Gardening Tips: Bushes and Shrubs

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 13 May 2020.


What to do this week

This is the time for tending to bushes and shrubs, or perhaps dividing them, so let’s talk about that.

If you have lilac, or elderberry, currants of course, rose bushes very often (especially the rugosa roses) or anything that is sending up little clones of itself around the base, you might want to divide them.

Lilacs (Spectator photo)

Lilacs (Spectator photo)

These clones get further and further from the original mother plant and maybe they are getting out of hand, taking over your yard. So even though you love the bushes, it has just become a bit too much shrub for you. Or maybe you want some of that shrub in a different place in the garden, or you want to give some away.

Ideally, you would root prune the clone in the fall. You would cut it off from the mother, but leave it in place, only digging it up for replanting the following Spring. That way the two shocks don’t come too close together. But, if you didn’t remember in the fall, you can still do it now.

Take a good sharp spade. A round-tipped one will do but a square one is a bit more efficient for this job. You can even sharpen it with a sharpening stone before use. Use the spade to cut around the new shoot, between that shoot and the mother plant. Dig up as much of the root as you can around it.

You most likely won’t be able to dig up enough root to feed all of the top growth that the shoot has developed. So long as it is still connected to the mother plant, it is still being fed by it, so the new independent plant will need to be cut back to match its new limited root system. Leave a few good strong buds, but cut the rest back. The idea is to insure that the root you have been able to dig up is not working too hard to support too many leaves.

If you want to be extra careful with the new plant you can pot it up, and give it some love and care for a while, even for a year, before you plant it out in its permanent spot.

You are going to lose some of the new shoots you cut away this way — maybe the root wasn’t big enough, or the shock was just too much — so it is best to cut and prepare several new plants. Don’t rely on just one.

With the fruiting bushes, such as elderberry or currents, add lots of compost when you plant the clone. Fruiting is very expensive for a plant. It takes a lot of energy to fruit, so lots of food is needed. You will want to do this for your fruit-bearing bushes in general, the mother plants too. Put a good ring of rich compost around each plant, so that they give you another year of good fruit.

Bushes and shrubs don’t live as long as trees, generally, so if you have a main plant that is looking a bit tired, it is especially important to add compost. Another option, if the bush is perhaps getting to the end of its productive years, is to take it down, but first choose one of the young shoots that have been popping up. Leave it in place, and allow it to take over the spot. This way you will continue to have fruit for years to come.


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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.



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