Ask the Gardener

Giving gardenias a needed trim

CORRESPONDENTJune 11, 2011 

We have recently purchased a home with two gardenias that, while flowering nicely, are in dire need of cutting back. As near as I can tell, it has been a while since anything was done to them. When should I prune them and how far back can I cut? - Nancy Perry, Wendell

The best time to prune most gardenias is right after they have finished blooming, and don't wait, as these bushes get busy developing new buds for next year's flower show soon after their crop of blossoms fades.

As far as how much you can cut them back is concerned, established gardenias can take a lot of abuse from pruners, but I really wouldn't snip off more than a foot or two at any one time. Just keep in mind that the more you really whack away at these pretty bushes, the fewer limbs you leave and the fewer there will be to form new flowers, resulting in shrubs that might take a year or two to get back into proper bloom production.

Seeking purple hyacinth

I have a question about a vine called purple hyacinth bean. I had spotted this annual vine years ago, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I have been searching for this vine and no one knows what I'm talking about. Would you be able to tell me where I could purchase the plants or seeds for this beautiful vine? - Beth Robertson, Smithfield

No one knows what you are talking about? You must be gardening with the wrong crowd. Whether as starter plants or seeds, I usually don't have that big a problem spotting purple hyacinth bean ( Dolichos lablab) in quality garden centers and major home improvement outlets during the growing season.

Go and ye shall find by letting your fingers do the walking through the phone book. If you still come up empty, to make your hunt easier, Park Seed ( www.parkseed.com or 800-845-3369) has them available by mail order. In addition, after the pods dry, the beans can be easily shelled and stored for planting next spring. So if you ever run into friends who are growing this beauty, beg, borrow or trade for a few beans.

Avocado loses leaves

I have tried growing avocados indoors and out, but unfortunately, they get to a certain stage and then the leaves begin to fall off from the bottom up. So I have now been left with long stems with a few good conditioned leaves at the top of the plant. Can you advise me on how to care for my plants? - Kendra Smith, Chapel Hill

Quite frankly, I don't think you have been mean enough to your avocado plants. If you let them grow, grow, grow, they will only stretch, stretch, stretch. When the seedlings reach about a foot high, reward the small plants by cutting them back to half their height. Rather than killing the avocado-plants-to-be, this planned setback will encourage them to branch out rather than up, resulting in bushier plants. Also, remember these plants are sun lovers, so the more natural light you give them, the more leaves they will produce.

One more note: If you started your seeds in water, when the avocados again reach a foot tall after pruning, it is time to transplant them to containers filled with quality potting soil. When planting, only half of each seed should be buried below ground. If you count on leaving them in water much longer, they will leave their leaves on your counter.

Send questions to askthegardener@newsobserver.com.

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