The Cox rhododendrons are beautiful in full bloom but now is the time to prune off the dead flowers. Photo by Leslie Cox

Duchess of Dirt: Unexpected May chill precedes June prune

Leslie Cox

Special to The Record

I freely admit. I was a wuss and turned up the thermostat recently.

It was only one day but cannot remember the last year I turned on the furnace in May. Looking back through my weather records it was probably in 2011. That was the year we had the record 50-year low on May 17.

According to my stats, our thermometer in the back garden read 1.5 degrees Celsius that morning. Sheesh.

Here’s the thing, though. If you are feeling chilly, you have to know your heat-loving vegetables and annuals will be shivering too. Tomatoes, especially, do not like cool temperatures. Combined with exposure to rain, overhead irrigation water and/or morning dew can set the stage for late blight on the fruit later in the season. Even the protection of a polytunnel or some such structure may not be enough if dew forms inside.

(Late blight, or phytophthora infestans, was responsible for the Irish potato famine in 1845; the reason one branch of my ancestors immigrated to Victoria from Cork.)

Keeping the leaves dry at this time of year is critical in avoiding infection later in the season from the blight sporangia. Make sure there is adequate spacing between plants – prune the leaves a bit, if you have to – and a good flow of air inside the polytunnel by raising the sides or in the greenhouse by having vents open. Tomatoes in pots on the deck or patio would benefit from protection under the eaves.

Carrying on… it is June prune time!

Fruit trees have all put on a spurt of new growth and this needs to be removed so the tree’s energy will go into the fruit. Be careful. Ladder work can be trickier now with the trees are in leaf and fruits developing. Always safety first. Stabilize your ladder, have someone spotting you and don’t reach out too far.

Now is also the time for pruning those early spring-flowering shrubs, like my Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’ (Mexican mock orange) and Osmanthus x burkwoodii (Burkwood’s sweet olive). These early flowering ones should never be pruned in late winter as they flower on last season’s growth.

I keep my ‘Aztec Pearl’ shrub in a rounded form, which suits my landscape design. The easiest way to achieve this is to hold my hedging shears upside down and start cutting. Once the shrub has been cut back to size I want, I then tidy up the pruning job with my secateurs, snipping to an outside leaf node. (Remember: never cut off more than a third of your shrub’s overall size.) When you have a lot of pruning to do, using the hedging shears saves some time because there is still the deadheading to do on the rhododendrons.

Yup. No end to tidying up after the spring floral display. And those spent rhodo flowers really should come off. Unfortunately, some of those clusters of stamens can be really sticky. I find using disposable gloves and slathering the fingertips with Vaseline works wonders. Just scoop up more Vaseline out of the jar when things get sticky again. (You may want to dedicate that jar of Vaseline to your gardening supply cupboard after this.)

Once you have wrapped up the June pruning and deadheading chores you can relax and enjoy the current floral show happening in your garden. But not me. I have discovered we have the apple ermine moth larva in our espaliered apple tree…along with one or two other species of leaf rollers. More on this later.

We’re open! But only on Saturdays through June, for now. Please email me at or phone 250-337-8051 for further details.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at

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