Thursday, May 5, 2011

very like a dogwood

On Monday I started pruning our big white single-flowered azalea. This is doubly a labor of love: I love the azalea and I love pruning.

It's been unseasonably hot this week, so Monday's azalea pruning took place early in the morning. A late afternoon session yesterday and another early morning session tomorrow may not suffice to finish this ritualistic project, but I should be able to wrap it up on Sunday along with celebrating Mothers Day.

Some people take chain saws or hedge trimmers to their azaleas, quickly creating a clumpy mass of foliage frosted with an outside layer of blossoms. Others remove only the dead blossoms, resulting in uneven growth at the plant's surface and a tangled mass of twigs underneath.

I subscribe to the principle that removing one third of a mature shrub's twigs and branches each year will maintain its ideal size and health. A height of five feet seems just right to balance with other specimen plants while not overpowering the surrounding annuals, I also favor maintaining an "open" shape.

Starting at ground level with loppers and shears and, occasionally, a pruning saw, I approach each branch separately. First, all downward-facing growth is lopped off, then anything that threatens to crisscross with another branch. Finally, the new growth, already extending four inches or so above this year's blossoms, is thinned to encourage spreading rather than clumping. Along the way, all old flowers are removed.

My labors are rewarded by a long flowering season. On February 27 of this year, I reported that the azalea was blooming, and on March 17 that it was covered with blossoms. Indeed, there are a few flowers hanging on, even on branches that have been subjected to my surgical attention. These I will 'dead-head' as they fade.

Several years ago, a neighbor from across the street complimented me on what he took to be a dogwood growing in our front garden. As dogwoods will not grow in this temperate climate, I considered this to be high praise. Who can forget coming upon a dogwood tree in the woods? Its graceful open shape displays individual white blossoms in stunning contrast to the background of dark evergreens.

We had a small dogwood tree in our Pennsylvania front yard, and my azalea obsession may be an attempt to recreate its springtime burst of white blossoms.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License