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By Chris Cohan

Pullquote: Like petulant, privileged progeny, if trees are never encouraged to spread their roots and venture forth, you may find yourself saddled with a permanent basement dweller.

He wouldn’t talk. He held tough. Under a bare bulb, on a hard chair in a stuffy tool shed he just wouldn’t break. I pressed harder. Finally, he caved. “OK, OK, you’re right, I put a ten-dollar tree in a one-dollar hole. I confess I did it. I’m guilty.”

The horror of it all. He had it backwards: it’s make a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar tree. Never go cheap when preparing a planting hole. A mistake he promised not to repeat.

You and your plants will be better off if you always put effort into creating a welcoming hole. Dig it twice the size of the root ball. Remove any debris, rocks, and poor soil, if present. Save and reuse the topsoil. Add compost and peat moss. Compost will increase organic matter and attract beneficial organisms. Peat moss will loosen heavier soils for easier root penetration, aid in water retention, and provide slow-release nitrogen. Avoid synthetic fertilizers, as they may burn the roots and set your hard work back. 

Incorporate mycorrhiza, one of Mother Nature’s natural wonders. It is a fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with plants. (Imagine if we could sprinkle mycorrhiza on Washington to promote a symbiotic relationship?) The fungus stimulates plants’ uptake of vital nutrients, which in turn promotes hardier plant growth to better withstand disease and drought.

Mycorrhiza is safe, natural, and readily available at most garden centers and, of course, online. David Austin of rose fame, Myke, and Roots are a few good brands. Simply spread around root ball at planting time.

Prepare a welcoming, generous-sized hole. Most roots grow shallow and wider than the branches above to promote self-reliance. Provide them room to grow. A broader root system will ensure plants stand tall and able to feed themselves without your attentive care. Like petulant privileged progeny, if they are never encouraged to spread their roots and venture forth, you just may find yourself saddled with a permanent basement dweller.

In the end, the key is to feed the soil. An active dynamic soil with a lot of microbial activity will be far better for your plants to grow in. So, prepare holes well, incorporate compost, peat moss, mycorrhiza, and water when hole is half full. Allow water to soak in. Fill the hole. Then build a berm with the leftover planting soil to create a watering reservoir around the tree. Don’t rely on lawn irrigation or light sprinkling, since that will only moisten a few inches of topsoil and thus encourage weak surface roots. The bigger the tree, the more water it will require.

Finish off the hole with mulch, which suppresses weeds, regulates soil temperature, and keeps soil moist in between rainfalls. However, keep it away from the trunk! Always leave trunk flair exposed. NEVER, EVER create a volcano-shaped mound of mulch up a trunk. This is wrong and defies all horticultural logic. If you see your gardener doing it, stop him!

How did this practice start? Is it classic lemming-like behavior? ‘That guy did it so it must be good.’ Whatever the mindless excuse, all you are guaranteeing is rot, infection, and a weakened root system for your plants.

Sadly, it can be observed all around, from municipalities to schools, to even some estates. <Oy, vey, what <mishegoss is dis?> Remember to dig a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar tree and never ever mound up trunks. Otherwise, you could find yourself under a bare bulb, on a hard chair, in a stuffy tool shed.

Improper Mulching

Proper Mulching Around

By Chris Cohan

The indefatigable daffodils are up and blooming. The sun is shining longer and warmer. Spring is upon us. Gardeners, there is no time to waste. Don your chapeaux, dust off those pruners, and get aggressive with those overgrown deciduous shrubs.

You’ll reap the best results if you complete the work before plants really begin to grow. This will stimulate new growth and deliver more flowers. The latest optimal date to get the job done varies from year-to-year, depending on the weather: 2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015, until 2016…

Start the pruning process by removing crossing or problematic stems, which leave plants more open and easier to attack. Next, remove the old stems to allow the younger, more virile ones room to grow. (Older stems, like some of us, may have a worn, tired exterior, but they can still be full of life, so proceed with care.)

Prune in an even way to create a balanced, well-formed shrub. Even the young stems will likely need to be cut back, especially if they are spindly and bending over once the large stems are removed. If there are not any young canes present, then cut the large stems back to 18-24 inches from the ground. This will be unsightly, but if the plants are healthy, extensive new growth should start from the old stems in spring and fill the plant in. As new growth develops over time, the remaining large stems should be cut out.

Rose-of-Sharon, with its soft wood, is a pleasure to prune. Feel free to cut back this hardy, rapid grower; it will come back even more robust.

White flowering hydrangeas should be pruned now. Butterfly bushes must be trimmed low to ensure they do not become top heavy and topple.

Praying Mantis favor Spirea. First observe the bare branches for their cocoons. If you spot any, please leave those branches until after the mantises have hatched. Clip the rest of the shrub by a third.

A cautionary note for over-eager gardeners: don’t prune everything the same. Lilacs, viburnum, blue flowering hydrangeas, and forsythia all flower on old wood. If pruned now they will not bloom in spring, so wait until after that first bloom. You can always cut forsythia branches and force inside for a bright jump on spring.

Roses always deserve special attention and will reward you with more blooms. After pruning make sure you clean the beds of fallen leaves and debris to reduce reinfection.

After pruning all shrubs it is easier to observe any overwintering scale, mites, and aphids. Spray with horticultural oil or the ever-popular Neem oil.

Wrap up this time in the garden with fertilizer and Epsom salt. While plants may not complain of achy joints, Epsom salt allows all kinds of plants to ingest magnesium quickly. Supplementing with Epsom salt increases chlorophyll production in plants, which in turn improves their strength. It stimulates bottom breaks, canes originating at the base of the plant, for dense, lush foliage, larger blossom size, and quantity.

Top dress soil with one tablespoon of Epsom salt per foot of plant height around the plant. Add complete fertilizer now as well. Cultivate in and water thoroughly. If you have any Epsom salt left over, reapply a month from now.

Early season care and attention will ensure that your garden is off to a great start.