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Bad trees and good leaves

Thursday - 11/18/2010, 9:47am  ET

Warning: Some Poplars are Real Problems

You know how I've been saying that this is a great time of year to plant trees? Well, I should add that not all trees should be planted. Pestiferous Darci in DC emails that she planted a "hybrid poplar "in 2008, and two similar saplings have shot up nearby, one right through her deck! She wants to know if cutting the little trees down will adversely affect the main tree.

Ha! You should be so lucky, Darci! Many species of poplar are notorious for having aggressive root systems that attack pipes and paving, and for ‘suckering'; that is, sending up these kinds of adventurous shoots. And those shoots will keep on coming, even after you cut the main tree down. I'd remove the entire mess—main tree, little trees and all the roots—before you have even bigger problems.

Research Trees BEFORE You Plant Them

Darci's sad tale of the young poplar she planted that's sending up unwanted shoots all over the place illustrates what can happen when you fall for the wrong kind of tree. You should always research the habits—good and bad—of specific trees before you buy.

Poplars are notorious for causing problems with adventurous root systems, as are willows and locust trees. And fast growing, inexpensive trees like the Bradford pear are despised for having extremely weak branches that seem to just be waiting for the first weather event to shatter. High-quality, well-behaved trees are a great investment, and they're often a bargain at this time of year. But a cheap tree is just that; a bad investment that will cause you all kinds of headaches for years to come.

Leaf Mulch? Its All Around If You Could But See!

Ken in Jessup, Maryland writes: "Heard you talking about leaf mulch. I've never seen it. Where can I get some? I need it for six roses and six azaleas. Garden centers don't seem to know anything about non-wood mulch." That's not surprising, Ken. Despite its capacity to damage homes and cars with mold spores (especially artillery fungus) and kill nearby plants, wood mulch is heavily marketed and highly profitable. It's a great example of "everybody does it and everybody who does it is wrong". Shredded leaf mulch causes no nuisance mold problems, feeds and protects plants and prevents weeds just as well as nasty chipped wood. But you don't buy it—you make it! Get an inexpensive blower vac, suck up all the leaves on your property and then use the shredded result to mulch your plants.

Think Before You Mulch

In our last thrilling episode, Ken asked where to find my recommended leaf mulch for his azaleas and roses. The answer, of course, is all around; leaf mulch is free for the shredding!

But I'm concerned about his basic request, and the growing tendency for people to mulch their landscapes to death. Newly planted trees and shrubs can benefit from a mulch of an inch or two of well-shredded leaves to prevent their roots heaving out of the soil over winter—but established plants don't need any mulch.

And no plant needs wood mulch or these ridiculous blankies of mulch wrapped around their base. Such "protection" is actually an invitation for mice and voles to gnaw away at the bark and for rot and disease to destroy the plant. If you have mulch touching any of your plants, move it back now—so that there's at least a few inches of open area all around the trunk or stem of the plants.

Make ‘Black Friday' a Black GOLD Friday!

It's almost Turkey Time! And if you have that nice long weekend off coming up, consider using some of the time to claim Nature's finest resource for your landscape. The leaves that fall from our trees are filled with the perfect blend of minerals and nutrients to make and keep your plants healthy; either in the form of shredded leaf mulch or compost made from those fall leaves.

Just shred the leaves up with a blower/vac on its reverse setting and use them as mulch. (Don't touch the plants with mulch; start a few inches away from the trunk.) Or store your shredded leaves in bags for mulching time next Spring.

If you stack them up in a big open pile or bin outdoors, shredded leaves alone will eventually become compost. But if you mix in lots of spent coffee grounds as you go, they'll become high-quality black gold by next Spring. Either way, compost and shredded leaves are better mulches than wood, safer than wood—and they're free!

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