Give spring bloomers the care they need

Many of our spring-blooming shrubs have already shown their beauty this year, and some bulb blooms have come and gone, as well. Our cool spring has made them all last a bit longer, for which I am grateful.

Now, a busy gardening season approaches, and it is easy to forget about giving those spring bloomers the care they need. Let's talk about the shrubs first. These would include forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons, lilac, magnolia, mockorange, serviceberry, flowering crabapple, hawthorn, mountain laurel and red- and yellow-twig dogwood.

These all bloom on "old wood," so they need to be pruned soon after blooming, allowing the shrub to set its buds for next year. If they are pruned in late winter or early spring, you will prune off the current year's flower buds.

Pruning has two purposes: to shape the plant, and to stimulate growth. Keeping those purposes in mind will help keep you from being a timid pruner. You need to be brave and daring! If you only lightly snip off tips of the shrub, as if giving it a haircut, the result will be that the shrub will have new growth on the outside only and will die out in the center.

If you walk or drive around your neighborhood, I suspect you will see shrubs — forsythia especially — that have become ugly, with long shoots at the top, a congested, twiggy center and a bare base. The center probably looks dead, as well. When a shrub is only lightly trimmed, and no pruning cuts have been made to stimulate growth, sunlight cannot reach the center, causing it to die out.

A better method is to prune annually, with firmness. Prune out some of the largest stems to the ground to stimulate new growth from the crown and remaining stems. Some people refer to this as the scary method of pruning, but the plant will benefit from it.

As you prune, visualize the shape you'd like the shrub to take; this, too, can be largely controlled by the way the shrub is pruned. If you are rejuvenating an overgrown or out-of-control shrub, do not cut it back by more than a third in any one year. A severely neglected shrub may take two or more years to bring under control.

Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus and other spring-blooming bulbs exhaust the bulb by blooming. They store up energy for next year and renew themselves by making and storing food, using their green leaves exposed to the sun. So resist the temptation to "tidy up" the garden by cutting, braiding, bundling or in any way depriving the leaves of sun after they have finished blooming.

Declining foliage is not particularly attractive, though, so you might want to use companion flowers whose foliage will hide the browning leaves of the bulbs. Self-seeding perennials such as California poppies and candytuft are especially good for this. Or plant some pansies or coreopsis in the bulb bed.

This is also the time to use a "bulb booster" fertilizer, if needed, as it helps the bulbs store nutrients for next spring.

If pruning still makes you nervous, you might want to consider purchasing a copy of "Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley — Trees and Shrubs," available from most local nurseries or from the OSU Extension Service.

Coming up: Master Gardener Sherri Morgan will discuss the benefits and challenges of shade gardens in the Rogue Valley from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. The cost is $5. Call 541-776-7371.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at

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