It seemed fitting in this election year to look at some of our more common landscaping plants and practices, and put ’em to a vote. Because they’re things we frequently see, the public admittedly has already spoken, but I’m going to play the part of the guy who can sign them into our lives or reject them entirely.
My answers may seem short because they’re probably things we’ve discussed here before. And I do admit that these are only one guy’s opinions (mine). For some of these, my rulings are a little more negotiable than they sound. But here we go, “Yea” or “Nay,” in no particular order.
• Loropetalums for their purple leaf color and late winter flowers. I fell in love with these shrubs when they first hit the market back in the ’90s. But they fizzle in our alkaline clay soils, so plan on five or six years before you replace them. (Occasional exceptions admitted.)
• Texas sage (ceniza) shrubs. Great gray shrubs, but they’re from southwest Texas. We’re much wetter, and we’re much colder. That’s why they often look worn out in our area. Plant only one or just a few. It’s easier to replace them when they wear out your patience. And you may have mine.
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• Fast-growing trees. Every fast-growing tree has at least one fatal flaw. There is no good fast-growing shade tree! I vote for quality instead.
• Live oaks, Shumard red oaks, chinquapin oaks and bur oaks. These do not grow slowly. They grow at a moderate rate if you’ll give them good water and nutrition. Two-thirds as fast as fast-growing “trash” trees, but without the problems and with 20 times the life expectancies.
• Elberta peaches and Bartlett pears. These are old variety names that everyone knows, but they’re absolutely terrible in North Texas plantings. Nurseries (usually the national chains) that sell them are just taking your money.
• Bradford pears. Beautiful trees with pure white spring flowers, lovely foliage and glorious fall color. Perfect? Not exactly. Highly susceptible to cotton root rot, the fatal soil-borne fungus for which we have no control. Also highly subject to major limb loss after a few years. Wear a hard hat and track shoes.
• Big Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes. These are two more common varietal “icons” that are absolute disasters in North Texas. We’re simply too hot for them. Stick with small to mid-sized tomatoes. These giants will leave you hungry.
• Native plants. I vote a qualified “No.” It’s a very big category. It covers scores of types of plants, and some are better adapted locally than others. Remember that a plant is native only where it grows in nature, not halfway across a state as big as Texas. Plants from arid parts of West Texas can’t handle our rainy spring weather. My vote goes to “adapted.”
• Zoysia grasses. I vote “Yes,” but only for some of them. Varieties like Jamur and Palisades. Buy locally, not by mail order. Ask to see a lawn that’s been in for a year or longer before you make your final decision.
• Topping crape myrtles. “NO! A thousand times NO!” I’ve spent a career trying to stop this unbelievable practice, and still there are people who haven’t gotten the message. Help spread the word: “Topping crape myrtles is barbaric, and it ruins their growth form forever. It does not keep them shorter (they grow right back), and it lessens their flower output.”
• Lacebark elms. Not in my landscape. They tilt, even after I’ve staked them, and then they fall over. They’re also highly susceptible to cotton root rot fungus in alkaline soils.
• Bald cypress. These wouldn’t get my vote in alkaline black clay soil because so often they suffer extreme iron deficiency just a few years after they’re planted. They also throw up those awful roots we call “knees.” They hurt your feet and they ruin your mower.
• Wax myrtle. This thing was brought to us from East Texas, and we need to send it back quickly. It pouts in our soils and climate, losing branch after branch until the plants are mangled and ugly (usually about five years). No vote from me.
• Hollies. If you’ve ever read anything that I’ve written, you know how I feel about hollies. If you stick with the types that are adapted to alkaline soils, you’ll have a fine team of 30 or 35 varieties ranging from 2 to 32 feet in height. Great plants for sun or shade.
• Quack soil amendments. Did I show my hand just a little? Texas is full of them. We need a stronger state law that says, “If you’re going to claim your product will loosen tight clays and result in great improvements in plant growth because of microbes or enzymes, you must first prove it through repeatable land grant university research.”
• “Foundation plantings.” This is a term from your great-grandma’s era. Houses back in the early part of the 1900s had pier and beam underpinnings, not concrete slab foundations. They had crawl spaces beneath the houses, and often you could see underneath “foundation plantings” used to conceal the heights and ugliness. Modern slabs are 10 inches high, and they usually aren’t ugly. Switch to clusters and groups in more natural landscaping settings.