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Past Articles Library | Guide to Growing Witch Hazel

If you are looking for a plant that can bring color to a dreary landscape then witch hazel is in order.  Hamamelis genus is a group of small trees and shrubs that contain five species and 100 cultivators.  The large number of species allows a lot of variation to choose from, which includes blooms that can range in color from red to yellow, and even orange.  These blooms appear from late fall to winter.

As far as the foliage goes, this deciduous shrub/tree provides three shades of color.  When the leaves first appear, they come out as a reddish-brown.  In the late spring to early summer, the leaves turn green.  Once fall approaches the green leaves turn gold to orange before falling off. 

When it comes to using witch hazel in the landscape, plan for it.  The mature size of this plant can be 30 feet in height and 15 feet in width.  While this plant will not grow in every area, it is successfully grown in USDA Plant Hardiness zones 3 through 9.

Witch Hazel’s small trees/shrubs can be started by seeds or simply by planting the plant.

Witch Hazel Seed Propagation

To begin this process, one will need to acquire their seed.  This can be ordered or harvested from existing witch hazel plants.  Keep in mind that fresh seeds are easier to germinate than saved seeds.  Regardless of whether you decide to use fresh or stored witch hazel seeds, you are looking at about 2 years for the germination process to occur in the wild.  To speed things up, one can mimic the outdoor requirements by exposing the seed to a warm and cold stratification process.

Begin this process by planting the witch hazel seeds in nursery pots that have been filled with a premoistened compost.  Since the seeds are small, just barely cover them with soil.  Once that is done, place the planted nursery pots in a sunny location that is kept at 85 degrees Fahrenheit for two months. 

After the two months have passed, move the pots to the refrigerator and keep in this cold environment for three months. 

During the warming and cooling stratification process, make sure that the planting medium stays moist but not soggy.

The next step of this process is to move the pots to a cold frame or place them up against a south facing wall.  The goal is to having them in an environment where the daytime temperatures hang around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. 

At this point, continue to monitor the soil moisture but let the top 1/4 inch of the soil to dry out before watering but do not let the lower levels dry out.  Allowing the top 1/4 inch of the soil to dry out will reduce the chances of developing a fungal problem while keeping the seed moist.

Keep in mind, that while you may have followed all the steps to a tee, you still will have some time before you see the seeds germinate but once you do, move them to a shady area.  Moving the seedlings to a shady area after they have germinated will reduce the chances of the seedlings wilting due to the heat.  Once summer has arrived, gradually expose the witch hazel seedlings to direct sunlight.  Continue to care for the seedlings until the following spring by which you can plant in the garden.

The growing requirements of witch hazel are pretty flexible.  As far as the sunlight requirement goes, this can range from light shade to full sun.  Full shade should be avoided but the key is to make sure that the sunlight is bright. 

When it comes to the soil requirement, the witch hazel tree/shrub likes a soil that is moist and well draining.  It also likes a soil that is slightly acidic to moderately alkaline. 

Since witch hazel has a large mature sized, plan on spacing your seedlings or potted plants 20 inches apart.  Witch hazel tree/shrubs have a shallow root system.  To help them survive times of drought, mulch the planted area with 3 inches of mulch and replace every season as needed.

If you have enough space in your landscape design, just let the witch hazel tree/shrub grow and only remove dead or diseased branches.  But, if you do not have unlimited space in the area by which you planted your witch hazel then you are going to want to prune it. 

Prior to pruning though, you will need to educate yourself about the difference in leaf bud and flower bud.  Leaf bud has a pointed, narrow shape while the flower bud is more rounded on the end.  While it is fine to remove leaf buds, avoid removing flower buds.

The timing of pruning is everything and should only be done after the flowering has finished.  Next, you will want to wipe down the pruners with rubbing alcohol after each cut.  What do you cut?  Well, you cut this year’s growth down to two leaf buds.  Pruning this drastically will not cause woody growth but instead will encourage the plant to become bushy and fill in. 

If you do not grow your witch hazel from seed, chances are the tree/shrub will be grafted.  To reduce the chances of developing suckers, make sure that you do not plant the tree/shrub below the graft union.  How can you tell where the graft union is?  Well, all you have to look for is a bulbous area on the trunk of the tree. 

It appears that rabbits and deer also like witch hazel.  To discourage these animals from grazing on your plant material can be a challenge but it is doable.  First for deer, consider using red and silver Mylar tape.  When this tape is strung around and the wind blows the movement of the tape looks like fire.  When it comes to rabbits, think about displaying a plastic owl or fake snake around the plant material.  Another choice is to paint a large Mylar balloon with a big eye. All three techniques will work to keep rabbits away.  Having said that, to make the most of this approach one will need to move the deterrents around so that the animals do not get used to the predators.


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