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The 'natural consequences' of playing the 'if' game when gardening

Plant geraniums into pots in March, not May.
Plant geraniums into pots in March, not May. Special to the Star-Telegram

As parents we often try to teach our children about penalties they might have to pay. “If you touch something hot, you’re going to get burned.” “If you skip out of school, you’re going to get caught.” And, true to form, most of us (and our kids) pushed the limits and probably paid the prices.

It’s the same out there in gardening. As I sat down to jot out my notes, the concept of 'natural consequences' came to my mind. I thought about a few of the things I see people doing way too often. Maybe they sound like good ideas at the time but the results rarely are what we would want. So that’s going to be my premise today. See if any of these sounds familiar.

“If you count on watering from your sprinklers to irrigate new shrubs and trees….”

It happens every summer, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Folks spend weekends redoing their landscapes. They do the bed prep and they invest in beautiful plants, but they expect a sprinkler system or a sprinkler at the end of a hose to water their new plantings.

Here’s where the problem starts. Those new plants were grown in nursery potting soil that was blended to be lightweight for easier handling and reduced shipping costs. All of the new plants’ roots are in the potting soil for the first year or two, and that soil will dry out days faster than the rest of the soil in your landscape.

And here is the solution. You must water new plants by hand. Use a garden hose with a water wand and either a water breaker or a water bubbler. Soak them slowly and deeply three times a week now through October. Be especially mindful of hollies, junipers and other plants that don’t wilt noticeably. They can get beyond the point of no return before you know it.

“If you cover the roots of trees when they start to show up at the soil’s surface….”

People think the old soil has eroded. In reality, trees’ roots are near the top of the soil. It’s a natural thing. When you cover them with a layer of new soil all you do is put off the inevitable. They’ll grow right up through it as well. Either ignore them and learn to live with them, plant a ground cover that will conceal them, or if you must, remove one or two come fall, once the hot, dry weather has passed.

“If you cover your lawn with a skiff of new topsoil….”

The thought here is that you can level a lawn by doing this. You’ll see signs offering to bring loads to your landscape. There are those who believe they can also rejuvenate weak grass by supplying fresh soil. But the fact is that this topsoil can actually bring in fresh sources of weeds. If you have low spots or ruts, it’s usually best to use washed brick sand to fill the shallow spots or to use what you know to be “clean” topsoil from a reliable source to fill the deeper depressions. You may even have some high spots elsewhere in your landscape where you can harvest your own supply.

“If you plant many types of annual flowers and vegetables now….”

Granted we had a cool early spring. But we have a comparatively small window of time during which we can plant plants like petunias, geraniums, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and others. If we miss those windows and plant too late in the season, hot weather arrives before the plants have a chance to mature. When that happens, for whatever the reason, rather than trying to push our luck, we’re better off switching to heat-tolerant plants instead. That’s comparatively easy with annual color, since many types hold up to the heat. It’s more of a challenge with vegetables, since most of our favorites need to be planted in March and early April. But the good news is that you get a second chance at a fall garden starting with plantings in just a couple of months.

“If you prune shrubs into square or round shapes repeatedly for a number of years….”

Many times we do this because we’ve chosen a plant that wants to grow much larger than the space we have for it. The problem that follows is that plants put out new growth at the tips of their branches. You might remember that from high school biology as the principle of “apical dominance.” The growth hormones concentrate at the ends of the branches, but when we cut those ends off time after time, the plants lose vigor and eventually give up putting out new shoots. They become bare at their bases. That’s when it’s time to replant with fresh, vigorous stock of a smaller species that won’t require all that reshaping.

“If you repeatedly try home remedies and hunches….”

Having grown up in a household where university research was a way of life, I find it amazing how people can ignore scientific data and opt instead for testimonials and claims. Just as a practical matter, I’ll stay away from specifics, I always suggest to my readers and listeners that they include the word “university” up front in their Web searches so that bona fide results will be their first matches. Challenge those claims. Check what they’re saying.

Neil Sperry hosts“ Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.