fire bowl, outdoor kitchen materials, etc.  This will also help to determine the proper size.
  • Consider circulation from the kitchen to the entertaining space.  It is best to have them at the same elevation with no steps or stairs in between and as short a distance as possible between the two. Consider two openings between the house and the entertaining space for parties and bigger groups to make it easier for them to get in and out.
  • Consider the type of material for the surface of the space. If the door to the kitchen is up a few steps, then a good option would be an artificial or natural wood deck. An alternative would be metal supports with concrete paver surfaces.  If the kitchen door is level to the ground, then always go with a solid surface such as concrete, pavers or flagstone.

Problem: Trees or large plants are located too close to the house.

Solution: Often the best way to deal with this is to cut the tree or shrub down and grind the stump.  If it is too close to the house then the use of molasses or poison should work to kill the stump.  Avoid using poison if you can so that new smaller plants can be planted in the area.

Problem: The maintenance level of the landscape is too high for the client’s lifestyle.

Solution: This takes a whole reworking of the planting plan and often the use of more hardscapes (retaining walls, paths, patios), which of course require less maintenance than living things.

Problem: The drainage and grading were never properly addressed by the builder and/or previous owners and water drains toward the house and vents.

Solution: This can be a very large project if the soil needs to be regraded, because there are often plants and structures in the way.

Once this is addressed, the moisture out of place can then be redirected with drains to dry wells and French drains, along with intentional grading and raised structures.

If you’re facing any of these problems, Winterbloom can help. Give us a call or send us an email. We have solutions for your landscaping problems.