by Jackie Carroll
Early spring flowering shrubs are one of the first signs of spring, bringing color and life to a dreary winter landscape. Plant them in groups to enjoy a changing display as each shrub flowers and fades in turn, or use them singly as specimen plants. Compact varieties are great for containers. Use fragrant shrubs on decks and patios where the fragrance will be appreciated the most.
Cane Shrubs (Forsythia, Buddleja alternifolia, Deutzia, Philadelphus)
Cane-growing shrubs are usually fountain-shaped. These shrubs can be quite graceful if left to grow naturally, and shortening the canes will destroy the shape of the shrub. Take it from someone who once thought she knew better than mother nature how a forsythia should be shaped -- it takes quite a while for the shrub to restore it's flowing shape.
Early cane-flowering shrubs produce flowers on shoots that grew during the previous year. Pruning them right after they bloom will give them the longest possible time to produce long, vigorous shoots for flowering. Remove old, weak branches at ground level, and prune out any dying shoots or branches that are taking off in awkward directions.
Evergreen Shrubs (azaleas, camellias)
Evergreens that flower in spring usually flower after the caning shrubs. These include azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Use a light touch when pruning these shrubs. Prune just enough to maintain the shape of the plant. As with the caning shrubs, they should be pruned right after they flower. Pruning later in the year will interrupt the developing buds.
If your evergreen shrub is hopelessly misshapen or has been neglected, you can cut it back to 12 to 18 inches from ground level. It will regrow, and you'll have a much more shapely shrub.
Deciduous Shrubs (Lilacs, some Magnolias)
Lilacs and similar evergreen shrubs flower on growth from both the current year and previous years, and need very little pruning. In late winter or spring you can remove wayward or crossing branches and any damaged limbs.
Layering is an easy way to propagate caning shrubs. You'll get best results with this method in the spring. The object is to get a piece of the stem of a plant to produce roots while still attached to the mother plant. When selecting a branch for layering, look for one that is at least a year old, flexible, and about as big around as a pencil.
First, bend a shoot down to the soil, then measure back about a foot from the tip. Mark the spot on the ground, and dig a hole 2-4 inches deep. The side of the hole toward the parent plant should slope toward the plant. Work several handfuls of compost into the soil.
Remove the leaves and sideshoots from the stem you have selected back to about 18 inches from the tip. Make a shallow, two-inch long cut in the stem about 9 inches from the tip. Place a toothpick inside the cut to hold it open. Dust the wound with rooting hormone, then lay it along the bottom of your hole, using a bent piece of wire to keep it in place. Fill in the hole with soil and water well. Once the stem has rooted it can be cut free of the mother plant.
If you're planning to share this shrub with a friend, you can layer it directly into a pot.
Azaleas, Camellias and Rhododendrons are a little trickier, and they are best started from cuttings in spring. Clean a pot that has several drainage holes with a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach, 9 parts water) then wash it well in soapy water. Fill the pot with a mix of equal volumes of sphagnum and perlite, and moisten the mix. Make holes for your cuttings by poking a pencil into the mix. Now it's time to take your cutting.
Remove any tender new tip growth from the end of a branch, then take a cutting that is between 1 and 6 inches long with a clean, sharp knife. To prepare the cutting, remove flower buds, seedpods, and all but the top 4-6 leaves. Trim off about 1/3 of each remaining leaf. Make a fresh cut at the bottom of the stem, cutting off only a sliver, then dip the cutting in a weak (10% or less) bleach solution and allow it to dry. Next, moisten the cut end and dip it in rooting hormone. Place your cuttings in the pot you have prepared, and cover the container with a plastic bag. Take care that the cuttings don't touch the sides of the bag. A few stakes placed in the pot around the cuttings should do the trick.
Place the cuttings under fluorescent lights, 8 inches from the light, for 16 hours per day. If fluorescent lights aren't available, place it in a sunny window and turn it regularly. If kept covered, the pot won't need to be watered very often. Rooting takes 6-8 weeks, or possibly longer. Be sure to harden off your plants before planting them out.
A Few Favorites:
Forsythia(Shown Above, left)
Forsythia bursts into a mass of yellow blooms in late winter or spring. Flowering is brief but spectacular. For early cut flowers, you can clip a few branches in late winter and force them into bloom indoors. It looks good in a woodland setting and can be used for espalier.
Daphne odora Winter daphne blooms in clusters of highly fragrant, light purple flowers in late winter or spring. The shrub is naturally globe-shaped, but light pruning after flowering is sometimes necessary to maintain shape. This is not a good plant to grow around small children since the bark and leaves are poisonous.
Viburnum These cranberry bush relatives produce fragrant flowers in spring and a profusion of colorful berries in fall. They need little pruning, and the foliage turns to a rich red in fall.
Camellias (shown at right)
Like azaleas, camellias need an acid soil, but if this need is met, they are relatively carefree. Flowers vary quite a bit in size, from 2-1/2 inches to 5 inches in diameter. Blooms vary in color from white to pink to red. They make an elegant border for a woodland area, or a good specimen plant. Though for the most part they are only hardy in zones 7-8, they grow well in containers and can be brought indoors for the winter in colder areas.
Lilac (shown top of page)
Lilacs add color and fragrance to the garden through most of the spring. The size of the different varieties varies enormously -- from 4-20 feet. If yours becomes overgrown you can simply cut if off at ground level and let it regrow. To have flowers every year, cut out the flowerheads as soon as the blossoms fade.
Chaenomeles japonica The very early white, pink or red flowers resemble apple blossoms. The flowers are followed by aromatic, greenish-yellow fruit that makes a tasty jelly. This shrub is great for training against a wall.
Azaleas (shown below)
These spring beauties are one of the most popular landscape shrubs to grace southern gardens. Azaleas are member of the Rhododendron family. In common usage, rhododendrons and azaleas are differentiated by the size and shape of the foliage, with the leaves of azaleas being smaller. Rhododendron leaves are longer and leathery, and rhododendrons thrive farther north than azaleas.