#TeachingTuesday: Cephalotaxus, Japanese Plum Yew

Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Pedunculata’
Photo credit: Maryann Debski
JCRA Photo Collection

Today our crews reviewed an interesting evergreen shrub, Cephalotaxus harringtonia, or the Japanese plum yew. Although it has a similar name and similar appearance, it is not the same thing as true yews, which are in the Taxus genus. These shrubs are much more tolerant of the hot, humid summers of the south than the English and Japanese Taxus species. They are also shade tolerant and deer resistant, so all they really need is some protection from drying winter winds and a well-drained site.

Japanese plum yews are highly valued for their deep green evergreen foliage and slow growth rate, meaning they are very low maintenance. It’s hard to name another evergreen shrub so versatile. Their graceful arching branches need not be pruned much at all, and there are several cultivars that exhibit specific growth habits for different applications, such as ‘Prostrata’ for a low, spreading shrub or ‘Fastigiata’ for an upright columnar shrub, great for low- to medium-height hedges. ‘Duke Gardens’ is another well-known cultivar, developed right here in NC at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham (420 Anderson St, Durham, NC 27708). You can see the original plants in the Terraces above the koi pond. To see a collection of several different types of Cephalotaxus, visit the JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State (4415 Beryl Rd, Raleigh, NC 27606).

ID Tips

  • The leaves are long, flat, and linear with pointed tips, arranged spirally around the stems, in two planes, forming a distinct V-shaped trough.
  • On C. harringtonia ‘Fastigiata,’ rather than appearing in two flat planes, the leaves along the stem will show a bottlebrush effect, and will start small, and gradually get larger, then become small again and repeat.
  • On the underside of the leaves, there are two grayish bands.
  • These shrubs do not produce cones, but rather “arils” which are naked seeds, an evolutionary step between cones and actual fruit. There is a fleshy covering over the seed that is open at the bottom, and is shaped somewhat like an olive and is brown to reddish brown in color.
  • The arils and leaves are toxic if ingested, but are safe to handle.
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Duke Gardens’
Photo credit: Mark Weathington
JCRA Photo Collection

#TeachingTuesday: Peonies!

Paeonia lactiflora
Photo credit: Debra Singer-Harter
JCRA Photo Collection

What gorgeous weather we had today, after all those storms on Monday! Today we reviewed one of the showiest garden plants with our crews, the peony (Paeonia sp.). Peonies bloom in mid- to late spring, and winter chilling is required in order for them to bloom, so they do not perform well in the deep south. Luckily in NC, we tend to get more chilling hours than many other southern states. Peonies can be very long-lived, and may be passed down like family heirlooms through generations of gardeners. I (Caitlin) knew a lady in Alexandria, VA, who said that her peony was over 113 years old, and had been passed down by her great grandmother. What a beautiful way to keep memories alive.

Peonies are generally used as flowering specimens in borders, perennial gardens, and cut flower gardens. For optimal growth, they require at least 6 hours of sun exposure and a well-drained soil. Botrytis blight and leaf blotch are the most common disease problems, so make sure there is adequate air circulation around your plants to help prevent these fungal infections. Japanese beetles or scale insects can sometimes cause issues as well. You may notice ants on your peonies because they are attracted to the sap excreted by the flower buds, but they will not damage the plants.

Maintenance Tips

  • Fertilize peonies in the spring when stems are 2-3 inches high, using a low nitrogen complete fertilizer. 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 would be appropriate choices.
  • Peonies are sensitive and easily burned, so do not allow fertilizer or uncomposted manure to come in contact with the plant stems.
  • Remove seed heads after flowering is finished to encourage large flowers the next year.
  • Understand the difference between tree peonies and herbaceous peonies. Herbaceous peonies go dormant in the winter and grow back from an underground crown, but tree peonies are shrubs. Herbaceous peonies can be cut back in the winter, but NEVER cut back a tree peony–it won’t grow back.
Paeonia suffruticosa ‘Shimadajin’
Photo credit: Maryann

Why isn’t my peony blooming?

There are many factors that may prevent a peony from blooming. Investigate to see which of the problems listed below might be causing the problem in your case.

  • The crown may be planted too deeply. The tips of the eyes (dormant buds) should be no deeper than 1 inch below the soil surface. Carefully dig up and replant at a shallower depth during late fall.
  • The plant may be too young. Peonies don’t generally bloom for at least the first three years after planting. Be patient!
  • The plant may have received too much nitrogen, which stimulates vegetative growth at the expense of floral production. Stop fertilizing for a year or two, and make sure you are using a low nitrogen fertilizer (the first number should 5 or less), and that you are applying the correct rate.
  • The plant may be located in an area that is too shady. Make sure the plant is getting at least 6 hours of full sunlight per day during the growing season, or move it to a new location in late fall.
  • If the peony is too crowded, it may not bloom. Make sure there is an adequate amount of space, or you may need to do some transplanting.
  • Nutrient deficiency can also cause a peony to not flower, but if this was the problem there would likely be other signs too, such as discoloration of the foliage (yellowing or reddening). Low nitrogen fertilizer or compost would solve the problem.
  • Insect or disease pressure could cause a peony to not flower, or in the case of Botrytis, the flower buds may drop off without opening. You will see clear signs if this is the problem. Make sure there is adequate air circulation around the plant.
  • Late freezes can kill the immature flower buds. Cover your plants in the afternoon or early evening to trap warm air before a late freeze is predicted, and take off the covers first things in the morning (large sheets work well for this).
Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ – Emerging in spring
Paeonia ‘Bartzella’ – In full bloom
Photo credit: Susan Baily
JCRA Photo Collection

#TeachingTuesday: Fuquay Varina High School Field Trip

Well it’s day late, but we wanted to share for #TeachingTuesday about the field trip we hosted for Fuquay Varina High School last Thursday! Ms. Moore brought a group of students from her Hort II/Honors class to learn about our company and the landscape industry as whole, as well as tour our facility and do some hands-on activities.

Scott (President), Herbie (Installation Manager), and I (Caitlin, Recruiting Specialist and Company Ambassador) started things off by introducing ourselves and talking about the business and how we each contribute our skills. It was a particularly meaningful group for Scott to speak with, since he is a FVHS graduate himself! This group of students was the most engaged we have ever had. They asked so many insightful questions, such as what our biggest failures were and how we came back from them, how Scott decided he wanted to start his own business and how he was able to build a client base, what was a company goal that we have not achieved yet, and much more.

After that, Blake (Operations Specialist) took the students on a quick tour of the shop and the yard, ending in our equipment storage area, where we had some activities set up. First, the students put together their own planters with summer annuals to take home (with Mother’s Day right around the corner, many students mentioned they planned to give away their planters to their mothers).

Next, we had a paver laying competition! Ms. Moore broke the students into two groups, and they each battled to be the first to fill a 5′ x 5′ square with a random pattern using 4 different-sized paver types. Here’s the catch:

  • No two pavers of the same size could be placed side-by-side
  • Joints could not exceed 38″ in length

Through this activity, students naturally gained experience in teamwork and problem-solving, but they also learned practical industry knowledge, such as the definition of a “joint” in hardscaping, and why keeping the length short is important.

Scott gives some tips on the layout.
The winning team!
So close! Only a few blocks left.

After we all ate lunch together (sandwiches from Bagels Plus!), we talked a little bit about different job opportunities for high school students within our company, and gave out frisbees to everyone. One of the students (Sydney) actually worked with our floriculture division last summer, and two of the other students (Clarissa and Lexi) just started working with us yesterday, helping organize flower orders after school. We love supporting Fuquay Varina High School students! Go Bengals!

#TeachingTuesday: Boxwoods

Boxwoods are one of the most ubiquitous shrubs in the American garden. They have been popular for centuries throughout Europe and the US, because they are so versatile; boxwoods can be pruned into elaborate topiaries, sheared into formal hedges, or allowed to grow naturally as elegant evergreen accents in the landscape. There are several varieties of boxwood–multiple species, hybrids, and cultivars within those groups, but they all share similarities. Today we’re going to touch on proper pruning techniques, a threatening new disease to watch out for, and identification tips for the most common types of boxwood.

Large natural boxwoods in the landscape.
Photo credit: Herbie Champion

Pruning Tips

There are two main methods of pruning to use with boxwoods: thinning and shearing. Thinning is important for maintaining the health of all boxwoods, while shearing is used to sculpt the shrubs into a desired shape, which is purely a personal choice, and may look rather artistic (or horrifying if done poorly!). In addition, shearing without ever thinning can cause a lot of issues both for the health and appearance of boxwoods.

Thinning only needs to be done once a year in the spring, after the cold weather ends but before the shrubs are fully leafed out, usually between mid-February to May 1st, depending on your location. In coastal South Carolina, pruning could begin earlier, while residents in the mountains of North Carolina will want to wait as late as possible.

Thinning involves removing branches evenly all over the shrub to increase light penetration and air circulation within the center of the shrub. Essentially, leaves will not grow where there is no light, because it’s a waste of the plant’s energy. But it’s important to encourage growth in the interior, because the more leaves a plant has, the more food it can produce for itself, and therefore the more it will be able to grow and the healthier it will be. Additionally, poor air circulation encourages fungal diseases and insect infestation, so keeping a more open interior will help reduce pest and disease issues. To determine if your boxwoods need to be thinned, try parting the branches. If the shrub is so dense that it’s difficult to part the branches and look into the interior, you definitely need to thin. If when you part the branches, you see green growth only on the last few inches of each branch, you definitely need to thin. When you become more familiar with the process, you will be able to tell just by brushing your fingers over a boxwood specifically where it needs to be thinned.

To thin, just remove select branches, going deep into the interior of the shrub. A good rule of thumb is to only remove sections that are the length of the green growth. For example, if there are leaves going back about 8 inches on a branch, then remove 8″ sections in little pockets all over the top and sides of the shrub. It should look looser and even all over.

For more details about thinning, check out this article.

Shearing is done to shape formal hedges and create topiaries. It is done purely for aesthetic reasons, and does not improve the health of the plant in any way, and when done incorrectly, can be harmful to the plant. When shearing, be careful not to remove too much at once, especially if the shrubs have not been thinned, or you will end up with a brown twiggy skeleton of a shrub. In order to maintain tight formal hedges, they may need to be sheared a few times during the growing season. Make sure to thin the shrubs in the spring before vigorous growth begins, and avoid shearing during very hot periods. Shearing will encourage new growth, which will stress the plant during high temperatures.

To see some amazing, world-famous topiaries, check out Pearl Fryer’s garden in Bishopville, South Carolina. It’s open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-4pm, year round. There is no entrance fee, but donations are encouraged. The collection includes boxwoods, but also a multitude of other species.

Boxwood Blight

Boxwood Blight is a fairly new fungal disease with the potential to wipe out boxwood populations on the east coast. It’s currently in Pennsylvania and other northern states, but could move to NC and SC. You can read in-depth information here, in a publication by NC State. Avoid bringing this disease to your property by only buying boxwoods from reputable sources and disposing of boxwood products such as live wreaths or stems from floral arrangements in the trash, and not in your compost.

Boxwood hedges can form lovely backdrops for other showier plants, such as annual flower plantings.
Photo credit: Misael Gonzalez

ID Tips

  • Most people are familiar with boxwoods, which are evergreen and have small leaves, with no prickles, thorns, or cones.
  • Boxwoods are most often confused with Japanese holly, which is also evergreen with no prickles, and has leaves of a similar size and shape. A simple feature to tell boxwoods and hollies apart is the leaf arrangement: boxwoods will always have leaves in opposite pairs, while the leaves of hollies will always alternate along the stems.
  • Boxwood leaves have smooth edges, while Japanese holly leaves have “crenate margins”, meaning the edges are scalloped.
  • What is the difference between English, American, Japanese, and Korean boxwoods? Well, English and American boxwood are the same species, Buxus sempervirens, and Korean boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana) is actually a variety of the Japanese boxwood species (Buxus microphylla). The English/American boxwood differs from the Japanese/Korean boxwoods in many ways, but the easiest way to tell is that the tip of the leaf is pointed, while Asian boxwoods have a rounded point with a small indentation at the very tip (like the shape of a rounded “W”).
Formal gardens with tulips and boxwoods.
Photo credit: Robby Tackett

Teaching Tuesday: Visitors from Alamance CC and South Johnston HS!

Last week was very busy for everyone at Myatt! We had two school groups come to our facility in Fuquay to learn from our fantastic staff. The first group was from the Horticulture Technology program at Alamance Community College and they came by for the afternoon on Wednesday, then Friday morning we had a group of high school students from South Johnston. Both groups were absolutely wonderful–intelligent, driven young people with so much potential. We are excited to be partnering with local schools like these and sharing our knowledge and passion for landscaping!

Alamance Community College

The students from ACC are part of a team of more than 20 students who will be heading to Fort Collins, Colorado in a few weeks to compete at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC) hosted by the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) at Colorado State University. The three students who visited us are each competing in a multitude of events, but we were specifically training them for truck and trailer driving, and operating skid steers, mini track loaders, and mini excavators.

Practicing backing a trailer
Checking fluids and doing a safety inspection
Practicing with the skid steer
Practicing with the mini excavator

They got pretty good by the end of the afternoon! We wish all of the ACC team the best of luck in Colorado! A big shout-out of thanks to Matt Parks of Herc Rentals Inc. in Apex for supplying the skid steer to help these students get competition-ready!

South Johnston High School

The group from SJHS came to learn about plant ID for the Certified Young Plant Professional exam, which is given by the North Carolina Nursery and Landscape Association, and to learn how to construct patios and walkways from pavers. The students were truly a fantastic group, engaged in what they were doing and already very knowledgeable! Their teacher, Cindy Adams, is clearly doing a great job with the horticulture program at SJHS.

After a review, students took a practice plant ID quiz in one of our greenhouses
Installation Manager Herbie led a classroom session as well as hands-on learning activities
Learning about grade and paver patterns
Problem-solving, teamwork, communication…So many skills being practiced!
Lunch from Bagels Plus!
Fantastic group of students with bright futures!

#TeachingTuesday: Forsythia

Some of the earliest signs of spring in the south are daffodils and forsythias. Both are well-known plants common from new developments to old rural homesteads throughout North and South Carolina. Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia), also known as yellow-bells, is a deciduous shrub that flowers on “old wood,” meaning the flowers that bloom in the spring were actually developed by the plant the summer before. This is an important distinction because pruning at the wrong time could remove the flowers for the following year! There is another shrub that blooms in early spring with yellow flowers that may look similar to Forsythia from a distance: winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). Today we will address proper pruning of forsythia and how to tell it apart from winter jasmine.

Forsythia is a classic southern plant.


Forsythias typically bloom sometime between late January and late March, depending on the weather and the geographical region within the Carolinas (typically earlier near the coast, and later in the mountains). Because they bloom on “old wood”, or the previous season’s growth, the flowers open before the new leaves. Once the new leaves start to unfurl, the shrub will grow rapidly, sprouting new canes that may be several feet long. Then the new growth will slow down, and all of the energy produced through photosynthesis will be stored in tiny flower buds that will lay dormant until the next spring. Pruning must take place during the few weeks between flowering and the point where new flower buds are developed. Otherwise, there will be very few flowers the following spring.

Plant forsythias with bulbs for a stunning spring display.

Forsythias should not be sheared. Unfortunately, many people see them being sheared in settings like fast food restaurant and shopping center parking lots, but this is not an appropriate use of this beautiful shrub. To maintain the natural, graceful, arching habit, forsythias should be selectively thinned from the base of the plant. Older branches should be pruned to the ground to allow to younger, more vigorous canes to fill in. Some of us remember days back our childhoods when we were told in the spring to “go out and cut back the yellow-bells,” and we would cut it back to a small mound and let it regrow fully. This option is called “rejuvenation pruning” and it can be done when a shrub has been neglected for a long time and is badly overgrown, or every few years to promote new vigorous growth. It should not be done every year, as this can stress the plant too much and make it vulnerable to pests and disease.

Do NOT do this!! Rather than trying to force forsythias to grow in a rectangle (never going to happen), plant a slow-growing hedge that stays small to begin with!

ID Tips: Forsythia vs. Winter Jasmine

  • Both shrubs are in the olive family, Oleaceae, so they have many similar characteristics. They both have arching canes, which are green when young and then fade to light brown. Both stems are squarish in cross-section, and buds are in opposite pairs along the stems. However, forsythia stems will be covered heavily with lenticels, small corky bumps, while winter jasmine stems will be comparatively rather smooth.
  • Forsythia is a large, upright shrub, while winter jasmine forms a low, scrambling groundcover shrub that is very well-suited to spilling over walls.
  • Forsythia typically flowers later than winter jasmine.
  • Forsythia flowers have 4 long, strap-like petals, while winter jasmine flowers have 6 rounded petals.
  • The leaves of forsythias are long, narrow, and pointed, with toothed edges along the pointed half of the leaf, and smooth edges near the base. Winter jasmine leaves look completely different–each small leaf is made up of three tiny leaflets, very similar to a clover leaf, although each leaflet is ovate (egg-shaped), not round.
  • Forsythia foliage turns yellow, maroon, or purple in the fall, depending on the cultivar, while winter jasmine leaves don’t have any noticeable fall color.

#TeachingTuesday: Red-Twig Dogwood

Usually, when people think of “dogwoods”, they think of the eastern flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), a small, native, understory tree with showy white or pink blooms in the spring. But did you know there are lots of different kinds of dogwoods, including both trees and shrubs? This morning, our crews were trained in identification and maintenance of red-twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea), which are beautiful shrubs with brilliant red stems that look absolutely stunning in the winter–especially in the snow! The stems can also be cut and used in holiday floral arrangements.

A winter landscape at JC Raulston Arboretum: Red-twig dogwoods in the foreground with maidengrasses and pine trees in the background.

Red-twig dogwoods, also known as red-osier dogwoods, are native to most of Canada and the western and northern regions of the United States. They are shrubs that truly have 4 seasons of interest. In the spring, they leaf out with fresh green foliage; in early summer, they bloom with clusters of tiny white flowers that mature into red berries; in fall, the leaves develop a deep, purplish-red color; and in winter, the leaves drop to reveal the brilliant red stems. They can grow up to 9 feet tall and wide if left natural, but typically a rejuvenation pruning schedule is followed to retain the bright red young stems (more on this below). They tolerate sun to part-shade and wet to dry soils, support many species of local insects and wildlife.


Red-twig dogwoods are pretty low-maintenance shrubs. In natural areas where size is not an issue, they can be left to their own devices. However, as the stems mature, they will lose the intensity of the red color, and will eventually turn gray after a few years. So, periodically, the old stems need to be pruned out. Ideally this would be done once per year in the winter, and the oldest stems that are starting to lose their color would be pruned all the way to the ground. Be careful not to prune new shrubs that have been planted within the last year, and don’t remove more than 1/3 of the total stalks in one year.

ID Tips

  • The bright red stems are pretty good indicator that a shrub is a red-twig dogwood (or closely related species).
  • The stems will have light tan “lenticels”, which are small, corky bumps or lines on plant stems or trunks that allow gases to interchange between the air and the interior plant cells.
  • The leaf shape and venation (vein pattern) are similar to eastern flowering dogwood, although the leaf may feel thicker and tougher.
  • The flower clusters are white, and each floret (tiny flower) has 4 petals and a reddish center.
  • In late summer, the flower clusters will develop into clusters of red berries, which will persist through the fall.
Notice the pattern of light tan dots (called “lenticels”) covering the stems.