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On Gardening: Cutting your plants back is really a pinch of love

Years of preparation for the Fall Flower & Garden Fest, Mississippi State University's huge horticultural event in Crystal Springs, Miss., taught me the value of pinching and cutting back herbaceous plant material.

We would always count back 6 to 7 weeks before the event and usually cut plants including roses back by at least 50%. Invariably many of the 6,000 plus visitors would catch me and ask how in the world we kept the flowers blooming all summer until the first fall freeze.

As I have gotten older, I've become either soft or more-timid, when it comes to cutting back hard. My Son James the Color Design Guru has taken up the mantle of being the 'Attila the Hun' of cutting plants back. He shows no mercy and will cut back whenever he doesn't like the size, appearance, or perhaps has a pest attacking that he wants to remove from the planting area.

Consequently, he has Superbells calibrachoa, Supertunia petunias, and Superbena verbenas rocking as we head toward mid-September and find ourselves praying for a Polar Vortex.

This column goes all over the nation so pinching back or pruning may not apply to your area at this time, but it was 6 weeks ago. Typically, we get busy with little league, soccer, back to school, and football and forget to give a pinch of love to those blooms developing.

A pinch of love is exactly that, pinching, pruning, or clipping, all terms we often use to describe deadheading. Sometimes our perennials and even shrubs are a lot like parents; they divert energy into taking care of offspring, in this case, unwanted seeds.

I've mentioned several flowers above but consider also those that are spiky like salvias. These are the flowers we all need in the garden; they rise above the imaginary horizontal plane and create excitement in the landscape. When the flower is finished it not only looks worn and tacky but many go into seed production mode. By deadheading spent flowers, we will make sure the hummingbirds stay the entire season. Son James cuts them back extremely hard in preparation for fall.

Lantana, the butterfly champions of the garden, also appreciates cutting back. Whether you use them as perennials in the South or annuals in the North they are the workhorses of the summer garden. Sometimes, they too, just get tired, hot and go into a down cycle and cutting hard will revitalize growth and an uncountable number of blooms as we head to fall.

The Garden Guy has a half dozen varieties of Echinacea or coneflowers that have been blooming all summer but looked like they needed a boost. So, I cut them back to good foliage gave them a shot of controlled-release fertilizer and they are budding up for a great fall bloom and peak butterfly season.

You might think fertilizer and water alone are enough to keep new growth and blooms going continuously, but most often it's not. Cutting back by at least a third to fresh green leaves and giving a little slow-release fertilizer and supplemental water will trigger new growth and more blooms for late summer and fall.

It is a pinch of love, sometimes done by hand, other times with a pair of shears. The result is the flower garden of your dreams being enjoyed not only by you but by visiting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds too.

(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)

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