Keep Shrubs Alive!

Thursday, July 7, 2011
Young, but potentially tough, shrubs adapt to our rugged environments and develop tolerances for its extremes over the first two years of life in the garden. Most were rooted and grown in containers and the transition to garden soil can be a shock immediately or in a year. Likewise, the first assault of each extreme can trigger young shrubs to shut down in an attempt to survive. The first freezing winter and the first perilous summer of heat and drought can be fatal to even a ligustrum or yaupon, two of the sturdiest shrubs in our gardens. Our job as gardeners is to grow the shrubs at a thrifty, steady pace and help them adapt by taking actions that ameliorate bad conditions but do not create a shrub that is overly tender and unprepared for a long life without such assistance.
If a shrub less than five years in the garden begins to fail for no apparent reason, check the bark at its base. Splits happen there in summer, but were actually caused by freezing temperatures the winter before. That’s the purpose of those white fabric bags with drawstrings at the top and bottom. Slip one over a very young shrub when temperatures will be below freezing for more than a day to protect them. To help them cope with prolonged drought in a hot summer, set a simple reservoir next to a young shrub and let it drip for days so the root zone can stay hydrated even as the top dries out. Use a gallon jug or a big can to hold a constant supply of water and perhaps a little fertilizer. Poke holes around the base, but not in the bottom, and bury the reservoir in the soil or nestle it into the mulch around the vulnerable bush.
My strategy to grow longlived shrubs is to keep them well-fed, but not push them in those first two years. I accomplish that by fertilizing at half strength, slightly more often, during those years. It has always seemed to me that a small root system can best be encouraged to grow by supplying it with a steady, but not overwhelming, nutrient source and it works. Another excellent source of nutrition for young shrubs is the decomposing mulch around them. By working it into the soil as it rots and promptly replacing it, you’ll accomplish three goals: more organic matter in the soil to keep it healthy, more nitrogen and probably other nutrients and a consistent mulch blanket to keep conditions happily moderated between wet and dry.
In the vegetable patch: I’m celebrating a host of eggplants and peppers this week, and really like the taste of the first Roma tomatoes. They were grown from Bonnie plants purchased at Lakeland and not added to the garden until May. Today the plants are thick with fruit ripening fast in the heat. They are delicious with properly thick walls and few seeds to trouble with when I’m making sauce this weekend.
Dry weather lawn tips: raise that mower height one notch now, and increase the duration on inground irrigation systems slightly to compensate for the greater losses through evaporation in extremely hot, sunny weather. If you do not water the grass at all, and it turning brown, consider watering deeply once a week to keep it from dying. Use slow release lawn fertilizers in summer.
Personal care tips: use an effective insect repellant to keep mosquitoes away from you and your family, keep it and sunscreen handy and reapply often when spending time outdoors. Take a bottle of water to the garden, and wear a broad-brimmed hat to protect you. And do what my paleface mother did: wear an oversized white dress shirt to keep arms and shoulders from burning. Of course, she made us wear shoes in the waters off Gulfport and kept us out of the water entirely when jellyfish were sighted anywhere west of Florida. Still, a little caution is a good thing and our house was always safe from tigers – and I never even saw a jellyfish in the water with me until a few years ago.
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