The Girls: All About Tulip Magnolias

The yellow flowers of Forsythia bushes are blooming now so the Saucer Magnolias (tulip trees) will be next.  The Saucer Magnolia blooms in early spring and can sometimes be damaged by frost, resulting in fewer blooms or no blooms.

‘Ann’ Tulip Magnolia

In 1955 Dr. Francis de Vos a geneticist with the U.S. National Arboretum and in 1956 horticulturist William Kosar developed 8 new shrubby type saucer magnolias that bloomed later in the season in hopes of lessening frost damage and increasing blooms. 

These were known as the “Little Girl” magnolias and are the ones you find in most nurseries today.  (Ann, Betty, Jane, Judy, Pinkie, Randy, Ricki and Susan) They are smaller and more shrub-like than the standard Saucer Magnolia which can reach 25’.

The “girls” only grow to 15 feet tall and since they don’t form a dominant leader they are best left as oval shaped shrubs instead of trying to prune into trees.   The four most popular are ‘Ann’ (deep purple-pink), ‘Betty’ (pink-purple), ‘Susan’ (red-purple), and ‘Jane’ (light pink-purple). 

They will flower best when planted in full sun but will tolerate light afternoon shade.  Due to their smaller size they are an excellent accent plant in flower beds or as anchor plants in a widened bed at the corners of a house.

Pruning should be done after blooming but not after mid-summer.  The best time to fertilize is in the spring.  Well-drained soil is preferred.  The girls are slow growers so don’t expect them to gain more than a foot per year. 

Their blooms are a welcomed sight each year and signal that spring is almost here.  Even after their showy blooms have faded away the shrub is an attractive addition to your landscape.   

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Pruning Trees + Shrubs Series: Fruit Trees

Pruning fruit trees is different than pruning a shade or ornamental tree.  The goal is to develop the structure of the tree so that it can support the fruit and to open up the center of the tree so sunlight can penetrate to all of the fruit.


– The best time to prune mature fruit trees is in late winter before the tree begins to open its buds. 

– After planting a young tree

How to prune a mature tree:

– Start with removing any dead, damaged or diseased limbs.

– Cut any suckers growing from the base of the trunk.

– Remove “watersprouts” straight vertical branches within the tree.

– Prune branches back flush to the larger limb they’re growing from – don’t leave stubs.

Allow light into the tree by:

– Removing any downward growing branches

– Removing any branches that are growing to the center of the tree

– Removing branches that cross paths with another branch

– Stand back and look for places where multiple branches are competing with each other – prune all but the healthiest branch.

– Prune branches back flush to the larger limb they’re growing from – don’t leave stubs.

The last step is to head back your fruit tree.  Cutting off 20-30% of last year’s growth on each branch helps them become shorter and thicker.  The branches need to be strong to carry the weight of the ripening fruit. 

These cuts will be made part way up each branch.  Choose to make the cut ¼” above a bud that faces the direction you want a new branch to grow.

How to Prune a newly planted fruit tree:

Unless the tree has been tended and pruned during its lifetime it will be necessary to cut back the young tree when first planted.

Whips (Unbranched Trees)

– Prune the height of the whip to 28-36” tall. 

– After the new branches have grown 3-5” select what will become the central leader and the scaffold limbs (the main limbs of the tree) and remove all others.

Young branched trees

– Prune the tree in height by choosing the central leader and cutting it back by 1/3.

– Select the scaffold limbs and trim them in length.

– Remove unwanted limbs back to the trunk.

– Trim selective branches growing on the scaffold limbs so they are not overlapping or growing too closely together.

For a more in-depth description on how to prune specific fruits read The Art of Pruning Fruit Trees from Texas Gardener.

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Pruning Trees + Shrubs Series: Ornamental Trees

December and January are both good months to trim or prune ornamental trees.  The trees are in a dormant state and without the leaves it is much easier to identify which branches should be pruned.

Regardless of the type of tree you have there are some basic pruning techniques that apply to all. 

– Cut any broken, dead or deformed branches. 

Look at the bottom and inside of the tree – deadwood is prone to occur in shaded areas of a tree.

– Cut crossing branches

Look for branches that rub against each other or are removing the bark of a neighboring limb.  Determine which limb should stay and which should go. 

Cut crazy branches. 

Remove branches growing inward or straight up through the middle of the tree.

Thin parallel branches

When 2 or more branches are growing next to each other in the same direction remove 1 of them so the other can become a stronger limb.

Do not cut off tips. 

This results in unhealthy growth at the ends of limbs and creates an awkward look to the tree.

Step back and Look at the tree

Look at the tree from all sides and underneath.  I find it useful to have someone help when pruning – have them stand back and look at the tree to help you identify the best limbs to remove.  

Proper tools for pruning are bypass pruners, hand size and larger, tree saw hand held or pole variety for taller trees.

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Pruning Trees + Shrubs Series: Trimming Topiaries

The #1 question I’m asked about a topiary – “Is it hard to maintain them?”  The answer is not at all IF you don’t let it grow too much before giving it a trim. 

Let’s talk Juniper topiaries – spirals, pom-poms, poodles and patio trees.  Since junipers grow so slowly they are perfect for topiary designs.  Under normal conditions 2 trimmings per year will keep a juniper topiary looking neat.

Examine your topiary

Look for the original shape of the topiary and decide how much of the new growth needs to be cut off.  Do you want to trim the plant back to its original size and remove all new growth?  Would you like to increase the plants size?  If so, you will cut off less of the new growth but follow the pattern of the original shape.

Get to trimming

Start trimming your Juniper topiary from the top down.  Until you become comfortable with your cutting ability start with a light trim in a small section.  “More is not better“ when learning to trim.  It’s better to trim less and cut a second time to attain the look you envision rather than to cut too much off. Once you’re satisfied then trim the same amount off the rest of the plant.

If you accidentally cut too much, don’t worry.  Trimming a plant causes new growth to occur so it will fill in quickly.  Just like a not so good haircut – it grows out and you fix it.

What to trim with

I prefer using a bypass hand pruner or handheld clipping shears – with sharp blades.  Hedge trimmers or hedge shears are difficult to maneuver and make it difficult to cut properly from all angles.

Other topiary plants (except pines)

The same techniques will work on other species of plants used as topiaries.  Boxwood, Ligustrum, Fig Ivy, Rosemary, Holly, etc.  Keep your trimmers sharp, follow the lines of the original topiary shape, start at the top and work your way down and you can successfully trim any topiary.

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Pruning Trees + Shrubs Series: Abelias

Abelia are known for their gracefully arching branches that are covered with flowers from June to October.  Pruning abelia plants isn’t a necessity – you can allow them to grow freely.  However, pruning will keep your plant compact and neat looking.  Although there are many different varieties available there is no difference in pruning techniques.

The best time to prune Abelias is in late winter or early spring.  Their flowers are formed on new growth (newly grown branches), so you don’t have to worry about losing blooms by cutting branches at the correct time of the year. 

If you have an older abelia that needs rejuvenating, you can prune it to the ground or prune 1/3 of the oldest stems to the ground each year before spring growth begins.  Choose the tallest branches on the interior of the plant and continue pruning stems in a random pattern to keep the shrub natural-looking.  This will promote new, compact growth.

How and What to Prune

– Prune dead stems to the ground.

– If only part of the branch is dead, cut below the dead wood and just above a lateral branch or bud.

– Long, leggy stems called water spouts (we prefer crazy arms) can be pruned to the ground any time.

– Prune the tips of all branches to maintain an even look.

– Use hand pruners for stems less than ½” in diameter and lopping shears for larger branches.

After the threat of frost has passed apply a good granular fertilizer to your abelia making sure to water it in thoroughly.  This will promote new growth for later spring and into summer.

If we have a scorcher of a summer and your abelia looks “tired” in August or September, prune the tips of all the branches.  Once the temps drop out of the high 90s you will begin to see new growth appear and a happy, healthy plant full of new blooms that will last until the first frost. 

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