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Mr. Smarty Plants - Non-native <i>Podocarpus macrophyllus</i> in Ft Worth TX

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Saturday - November 12, 2011

From: Fort worth, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Non-Natives, Compost and Mulch, Pruning, Soils, Shrubs
Title: Non-native Podocarpus macrophyllus in Ft Worth TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I know this question does not pertain to a native plant but I've spent too much time not finding an answer to my question. I have many mature Podocarpus macrophyllus bushes at my house I purchased in May. They were nice and green before the heat wave and suffered without water for at least a month. There is some green growth towards the base of some of the trunks. I need to know if these bushes stand a chance by cutting off the dead! Should I cut them all the way back to feed the "live" parts of the bushes or should I wait until spring? Or should I just give up and pull them out and say grace? I can't begin to think how many thousands of dollars it will take to replace these bushes if I can't save them! I would appreciate any advice you could give me!

ANSWER:

Although, as you say, this plant is not native to North America but to China and Japan, the problems you are having could happen just as well to a native plant, so we want to point out what we think has occurred. It really is transplant shock, for a variety of different reasons, and often that kills plants faster than anything else. See this article from Floridata on Podocarpus macrophylla, Japanese yew, to give you more information, since it will obviously not appear in our Native Plant Database.

This is what we call a "wrong plant, wrong place, wrong time" situation. Obviously, we always think a non-native plant is the wrong plant. However, it has been said that plants grow not necessarily where they belong but where they can get away with it. Planting a number of large, resource-thirsty plants where they don't belong is always a gamble, because perhaps they won't get away with it.

In the second place, the referenced article says that the yew prefers fertile, well drained soil and requires moisture. We have gardened in the Tarrant County area and will bet you have neither fertile nor well-drained soil, but clay which is fertile but the alkalinity of the soil prevents access to necessary minerals in the soil. Sand drains well, but is not fertile, and water tends to drain away too quickly to do the plant any good. The need for moist soil is also stressed, and if you were not watering because of restrictions, and it didn't rain, as we know it has not on a regular basis, that was also a severe strain on the new roots of the plants. Those considerations qualify this as the wrong place.

And, finally, wrong time. No matter what the nativity of a woody plant is, we always recommend that, especially in hot, often arid Texas, that this be restricted to the cold months of the year, when the plants are semi-dormant. Taking plants that are already stressed by having been placed in plastic pots and left there for an unknown amount of time, and putting them out in the blazing heat and parched conditions Texas has experienced this year is possibly asking too much of any plant.

So, to answer your question. If no provision was made to amend the soil with compost or other organic materials to improve the drainability of the soil, that is likely the No. 1 reason for the failure of the plants. Also, if this drainage problem was not addressed, pouring water on them now could drown the roots, or cause rot. First suggestion, you want to know if the plants are alive right now, before you make decisions on treatment or replacement. Use the thumbnail test-scratch a very thin layer off a stem high up on the bush with your thumbnail. If there is no green layer beneath that, that particular branch is dead and will not rejuvenate. Move on down the bush, repeating the test. If you come to a green layer before you get to the roots, that shrub is still alive, and may have gone into heat dormancy to try to survive.

Any shrubs that show signs of life should be treated first with deep watering. Stick a hose down as far in the soil around the roots as it will go, and let water dribble slowly until water comes to the surface about once a week. If the water stands on the surface for more than about half an hour, the soil is definitely not draining properly. In that case, repeat the process for a shorter time and more frequently. Do not fertilize. Fertilzer will be pushing the plant to put on new leaves when it is struggling just to stay alive.

If you determine that some of the upper portions of each plant are dead, they might as well be pruned off and take some of the load off the roots. And next time, if there is a next time, look before you leap. Determine just how suited the plant is to your climatic conditions and soils, plant at the right time and be sure water can be provided on a regular basis if rain is very infrequent.

 

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