Posts Tagged “pruning”
We’re back in the garden, and this time we’re pruning our smoke tree… again! You may remember that we originally tried this last year, with disastrous results. Well, now we’re changing up our landscaping techniques and hoping that this second time will be a charm.
What is a smoke tree? It’s a colorful ornamental plant (genus name: Cotinus) that gets its common name from unique billowy flower clusters that appear in spring and resemble puffs of smoke. There are several smoke tree varieties (Royal Purple, Velvet Cloak, Grace, Golden Spirit and more), with deciduous leaves that vary from green to deep red to dark purple, depending on the season and species. Often used as a prominent accent in the garden because of its brilliant colors and unusual flowers, this plant can range in size from 8 to 30 feet in height, and it’s drought- and cold-tolerant. In other words, it’s very hardy and it grows fast! We’re not sure what variety ours is – John is thinking Royal Purple, but I’m leaning more toward Grace.
Last year, we planned to trim down our smoke tree to make it smaller and more contained than before. We talked about our subsequent pruning attempt (and failure) in this post, but basically we pruned it at the wrong time of year (mid-winter) and in the wrong spots (we cut the branches at their ends, instead of at the branch collars). This caused the tree’s branches to skyrocket once the weather turned warm, rather than grow into the tidy compact shrub we were hoping for.
Our goal – a cute little smoke tree underneath our dining nook window – was figuratively buried under the smoky monster that grew over and completely obliterated our backyard garden view. I mean, who needs curtains when you’ve got giant overgrown leafy branches?
And by autumn, the tree branches had grown all the way to the roof line. While the bright reddish-orange color was really beautiful, the tree totally obscured our ornamental cherry tree and little Japanese maple. (Can’t see them in the photos below? That’s my point! They’re hiding next to the stairs on the left.)
So, obviously not the results we were hoping for when we first pruned the smoke tree. And once the summer growing season was in full swing, any further pruning would just spur more growth, so we had no choice but to sit on our hands and wait. In the meantime, we did some more smoke tree pruning research (see our sources at the end of this post), and that’s when we started to consider rejuvenating the smoke tree by cutting it almost all the way to the ground. In theory this pruning method will encourage a smaller bushy plant instead of the taller splayed tree we’ve had for the past couple of years. Ideally, we’d like to end up with something about this size:
(image via Gardenista)
Fast-forward (through a long snowy Midwest winter) to a few weeks ago. With the plant still dormant in the chilly late-winter weather, John gave our new smoke-tree-to-bush pruning method a try. He started by trimming off the numerous small upper branches with long-handled loppers.
As he worked his way down the tree, he switched to a bow saw to cut through the thicker branches. (While he’s used this versatile tool on a variety of projects over the last 20 years, a more common saw for pruning is a folding saw like this one – it’s better for maneuvering around dense branch growth and conveniently folds up in your pocket when not in use.)
The previous owner had tied the smoke tree to a wooden trellis staked into the ground, to support it as it grew. But when John started removing the ties to take out the trellis, we realized that it had already been pulled out of the soil by the tree’s overgrown strength. It was literally hanging on by a thread!
After detaching the trellis, John revved up his trusty chainsaw to cut the main trunks of the smoke tree (the same way he sawed through our giant yew bushes last summer).
This is what we were left with when it was all over.
And our view to the backyard is much improved!
Now we just have to wait and see how things grow back this summer. According to our research, smoke trees usually experience a rapid growth rate after pruning (and we found that out firsthand last year) – up to 6 feet or more in height! But while the leaves will be bigger and more colorful than before, the signature “smoke” flowers may not appear until the following year.
It’s hard to imagine that this plant could go from 2-inch stumps to 6-foot-tall branches in one growing season, but we amateur gardeners are definitely intrigued – and hope we pruned it right this time. We’ll keep you posted on the progress!
Some of our sources for smoke tree information include:
The Arbor Day Foundation
Houzz article on using smoke trees in landscape design
Gardening Know How
What do you think – did we prune the smoke tree too much? Will it grow back, or will we be left with a big empty space in the garden this summer?
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A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the weather was perfect to do some gardening. So I put on my snow boots and winter coat, grabbed a shovel and some pruning shears, and went outside to prune our Annabelle hydrangeas.
Yes, I probably should have pruned these hydrangea bushes last fall (like I did the first time with great success). But in the first few months of adjusting to life with Baby T, garden maintenance wasn’t really at the forefront of our minds, so the hydrangeas were left on their own as fall turned into winter.
I’ve read that Annabelle hydrangeas can be pruned anytime between autumn and early spring (check out this site and these guidelines and this blog post) because they bloom on new wood. So I decided to put it to the ultimate test and try pruning them in the dead of winter this year. You know, in the snow and ice and freezing cold. That’s not crazy, right?
Before starting to prune, I had to dig the bushes out a bit since they were buried in a huge snowdrift. I wanted to cut down the branches to about 18 inches from the ground, so I used a small shovel to clear snow from the areas I wanted to prune. I tried not to damage the branches, but I did end up scraping a few of them and exposed the green insides.
When I had shoveled enough to be able to see what I had to work with, I started trimming. Some of the branches were still bent down and buried under the snow, so I pulled these out to prune them. And I completely trimmed off the few sections where I had scraped the stems with the shovel.
Once I pruned everything down to about 18 inches, I collected all the trimmed branches and put them in a yard bag for pickup later on in spring.
We’ve had a cold and snowy February here in the Midwest, so when things warm up and melt a little, I’ll check if any stray stems were hiding under the snow.
Hopefully this won’t be another pruning fail like the smoke tree (which we still haven’t fixed yet, by the way!). Is there such a thing as having a white thumb (instead of a green or black one) for gardening in winter? If this risky landscaping move works, I’m going to declare winter gardening (and #whitethumb) a new trend.
Cross your fingers (again) that I haven’t killed our gorgeous Annabelle hydrangea. What do you think – will Annabelle survive?
You may be seeing a lot of gift guides popping up lately, with a plethora of ideas for what to get your friends and family this holiday season. But don’t forget to add your home to your gift-giving list! For us, our house is more than just shelter – it’s the hub of our family and our lives, and we want to celebrate it (since it’s been so good to us this year). So we thought we’d share some gift ideas for that special house in your life. Look for more in our Gift Guides for Your Home series all month long!
Our first Gift Guide showcases some great tools and materials to protect your house inside and out.
C. Protect your exterior decks and porches with a coat or two of weatherproofing sealant. It’s available in many colors and its rough-traction surface will help reduce slips and falls during icy winter days.
D. Install carbon monoxide detectors throughout your house (we like this combination carbon monoxide/smoke alarm). You can’t see or smell this deadly gas, so a detector is a must to keep you and your family safe from leaks.
E. Lead test kits make great stocking stuffers (if homes had stockings…). Since old houses are notorious for containing lead paint, keep several of these test swabs on hand to test painted surfaces before starting any home improvement project. Red means lead, people!
(linked on Remodelaholic)
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It seems like we’ve been doing a lot of outdoor work this summer. Some projects were planned, others came up unexpectedly, and one or two were even emergencies. Since we knew we’d be having a new baby at the end of this season, we kept our landscaping ambitions low (in order to prioritize baby-related house updates). But somehow, we found ourselves outside every weekend working on something or other on our little plot of land. Here’s a round-up of what’s been going on.
Our biggest project this summer was cutting down the eight giant yew shrubs in our front yard.
John did this work himself with a variety of tools (including a chainsaw) and cleared away all the debris and old mulch, leaving us with eight short stumps and a front yard full of dirt.
We knew we wouldn’t have time this summer to do any major new landscaping in the former yew space, but John has managed a few small updates. First, he divided some hostas from our backyard (we have a lot back there) and replanted them in front of the stumps. Then he added new wood mulch to the area around the stumps and hostas, creating more of a defined border around the house. Finally, he planted grass seed in the remaining yard space to fill in up to the sidewalk.
The grass has mostly grown in well (except for one stubborn patch that we’re still trying to cultivate) and the hostas are hanging in there. Those take a few years to fill out, so we’re optimistic. You can also see a few straggly rosebushes (with no roses) near the sidewalk – we’ve left those in the ground for now, but they’ve never really flourished, and we’ll probably dig them out eventually. Finally, John transplanted some ornamental grass (that he brought from our backyard) around the horse head hitching post – some of it has thrived, some hasn’t. We’ll see what survives this next winter.
Now that the yews aren’t crowding everything else out, we’ve got a blank slate to be really creative here. There’s a lot more work to be done, but this is a good start and will hold us over until we have more time to devote to this area in the future.
We can’t forget our Annabelle hydrangeas! We’ve got about four of these bushes, and they were kind of big and floppy last summer. They draped over our paved walkway and were starting to block the path, as you can see below.
It was just the result I was hoping for – smaller bushes that don’t block our walkway access, but still lots of big fluffy blooms. So I must have done something right when pruning them last fall (unlike our failed smoke tree experiment). I’m so glad they grew back and thrived this year – they’re some of our favorite flowers in the garden!
Back in June, we bought some leafy vines and coleus plants for our window boxes (instead of planting herbs like we did last year). We hoped they would grow and drape over the sides and look really pretty.
We haven’t had time for much upkeep, and we’ve only been watering the window boxes sporadically because of our busy schedules. The coleus plants have held up pretty well, but the vines kind of shriveled and dried up.
This is one gardening project that has fallen to the bottom of our priority list as we get ready for baby, but if we’d put a little more effort in maintaining and caring for these window boxes, they’d probably look much better right now. Maybe next summer we’ll have more time to tend to these.
We’ve got a stone paver walkway that extends the full length of our lot on one side – it leads from the front curb to our back alley. We get a lot of weeds in between the stones and one of our long-term goals is to fill in the walkway spaces with polymeric sand for a more finished appearance. But John noticed some patches of moss growing in one shady spot near the side of the house (you can see it in the 2014 Annabelle hydrangea photo above), and decided to try and cultivate this look for now. It’s really pretty!
We probably can’t grow moss along the entire walkway, because it needs shady and damp conditions to thrive, and most of the walkway gets full sun. But for this one little area, it’s been a fun experiment to encourage a mossy green interlude.
Our large oak tree provides a lot of shade (and pretty yellow leaves in the fall) and helps keep the front of our house cool in the summer. Unfortunately, it has also been providing squirrels with a easy access route to our roof, and earlier this summer we discovered that some of these squirrels had gotten into the empty space above our sunroom. John climbed up a ladder to take a look, and realized that there wasn’t much flashing along the roof line (despite the fact that this roof was just put on a few years ago). So in order to keep animals out and to protect the exposed wood, he installed new aluminum flashing around the entire house.
This was one of these projects we hadn’t planned for, but it was a necessary fix. Since John was able to do it himself, we saved a lot of money than if we’d hired someone to come out and do the work.
In addition, he cut back several overhanging branches on the oak tree to discourage future tree-dwellers from migrating to our house. After trimming most of them from the ground with an extendable tree trimmer, he climbed the tree with a smaller tool to get some out-of-the-way stragglers.
We’re really hoping that these DIY preventative measures will help keep the roof free of unwanted visitors from now on.
Speaking of unwanted visitors… another unplanned project we encountered this summer (and didn’t save money on) was dealing with this hornets’ nest. We noticed it out of the blue one day a few weeks ago, and it was positioned right over our front sidewalk in the lower branches of the oak tree. It was a big safety issue for anybody walking by our house.
The nest had to be removed ASAP, but we decided to leave this job to the pros. So we called in a pest control company. Once the guy came out and got a good look at the nest, he told us that we had dangerous bald-faced hornets living there. They can get really angry and aggressive when defending their space (a single hornet can sting someone multiple times), especially when someone destroys their home. So he wore full-body protection, sprayed the nest, and then cut it down while we watched safely from inside the house. It cost us $250 for the removal, but it was definitely not something we would have been able to (or want to) take on ourselves.
So unless any further outdoor emergencies come up (fingers crossed!), this is probably all the landscaping we’ll be doing for the rest of the summer. The new baby is scheduled to arrive soon, and we’re focusing on getting ready for that by finishing the nursery and the toddler’s bedroom.
How does your August garden/yard/lawn/trees grow?
Not all of our home improvement projects are successful… especially in the landscaping and garden department! Today we’re talking about how NOT to prune a smoke tree, and also some ideas on how we’re going to try to fix our pruning mistakes. Plus a fun surprise twist at the end of the post, so keep reading!
Last time we talked about the smoke tree in our backyard was in May, when we reported on how we pruned it during the winter to try and control its growth.
You can see in the right-side photo above that the tree was looking pretty sparse. At that point in the spring, we weren’t seeing much regrowth and were hoping the tree would fill in more over the summer. Well…be careful what you wish for. Only a few months later, we’ve got a smoky monster on our hands.
Instead of a cute and tidily-pruned smoke tree in our backyard, it’s now growing up as high as the playroom windows. And it’s actually engulfing the little Japanese maple and the ornamental cherry tree and other plants in that corner of the garden. The difference in last summer’s tree growth and this summer’s is crazy – check out this side-by-side comparison.
As you can see, our pruning efforts had the opposite effect that we’d planned. Instead of keeping the smoke tree nicely shaped and at a reasonable size, we seem to have created an even more out-of-control growth situation. The branches and leaves completely block our dining nook window, keeping us from gazing out at the backyard garden during meals. Not cool.
After we noticed the smoke tree’s unusual (and unexpected) growth earlier this summer, John did some more research to see what might have gone wrong. He found this video that details the proper pruning technique for these kinds of large bushes/small trees, and basically we learned that a smoke tree should be pruned in winter or early spring by trimming at the branching-off point, to keep the tree from over-sprouting. John had instead simply cut the branches at their ends, down to the height we wanted the tree to be. He didn’t realize that pruning the tree this way would actually cause its growth to quickly surpass the smaller size we were going for.
Source: Plant Amnesty
In order to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we’re planning to reprune Old Smoky – the correct way – this winter or next spring. We can’t cut it any further this summer, or it will just rebound and continue to get even bigger. So we’ve got to live with this behemoth thing for now. We’re even thinking of changing things up and converting the tree to a bush with a different pruning method. The previous owner tied the tree to a trellis and may have been purposefully training it to grow larger, but we’re definitely interested in a smaller incarnation, so we may try the bush route. (Update: We did it! Check out how we pruned the smoke tree into a bush here.)
There is a silver lining in this whole situation, though. During dinner one night recently at our dining nook table, we were looking out the tree-filled window and lamenting our loss of a garden view, when I saw something nestled among the branches.
Apparently an overgrown smoke tree is the perfect environment for a robin’s nest! This little bird had set up headquarters in a central spot where several branches come together. It was such a nice surprise to discover this, and it made us not mind the big tree so much. We still miss our view of the garden, but this sight is pretty special too.
And, a few days after discovering the robin and her nest, we saw that she had a (very hungry) baby in there!
It’s been amazing to watch this all unfold right in front of our window. The toddler in particular likes to watch the robin’s comings and goings while she eats dinner – it’s a great nature lesson for her. We’re trying to be as respectful as possible and not scare the robin away with our presence on the other side of the glass, but for the most part she’s been more interested in feathering her nest and feeding her baby than with our paparazzi behavior.
Hopefully when we prune the tree in the next several months, the robin will still come back after her winter migration and build her nest here again. We love having her family as our backyard neighbors!
Have you had any landscaping mishaps this summer? Or surprise bird sightings?
(linked at Remodelaholic)