“The spring breathes in the breezes,
The woods with wood-notes ring,
And all the budding hedgerows
Are fragrant of the spring.”
— Amy Levy, “A Dirge,” 1889
A dirge is a song or poem of grief, but this verse in Levy’s work is cheerful, and that’s the way I’ve been feeling this week about red-tipped photinia.
This hybrid, related to the rose and the apple, is a popular hedging shrub in my neighborhood, and every day the bushes seem to sprout a few more inches of fiery-red growth. The explosion of colorful foliage on street after street, along with all the other blooming flowers and trees, reminds me why spring is my favorite time of year.
Jerry and I have a dozen photinia shrubs lining the berm in our front yard. They were planted 5 years ago and have grown to 5-6 feet high, despite an incident a few years ago involving the shrubs, me and a bottle of fungicide on a hot day. That was not a good day for me, or for the photinias, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson: Don’t spray plants with fungicide on a hot day.
I also learned that photinias are pretty forgiving plants. After that setback, they’ve been growing several inches per year and look pretty healthy. Photinias love full sun, so the shrubs that are not partially shaded by my maple trees are taller and bushier. Photinias are also tolerant of different soils, even my high-clay soil, as long as the soil is amended with compost to add organic material and improve drainage. Photinias do not thrive in compacted or wet soil.
Once established, Photinias don’t need much water. They should be watered enough to keep the soil just slightly moist during the dry summer months. Like their relative, the rose, photinia bushes should be watered with drip irrigation within the root zone. Overhead sprays will encourage leaf spot, a common disease from a fungus (Entomosporium) that attacks the leaves and causes red or maroon circles and die off.
Drench and foliar fungicides can be applied to treat leaf spot; also remove and dispose of dead leaves to help prevent the disease from spreading. Providing adequate air circulation by pruning dead, weak and crossed inner branches will also help keep photinia shrubs healthy.
To fertilize, add a high-phosphorus fertilizer when planting photinia to support root development. I add compost every spring when I prune the plants after the sprays of cream-colored flowers have faded. Some gardeners say to use a balanced fertilizer once a month, but other than the compost, I let the plants and the soil tell me if they need an extra boost of nutrients.
Keep in mind that photinia can grow up to 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide, so space landscape shrubs accordingly. If the shrubs will be used as a screening hedge, space them about 5 feet apart and keep the tops pruned back to encourage bushy side growth. Lightly pruning the bush so the top portion is a bit narrower than the bottom will allow sun to reach the lower branches.
Photinia can be pruned from late winter through summer, but keep in mind that new growth attracts pests, and some gardeners say pruning triggers the leaf spot fungus, especially during wet spring days.
So far, however, my photinia have earned their reputation as an easy-growing shrub with few demands (other than laying off the fungicide on hot days). The flowers of a photinia hedge are not fragrant, as Amy Levy wrote about the hedgerows in her poem; in fact, some people say photinia flowers are downright stinky. Yet the red-tipped photinia, reaching out to embrace the spring, is a cheerful sight all the same.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.