Friday, February 18, 2011

Pruned Caper Bushes

I want to share some of my experiences and observations about pruning caper bushes. I'm no expert on the art and science of pruning capers, what I've learned has come from just doing it, or not, as the case may be.

Here's one of my favorite plants, this is the pink flowering bush that is growing in a good sized pot in front of my house. I pruned this one a few weeks ago when it started showing signs of pushing out new growth.

Here it is just after the trim:

January 20, 2011

And a few weeks later:
February 12, 2011

Last year, a month or so after pruning:
March 31, 2010

Last year again, it turned into quite an attractive bush:
May 17, 2010

A look at the flower buds forming then:
May 17, 2010

Below, the same plant 2 years ago:
May 18, 2009

I didn't prune that plant in 2009 and you can see how silly it looks with the scraggly old stems dangling over the edge of the pot. The old stems don't really continue to grow and so they don't produce flower buds. If you cut the old stems back when the plant isn't dormant they die back quite a ways from the cut edge and may wither completely. You can see by comparing the May 2009 photo with the May 2010 photo that pruning induces a lot more vigorous new growth from the crown of the plant. If you want to harvest flower buds you want as much vigorous new growth as possible, that's where the flower buds grow. You might think that well, the 2010 plant is a year older so of course it's bigger, but a curious thing I've observed about pot grown caper bushes is that they  grow to a size that their confined root systems can support and you can't really force feed them to make them get any larger.

One thing that I'm go to experiment with this year is pinching out the tips of vigorous new green growth to try to induce more branching. I know that cutting into woody growth when the plant isn't dormant, whether from previous years growth or new woody growth, makes the stems die back, but I don't know what happens if the stems are cut before they get woody. I'm going to try that on one of my potted capers this year.

The gnarly thing shown below is one of the oldest plants that I have. I purchased this plant and one other at least 12 years ago, maybe longer (I don't remember exactly when) and they've been growing together in a succession of 3 or 4 pots of increasing size ever since. If you click on the photo and look at the very center of it, right at the line of light and shadow you might be able to see the tiny little green bud sprouting from the trunk. It always amazes me how capers can push fresh new green sprouts out of a woody old trunk or stem. A number of years ago we had a really hard freeze and all of my capers were top killed, it took quite a while for them to sprout new growth and all of it came from just above the soil level, but that year I had the most beautiful bushes ever. I've not had the courage to prune my bushes drastically enough to mimic that frost damage, but ever since then I've been far less timid about giving them a hard pruning, it really makes for a better looking and more productive plant.

February 12, 2011
Last year:

March 31, 2010
2 years ago:

May 18, 2009

That's 2 plants in one pot and that's about as big as they get year after year. These 2 plants compete with each other too much for either of them to grow vigorously enough to produce a quantity of flower buds.

The next two photos are of the most vigorous and productive plants that I'm growing. They are planted at the top of a wall with another wall behind them and face south-southwest.
February 12, 2011
This year they got pruned, although the one below never did go fully dormant and this is what it looked like just after it got pruned.

February 12, 2011

Below is the same plant last year which I didn't get around to pruning since we had a lot of rain which kept this weather wimp indoors when it was time to prune. It still grew like crazy and was already producing flowers in March. Actually, this plant continues to produce a few flowers all through the winter if left unpruned. It faces full south and the stems that hug the wall behind stay green and keep producing a few flower buds through the winter even though some parts of the plants that are more exposed get crispy from the occasional hard frost. The plants growing in the ground will still grow like crazy even if they aren't pruned and have been growing larger every year, but they look a lot prettier when they grow back from a hard pruning.  It's hard to see in the photo below but there are a few mangy looking stems trailing over the edge of the wall. Like on the potted plants, the old stems didn't continue to grow much and didn't produce very many buds.

March 31, 2010

Here's the same plant after I stopped harvesting the buds and just let the plants bloom. The bush may have grown even larger if the deer hadn't trampled it a few times, they can get on top of the wall and like to browse on the ivy that is growing there.

September 5, 2010

Here's one last example of my caper pruning. I've got a lot of plants growing in 1-gallon pots. Some of them have been stuck in their pots for something like 6 or 7 years as I continue to experiment with growing them in various spots in the ground around the garden. It's amazing how well they get along sitting in their little pots year after year. I've had some promising starts with putting a few plants in various spots around the garden only to have the deer trample them. There have been some dismal failures as well with plants refusing to grow or just simply shrinking down to nothing. But the amazing thing is how a little pot bound plant can take off when it is planted in the right situation. I've got a few new promising experiments out in the garden even now so I hope to be able to report on them later this year.

February 12, 2011

I would love to hear about your experiences growing capers, leave a comment or send me an email. Let's learn from each other!

13 comments:

  1. What a neat little plant. My only experience with capers was to fake it by using nasturtium seeds to make poor man's capers. We opened one of the two jars we made a couple weeks ago...they were terrible. Definitely not a substitute for the real thing...at least mine were not.:(

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  2. Mahalo for such great information! What a difference pruning makes. I didn't think of pruning my caper bush this winter but I should do that.

    I planted caper seeds from Gourmet Seed in 11/09 and 3/10 but germination was very low and painfully slow and only 1 plant survived. In 11/10 I planted caper seeds from Seeds From Italy. These have germinated much better and grown noticably faster. I now have 6 seedlings that are 1 to 4 in. tall. I won't know how similar they will be to my first plant until this summer.

    Last year my 1 and only caper bush flowered until the autumn equinox. It didn't lose many leaves this winter but the base of the plant has grown and is looking quite gnarly. I'm not sure if I have the water and fertilizer right but I'll let you know if I can keep all these plants alive through the summer!

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  3. what a gorgeous plant. i had no idea! thank you for sharing. perhaps i will try to grow them myself - feeling kind of inspired!

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  4. Not familiar at all with growing capers so I always learn something from your posts about them. They really make a very attractive container planting and I bet the one on the top of the wall is also quite pretty growing there.

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  5. They grow into a very nice looking plant. I wonder how well they would do here. Would they take well to indoor conditions during the winter?

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  6. Thanks for the article, adding this to my knowledgebase for capers. Now I just have to get mine to grow! I'm in South Australia, we have a Mediterranean climate here in Adelaide which is good for capers, but I'm not having great luck growing them so far. My first bush I bought dormant and pruned, planted in front of a brick wall for plenty of heat, watered occasionally, but I think it might have got too hot as it curled up its toes (weeks of 40 degree weather last summer). I found more seedlings last week and bought 2, but they started looking quite unhappy very quickly. How much do young plants need watering?

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  7. As always, a wonderfully informative post. When the seeds didn't sprout last year, I purchased two seedlings from The Huntington's plant sale. Workers who were installing windows stepped on and killed one. The other survived, and even grew a little. It is just beginning to leaf out now. It was too small to prune in any way, but now, thanks to you, I'll know what to do next winter since I AM CERTAIN (or at least I think I am kind of certain) it is going to grow well this year. I hope you're well!

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  8. It's wonderful and inspiring to see all these caper plants doing so well. The two survivors grown from the seeds you sent me last year have kept most of their leaves all winter. Do you think I should prune them this year, or just leave them while they're so young?

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  9. Dan, I'm not sure how well they would do indoors during the winter. I'm guessing that if you've had success keeping other Mediterranean type plants like rosemary or citrus alive indoors during the winter that capers might do ok in a similar situation. Or perhaps a cold but not freezing spot indoors where the plants can go dormant for the winter might be even better.

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  10. Hughbert, I've found that young caper plants, especially potted plants need regular watering, although you don't want to keep the soil soggy. Even mature plants need regular watering if they are grown in pots. Capers that are planted in the ground can be difficult to get going, they seem to prefer being planted on a berm or in some other way that keeps their crown elevated and the soil well drained. Every time that I've plunked a plant straight into the ground the plants eventually die. I'm experimenting with using stones to create an elevated planting area and planting the capers in that, but the jury is still out...

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  11. chaiselongue, if the plants are still quite small I would wait another year before pruning them. From what I've read it's best to wait until the plants are 2 years old before pruning them and that's what I've always done to be safe.

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  12. Thanks so much for your information on growing capers! I'm still a newbie at gardening, but someday I may try this.
    Feel free to watch my progress at www.tinyurbangarden.blogspot.com

    I'd love the company.

    Kathe

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  13. I love this informative blog! Thanks for sharing all this information. I recently planted a caper bush that I got on Amazon. It is in ground and has trippled in size. No blooms yet, but I appreciate the pruning information.

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