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While I am enjoying this year’s early spring, our saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangeana) was tricked into bloom a month too soon. I looked out this morning and all the buds, which were just a day or so away from opening all the way up, were frozen solid. By afternoon, they had turned brown.

One of the great things about digital cameras is that they keep track of dates, so I could easily check to see when I have taken pictures of the tree in bloom in past years. My largest collection of shots is dated April 9. While similar trees in Pennsylvania, where we lived before, were frosted out probably three years out of four, this is the first time we have lost flowers to freezing temperatures since we moved here in 2004. I will have to content myself with photos of magnolia flowers this year. I expect I am not alone.

 

Magnolia

Flowers on April 9 in a previous year.

The loss also prompted me to check dates for a few other plants that are currently in bloom in the garden. My hellebores typically bloom around the third week of March, but this year they have been flowering since the third week of February. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) were also about a month early.

Galanthus

Snowdrops, March 10 in a previous year.

Eranthis

Winter aconites, March 5 in a previous year.

“Glorious February afternoon” isn’t a phrase I have used often in my life, but I have certainly enjoyed the ones we have had this winter. I have been using the recent warm days to give some of my shrubs much-needed haircuts.

Rubbing-branches

Pruning does not need to be one of the great mysteries of gardening, and the techniques I use are pretty simple. Regardless of what I am pruning, I start by looking for two types of growth: Deadwood and rubbing and crossing branches.

Whether you are pruning a tree or a shrub, deadwood can be removed any time of year. Cut back to healthy wood, and be sure to discard the trimmings away from the garden to prevent the spread of any diseases or insects that may have caused the damage.

Rubbing and crossing branches need to be removed because the rubbing damages the bark on both branches.  The damage makes it easier for diseases and insects to get a foothold. Rubbing and crossing branches also create congested growth in the center of the plant.

Whenever you prune a shrub, start by taking a step or two back from the plant to look at the overall shape and identify branches that rub or cross. Mark the culprits with plastic tape if necessary. Marking is also a good idea if you want time to decide which of the two branches needs to be removed. It can be particularly hard to decide when pruning old, overgrown shrubs, because they have so many congested branches in the center. In this case, you can make a plan to prune over several years, and cut out a few branches each winter.

 

Basic Annual Shrub Pruning

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Illustration by © Elayne Sears, from How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, © by Barbara W. Ellis, used with permission from Storey Publishing.”

I usually select branches that cross the center of the plant to remove, because this not only eliminates rubbing, it opens up the center of the shrub to let in light and air. When removing a branch, use thinning cuts. That means, always cut back to where that branch arose from another branch or from the ground. Leave the branch collar, the wood around the base of the branch, intact to promote healing.

Also use thinning cuts to remove any wayward or overly long branches that ruin the shrub’s overall shape. Your objective should be a shrub that is somewhat wider at the bottom than the top, so that light reaches the lower branches. Always cut back to another branch, because pruning actually spurs growth. If you cut across a branch, rather than removing it entirely, it responds by producing vigorous shoots at the tips that quickly regrow. Thinning cuts do not cause this response.

My book, How to Prune Trees & Shrubs, provides much more information on pruning, including principles that every gardener needs to know, basic pruning guidelines for all types of shrubs, trees, and vines, and plant-by-plant lists with recommended pruning times for a wide range of popular plants. You can order it by clicking the book cover on the right.

I have a small collection of sansevierias, also known as mother-in-law, good-luck plant, bowstring hemp, and Devil’s tongue. Year in and year out I enjoy them for their handsome foliage, but I am writing about them today because one of my more unusual plants is in bloom, Sansevieria cylindrica. Elephant’s toothpick and spear sansevieria are two of the common names I found for this plant.

Sansaveria edited

The flowers are creamy white, lightly fragrant, and open as the central stalk of the inflorescence lengthens. (Descriptions of this plant I found in reference books and on-line say the flowers are pinkish, but I don’t see that in my plant.) In my experience, sansevierias bloom on their own schedule, so I have learned to appreciate the flowers whenever they appear.

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For most of this year I have been AWOL from Eastern Shore Gardener. I have a good excuse, though. In March, I adopted a puppy from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue. Puppy raising and training pretty much engulfed my year after he came home with me. I also raised a litter of rescued puppies for MABCR, but that is another story!

Gryff-pup

This year’s focus on bringing up a well-rounded puppy has simply engulfed my ability to sit down and write about my garden. Having a puppy outside with me all the time also affected what I can do in the garden, since puppies want to put everything in their mouths and dig holes whenever they get a chance. So, this year supervision took precedence over actual gardening.

Gryff is just over a year old now, and well on his way to being a great family member. He is learning manners, has started in agility, and is a much better garden citizen. He also is currently learning to be a tracking dog and may one day be experienced enough to find lost dogs and cats through an organization called Dogs Finding Dogs.

Gryff-pup2

 

I have made some progress out there this year, including planting a variety of ground covers and new perennials. I also installed a wall where we had piled stones until a couple of weeks ago and am looking forward to getting it filled to overflowing. I promise you will see pictures next season.

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As always, my garden is speeding along this spring, and I am just barely keeping up. Today’s post features a couple of plants that have been especially spectacular this spring. I don’t take much credit for the display. All do their thing without any intervention from me.

For the past couple of weeks, the front garden is all about our native wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata). I started with a handful of small plants that rode down with us years ago from Pennsylvania. These easy and accommodating wildflowers self sow, and I brought down plants in a range of colors in shades of lavender and lilac-blue to white. This spring, the front garden is filled with great clumps in a full range of shades. There also are some deep purples elsewhere in the garden that I am encouraging to sow around. I simply can’t stop looking at them, plus wild blue phlox has a delightful light fragrance as long as the weather is not too windy.

Phlox-in-spring

Above: Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata.

Wild blue phlox thrives in partial shade to partial sun, and tolerates evenly moist to somewhat dry soil. The seedlings appear in surprising spots and are always welcome!

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Whether I have been writing e-mails or delivering a gardening talk, one of my favorite hollies inevitably comes up once the conversation turns to plants that should be more available: American holly (Ilex opaca) ‘Maryland Dwarf’. Any of you who have tried to buy  ‘Maryland Dwarf’ will know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to find.

So, I am happy to let readers of Eastern Shore Gardener know that Vic Priapi, owner of Priapi Gardens, has ‘Maryland Dwarf’ in his nursery this spring. His first plants all sold, but he is picking up ten more 3-gallon plants today (Friday, April 8). I suspect there are plenty of gardeners looking for ‘Maryland Dwarf’, so if you want one, don’t dawdle. (If you are driving from a distance, it is probably a good idea to call and check availability first!)

Ilex-'Maryland-Dwarf'-with-

Above: ‘Maryland Dwarf’ holly (Ilex opaca ‘Maryland Dwarf’) at Mt. Cuba.

Unlike standard-size hollies, this is a true shrubby ground cover. Plants range from 3 to 5 feet tall and spread to 6 or 8 feet. My own plants are considerably shorter—all are under 3 feet. They have handsome, glossy, evergreen leaves. Plants produce very few berries. I have two plants in shade and one in fairly full sun. ‘Maryland Dwarf’ makes a handsome ground cover for shade, a specimen in the shade garden, a companion for low-growing perennials or ground covers that won’t swamp it, or a component of a shrub border.

So, I hope that those of you out there who have been wanting to try this great plant will swing by Priapi’s in Cecilton!

Now Vic, how about some dwarf white pines?

Welcome: The news is full of information on supporting pollinators, and mason bees are sone of our most effective and efficient native pollinators. This great post on mason bees is by Paula Shrewsbury from the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology. I first saw it in The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension publication, Landscape and Nursery IPM Report, and I knew it would be of interest to a great many Eastern Shore Gardeners. Enjoy! Barbara

Since some pollinator species are in decline it is important to conserve these beneficial insects. Therefore, I will be discussing various pollinators throughout the season. The solitary bees to discuss this week are mason bees which are in the family Megachilidae since mason bees began to emerge from nesting habitat at my house just over a week ago (Columbia, MD on March 16th). In general, mason bees are early spring pollinators but a few species emerge in late spring or early summer. Mason bees nest in hollow stems of plants, reeds or galleries in wood left behind by wood boring insects. Mason bees get their name because of their habit of making compartments in their galleries that are separated by mud.

 

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Above: Male mason bees just emerging from galleries in wood where they overwintered (photo by P. Shrewsbury, UMD).

Mason bees are well known for the pollination benefits they provide and are some of the earliest pollinators of the season. It is estimated that just 250-300 mason bees can pollinate an acre of apples or cherries. Mason bee males emerge first and females emerge a few days later. This phenomenon, called protandry, is relatively common in the world of insects. It seems that female mason bees are a highly sought after “commodity” and males that emerge early in a season are more likely to find and hook up with mates. Once a male and female mate, the male bee then hangs out on the female’s back and fights off other males that would also like to mate with his partner. This “guarding behavior” ensures sperm from the original male are used by the female.

Mated female mason bees spend many hours and days gathering pollen and nectar from which they create pollen cakes or balls. They fill hollow plant stems or wooden galleries with these pollen cakes. After collecting pollen from plants, the female returns to her nest and enters the nest tube head first, deposits the pollen cake (this may take several trips to get enough pollen for one cake), exits the tube, turns around and enters the tube abdomen first. She then oviposits (lays) an egg onto the pollen cake. She then seals that section of the tube or gallery with mud. The female repeats this process until the tube contains several pollen cake – egg compartments and is filled. She plugs the entrance with mud and may then search out another nesting site. Eggs that are destined to be females are laid in the back of the tube, and male eggs toward the front.

Mason bees are active about 4 weeks and the females will fill as many nests (tubes) as she can in that time. The eggs hatch into bee larvae that consume the cake as they develop and grow during summer and fall. They complete their development (pupa and adults) during fall, settle down for winter, and are ready to emerge just in time for the return of spring. Mason bees do not produce honey, are not aggressive and do not sting. I stand for long periods of time in the midst of the 100’s of bees busy around their nesting site in my yard and have yet to be harmed but am always entertained by these beauties.

Mason bees provide valuable ecosystem services by pollinating a variety of native and non-native flowering plants, many of which are fruits that we consume or flowers of plants in natural and managed landscapes that provide resources and habitat for animals at other trophic levels. For those of you who would like to become active in the conservation of mason bees you have a little bit of time still – but hurry! At my house I have purchased commercially available “bee tubes” and drilled holes into firewood (see the images). Not only can you enhance ecosystem services of pollination, but you create a great learning environment for children and adults. I highly suggest you try buying or making habitat for these beneficial, educational and very entertaining insects. There are many resources on line that can inform you of best practices for creating habitat and raising these beneficial insects. Do a web search for mason bees or bee tubes. NOW is the time to set up nesting sites!

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Above: Bee tubes and galleries drilled in fire wood (~1/4 – 5/16” in diameter and 4-8” deep) provide suitable nesting sites for various solitary bees. Different diameter holes attract different species of mason bees. (photo by P. Shrewsbury, UMD)