Spirea: A Gardener's Guide

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I'm home sick from work today, so I thought I'd get some actual blogging done.  You could say I've been prepping this post for over two years, since that's how long I've been working on the three spireas in my backyard.

Spirea (a member of the rose family) are a deciduous, spring-flowering shrub native to the Northern Hemisphere.  It's been used in Southern gardens for over 100 years, and there are nearly 80 different species, with dozens of varieties in each species.  The most popular species here in the South seems to be the Vanhoutte Spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei), also known as bridal wreath spirea.  I grow a variety of Spiraea thunbergii, which is pictured above.  It's the same species my grandmother grows, which is where my mother got the plants in the first place.  Spirea is a hardy shrub that is one of the first to flower out in the spring.  Spirea typically come in pink or white and vary in size based on the variety.  Dwarf varieties can grow as low as one foot, whereas others can grow upwards of 10 feet tall!

Planted about 25 to 30 years ago, when I moved in, my three plants hadn't been properly pruned in about 20 years and looked like this:

This photo was taken in spring 2010, and yes, that's a nine-foot privacy fence next to those plants.  They were huge, out of control, and completely blocking the view of the backyard from the patio.  This is what happens when spirea aren't properly cared for.  Additionally, as you can see, there is a gap in the flowers near the middle of the plant.  That's because spirea bloom on last year's growth, and in the center of the plant, the growth is much older than that.  The older canes put out leaves (sometimes) but no blossoms.  That's why when you prune, you need to take out about 1/3 of the old canes each year.  That way, you encourage new growth near the center of the plant and end up with full, snowy waterfalls each spring.  Very pretty!

In my case, however, the plants had been mishapened by some idiot who wrapped wire around the plants for an unknown reason.  The easiest, but most drastic, thing to do to rehab my plants was a hard prune.  A hard prune is when you go in with your lopers and hack the plant down almost to the ground (about 3-5 inches up) while it is dormant.  Not all plants can tolerate this method, as it is very traumatic to the plant.  Spirea, however, are a very resilient old plant and can.  Thus, in December of 2010, I hard pruned the plants.  My mother was convinced I'd killed them.  In March of 2011, however, this is what came up:

New baby canes!  And yes, that was all that was left of those massive plants pictured above.  You can see the thicker stubs that I chopped up in December.  Like I said above, spirea bloom on last year's growth.  This meant that for 2011, I didn't have any blooms on my plants (because I'd cut off all the growth from 2010).  This year, however, I have this:

Since I did a hard prune in 2010, I didn't prune this past winter, but in December 2012, I will be going in to the center of the plant and cutting out about 1/3 of the old canes.  This way, the plants will stay nice and healthy and full of blooms for years to come!

Do any of you grow spirea in your garden?  If so, don't you just love it?

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