Garden Q&A: Stop to smell the sweetbox plants

The Baltimore Sun

The other day I caught a sudden whiff of jasmine outside, but didn’t see any flowers to explain its source. Could it have been a plant?

Fragrance on a wintry day can stop you in your tracks. You may have encountered the aptly-named sweetbox. Its white blooms, opening in February, are small and usually overlooked but pack a potent perfume. Most of the year, this evergreen shrub is prized for its impeccable good looks and restraint. The dense foliage is a glossy dark green and tops out at about 18 inches, forming a solid edging or groundcover. It does require some shade. Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis) prefers light, acidic soil with regular moisture, though it will tolerate some dry conditions in summer once established. Stolons spread sedately and need little pruning. One of its best features: deer don’t touch it.

Our new home has a mature apple tree that looks like it has never been pruned. I did basic pruning (e.g. taking out dead, crossing and inward-growing branches). The tree is large, maybe 30 feet or so. Can I reduce the height of the tree? Then what?

To renovate a neglected apple tree (or prune any age apple tree), search “apple training and pruning” on the HGIC website. Aim for a central leader and two tiers of scaffold branches with 2 to 3 feet between the tiers, but you may be able only to roughly approximate this. Yes, you can reduce the height. When removing large limbs, prune all the way back to the trunk. Follow the rule of thumb not to remove more than 1/4th of a tree in one year. Stagger a severe renovation like this over a 2- to 3-year period. Severe pruning causes many vertical water sprouts that should be removed except for the few that you’ll train to become new scaffold branches.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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