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Planting questions answered

Saturday - 1/15/2011, 2:04pm  ET

Planting under White Pines

Eric in Sterling writes: "We have several White Pine trees in our backyard, under which is bare ground; the typical red clay that's around here. I've read that a variety of plants can thrive in the acidic shade of pines, such as hosta, azalea, strawberries, and lily of the valley. Is there anything that will grow in that red clay that we could plant to fill in those bare areas?"

I don't recommend it, Eric. Those trees are real bullies, with roots that steal every bit of food and water they can find, leaving little to nothing for other plants. And those same roots make it difficult-to-impossible to install plants close to the tree. This is why the areas under trees typically contain no other plants in nature. I suggest you allow the abundant needles that those white pines drop to decoratively cover the soil beneath the trees; and look elsewhere for your other plants to play.

Why not ‘leave' whole leaves on the lawn?

Kriss in D.C. queries the question: "Aren't fallen leaves a good natural mulch? I see leaf blowing crews all over the place, and it seems that the leaves would be good protection for lawns, bushes, shrubs and such."

Not so, Kriss. Whole leaves mat down like a tarp, smothering any low growing plants they cover completely— especially lawns, which tend to suffer the worst. Nature is much more Darwin than Disney, and one of the many things that deciduous trees accomplish when they drop their leaves is to reduce competition from other plants. That's why I urge our listeners every fall to run their leaves over with a mower or suck and shred them with a leaf blower set on reverse. Shredded leaves are as good for your plants as whole leaves are bad.

Lawn Feeding on Frozen Ground

Matthew in Frederick writes: "I hired a service to fertilize my lawn, kill weeds and such. However, this summer's dry spell did not allow them to follow their normal schedule, and on December 15th , with a high temperature of 31 and the ground frozen hard, I was shocked to come home and find that they had applied a 'Late Fall heavy feeding' to the lawn. Several websites I consulted said to never apply fertilizer to frozen ground, as it would not be absorbed by the turf, and it would harm the environment by running off into the water supply."

That's correct, Matt, and it's one of the most egregious lawn care villainies I've ever heard. I suggest you cancel this service; and I further suggest that you don't replace it. Lawn care companies generally overfeed lawns to the point where the turf actually suffers — especially if their schedule includes feeding it in the summer. And a well-kept lawn doesn't need herbicides or any of those other sprays. And all of those treatments harm our fragile water supplies.

I suggest you simply hire someone to give your lawn the only two things it needs besides a three inch high cut: one feeding each in Spring and Fall. Never feed a cool- season lawn in the summer; and never, never, never feed any lawn in the Winter!

Buying a Home to Grow In

Jason & Amy in Columbia, Maryland have a great question: "We're starting to shop around for our first home; we want to grow some vegetables and maybe plant a fruit tree in whatever little bit of land comes with our townhouse. What should we be looking for when comparing properties? Is there a particular time of day that our plants will need sun? And, is there a quick way to estimate the quality of the soil?"

Great questions and timing, J & A! The veggies and fruit tree want morning sun, with at least some of that sun lasting for eight hours. Don't worry about the soil, as it's a lot easier to improve than the hours and times of sun. (And I'm going to nag you to build raised beds for the veggies and other annuals anyway.)

Your biggest concern should be potential restrictions on doing any of the above. Make sure that the homeowners association, local municipality or other governing body will allow you to plant what you want, where you want. And while you're at it, avoid places where a service is contracted to care for the lawn; you don't want to be anywhere near what they're spraying!

Let Worms Eat Your Kitchen Waste

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