February might be the most important garden month of the year in the Lowcountry.
It is prime time for pruning shrubs and trees that do not flower. Perennials can be divided and replanted, thus lessening the shock of starting a new life in the warm months. And it's a good time to purchase and plant seeds and bulbs to beautify our summer gardens.
Late winter pruning stimulates regrowth; it is the best time to make heading cuts. What are "heading cuts"? For that and many other answers to the secrets of successful pruning, we attended the Lowcountry Master Garden Association's January meeting to get the lowdown from Amanda McNulty, Sumter Country extension agent and co-host of "Making it Grow."
Using a live model from the audience, McNulty demonstrated the "whoosh" and "whack" cuts and explained why you want the "head" cut.
The head cut is to cut a branch back to a side bud or shoot; a thinning cut is cutting a limb off at the base, either at ground level or at a branch collar. To prune boxwood, prune the top and then go right on down.
"Late winter blooming azaleas are pruned after flowering," McNulty said. "But leave them alone as much as you can. Azaleas are supposed to look natural. Stop fertilizing. They'll respond by going on for years with nature's compost and mulch. Same with camellias. I have some that are more than 100 years old, and I've never touched them.
"Daphne shrubs, I cut slightly and carefully; Nandina should not be topped. To remain full, cut them at ground level. Palmetto palms have a connection with their branches: do not cut off even when they are brown. You're hurting their health."
As for crepe myrtles? McNulty's answer: "Keep them open; don't make a flush cut."
The featured speaker at the Hilton Head Island's Avid Gardeners January meeting was expert plant propagationist Anne Marie Kinsky, from whom many of us have learned so much. Her professional presentation featured how to start from seed, from cuttings, from division and from layering.
Seeding: When deadheading plants in her yard, Kinsky saves the seeds of favorites to make new plants. If you're using a large seed-starting tray, you must seed plants that have about the same germination time. Easy-to-start-from seed are seeds of Vinca and Datura.
Cuttings: Stem cuttings of Persian Shield, Morning Glory and Firespike will root in water with root hormone added.
Division: Kinsky divides many of the plants grown large in her garden in the fall. These include Ageratum, Mexican Blue Sage and Toad lily.
Layering: If nature has conspired to root an azalea branch or two in your yard, that's tip layering. This propagation plot to make more plants can be easily done with Azaleas, Carolina Jasmine and Forsythia as Kinsky demonstrated by scraping the plant's new growth branch, dipping it in hormone powder or liquid, and planting in rich soil.
February is seed-starting time for all plants that are to be set into the ground after March 15. It's been a mild winter so far. I've started seeds of arugula, machè and mustard outdoors in containers. The seeds were up in five days.
Now starts the annual battle with squirrels.