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Mr. Smarty Plants - User comments on soils from Austin

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Tuesday - July 02, 2013

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: User Comments, Soils, Trees
Title: User comments on soils from Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

You had a question this month about chlorosis in a Mexican plum in Bellaire. You correctly, in my opinion, answered that the problem was most likely overwatering. However, I just wanted to point out a flaw in your assumption that the soil was likely to be acidic because of the more eastern location. Benny Simpson mentioned at a lecture at the 1992 Urban Forestry conference that trees in urban landscapes are planted in soil that has been exposed to the use of concrete, mortar, and other alkaline substances during construction. As a result, it will be more alkaline than the surrounding soil. His point was that Shumard oaks planted as street trees in Texas ought to be grown from seed sourced in the Hill Country--regardless of the general soil characteristics in the area. But, again, I'm sure you're right about overwatering being the problem. My neighbor here in Austin has a red oak that really wants to be a lot closer to the Piney Woods. It has persistently suffered from chlorosis. But it all but died in the year several years ago that was so wet. A nurseryman in Amarillo, who I couldn't convince to stock bigtooth maples (he "knew" they wouldn't be able to live in Amarillo's alkaline soils), noted that red oaks and maples do well enough there except when they get overwatered. Closing up the airspace just makes everything worse. Seems right on target with the plum as well as with what I observed next door. Thanks again for your great advice!

ANSWER:

Thank you for your comments. As it happens, we quite agree with you on most points. It is often necessary for Mr. Smarty Plants to be a far seeing magician. While some of our Team are (like this one) life-long gardeners and some have doctorates in Botany or Zoology or other heavy degrees, most of our questions have to be answered with simple common sense. Not only have we not personally lived in the area from which we may get questions, we certainly may not have experience with the plants, soil or climates that our visitors are dealing with. We may have questions from new gardeners that have never stuck a toe in dirt before, and don't have a clue what effects it can have on the gardening results they get. We have many, many who have gone into a large commercial nursery on the first pretty day in Spring, and bought a carload of plants that are bright and gorgeous and start dying by the time they get home. Others have gardened for years and have landscapers to do the work and never even think about it until something they were told would work somewhere years ago begins to crack foundations or mess up septic systems.

Mr. Smarty Plants whole goal is to keep gardeners from having bad consequences to poor decisions. The best advice we can offer to those who made the kind of bad decisions we just described is to recommend is a time machine, so they can go back and not plant that tree so close to the house or spend hundreds of dollars on plants that don't have a chance in their climate and soils. We recommend plants native to an area because they have the best chance of working in the same area where they evolved. There are so many different soils in any one area that your neighbor may be able to grow something that keeps dying in your yard. As trees grow up in an area, plants that once bloomed and flourished in the sun begin to droop and stop blooming because they no longer have as much light as they need.

When we get a question from an obviously brand-new gardener, especially one who has just moved into an "inherited" landscape, we can only try to help them educate theselves. We can be right in general and dead wrong in specifics. Even if they can afford landscapers, they may still get advice that truly doesn't work for them, especially in the long run.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, home of Mr. Smarty Plants, is a beautiful botanic garden, an education and research center and a really fun place to visit. But, at the bottom is a conservation project and a conservator of resources. And by resources, we mean water, oxygen, money, time and back muscles. It may not seem like much to plant a garden that doesn't have water-hogging lawn grasses or huge, non-native invasive trees, or to avoid large impermeable surfaces that don't permit the growth of oxygen producing plants, or even to plant things that will take over a neighborhood, but every little bit counts. Imprudent use of the land because it doesn't matter, you are not going to live there that long is an incredible waste.

So, we continue to publish our sometimes too long (like this one), sometimes too short (like "no, you can't do that"), sometimes inaccurate, incomplete (our fingers get tired) or even dead wrong answers because people do read them, and maybe move on to use our Native Plant Database, to find native plants in our National Suppliers Directory and, of course, come to the Wildflower Center to view the living proof of what we teach. So, we are going to publish your comments and let them speak for themselves, as our answers must.

 

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