From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 23, 2006

Trees and Shrubs
(Adventures with Flora continued...)

As a brief review, plant problems occur as a result of one of the four following causes:

    1. Environmental insults or anomalies.
    2. Neglect or improper plant care.
    3. Animal pests from the macro to the micro.
    4. Diseases from fungus, bacteria, and virus.

Resorting to the previous hypothetical question (regarding lawns) and a reasonable or intuitive answer method, some questions will sound familiar, and others not. (Remember, I was asked why a new lawn was failing, and the questioner had no answers to my several questions.) All of the following inquiries assume you know the identification of the plant in question. This is about diagnosing problems with trees and shrubs. I'm hoping it will be instructive.

What do you know about the plant's history? When was it planted? What was its size at planting? Was it properly planted? Did it receive early follow-up care? The answers to each of these questions provide valuable information. A small plot of two-year-old Frazier Fir trees is so different from a thirty-foot tall tree located on a newly purchased property with no knowledge of its care or environmental challenges over the last 15 years or more.

Was the tree or shrub growing well last summer? Fall? If deciduous, was leaf loss pre-mature or normal? Describe the plant's problem. When was the problem first noticed? Answers to these questions provide information to the plant's recent to current history and lead naturally into a more specific inquiry about its environment and what that offers up.

Where is the plant located? Backyard? Front yard? Standing alone? Planted among others? Is it a foundation plant? Hedge? Surrounded by lawn? How close or far away from house, driveway, patio, or any known structures above or below ground? Your intuitive sense understands the value of answers to these questions.

A tree or shrub standing alone in a sunny lawn that's limed and fertilized on a scheduled basis is a far cry from one planted over a leach field, or one planted on the shady side of a tall structure. Another, near a driveway or main thoroughfare where deicing salts are applied, needs further exploration, too.

More questions about the environment remind us of those answers we've shared in the past. Is the plant growing in the sun, shade, or a combination? Exactly how many hours of sunlight does it receive daily? Is the plant subjected to strong winds in winter? What is the soil like in the area in which the plant is growing? Is it wet or dry, clayey, sandy or rocky? Any idea of what the soil pH is? What conditions would be ideal for the plant? How close are the existing ones?

Often the answer is in knowing the right questions to ask. The more precise the question and answer exchange, the more accurate the knowledge acquired. If you know about the plant's preferences, you have a quest before you: some scouting expeditions with answers as the reward. All answers may contribute to the improvement of the plant's health, assuming it's not too late.

Now comes the time to ask yourself some questions to which you already know the answers. How well was it planted? How was the immediate after-care? How often was it watered? Do you monitor rainfall?

By what method did you water the plant? Do you have any idea how much water was applied in inches per week? Was fertilizer supplied? When? How often? What kind?

Do you mulch? How do you deal with weeds? Might you have damaged some roots? The trunk or stem? Have you used any weed killers in the area? Powder, granular, liquid? What is the principal ingredient or brand name and concentration or formula? I believe we've been acquainted with herbicide drift and its possible consequences. There are better ways to deal with weeds that become a problem. Don't you think so? Tell your friends and neighbors.

Sometimes I wish the world were a more Zen place. We are bound to see insects all around us. Sometimes we see them on our plants. Sometimes we see feeding damage. Sometimes the very perp (say a caterpillar or a Japanese beetle) is witnessed munching away at a leaf. One muncher is not a hundred.

What to do? Pluck the leaf? Mash the perp? Run for the sprayer or canned spray? If the plant was sprayed, with what? To kill or stop what?One flora's pest is food for an ally. A chemical? Remember the name? Do you remember the dates, time of day and weather conditions? Plant damage can result from the improper mix and/or spraying in hot sunny conditions of the wrong product. Other damage can result from too cool temps or insufficient time after spraying.

Growing up in a St. Thomas Aquinas saturated view of nature and her splendor, infinite variations breed infinite explanations: Questions and answers. The last few are really more shrubs-oriented. These woody perennials are targeted with these few extra questions because of their more likely owner-chosen locations and uses in the landscape.

Is the problem plant near a roof drain or place of water runoff where its roots might be subject to swings of dry and wet conditions? Is there an overhang from a porch or roof extension that inhibits rainfall and water supply? How are we doing with answers so far?

Is there a large maple tree in the vicinity? Remember that their roots spread ever so broadly and near the surface. They may easily shade a light needy shrub and also compete vigorously for water and nutrients. Is the shrub in any way compromised by such a situation? Shrubs are often mulched before trees are. They are often located nearer to the home and more attention might be paid to them. What kinds of mulches are used? Many types of mulches are available: black plastic, beach pebbles, gravels, and bark products (nuggets or shredded). Marble chips glistening white in the sun are still a common choice, especially around beachfronts or watered properties.

Marble chips are often used because homeowners like the sharp visual contrast between the white chunky mulch and the dark evergreen clusters, or perhaps the complimentary bark of the striped maple. One of the problems is that marble chips are limestone and tend to raise the soil pH. Evergreens, in particular, usually don't flourish in limed soils, or soils that fluctuate from acidic to alkaline.

I hope I've been able to raise enough questions for you to formulate some of your own. Seek the answers that might make a difference for your plant, tree, or shrub for your approach to problem solving when it comes to Flora and her relatives. Remember, Flora rules. You may step in, but have questions and find answers. You cannot control the weather, but there is a whole lot you can do.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 23, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.