Please do your research

Aspidistra after a long winter. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

The longer I garden, the less I know about plants—it really is that simple.

I realize how slack I have become in researching those plants I have in the garden. In fact, if you garden (and I trust you do if you’re reading this), you’ll soon realize there is more to it  than just placing the plants in the soil. It’s so important to learn the individual habits of plants. As with people, there is a tremendous difference in their growth patterns.

I have had several Aspidistras for well over fifteen years so I knew that they displayed winter-worn leaves at this time of year. However, I just learned that this evergreen perennial grows one-third of its leaves on a yearly basis. This explains why some leaves are old and blemished whereas others are still fresh as a daisy. Not only does this tell us we shouldn’t shear back all the leaves in one scoop, it also indicates each winter-weary leaf should be individually cut.

But wait! The new leaves appear in June, somewhat late on the perennial schedule so don’t perform your surgery until well after the suggestion of a late frost. It is best to wait to cut back the three-year-old leaves until a hint of new foliage is peeking through. It’s a miracle my cast iron plants have survived my grooming techniques — but, of course, there is a reason for the common name of this plant.

If you wish to kill a hellebore, by all means cut off its leaves in the summer. Otherwise, if you are of a mind to preserve it, cut off all the mature leaves that are lying flat on the ground as soon as the flowers rise above the leaves, sometime in March.

I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating. All camellias set bud in May or June. If you prune them at the beginning of summer or in the fall, you’re cutting off all the future flowers. Prune camellias after they have finished blooming, just after they have put out their first flush of foliage.

Rosa ‘Tausendschon’ in its new trellis. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Some roses (mainly hybrid teas) take off quickly whereas others just sit around, assuring you that nothing is happening—above ground. Relax, you aren’t doing anything incorrectly. Some roses insist on putting down a good root system before demonstrating top growth. An example of this is the rose variety I bought from Plant Delights last spring. ‘Tausendschon’ is stirring this year and is on a short (5 foot) trellis that will have to be changed for a larger one as she’s destined to grow 12 feet eventually.

Why didn’t I start off with 12-foot trellises when I knew this 100-year-old rose would eventually grow to splendid heights? I realized that it would be three years before she took off and a 12-foot trellis when placed next to a foot high rose that’s going nowhere looks a bit silly. Instead, I bought short trellises that could be transferred to other plants when the time came and the rose had outgrown its support.

It’s always a bit confusing to know when to divide a plant or when to prune it. While carexes should wait until winter for division, daylilies can be divided at any time during their growing season; provided they get watered, they will sail through, blissfully ignorant that they have been mauled and mistreated.

The hardy orchid Bletilla striata can be a frustrating plant here as it arrives in March, eager to flower. However, for two years in a row, March has sent frost to us. This year the 28° temperatures didn’t affect Lady Banks but it caused frost burn on many of the bletillas, thereby affecting the flowers.

Rummaging through various garden catalogs, I realized that not all bletillas want to bloom in March, that many are happy blooming in May and June. My advice is to add to your bletilla collection by all means—but search out the later blooming varieties. You’ll be glad you did.

Generally, I follow the rule of pruning right after flowering (camellias and hydrangeas) but then we wait until dormancy to prune the crepemyrtles (please note: this is not the genocidal ‘crape murder,” but this is a gentle pruning to give the limbs strength to hold their heavy blossoms erect). However, cut back Lantana ‘Miss Huff’ in the middle of winter at its own peril; the hollow stems allow water to pour down to the roots at a time of dormancy. Instead, only cut back the dead stems when you see the new growth emerging from the ground.

There is a lot of information available at your fingertips on the Internet. Generally, any “edu” websites are full of accurate information. We also are fortunate to have an informative website at NCSU.

Just remember that plants are like individuals with their own preferences and peeves. For a successful garden, it behooves you to do your research. After all, you wouldn’t serve fish to someone who was violently allergic to fish, now would you?

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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1 Comment on "Please do your research"

  1. Esrher McCubbin | April 20, 2023 at 8:37 am | Reply

    I wish you had an article in Sarasota. Grdening is sooo different here.

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