Ask the gardening expert



A person asked me if I could prune back a hydrangea that has gotten too big. I told her that you cannot keep a large shrub small by pruning every year. If I cut it back, it will just grow to its pre-determined size each growing season.

She then spoke of her camellia and there I was completely lost. What can I tell her?

You are pretty much right on the hydrangea. It will try to be the size its breeding dictates. She would be better off moving this one, and having a nursery help her choose one that is suitable in size for the location. Since it was so dry in late summer and early fall, she might wait until the rains come and the plant loses it leaves and is in its dormant state to move it.

The camellia is a more challenging question. Camellias have a huge range of bloom times. Some bloom in fall, early winter, and others into spring, while some are all over the calendar. Why do they feel it needs pruning? Is it too big? If so, it’s in the wrong place. Since they are evergreen, it’s not so easy to decide when to move it. Move it after the steady rains come — and after its bloom has finished. Whacking back any plant for size — if that’s the issue — is never a good idea.

The best time to prune any blooming shrub is just after the plant finishes blooming but before bud break. This is the standard, but there are times when a person needs to make a change in the landscape, so plants get moved at inappropriate times through necessity. You may have to resign yourself to miss the next year’s bloom period. Be sure to keep transplanted plants well watered for several years until they are well established.

My landscape plants look awful due to lack of water; I’m worried especially for the new ones. Will there be some lingering damage since we’ve decided it costs too much to water? We’ll wait for rain; our water bill is already too high.

I would expect to see some damage, and some shrubs and small trees may not survive into winter. If the plants die, you need to be thinking of the replacement costs — just how much money will it take to replace all the plants that died to save on my water bill.

As I’ve said before, plants added to the landscape within the last year needed attention all through the summer and early fall. Even some older trees could not survive without water as well. This is when a small sprinkler kept low to cover a root span could save a plant.

Here is a piece I found on the Internet that makes sense to me.

It’s from Walter Reeves who calls himself a Georgia gardener:

“Plants must have water to survive. Water in a plant is like blood in an animal. Water carries dissolved nutrients, sugars and hormones throughout the plant’s system. Some plants can go for long periods receiving only minimal water. Others require water every day.

“… During drought or watering restrictions, consider the replacement cost of the plants in the landscape and do what you can to save the most valuable plants.”

• Hand-watering

When watering is restricted, selectively hand-water shrubs showing drought stress. The direct application of water to the base of the plant, provided it is slow enough to be absorbed by the soil, uses less water and is more efficient than sprinkler irrigation.

To reduce runoff when using the hand-held hose, use a water wand or other nozzle that divides the spray into rain-size droplets. Some nozzles have built-in spray pattern adjustments.

Small shrubs (less than 4 feet in height) get 1 minute or about five gallons.

For larger shrubs (4 feet and up) increase the watering time by 15 seconds for each foot of height exceeding 4 feet. Example: an 8-foot-tall shrub needs 2 minutes of watering or about 10 gallons.

If runoff occurs before you have applied the correct amount of water, move on to another spot and come back after the water has soaked in.

• Soaker hose

A soaker hose can effectively water a swath one foot wide on either side of the hose. A 50 foot long hose can water 100 square feet of flower bed. Apply 50 gallons of water per 100 square feet when plants show water stress.

We have a tree that hasn’t produced many flowers over the past couple of spring seasons. I believe it’s a dogwood and it’s rather thick. Its limbs are now growing so low that we have to duck beneath it. Would pruning it back help the blossoms return? When is the ideal time to prune a tree?”

I don’t think pruning will help it bloom, It may not even be a dogwood tree, so whatever it is may not have a significant bloom, either way it may not have not enough sunshine to bring it into a bloom. Most all trees need sun in order to bloom, a dogwood certainly would need sun. Trim it now, since we are not too sure what it is, and when would it bloom. I do think limbing it up will improve your yard, no one should have to dodge their landscape plants. Trimming up will allow more sunshine to come into the yard, and who knows- maybe the tree will put out a few blooms in the next year or two.

Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to