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Garden myths uprooted

July/August 2015 California Bountiful magazine

The truth behind gardening advice



Myth: Drought-tolerant plants don't need any water during the summer.

Uprooted: False. Drought tolerant means a plant, once established, can survive periods of drought without dying. All plants need regular water to become established. It takes about two years to get perennials, shrubs and trees established. In addition, during a drought the plants may look terrible and near death. Parts of the plant may die, but once the drought is over, the plant will recover. Drought tolerant doesn't mean you can plant it and walk away or that it doesn't need and appreciate summer watering.

Myth: You should plant the biggest plant you can afford rather than wasting your time planting small ones.

Uprooted: False. Unless you are required to plant 5-gallon shrubs and trees or you need instant gratification because company is coming the next day, I'd suggest planting smaller plants. I've read again and again that by the time a large plant gets acclimated in the ground and begins to grow, the smaller ones planted at the same time have caught up with the big ones. Plants in 1-gallon containers are certainly cheaper than those in 3- or 5-gallon pots (they now call them number ones or fives because someone measured the pots and said they weren't really a gallon). Another advantage to buying 4-inch or 1-gallon-sized plants is ease of planting. My soil is hard and rocky, and I don't want to dig any bigger hole than necessary.

Myth: When trimming trees, you must cover newly pruned areas with a wound dressing.

Uprooted: False. Years ago, tree trimmers used an asphalt product that had the consistency and color of tar to cover newly pruned trees. This wound dressing was used only on larger branches. But researchers discovered the tar-like products trapped moisture under the wound and eventually led to disease and decay. If you look closely at the base of the branch, you'll see the bark tends to go around the branch rather that out toward the end. This area is called the branch collar, and if you trim just to the branch collar, the tree seals the wound. The result: no disease organisms getting in and no rot. If you don't like the raw look of large cuts on trees, you can use brown spray paint to hide the raw cut.

Myth: Always put gravel at the bottom of the pot for better drainage and to keep the soil from slipping out of the hole when watering.

Uprooted: You don't need to put anything over the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot for container plants. The myth is that the gravel will prevent rot at the bottom of the pot, but the exact opposite occurs: Instead of excess water draining out the hole, it puddles around the gravel so the plant roots are literally sitting in water. For great drainage, I use a coarse potting or planting mix, one with plenty of organic matter, in my pots.

Myth: All trees need to be staked when they are planted.

Uprooted: A tree does not need to be staked unless it cannot stand on its own, and even then, the staking should be temporary. Most people are guilty of three staking sins:

  •  Leaving the nursery stake tied against the tree trunk at planting time—A tree needs to be able to move to develop its "muscles" so it can withstand wind and driving rain without toppling. That nursery stake is used because potted trees are often pencil thin and have to be staked to stand up in their pots. Once planted, check the tree to see if it stands upright without support. If it stands without leaning, don't stake it.
  • Staking the tree improperly—If the tree needs stakes, place two wooden stakes (never use fencing t-posts) 12 to 18 inches away from the root ball. Use strips of nylon pantyhose or gardening tape to tie the tree to the stakes. Loop the ties around the tree trunk and the stakes at the lowest possible spot that holds the tree upright. The tree should be able to bend and move, but not flop over. To find this point, start at the base of the tree and run your hand up the trunk. When you come to the spot where you can hold the tree straight, put the ties there. The stakes should be just a few inches taller than the spot where the ties are placed, and certainly not tall enough to interfere with the tree canopy.
  • Leaving stakes on too long—Remove the stakes after a year unless the tree is still unable to support itself. Most people never remove the stakes, and an arborist I know said that's like wearing a cast all your life.

Proper planting, proper staking and proper care produce a tree with a strong trunk and root system that will be able to withstand most anything Mother Nature tosses its way. Look at how palm trees withstand hurricane-force winds: No one ever stakes a palm tree.


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