Implements of Destruction

In this mild winter, coupled with the heat island effect in Central Austin, very few of my perennials have actually frozen to the ground.  I could have titled this post, “To Prune Or Not To Prune?”   I’m flummoxed as I ponder what to cut back.  There are only a few plants that actually “died” to the ground with the limited cold that my personal garden has experienced this winter of 2011-12.

The Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is gone.

The Cuphea ‘David Verity’ (Cuphea x. ‘David Verity’) suffered some freeze damage early on which I’ve pruned and  it’s coming up bright and cheery.  I hope we don’t have a freeze now, because it won’t be bright and cheery anymore.

Here, another re-leafing Cuphea is accompanied by Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutelleria ovata sp. bracteata).  The Cuphea is the plant with the bright green leaves and the Heartleaf sports the scalloped, grey-green leaves.

A perennial Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos x. hybrida), is a stick, at the moment,

while the Lemon Rose Mallow (Hibiscus calyphyllus) thinks it’s time to start growing again.

The Leadwort Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) never died back completely.  Its leaves turned a lovely burgundy with suggestions of a more vibrant red here and there.

Lastly, the Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata), which is the bog plant in my pond, succumbed to the limited cold temperatures, but is beginning its growth very early this year.

The lilies in my pond have bloomed on and off, all “winter.” The Colorado Lily (Nymphaea) bloomed  beautifully this past week.

Even the Firebush (Hamelia patins), didn’t completely die to the roots this year.

Many of these plants are already leafing out as if it is spring.

Well, I guess it is, if they say so.

I’ve begun my hard winter pruning in earnest this past week.  I delayed as long as possible, hoping/fearing a hard freeze, but I can’t procrastinate any longer.  It’s time to sharpen the lopper, change the blade on the fabulous Felco hand pruner and then…. take the horrid ElectriDestructoPruner off of the shelf to which it is banned for most of the year.

My son thinks it’s “bad-ass”–his words, not mine.

I first used this creature last year after having developed severe tendonitis in both elbows during the winter/spring of 2010 because of the massive amount of manual pruning, trimming and cutting for the various gardens I tend.  Lest you think, ‘what a wimp’, I was in so much pain, for months, that I was concerned that I might have to stop gardening.  EEK!! (You can’t imagine just how many things a human being needs elbows for, until they hurt, hurt, hurt all the time.)  So I sought medical intervention  and eventually had about four months of physical therapy.  In time, the physical therapy repaired and strengthened the ligament overuse damage and I’m able to continue  the gardening I love.  The damage is  permanent and I still  use resistant bands for about an hour of home physical therapy every week and will do so for the rest of my life.  Gardeners beware!  You can hurt yourself with too much physical strain–overuse injuries are common for those who garden.  On a positive note, the physical therapist (yay, Debbie English!) at the Sports Center, was incredible and the entire staff is knowledgeable, warm and compassionate.

I used the Implement of Destruction to prune plants that are not too woody and thick and that don’t require sharp, precise cuts.  It’s electric, so other than holding it, it doesn’t require much muscle/ligament strain for me. I permanently borrowed it from my in-laws, who probably haven’t used it since about 1965–that’s how old it is.  It tends to shred a bit, so I can only use in on plants that can survive anything.  Fortunately, many of my plants are in that category.  I still use my excellent Felco hand pruners and Fiskar loppers for the plants that need to be pruned more carefully. But for things like Turk’s Cap,

Zexmenia (Zexmenia hispida),

Inland Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium),

as well as other tough plants, the Implement of Destruction is perfect–it’s quick and it doesn’t add much strain to my hand, wrists and elbows.  This Turk’s Cap mayhem took about five minutes to achieve.

It’s so much faster than hand pruning the stalks.  On the down side, I like a quieter, more serene and meditative gardening experience and the Implement of Destruction is noisy.  But, it saves my elbows and that’s worth a few minutes of noise pollution once or twice a year.

I’ve debated  cutting back certain things this year and I’ve decided (a hard freeze, notwithstanding) that I’m not going to prune everything that I normally prune.  I did decide to prune most of my Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus), although I fretted over it a bit.  I’ve not pruned them in a past mild winter and they bloomed well the following year.  But this year I’m giving in to my inner neat freak and pruning most of them to the ground.  I’m going to leave three groups in my front gardens un-pruned, just to see how they fare in the coming year with the drought predicted to last through 2012.  I’ll tidy a bit around the edges, but leave them mostly alone.

I’ve already pruned the Yellow Bells (Tacoma stans) although they were still green with some leaves,

and I’ll also prune the Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) and Orange Bells (Tacoma stans, sp.), to the ground.  I’ll prune the various salvias, ornamental grasses and all the Rock Rose (Pavonia laseopetala) to about 8-10 inches in the next week or so.

One of the biggest mistakes home gardeners make is that they’re shy about pruning back.  It’s true that some things, like Mexican Feather Grass  (Nassella tenuissima)
shouldn’t be pruned at all or other plants (roses of all sorts)  are pruned a certain way or at a certain time.  But for most herbaceous perennials, it really is best to cut to the ground, even in a year as mild as this.  
Sometimes, brutality is a good thing.

8 thoughts on “Implements of Destruction

  1. You are certainly getting those jobs done a lot faster with the electric shears. I get problems with my thumb joints when I do too much pruning but it does go away. I still have lots more pruning to do but I think maybe I will be taking a break tomorrow!!


  2. Someone’s been a busy gardener. I’m way behind on my pruning, but your plants look ready for spring. I’m also way behind on my weeding; got any cool implements of destruction for weeds?


  3. Blood, sweat and tears–wish there was some miracle cure for weeds. I’ve got ’em too and I need to tackle them or get my son to stay home long enough to pay him to tackle them. That’s a much better idea. Good luck with yours.


  4. I was wondering what to do with all of my plants that never froze this year. I had already decided to cut the Turk’s caps back to the ground, along with the Pride of Barbados and Yellow Bells. Wasn’t sure about the Firebush, my jungles of Lantana and all my Pentas that suffered some light freeze damage but are still blooming! Should everything be cut back low to the ground? Thanks.


    • Thanks for writing, Stacey. It is a weird year and I’m perplexed too. What I’ve decided is to cut back things like pavonia, most of the salvias and other ‘bloom on new wood’ perennials like I normally do, only a bit earlier (NOW!). I decided to trim the outer stems of my Turk’s caps to the ground, but only cut back the rest by about 1/3. I’ve experimented with that for individual strands of tc in the past and the bloom production doesn’t seem to be negatively affected. I think this will be a very dry year, so the tc won’t have to put lots of energy coming back from the ground. That said, tc is a tough plant and I
      don’t think it hurts to wack them to the ground, even in a year like this. I would probably still trim things like lantana, because of the size they reach during the growing season and just prune the parts that are freeze damaged on the pentas. Good luck!


  5. Thanks for all the useful information! I just recently started gardening and maintaining a landscape, it’s a lot more work than I had anticipated. However, I love it. I’m in Phoenix AZ and we had terrible frosts this year and my back yard looks like a dead wasteland. I have started pruning back a lot of the frost damage. I have many yellow bells, orange bells, lantana, and hibiscus which all look dead. Is cutting to the ground the best thing? What do you recommend for the hibiscus?


    • Hi Brenna and thanks for reading. I’d pay attention to your local weather forecast on the average last frost date in your area, (late February??). Once it’s reliably warm, then cut back the hibiscus. Hibiscus bloom with the warmth, so you’re less likely to suffer damage if you prune later, rather than earlier. One thing you might try with your landscape which will 1) lessen your workload overall, and 2) add some winter interest, is to plant evergreen and structural plants. I’m not a huge fan of cacti and agave, but they have their place (especially where you live). They don’t require pruning and you just have to make sure you give them space to grow. Yucca are also beautiful (I like those more here in Austin) and there are lots of varieties to choose from. Look online for your County Extension Agent’s list of appropriate plants for your area and visit your locally owned nurseries for the best choices. Good luck and have fun gardening!


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