HG: Homegrown Column May 02, 2009

I’m hoping you can answer a question for me. We have three honeysuckle vines that are about 20 years old. They are getting very leggy and spindly. I’ve tried pruning, but that only makes the tops bushier.
Can I cut them way back this spring (about 12 inches)? I would really like them to fill in more, but don’t want to kill them.
Thanks for any advice.
— Mik

You’re right about needing to cut the honeysuckles back farther than you have been doing.

There are a couple of ways to go about this.

The first is to cut the whole plant way back as you’re contemplating. This will have the effect of “recreating” the entire plant.

The down side to it is that there’s a bit of a risk to cutting the plant back that far. Removing that much growth at one time is stressful to the plant.

Most of the plant’s reserves of stored water and carbohydrates are in the stems (not in the roots as many people believe) and depriving the plant of those resources can weaken and even kill the plant.

Losing the plant is rare, but it does happen. Most commonly the plant is weakened and just takes longer to get back on its feet.

The second choice, which I prefer, is to cut the plant back but to steer a more moderate path.

What I mean is cut some stems back hard, but leave others longer.

Honeysuckles will usually have several stems growing up to form the plant. Cut maybe a third of them down to 12 to 24 inches from the ground. These will help fill in the plant lower down.

Choose another third to leave fairly long. Cut them back only by a foot or so or prune them back to the top of the trellis or fence that they’re growing on.

Cut the last third back to about halfway between the first two groups.

Doing it this way will reduce the stress on the plant. It also keeps the plant taller so you’re not starting completely over but still should encourage side shoots to sprout out that will fill the plant in for you.

I always appreciate your expert help, so I’m wondering if you can give me some advice about my dwarf mugo pine. The needles on the top of each branch are brown. The mugo was in a fairly large snowdrift most of the winter, but the top was always clear. I moved some of the snow away from the base late this winter, and noticed then that the tops of the branches were brown. I’m fairly certain it got enough moisture from the snow.
What could have caused this, and what can I now do to correct the problem? Thanks for any help you can give me.
— Leah

Well, there may be a couple of things going on.

It’s not unusual for the needles of mugo pines to turn a brownish-yellow over the winter, especially on the tips. This is a normal process that the species goes through and the extent of it can vary from one to another. The needles will green up as the plant breaks dormancy.

The second reason is due to desiccation, or water loss from the needle. This isn’t all that uncommon in evergreens, and it can be caused by one or both of two things.

First is that the soil just dries out a bit too much in the winter.

It surprises a lot of people that drought will damage a plant in January just as it can in July. I doubt that is the case with your plant since it was covered with snow most of the winter, unless it was drought-stressed before the snow started accumulating in December.

Actually, a lot of “winter” drought damage occurs in November. We’ve lost our ditch water and have stopped watering, but it is probably the warmest month of this non-watering period (and
it certainly was last year).

Most people aren’t thinking about winter watering that time of year because, well, it’s not winter yet.

The second cause of this is simple loss of moisture out of the needles when the bright winter sun beats on them.

Certainly, these plants are built to withstand this to an extent, but our bright sun, high elevation and low humidity can be more than the plant can deal with.

Either way, I wouldn’t be too concerned with this problem. The tips of the needles turn brown, but the stems and buds are still viable and your mugo pine will push out new growth a bit later on this spring.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, online at http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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