Timing Is Everything

I’ve heard it said a hundred times, “in life, timing is everything.” I believe this is true in life, love, and horticulture. Success or failure depends on it.

In my life, if I hadn’t met my love, Lori, when I was a 21-year-old, wide-eyed hippie working at Locker’s Floral and Greenhouse, I would have had a completely different life. You wouldn’t be reading these words right now because I wouldn’t be working at Johnson’s. It’s not unlike the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, only substitute Menomonee Falls for Bedford Falls.

If I had met Lori earlier, when I was a bit less outgoing, we probably wouldn’t have talked. I probably wouldn’t have met her later because I would have taken a job in Texas.

Timing is everything. Things have to happen at the right time to succeed. This is true in Horticulture as well. Success or failure is often determined more by when you do something, rather than how you do it. Pest control, plant propagation, B&B digging, fertilization, weed control, plant selection, and pruning are some of the horticultural activities that have critical timing components that need to be understood for success to be accomplished.

If one wants to control Birch Leaf Miner, by preventing the organism from feeding on the leaves of Paper Birch trees, you must kill them when they are in the young larva stage. Various pesticides will work but the key element is to spray them when they are in this most vulnerable stage. I have found phenological relationships (bloom times) to be the most useful tool to zero in on this time. In this case that would be when Spiraea x vanhouttei blooms. Some other indicators which would be blooming at the same time include Black Locust, (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Prairie Crabapple, (Malus ioensis). This type of Pest management information is available in a book, Coincide—The Orton System of Pest Management, published in the late 1980s. Timing is the key.

I have used phenological relationships to determine when I should begin propagating shrubs from softwood cuttings each year. I get the houses ready to stick cuttings when the French Hybrid Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) begin blooming. Once that is done, I assess the wood of the Redbud Crabapple (Malus x zumi ‘Calocarpa’) and Grefsheim Spirea (Spiraea x cinera ‘Grefsheim’) to see if it has hardened up enough to take. When the young Crabapple shoots have elongated to about 8” in length and snap when I bend them near their base, they are ready to go. With the Spirea, there should be a bit of brown wood at the base of the cuttings, indicating that the wood is just starting to lignify (get woody). We use the top part that is still soft. Success is closely linked to the timing and being able to measure the timing from one season to the next.

I’ve heard it said a hundred times, “in life, timing is everything”. I believe this is true in life, love, and horticulture. Success or failure depend…

Left: Hawthorns respond beautifully to dormant spring digging. | Right: Magnolias are best dug in spring before they leaf out.

Fertilizing at the right time can be critical to stimulating plant growth or disastrous if done at the wrong time. I have probably killed more plants, unintentionally, from fertilizing than any other way. My mistake has almost always been putting the wrong fertilizer in my containers too late in the growing season. Slow-release fertilizers are wonderful when used properly but if they are applied on a crop too late in the season they will not run out before going into polyhouses for the winter. This will often result in a buildup of salts in the media and will kill the roots of the plants. You can kill a lot of plants this way. I know. I’ve done it. You have to pay attention to the timing of when you apply fertilizers and how long they will last. Again, timing is critical.

Pruning is a somewhat anxious activity that takes years of observation to get good at. How you prune differs from species to species and oftentimes even between cultivars. When you prune can be critical as to what kind of responses you’ll get from your work. When we prune very young trees (2-to-5-year-olds) at the nursery, we do the bulk of the heavy pruning in April and May and gradually reduce the severity of the cuts until we pretty much stop by mid-July. In early spring, before they leaf out, we cut 3-year-old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) to a stub that is 1” to 2” tall. We select a single shoot that comes off the cut-back stub. We force that shoot up a stake to form the nice straight trunk that most of you want to see with your trees. We have to do this in the spring or we will not get the major push we need to develop a 4’ to 5’ tall trunk in one growing season. Those of you familiar with renewal pruning may notice that when you do this type of pruning on shrubs in early spring you get much quicker development than if you do it in late spring or later. It is the same timing concept we use for our young trees in the nursery. Timing your pruning to the best time rather than when you have time, can make you look good.

The best time to dig, B&B, Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is in spring before they leaf out and the ground conditions allow you to do it. Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Alders (Alnus sp.), Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana), Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana), and Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) are a few of the plants that should be moved at this time for best results. Some plants respond best if they are dug just as the buds are beginning to swell but before the leaves have expanded. Two of these are Hawthorns (Crataegus sp.) and Birches (Betula sp.). Some trees can be dug with excellent success in the fall after they color up until the ground freezes and again in spring before they leaf out. Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), and Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) are examples in this category. If you dig outside of these windows of time, the chances of transplant success decrease. This is why our nursery has 15 acres of irrigated holding yard. We can dig the material at the proper time and then hold it for you when the plants can no longer be freshly dug from the field. We pay close attention to the timing of our digging to make sure the plants suffer the least amount of stress.

Weed control success is oftentimes determined by the timing of the operations. The best results for controlling Canadian Thistle are by spraying them with post-emergent herbicides when they are in the bud stage just before flowering. One can kill burdock by digging them with a sharp spade just below the soil surface when they are in that same flower bud stage. Pre-emergent herbicide applications should be timed to be applied before the major weed germination periods in the early spring and again in mid-August. If you ignore these timing issues your weed control will likely be spotty at best.

I’ve heard it said a hundred times, “in life, timing is everything”. I believe this is true in life, love, and horticulture. Success or failure depend…

5’ to 7’ Japanese Tree Lilac liners are dug bareroot in early spring before they leaf out.

Selecting the best plants whether it is for new cultivars or a special landscape client can be done at certain times of the year. For instance, if I am looking for improved individuals of Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) with outstanding fall color, I need to be in the fields at the time they are coloring to make my selections. An arborist who is looking for trees for use as street trees will find it best to come out to Johnson’s Nursery’s fields in the winter so that he/she can select plants when they can easily see the branching structure to ensure excellent clearance in the future. Arborists typically want trees with very strong leaders that ascend quickly. If you are looking for ornamental crabapple trees that are scab-resistant, you can make your best choices by looking at the trees in the nursery in late summer when the scab organism is most prevalent. When you look at something is sometimes as important as what you are looking at. You are always welcome to tour our fields!

I could go on and on and on about timing and its importance in horticulture. It is, in my opinion, the single most important aspect of horticulture that one needs to understand to be successful.

For the 104th time, “timing is everything”. Learn about Johnson’s Nursery Harvest Windows & Dig Times.