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Plant Lovers’ Almanac: Good choices sustain landscape

By Jim Chatfield
Special to the Beacon Journal

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Sweetgum fruit remnants with snow caps of winter. (James Chatfield/OSU)

The New Year has arrived and with it garden and landscape planning takes on a new resolve.

One of my resolutions was to strategize for a new course I am teaching this spring semester in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department on the Ohio State University main campus in Columbus. The course is Sustainable Landscape Maintenance, so let’s take a look at some keys to landscape maintenance that will sustain our class discussions, and almanac musings, through this winter and into spring — and the future.

Know thy plants

It goes without saying, but it really does all start with good plant knowledge and making the right plant selection decisions.

If the soil is poorly drained, do not plant rhododendrons. If you plan to be gone most of the summer, hybrid tea roses are not the best low-maintenance choice. If you want a crab apple with deep coral-pink flowers, small purple fruits, and good apple scab resistance, consider ‘Prairifire,’ instead of ‘Harvest Gold’ with its white flowers, golden fruits, and high susceptibility to apple scab.

And explore a little. As the late North Carolina State horticulturist J.C. Raulston lamented: “In any given region of the United States, 40 trees and shrubs make up 90 percent plus of the landscape plantings.” Check out websites and old-fashioned books. There is no better source of knowledge about woody plants at least, than Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.

Join the Resistance

Further channel “know thy plants” by focusing on plants with excellent genetic resistance to problem pests and pathogens.

It goes without saying that planting white ash and green ash trees in the genus Fraxinus makes little sense in Northeast Ohio due to emerald ash borer. However, and here know thy plants (and plant names) comes into play: The unrelated Mountain Ash in the genus Sorbus is unaffected by emerald ash borer and does well as long as you do not plant it in open, hot sites, as it is Mountain Ash after all.

Sorbus is sensitive to bacterial fireblight disease, though, so it is often not the most long-lived plant. If you want to sustain this plant in your landscape for three generations or so, think again.

Secrets of the soil

Soil chemistry matters — do not plant azaleas and pin oaks and pachysandra in alkaline soil. These are acid-loving plants and in more alkaline soils with pH over 6.5 they do not get enough iron and certain other nutrients that get bound up with other soil chemicals when pH is higher.

Soil physics matters — do not plant Taxus (yew) or petunias in soil with too high a percentage of clay soil and thus too low a percentage of available oxygen. That type of soil texture does not bode sustained life for plants that cannot tolerate “wet feet.”

Soil biology matters — nurture nature by providing an environment conducive to a plant-loving balance of soil organisms. Soil is not just dirt.

Plant it right

Plant too high (rootball out of the ground) and tree roots will dry. Plant too low and with oxygen lower the deeper you go, roots are unhappy and root rot fungi are very happy, not a good combination for your plants.

So, heed OSU educator Erik Draper, with his: “Plant ’em high, watch ’em die; Plant ’em low, never grow, Plant ’em right, sleep at night!”

And remember a $500 hole for a $50 plant, does not mean to dig the hole extra deep, but to dig it extra wide.

Purposes of pruning

“Prune the barren boughs away, that bearing boughs may live” is a phrase I made up once as a mock Shakespearean quip, but the point is that pruning should be done with purpose.

Sometimes pruning is for maximizing fruit production, sometimes for safety, sometimes just for appearance, but without question it is a key to long-term plant sustainability as a horticultural asset.

Learn that timing for spruce pruning is different than pruning for pines (there’s that know thy plants again), that forsythia pruning for maximum flower production should be after it blooms in spring, but anytime for safety if branches intrude at eye level onto sidewalk areas. Sign up this spring at garden centers, parks, and Master Gardener workshops for pruning workshops. Learn to prune, soon.

Soils, redux

Back to the soil is always good advice. Organic matters. I am not talking here of organic fertilizer or organic pesticides, but simply the importance of adding organic matter to improve soil structure.

In addition to a good soil texture balance of sand, silt and clay particles (loam) a critical aspect of good soil is a structure which results in crumbly vs. claypot-like soil. That not completely mythical, “moist, but well drained soil” may take time but is not impossible to obtain.

You can do it — with sustained adding of organic matter over the years, preferably composted materials. Make plant roots happy, and they will make you and your landscaping and gardener family and friends happy, too, or, perhaps better yet, envious.

Don’t worry, be happy

Finally, though best practices and these keys to sustainability are, well, best to follow, remember you are the boss of you.

If you want to try a plant that might be a stretch, as long as it’s not an invasive like hogweed, and as long as your job does not depend upon it, try some trial and error gardening.

As Peter Smithers said: “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself.”

So, it is a new year, for us and for the trees.

From Marge Piercy and Available Light:

“It is the New Year of the trees, but here

the ground is frozen under the crust of snow.

The trees snooze, their buds tight as nuts.

Rhododendron leaves roll up their stiff scrolls.”

Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.