Asking the right questions

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
Aug. 24, 2014 @ 03:08 PM

One of the fun parts of my job is answering plant questions. But it’s tricky, because about half the time I have to decode the question and then let the customer know they’ve been asking the wrong question all along.

Here’s an example: About 342 times over the years I’ve been asked, “What’s the best grass for this area?” But the question I’m really being asked is: “What grass can I plant that will look great without soil preparation, irrigation, fertilization or weed management?” And here’s the question my customer should be asking: “Where in the U.S. is it easier to grow a nice lawn, ‘cause it sure ain’t piedmont N.C.?”

Here’s another example: “Can you recommend a fast-growing shrub?” The decoded version is, “Can you recommend an inexpensive shrub that will reach a height of 8 feet in a few months and then stop growing?” And the question they should be asking is, “Where’s the best place to buy lumber to build a screen fence?”

Yes, the problem with the fast-growing shrub is that they don’t stop growing. That means in a few years you will have to choose from the following options:

Option 1 — Shrub reaches desired height. Begin aggressive biannual pruning campaign. Search internet for industrial atomic-powered pruning shears from Sweden.

Option 2 — Shrub reaches desired height. Enjoy the moment. Take a picture for posterity. Sit back and watch as shrub becomes ginormous in coming years. Years later face weeks of work removing shrubs that have engulfed yard and trapped you in house.

Option 3 — Build time machine. Go back to day you purchased shrub and choose differently.

It’s true, my job will be much easier once we all have time-traveling DeLoreans. Isn’t Google working on that?

In the meantime, you can make my job much easier by doing just a bit more research on plant selection. And after all, I’m pretty sure “making Paul’s job easier” is a goal we can all share and work toward.

Oh, and there’s the added benefit that you will be happier with your landscape, but that’s obviously secondary to the whole “make Paul’s life easier” thing.

When selecting plants, I suggest you ignore “growth rate” as a criteria. Instead, start with “size at maturity” (also note, whatever numbers you find in the reference books or internet, add 10 or 20 percent).

The next important criteria is to find out whether a particular shrub is commonly attacked by insects or pathogens. There are a number of plants that I would not plant for this very reason.

My personal “do not plant” list would include Leyland Cypress (don’t get me started!), Bradford pear (poor structure, fireblight) and Japanese hollies (root rot, nematodes), among others. Note that this is personal preference and there are situations where each of these plants might be a perfectly good choice. But the flip side is that there are great performing alternatives for all these plants.

It’s also worth noting that many of the problems I see involve situations where someone planted five, 10 or 50 of the same plant. It’s one thing to lose a single plant that stands alone. It’s another to lose one in the middle of a formal hedge, or have a pest that starts working on the whole row.

So until we get those time machines, a little up front research will help you avoid a host of problems.