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Q. Who is Mr. Smarty Plants?

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - March 02, 2011

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Butterfly Gardens, Wildlife Gardens, Planting, Transplants, Shrubs, Trees
Title: Dead woody plants in wildlife garden in Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I am an enthusiastic and pretty successful wildlife gardener, have studied my Wasowski "Bible", but I can't get any evergreens established in my yard! We live on blackland clay, which I amend with leaves and lots of compost, and so far I've tried pines, native "cedars", an evergreen sumac and three wax myrtles, but all have died. Any ideas what I am doing wrong, or what I could do better? Thanks so much from me and the shivering birds in winter.

ANSWER:

Since we don't know all the answers to your question, we appoint you temporary Detective Plants. We are going to give you the questions to answer yourself, and some links from which you can get more help. The best we can tell, this is what we call a "wrong plant, wrong place, wrong time" situation. Only you, being on the spot as it were, can determine which one or more (maybe all three) has contributed to your plant failures.

Let's begin with: Is this the right plant for my purpose? This would include finding out if a plant is native to your area, that will flourish in the soil that you have. For instance, there are 10 pines native to Texas, but some of them only grow natively in far East Texas or far West Texas. Both the Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper) ("cedar") and pines are conifers. Conifers are noted for having taproots, long taproots, even on a very small plant. Damage to this taproot can be fatal; neither tree transplants very successfully.

How about: Is this plant in the right place for its requirements? You need to go to our Native Plant Database, and search on either the common or scientific name for the plant you are considering and find out what soil types it can grow in, whether it needs sun or shade, how large it will get and will that interfere with other plants or hardscape, such as foundations and sidewalks?

Finally, was the plant put in the ground in the right way and at the right time? Especially for woody plants, planting during their dormant time, preferaby late Fall or early Winter in our climate, is crucial. Sometimes people look at a spot, decide they needed shade there, bought a tree and popped it in the ground, on an August afternoon, because that was when they needed the shade. Then, they are puzzled when that tree does not leaf back out in the Spring. Transplant shock is one of the greatest causes of death in trees, especially, and it is preventable. We think this article Transplanting Woody Plants from the University of Georgia is probably one of the best and most comprehensive instructional we have found.

One last piece of advice: Look before you leap, or perhaps research before you dig. Do all of the above things, finding out all you can about the situation and the right plants for it, before you procure the plant. That is much less expensive in use of resources, including your time and monetary outlay, fertilizer (don't, not a new plant) water and effort put into producing, shipping and marketing that plant. If you still don't have success, perhaps you should look around you and see if others are having similar problems. If so, we would suggest a soil test. You can get instructions for how to do this from the Texas AgriLIFE Extension Service for Travis County.

By the way, have you seen our How-To Article on Wildlife Gardening?

 

 

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