Home & Garden

February 14, 2014

The Garden Guru: Because you didn’t ask

Indulge a little horticulturist fantasy with these really good questions that don’t come up, but probably should.

I’ve answered a lot of gardening questions for a lot of years. I was thinking about how many times some of those questions have come up. My kids have been standing alongside me enough of my life that they’ve probably heard most of those answers, and even though all three are far from horticulture in their careers, they could probably recite most of my answers.

That’s when it hit me. There are some questions that I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked. They’re common-sense questions, which may be the reason they’ve never popped up before.

So I’m playing this one for me: questions I’d love to have someone ask. I’ve had my answers ready for all of my career, and I’ve never had a chance to take them out of their wrappings. Until now.

“What are the best long-lived shade trees?”

How refreshing. Somebody is worried more about longevity than speed of growth! Oaks will live 100 to 500 years (or longer), and the four best for North Texas are live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak. Cedar elms, Chinese pistachios, pecans and magnolias live up to 100-150 years. Those are the eight best large shade trees for our area, because not only are they survivors, but they’re also handsome and low-maintenance. Much better choices than those fast-growing trees that flame out after 10 or 15 years.

“I’m tired of trimming shrubs that have grown too large. What are the best shrubs in the various size categories?”

Great concept — choose a plant with a mature size that fits the space available for it! That can work. I like that question so much more than “Neil, how far back can I trim my overgrown ____?” So, for the low shrubs that will grow to be 24 to 36 inches tall, dwarf nandinas are outstanding, as are dwarf yaupon, dwarf Chinese and Carissa hollies, and Wintergreen and Green Beauty Japanese boxwoods. Types that will grow to 36-72 inches tall include dwarf Burford holly, Italian jasmine, Sea Green juniper, bridal wreath spiraea, taller nandinas and several of the abelias. From 6 to 12 feet, your list includes Willowleaf holly, Mary Nell holly, Oakland holly, elaeagnus and a maybe a few flowering shrubs such as forsythia, smaller crape myrtles and most varieties of rose of Sharon. And for taller shrubs, tall crape myrtles, Nellie R. Stevens and yaupon hollies, and Warren’s Red possumhaw holly are my go-to plants.

“How can I salvage a butchered crape myrtle that the previous homeowner mercilessly topped?”

Bless you for caring! The amazing thing about crape myrtles is their great sense of permanence. You can cut one completely to the ground, to eliminate all of the ugly, gnarled stubs on the trunks. It will come back! At 65 miles per hour! Where you remove a trunk flush with the soil, you’ll get 15 or 20 new shoots coming up from its roots within weeks. They’ll grow very rapidly, because they have that large root system to pull in nutrients and water and to push them up into the top of the plant. Let the sprouts all grow for a few months. As they begin to get a little bit woody, you can start to thin out the herd. Remove all but eight or 10 of the strongest canes. Let those grow for the rest of the year, and the following spring, choose the three or five stems that appear to be most likely to regrow into a beautiful tree. Remove all the rest. Stand back, and prepare to be amazed at how quickly you’ll have a handsome tall flowering tree once again — probably within just a couple of years.

“Do shrubs have productive life expectancies in our landscapes? How do we know when it’s time to make major changes?”

That was actually two questions, but they are both very important and closely aligned, so the answers play well together. While shade trees, properly chosen and cared for, can live for 100 years or more, shrubs won’t last that long. They wear out their welcomes, particularly if you’re pruning them repeatedly to keep them in bounds. I always encourage people, rather than trying to salvage the old, tired team that has already given you everything that it has, to consider a new garden design and a new batch of stars. One of the most difficult tasks is in bringing yourself to remove shrubs that have been in place for 20 or 25 years. One of the most refreshing rewards is how great the new planting looks once you do make that move. Go for it!

So there are some of the questions I’ve never been asked, but I don’t want you to get me wrong. I’ve had the blessing for all of my career of getting to talk and write about the world’s greatest hobby. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I just thought this one time it might be fun to throw out my own set of questions. I hope they were helpful!

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