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Avoid your neighbors' errors when planting, pruning

Even when I am just driving around I see avoidable, fixable mistakes in home landscapes. In lieu of putting notes in a few, individual mailboxes, we'll offer some advice here:

>Plants in wrong places

*Wind burned and salt sprayed: It's obvious after winter which plants could not take the west wind or the salt spray from a road or driveway. You see pines, rhododendrons and other evergreens browned on the side facing the wind or the salt drift.

Some of the plants may have live growth behind the dead parts, and others may be too far damaged to keep. Cornell University and other scientific bodies offer websites with lists of plants that can tolerate both those conditions.

Now your choices are to retire the suffering half-brown plants to more sheltered locations and replace them. Or, next fall, you could put a decent-looking green barrier -- such as the Salt Screen from the Shrub Coat product line -- between the plants and the wind or salt.

What not to do? In highly visible landscape positions such as fronting a road, many barriers such as burlap wraps don't hold up well anyway and certainly aren't attractive, so why not find plants that really can handle the site? Sometimes herbaceous perennials (that die back in winter) are the best answer because they're sleeping when the winter winds roar.

*Too tender for full exposure: Other plants such as Pieris japonica (Japanese Pieris), Daphne, redbuds, rhododendrons or Japanese maple come through winter barely alive, and then limp along through a slow death during the growing season.

They have cracked bark, maybe some dead branches or roots, and areas of browning foliage.

"Winter injury" is the general term and a good guess what went wrong. Many of these plants had labels that read: "Needs a sheltered location. Hardy to Zone 6. Avoid exposure to wind." They belong in a sheltered city yard, Amherst courtyard, or on the east side of a house in the Southtowns.

There are a few exceptions -- some very hardy Japanese maples for example; consult with a knowledgeable nurseryman or Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional (CNLP).

*Ericaceae blues: Ericaceous plants such as rhododendrons and azaleas often look off-color, yellowish, just not well, and they fail to thrive. In the right place they are fabulous, important landscape plants. They must be grown in acidic soil, and if they aren't, they will fail eventually and look poorly in the meantime.

What happens? The required community of microorganisms (that transport iron and other nutrients into the root system) require an acid environment. In alkaline soils the right organisms are simply not present and the plant develops iron and other deficiencies -- chlorotic leaves, etc.

Regular squirts of Miracid or other liquid fertilizers for such plants are not sufficient (rather like quick-acting drugs). The soil must be right when you plant (with lots of compost and peat), or you could amend the soil with sulfur-based amendments (Holly Tone, many other brand names).

A sweeping generality is that Southtowns' soils may be acidic enough for great rhododendrons, and Buffalo or Northtowns' soil probably needs some acidifying. You can get a pH test done through Cornell Cooperative Extension or by some landscape professionals.

>Plants pruned (and behaving) badly

At this time of year it's easy to see bad pruning; it screams at some of us as we drive around. The shrubs and trees are leafless, and evergreens don't have any new growth hiding the holes or poor cuts. Sometimes you can begin to correct it.

Watch for these obvious errors:

*Sheared, not pruned: Look at deciduous shrubs and you will see many with thick clusters of short twigs across the top of the plant, and long branches with little growth underneath. Some call it "witches brooming."

That comes from shearing or snipping the shrub over and over -- cutting just across the top, taking ends off all the branches to keep the shrub "tidy" or shorter.

It's wrong. To correct it, take out some of the branches from within the plant, cutting them to the base or low down to the trunk or another branch. Let light in, so new growth starts to come from below the "haircut" level. If you repeat this over a few years, you could again have a gracefully pruned -- not sheared -- shrub.

*Ugly stubs: If you see evergreens such as junipers, hollies or spruces with blunt cut ends showing, that is also a sign of poor pruning. (Maybe it was broken in winter, and that's all the caretaker could do just then.) Now is the time to follow that cut branch farther down inside the plant, and make a cut where it won't show. Always cut just above another branch or outside the branch collar near the trunk.

Equally bad pruning shows up as stubs sticking out from deciduous trees where the cutter (or nature) took off the branch between nodes or crotches where another branch emerges. Always cut just above another branch or bud that is pointing in the direction you want new growth.

*Bowl cuts (or return of the Beatles): Oh how silly some weeping mulberries or cherry trees look when people give them a "bowl cut" year after year!

Notice how thick and tight all the little branches are. All the growth and flowering will be clustered on the outside of the tree, and when it's not in flower you'll have a shaggy dog (or a Beatle who doesn't sing) adorning the corner of your house.

Please, get a pruning book for this one and learn to make the cuts at varying levels, thinning out the tight extra inside growth. Work from underneath the plant and you'll see entire branches you can remove, to begin to let light in. Cut the tips at varying lengths -- a scissors cut rather than a blunt cut. After some years you'll have again the graceful, weeping plant you wished for.

Plant selection and placement, soil care and pruning represent a large body of knowledge. You weren't born knowing these things, but homeowners can learn to do a good job of landscape stewardship. Use professionals in the landscape, nursery and garden center businesses in the area. We have such talent in Western New York.


Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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