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Musings About Family, Travel And Gardening With Allen Martinson.


Big Decisions

Happy October! We have finally arrived at the gates of fall, leading down the road toward the Christmas season, next stop: winter. I have some work to do and some decisions to make. This summer has been absolutely brutal on our plants. In our yard, the first thing we see that has been affected by the heat is the Arborvitae Green Giants that were planted to screen an area that needed a little privacy. We planted 13 of the biggest Green Giants that we could find in a row. We babied them from the beginning; they had nice, round tree circles covered in a thick layer of mulch intended to keep the moisture in. The trees had been in the ground for about a year when someone just turned the spigot off back in July. Mimi and I literally didn't get any rain since July 4th until last week when we got enough rain to hydrate a lizard, maybe. That rain felt good, but I'm sure the sweet water didn't penetrate the top layer of the soil down to one inch.

It was back in August that we noticed one of the trees looking a little peckish. I shrugged it off as that tree not getting quite enough water, so I adjusted the head closest to that tree. I thought I had solved the problem. I also knew deep down that once an Arborvitae or a Leland Cypress and some junipers begin turning golden orange, they usually don't turn around. It wasn't long after that that 2 or 3 other members of the screen began to show some gold, and today there are 7 of them that we see no hope in recovering.

As we walk into our backyard, we begin to see more damage from the heat. I say heat because I believe that the prolonged above-average temperatures that sat on our heads did more damage than the below-average rainfall, but the combination of both after last winter's late cold blast was enough to finish off some plants. The Anises 'Banana a-peals' that we planted in mass on one of our shady hillsides were the most affected, at least as far as the plants that are under irrigation. About a third of them began to turn brown early in the drought. It was about then that I was commiserating about yard stuff with our friends out in Flora who have a very similar yard size and a similar irrigation system, and our plant tastes are very similar. These friends of ours are in close touch with the weather since they fish out on the Gulf, where you'd better understand weather patterns. These friends have an uncanny ability to diagnose a plant's woes, usually from a different angle than my point of view. They had been closely watching this dry down from the beginning, both here and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where they maintain an impeccable yard. Balancing two geographically different yards gives them an opportunity to keep a sharp eye on the flows and patterns of the weather. I rely on their keen observations as our seasons change. Their places are irrigated, so we were having frequent conversations about how to handle the heat as far as the plants were concerned. They noticed early on that they felt like he had over-irrigated in some areas of his playgrounds, especially where the soil had not been amended as well as they should have been.

When I got home from a fishing weekend with this buddy of mine who had just brought up this notion of too much water, I headed straight out to the bed where I knew we had not done a great job of amending the soil, which happens to be the bed where the Anise had been thriving for over a year. I pulled up on some of the worst ones, and sure enough, I could hear a sucking noise as I pulled up on them by their hair. They were drowning. I had not taken into account different soil types around our yard. This bed has a lot of clay as the base. The bed is right under one of our favorite Oak trees, so we didn't want to disturb the roots any more than we already had. Turns out that it would have been worth it to till it up a little deeper than we did. Probably got a little rushed, and some of it was being too excited about getting the beds planted with all the new, cool plant material that we hunted down and procured just for this bed. I think it's coincidental that the type of plants and the type of soil they were basking in probably did the plants in. In the beds where the soil was amended with the right stuff and methods, we had way fewer problems even with the heat and the volume and the frequency changes to our irrigation system. I started running the system daily for longer than each zone had been running previously. Looking back, I should have kept things about like they were as far as irrigation goes. It's hard to think that way when my trees are turning gold, and the forecast shows nothing but dry and hot for as far out as I choose to believe the forecast.

Since that realization, we have taken it back closer to normal, plus it has begun to cool down closer to normal. I am putting the plants that didn't fare well into two categories: one where the plants got irrigated and still died, and the second category is the plants that died because of no irrigation. It would have been very hard to bring some plants through this just by relying on hand watering mercilessly every day of the hot, dry summer. I am concerned more about those plants that got a fair amount of water yet didn't make it. Perhaps they were already weakened some from last winter's late snap. The concerning part to me is the type of old, reliable plants that we have been using for decades around here. Ligustrums, Camellias, Azaleas, Abelias, and Pittosporum, you get the picture, plants that we don't normally don't give a second thought to as far as them being reliable plants. The plants that fared well are the plants that Mimi and I are focusing on because we want to offer those plants to our customers as they begin to decide what is worth saving and what has to be replaced. The plants that did great are all the hollies. It is very rare for me to find any type of Holly that died from this specifically. Hollies are a great family to have to work with since just about any size, texture, shape, color can be found in the holly family, and they are great front yard plants. Roses and Hydrangeas and Crepe Myrtles mostly did well under irrigation. I think that they didn't get the initial winter damage last winter since they were dormant.

I am working in a new yard every few days, cleaning up after this summer's devastation. I am working in older yards in Jackson, newer yards in Madison, and everything in between. There are so many plants that are going to have to be replaced that I don't know how this is going to go. I know people are dreading what is inevitably coming. The front yards are usually what people will deal with first since the whole world gets to see it. Front yard plants are where the plants that took the hardest hit this summer are the most visible. I have pulled up plants that seemed like they were growing in granite, it made me wonder if these weather events might have exposed a bigger problem. It looks to me like a lot of plants that didn't survive 3 months of topsy-turvy weather simply weren't planted correctly enough to survive these kinds of events. I can't stress enough the importance of amending the soil in the Northside. We have to take our time and spend the money it takes to wrap our plant's roots with a little insurance so when these things happen, we aren't spending a real fortune to replace things. I'm guilty of getting in a hurry as well. We have to do our homework so we plant the right plant in the right place. There's nothing worse than enjoying our landscapes for 10, 20, 30 years just to be devastated after a 3-month hiccup.

I think there is still a lot to be learned as we head back to normal weather patterns. Some plants might drop their leaves just so they can go into survival mode. (Magnolias are champions at this). They "know" that the fewer leaves they have, the less energy they will have to put out to survive. Given enough time, those plants might put out some fresh leaves just in time for the fear of our first frost, which might cause some tip burn. I think that some of the plants will try to make a comeback late next spring. I guess that if you are on the fence about whether to try to save a plant and wait to see how it's going to come out is to cut the dead branches out, there might not be much left, and start praying. Next spring you will have the opportunity to start fertilizing again to boost its chances of pushing enough buds out to recover. Hopefully, we can find a little sunshine in all of this by seeing this as a chance for a do-over. Whether it was you who didn't do all the right things or the landscape was done by the builder of your house, it needs to be improved. The soil and the type of plants you use from here on out matter more than just about anything. Garden centers are where you can get this kind of information and the proper materials to do your yard right. I hope this fall you can find time to shop around at all the garden centers and gather as many opinions and tips that you can and apply that information to your garden. Every garden is unique in its needs and what they give back to you so you should treat it as unique. You know better than anyone else about the nooks and crannies of your yard; you know better than anyone else about how much time and money you will spend in your yard so you have to decide how far to take the redo that is coming your way. The good news is that all of this doesn't have to be stressful since, once the obvious dead stuff is cleaned out, you can take your time doing the homework and procuring the right plants. There's no hurry to do all of this, like I said, some plants that look hopeless now might give us a second breath of hope after next winter. I am anxiously awaiting my chance to make some big decisions as to what direction to take some of my garden when the next season shows me what has to be done.

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