Master gardener prunes hibiscuses into tree form

08/17/2013 12:00 AM

08/17/2013 6:50 AM

Now this is the way to start seeds. Around mid-February, grab a glass of wine and a book. Lay the seed atop some potting soil and spritz. Sit down to read, and sip, and by the time you reach the third chapter – voila, the seed has germinated.

That is a bit of an exaggeration, local seed-starting legend Charlene Schneider acknowledges, as she describes how she starts hibiscus seeds. But when you see how the seeds become trees by summer, the overstatement of their quickness can’t be too far off.

“At the end of the season, those stalks will be 2 inches. They get with the program,” Charlene says of the Mahogany Splendor annual hibiscuses (Hibiscus acetosella) that she has trained up from seedlings. This is not the kind of hibiscus known for its taste-of-the-tropics flowers, but one that bears wine-colored foliage in the shape of maple leaves. Charlene prunes the hibiscuses into standards, or tree form. You can see them creating a charming ring-around-the-rosy outside the main entrance to the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road.

“They just go crazy,” Charlene says, and the hibiscuses respond to her “fearless pruning.” At home, she puts the hibiscus trees in pots, and they grow 6 feet tall. At the Extension Center, where she is a master gardener and head of the grounds committee, she decided to bring their magic to a round raised bed at the northwest entrance. One of the things that thrills Charlene about pruning the hibiscuses into tree form is that it makes room for other plants.

“They are such a nice standard plant; otherwise they’re a nice shrub. Who wants a nice shrub you can’t plant anything under?”

Indeed. The garden is all about layers. And under these little hibiscus trees at the Extension Center there are several: a similarly purple-leafed alternanthera (Joseph’s coat), red Fireworks ornamental grass (pennisetum setaceum), yellow-flowering Mayan Gold esperanza (Tecoma stans), and a fluffy, flowering skirt of Serena Lavender Pink and Serena White angelonia.

If you’ve been to Tomato Day or the Kansas Grown Farmers Market at the Extension Center, you know that the grounds look spectacular this year, from the plantings at the entrance to the hybrid-tea roses to the shrub roses to the arboretum to the demonstration garden to the riparian nature trail, east toward Sedgwick County Park.

The plantings are lush, varied and colorful. Many are marked with a name tag so you know what you’re looking at. This is an educational center, after all.

(Botanica is also bodacious after all the rain; take a trip over there if you haven’t been lately. And be sure to take a look at your own garden. When we finally got a nice day and I walked around mine, I was shocked at some of the growth and flowers that had been hidden.)

The hibiscus trees are sturdy but should be staked if they’re out in the open as they are at the Extension Center, Charlene says.

To get the plants to grow in tree form, Charlene waits until they are about a foot tall, and then she begins removing leaves off the bottom half of the main stem to create a trunk. When the plants reach 2 feet or so, “every time I snip underneath, I snip the top, too, to get them thick.”

Charlene gets the seeds from Harris Seeds, (She also likes to mail-order from Summer Hill Seeds, Swallowtail Garden Seeds and Hazzard’s Seeds, though the latter only sells in large quantities.)

When sowing seed, Charlene says it’s essential to pre-moisten the potting mix all the way through, in a container such as a bucket, just until it holds together when squeezed. Then, the seeds should be placed on top of the soil, then sprinkled with a bit of soil, rather than being stuck in a hole.

(Charlene and I share a preference for Fertilome Ultimate potting mix, which is harder and harder to find these days, and a dislike for Miracle-Gro, which is easier and easier to find, but “you can’t get it to wet down,” Charlene notes. She also uses the potting mix in the raised bed.)

Some pruning continues on the hibiscuses through the summer. The master gardeners are sure not to let the hibiscus tops get too heavy, because that could cause them to get ripped by the wind.

The plants will last into the fall a while, hardy down to about 40 degrees, Charlene says. I asked if it was hard to let them go, since they grow to small-tree proportions. Charlene says no, because they’re so darn easy to grow. We’ll drink to that.

About Annie Calovich

Annie writes about home and garden, including her Bit of Earth column on Saturdays. She has been at The Eagle since 1985, working as a copy editor, a nation/world editor and a reporter. She’s a KU graduate who started out at The Coffeyville Journal.

Contact Annie at 316-268-6596 or

Follow Annie on Twitter: @AnnieCalovich

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