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Trees & Shrubs

Dear Victory Garden

We planted a Red Japanese Maple in our backyard last year. Now I want to move it. What can I do to make sure it doesn't die and does it need to be done at a certain time of the year? It is about three feet tall and looks very healthy. — Debbie, Moore, Oklahoma

Dear Debbie,

The best time to transplant a Japanese Maple is when it's dormant. This minimizes the shock to the plant and lets it focus on re-establishing its roots.

That having been said, if you have to move it at some other time of year, you can, particularly since it was planted so recently. The primary cause of death after transplanting anything during the growing season is desiccation—it's very easy for the plant to dry out when it has lost so much of its root mass and still has the full complement of leaves. A reputable nursery in our area suggests that if a large tree or shrub needs to be planted in the summer, it should be watered well daily for a week and then weekly until the ground freezes.

To increase the likelihood of success of the transplant, pick its new spot very carefully—you don't want to have to move it again. Keep in mind its ultimate shape and size. It's very easy to plant a cute little tree next to the house or a walk, only to have to wrestle with it for years as it pushes aside your gutters or sprawls out over the path. Also, remember that most Japanese Maples like light but tend to scorch in full sun. They should be planted in light shade where there is some shelter from drying winds and scorching sun. When the tree is young its bark is delicate and can easily split if exposed to freeze-thaw cycles, which can happen when the winter sun hits the trunk. And of course, avoid planting it where the trunk is likely to be damaged by mowers or string trimmers.

Dear Victory Garden

I built a new home on a lot five years ago that had a Japanese maple on it that was planted over 30 years ago by the neighbor next door. The lot we purchased has been owned by him since 1950. The tree has done beautifully since we built, but this spring probably half the tree is failing to bloom or come into leaf. We had a rather dry summer last year and a very wet and snowy winter, although not excessively (below 20 degrees) cold. This is a beautiful tree, 30 feet high with a spread of at least 20 feet. We did pour a concrete sidewalk about 15 feet away from one side of this tree last summer, could this be the problem? We would hate to loose this tree, but we do not know what to do. Do you think it needs water or maybe it has a disease? — Patti, Doylestown, Ohio

Dear Patti,

Putting in a sidewalk can have an effect on an established tree. Most trees have feeder roots, close to the surface, that extend about as far out from the tree as the tree is tall—in this case, about 30 feet—so a sidewalk 15 feet away did cut a lot of roots. It also depends on how deep the construction extended; if the sidewalk was essentially asphalt on soil, it won't last long, but neither did it do much to the root layer. If the sidewalk was on a proper base that required digging down a foot or more, of course the impact was bigger.

Having said that, it is unlikely that a sidewalk 15 feet away from a 30-foot tree would kill half the tree in one year. It is more likely that the tree is stressed from a variety of other reasons and maybe the sidewalk put it over the top. I would strongly encourage you to consult an arborist.

For recommendations for selecting an arborist, visit The Ohio State University.

For a list of all certified arborists in the United States, visit the International Society of Arboriculture.

Dear Victory Garden

I have a black walnut tree in my yard that has already killed a Japanese Maple with its toxic roots. What trees or plants (roses? hydrangea? dogwood? paperbark maples?) can I plant in the area adjacent and hope they will grow? Thanks ! — Susan, Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Dear Susan,

The black walnut, Juglans nigra, which is native to Virginia, grows from Maine to Michigan and south to Texas and Georgia. The question refers to Allelopathy, a complex phenomenon about the toxic effects of black walnut on neighboring plants by a secretion of biochemical materials into the environment to inhibit germination or growth. Symptoms include leaf wilting and yellowing, or death of part or all of a plant.

Tolerant trees and shrubs include American arborvitae, white ash, American beech, 'Heritage' river birch, box elder, Ohio buckeye, black cherry, crabapple, daphne, dogwood, elderberry, forsythia, fringe tree, golden raintree, globeflower, hawthorn, Canadian hemlock, hibiscus, American holly, honeylocust, hydrangea, lilac, maple, (red, sugar, black, and Japanese), ninebark, oak (white, red, and scarlet), callery pear, privet, eastern red cedar, redbud, serviceberry, Norway spruce, sumac, viburnum (some species), and witchhazel.

Dear Victory Garden

I wanted to propagate a cutting from a white lilac bush. How easy is it and does it require any special attention? I have propagated roses and had a lot of success, but never a lilac. Thank you for any information you can provide. — Rose, Olmsted Falls, Ohio

Dear Rose,

Cuttings are taken in late May through early July from this season's growth. Cutting material (four to six inches) should be flexible, but snap when sharply bent. Make a cut just below the point where one or two leaves are attached to the stem. Pinch off the leaves on the lower half of the cutting and remove any flowers. Then dip one end of the cutting in a root-promoting compound. Insert the cutting approximately two inches into the rooting medium. The rooting medium must retain moisture and drain well. Coarse sand, perlite, and vermiculite are good rooting materials. After all the cuttings are inserted, water the cuttings and let it drain. Cover the cuttings to reduce water loss and then place the cuttings in bright light, but not direct sunlight. Rooting of most deciduous shrubs should occur in six to eight weeks, but can take up to 12 weeks.

When the cuttings have well-developed root systems, they should be hardened off in preparation for transplanting. After a few days, carefully remove the cuttings and transplant into individual pots. The young plants can be planted into the ground in a few weeks. Gardeners may want to grow them in the garden for one or two years before moving the small shrubs to their permanent site in the landscape. It will take several years for a rooted cutting to become a nice-sized plant.

Dear Victory Garden

I am having a problem with my arborvitae trees. I planted 30 six-foot trees last October and have lost five trees to date. The remaining trees are not doing well. Can you recommend a fast-growing replacement growing to 30 feet that thrives in part shade to part sun? — Rick, Hauppauge, New York

Dear Rick,

From the number of trees you planted, I'm guessing that you are trying to create a screen. We have shied away from using the eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) for a number of years now, for reasons that may have nothing to do with the problems besetting yours. Our solution has been to substitute other similar species that seem to be immune to the ills eastern arborvitaes are susceptible to: for instance, the western arborvitae (Thuja plicata) or the lovely Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula'). Since you live on Long Island, which is a bit warmer than Massachusetts, I might also recommend Leyland Cypress. This is an intergeneric cross between a true cypress and a false cypress. It doesn't grow well for us, but it might be just right for you, and a number of cultivars are available with different colors and growth habits.

Dear Victory Garden

I have two dogwood trees (the kind that bloom after they get leaves), which have an unusual abundance of fruit this year. The branches are bending a great deal because of the weight of the red fruit. Is it okay to pick the fruit, or is it better to let it fall to the ground naturally? Is the fruit consumed by animals or birds? — Sondra, Mishawaka, Indiana

Dear Sondra,

It sounds to me like you have a kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), a native of Asia. The abundance of fruit tells me that you must have had a splendid flower display the past June. If the branches are bending, but not breaking, why not leave well enough alone and enjoy the display of attractive fruit as well? It turns out that the fruit is edible, which is not to say that it is enjoyable to eat. I suspect that birds, and small mammals such as chipmunks, snack on it now and then, and as you may have noticed, it contains viable seeds that often result in a crop of dogwood seedlings near the parent tree. I collected some of these from my own garden, holding them in a nursery bed until they were large enough to be planted in the landscape, but was eventually disappointed to discover that the offspring did not flower nearly so well as the original specimen.

Dear Victory Garden

I have a large hill that faces west. I would like to plant something there that stays green all year. Mostly, I do not want to cut grass. I had thought about creeping juniper, but maybe something large with it, something that grows fast. — Debbie, Owensboro, Kentucky

Dear Debbie,

If you want something that stays green all year, then you can't go wrong with evergreen conifers. But why settle for just green? Creeping junipers come in a variety of colors, including blue and gold, and even the green ones vary in hue according to species and variety. Some of my favorites are J. squamata 'Blue Star', J. horizontalis 'Mother Lode', and J. procumbens 'Nana'. A good nursery will have many more to choose from. Plant them in swaths of five to seven (at least) to avoid having your landscape look too busy. Likewise, there are many taller, fast-growing conifers that would look good rising above a carpet of junipers. Colorado Blue Spruce and Fraser Fir come to mind.

Dear Victory Garden

We live on the costal plains in Texas. Our trees, which include oaks, pears, etc., have lichen growing on them. Most of the trees seem to do just fine with the growths. Can or will it hurt our trees? If so, what can we do to minimize the lichens? — John, Orchard, Texas

Dear John,

Your trees and your lichen have a symbiotic relationship: each grows without harming the other, as opposed to a parasitic relationship, where one element preys on the other. Not only are your lichens pretty, but they indicate good air quality; they won't grow in highly polluted environments, so my advice would be to just sit back and enjoy the fresh air!

Dear Victory Garden

I have 2 questions:

1) This past winter was brutal. I was surprised that my peonies did just fine, and a blue potato sprouted from last year's harvest. I was not surprised to have lost some roses and tulips. What totally startled and upset me was the loss of a young Am Red Bud tree that I had planted four years ago. Red Buds are reported to be very tolerant of conditions. It was in a sheltered spot. Is there anything I could have done to prevent this?

2) I am very concerned with the environment and I garden for wildlife. That's pollinators, birds, reptiles, and mammals. Any suggestions for plantings?

Thank you.

P.S. I watch only about three or four hours of TV a week. The Victory Garden is my #1 priority and I try not to miss an episode. Thank you for a wonderful learning experience! — Diana, Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Dear Diana,

One of the greatest trials in gardening is that we can't control Ol' Man Winter. Severe winters like the one last year (which you aptly called brutal) can kill plants new and old. While Red Buds are in fact hardy, younger plants are more susceptible to weather extremes, and it seems your weather was just extreme enough. There was nothing more you could have done. Here at the Victory Garden we lost several established plantings, including a 10-year-old ivy bed, and several 12-year-old hollies. Like the old Fred Astaire song goes, there's nothing to do except "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!"

As for your second question, I'm glad to see you're gardening with wildlife in mind. I find that attracting nature into the garden is one of the most interesting aspects of horticulture. There are two principal things you can do to enhance the number of species in your garden. The first is to provide ample water, in the form of a pond, small stream or even a bird bath. Everybody needs a drink now and then, and once you set out the bar, you'll be surprised how many different patrons arrive to enjoy your hospitality! The second important part of wildlife gardening is to include native plant materials in your landscape to provide wildlife with the food and shelter they need to survive. If you check with your local cooperative extension service, they'll generally be happy to provide you with a list of native plant materials suitable for your area.

And thanks for the great compliment!

Dear Victory Garden

My husband and I recently bought a weeping Japanese maple. We planted it in mid-April. It is growing, but the new growth is the only dark purple on the tree. Why are the rest of the leaves on the tree not purple? — Samantha, Mt. Sterling, Kentucky

Dear Samantha,

There are many varieties of Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), some with green leaves and some with purple leaves. On some cultivars only the new growth is purple. It sounds like you have one of those. If the label that came with the plant states that its mature foliage is supposed to be purple, then that information is obviously incorrect and you have a legitimate complaint which you can take up with the nursery where you purchased it. Also, do some research on the named variety you bought. If this variety is in fact one with purple foliage, then your tree was mislabeled, which is also grounds for complaint.

Dear Victory Garden

I have a ficus tree that was looking pitiful through the winter; she was stuck upstairs alone with indirect light from two windows and we had to squeeze by her to go from one room to another. This spring I bought her a beautiful planter and put her outside under a sheltering tree. To say she is happy and flourishing would be an understatement! She is at least twice as tall and four times as big around. Everyday I have sprayed her leaves and told her how beautiful she is, and she is amazingly beautiful! Now winter is coming. It will frost in November and our temperature goes down as low as the teens. She's huge! Would she die if I planted her outside? I'd love to place her back in my home but there is not enough room. Please make suggestions. —Rose, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

Dear Rose,

This is a wonderful story, but it looks like you've done too good a job revitalizing your ficus. She would likely die if you planted her outside. Do you know anyone with a heated greenhouse or solarium who might have space to keep your tree for the winter? Perhaps you could prune her down to a manageable size, but if you do, consult a book on pruning first (or get advice from someone, such as the manager of a garden center where indoor plants are sold). Above all, do not move your ficus to a larger pot, and go easy on the fertilizer in the future.

Dear Victory Garden

We have recently bought a house that has several yew bushes in the side yard. We would like to transplant these yew bushes, which we think are Hicks yews. We believe the bushes could be several years old given the age of the house and landscaping. We need tips and pointers and procedures please. Other than using transplant fertilizer, we don't know how much of the root system should be moved with each bush. — Debbie, Ontario, Canada

Dear Debbie,

Young yews can be moved fairly easily, provided that they are indeed young. Once they are well established however, they develop a tap root system that extends practically down to China, and are next to impossible to transplant. The process is fairly straightforward, and is similar to transplanting any evergreen shrub. Evergreens, unlike deciduous shrubs, can be moved at any time before or after the first new flush growth has hardened off in the late spring, as long as they are kept well watered during the summer months. (Deciduous shrubs must be moved when dormant.)

After first preparing the yews' new home by digging large ample holes and adding plenty of organic matter such as compost, as well as some super-phosphate to promote root growth, dig up as much of the yews' root system as you can, preserving as much of the soil around the roots as possible. Transfer the yew to its new hole, firm up the soil around the roots, and water very well. Don't add any fertilizer with a high nitrogen content (the first number on the fertilizer bag) until the next year—you want to encourage root growth, not top growth, the first season. With a little luck and care, your yews should do just fine.

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Updated April 2, 2009