Home & Garden

The 7 deadly (landscape) sins

Crape myrtle topping--also known as ‘crape murder’– ruins natural growth form and delays blooming. There is no reason to do it.
Crape myrtle topping--also known as ‘crape murder’– ruins natural growth form and delays blooming. There is no reason to do it. Special to the Star-Telegram/Nei

Two years ago my family and I moved back South after spending 15 years in Minnesota. For a guy who makes his living studying trees and other plants, moving to “The City of Trees” was like a dream come true. Willow oaks and fringe trees, sweet gums and crape myrtles everywhere.

Unfortunately, along with the amazing plants come some truly perplexing landscape issues, many of which can be avoided with a little bit of foresight. Here are seven of the most common (and preventable) landscape problems that I’ve seen since moving to Charlotte.

Volcano mulch

The first thing I noticed about our new house when we moved in was that someone had obviously spent a lot of misguided time and effort pushing mulch up against the trunk of the willow oak in our new front yard. This helped control any weeds around the tree, but it also created an environment where the tree’s roots could grow up into the mulch and surround the tree’s stem, eventually leading to strangulation and potentially death.

The best way to avoid this problem is to keep mulch in a ring around the tree’s base, never touching the trunk itself. If you have a mature tree whose roots may be strangling its trunk, it is best to have a tree care professional out to assess the situation. They may be able to remove the offending roots. Always ask whether a tree care company employs ISA (International Society for Arboriculture) Certified Arborists before hiring them.

Crape murder

Drive through almost any neighborhood in Charlotte and you’re likely to see the results of a practice called topping. Topping is a pruning technique where essentially all of the major limbs of a tree are shortened to roughly the same length, as though a huge chainsaw came down from the sky and ran horizontally through the tree’s canopy. Topping results in a multitude of new, tightly packed limbs sprouting from around the site of the cut, creating a weak limb structure. Though many trees are topped, the beautiful crape myrtle is massacred most frequently. The best cure for this type of damage is prevention. Have an ISA certified professional do your pruning.

Staking trees ... forever

There is nothing wrong with using a stake to hold a tree upright when it is young, but often the staking material placed around the tree isn’t removed, causing the trunk to compress and actually strangle the tree as it grows. The cure for this problem is to avoid staking any tree for longer than nine months.

Irrigating during rain

Don’t you love driving through a neighborhood in the middle of a rainstorm and seeing the sprinklers in everyone’s yards going off? It’s a waste of water, leads to unhealthy over-watering and flushes fertilizer through the yard before the grass can use it. If you have an automatic sprinkler system you should consider purchasing a rain switch that will turn off the irrigation in case of rain.

Planting Bradford pears

Every plant has its place, but some trees just aren’t made for the home landscape. Bradford pear is one of these. This tree tends to split apart as it gets older, making it a hazard to nearby plants and structures. The simple cure for this problem is to avoid planting Bradford pears and, if you have one, consider having a tree care company visit to assess its stability.

Planting for now, not later

When a developer plants shrubs near a new home that is about to go on the market, the goal is to make it look good now. Unfortunately that means a holly that will ultimately be 30 feet tall with a 20 foot spread might be planted 6 inches from the house because that’s what looks good now. Whenever a plant is installed its eventual size needs to be accounted for. If you buy a house that you suspect has plants that may grow into it, you need to find out what these plants are and either replace or relocate them before they become too big and unwieldly to move successfully.

Planting in summer

The summer is not a great time to plant things. It’s hot so plants lose water fast, and if we’re in a drought there’s not much water available. And yet, when a developer is ready to sell a house, they’re willing to plant in July or August if that’s when the house is ready. Try to plant in the fall and spring.

Landscapes are filled with plants that can provide beauty for years. Putting a little bit of time and effort into assessing and planning your landscape will go a long way toward creating an enjoyable place that will last a lifetime.

Jeff Gillman is director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens.