Gardening Blog

How not to commit ‘crape murder’ and other helpful hints for January gardeners

Camellia is often called the queen of the fall and winter garden because of the immense variety of blossom shapes, colors and sizes, and the many months during which they are produced.
Camellia is often called the queen of the fall and winter garden because of the immense variety of blossom shapes, colors and sizes, and the many months during which they are produced. Submitted

For gardeners, winter is the least demanding season of the year; however, there are tasks to be accomplished as we consider last year’s successes and plan for the busier months to come.

What can the vegetable gardener plant in January?

If you enjoy growing your own vegetables, this month is the time to plant vegetables such as asparagus, beets, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, garden peas and Irish potatoes. To produce an extended harvest period, plant each of the following repeatedly at two-week intervals: mustard, radish, spinach and turnip.

Should you prune shrubs now?

Generally speaking, no, but camellia and crape myrtle are two exceptions.

What should you keep in mind when pruning?

I caution against using power tools, which often produce ragged edges, resulting in an invitation to disease. Use clean, well-sharpened hand tools instead. Hand clippers and loppers should be used for small branches, and a curved pruning saw used for larger limbs. Wipe the blade frequently as you work. Aficionados recommend using alcohol wipes or a very diluted bleach solution in order to avoid the spread of infection.

How should camellia and crape myrtle be pruned?

Camellia is often called the queen of the fall and winter garden because of the immense variety of blossom shapes, colors and sizes, and the many months during which they are produced. The dark evergreen leaves are an added attraction. Most of the camellias that one sees in the Lowcountry are either in the Sasanqua or Japonica family of ornamental camellias. The former typically produce small leaves and many small blossoms from October through December. Their cousin, the Japonicas, typically blossom from the end of December into March, grow taller, have larger leaves and usually produce larger blossoms, but fewer of them.

If you want more flowers in your landscape, prune camellias right after blooming when the shrub is in dormancy and before the new growth begins. If cut flowers are more important to you, prune as you select blossoms to enjoy inside.

Be judicious when pruning. Hand pruners are usually sufficient. Remove dead wood, crossing branches and twiggy growth. Cut wayward branches and stems. Move away from the plant frequently to gauge whether your efforts are producing an overall balance. If your camellias are overgrown, impede foot traffic, or block views from the inside, consider contacting a professional to shape the plants properly.

The other shrub that is commonly pruned at this time of the year is crape myrtle. Everyone has heard of “crape murder,” where this shrub is severely cut back on a yearly basis to a few short branches. The result can resemble wooden poles sticking out of the ground for months until new growth provides camouflage. This occurs because the wrong-size crape myrtle was initially planted. Many gardeners do not realize that the shrub is available in several mature-size groupings: 1-3 feet, 3-6 feet, 5-12 feet, 10-20 feet and 20 feet plus.

Myriad colors are available in every size; thus, a crape myrtle is available for any sunny spot in the garden. Correct pruning yields gracefully shaped trees with blooms that are held upright on strong stems. Prune to create well-spaced main trunks and to thin out the center, thus allowing sunlight and air to penetrate the entire plant. Remove limbs and branches which rub against one another. Also remove suckers coming up from the base. Remove side branches growing from the main trunks to four feet or so. Remove higher branches which are growing inwardly towards the center of the shrub.

The Beaufort Council of Garden Clubs recently presented me with a copy of the latest edition of their book, “The Lowcountry Gardener.” I heartily recommend this resource to both casual and experienced gardeners. This soft-cover 68-page book covers, among other topics, fail-safe plants, herbs and other edibles, bulbs, native plants, weeds and basic gardening practices. The small book is easily portable as a reference when visiting nurseries and garden centers, and it is a great value at $5. It can be purchased at the following retail outlets in Beaufort: Rossignol, Sweet Bay, Buds and Blooms, and The Beaufort Visitor’s Center at The Arsenal. Proceeds from the sale are used to help fund the many charitable activities of the council.

Frank Edgerton is a Hilton Head Island resident, garden consultant and plantsman. He can be reached at fedgerton@hargray.com.

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