Monday, November 21, 2011

When Plants Get In Your Face

It all started innocently one spring, when I spotted a cute little seedling sprouting in the landscape bed near  the front porch. At first, I mistook the volunteer for a Rose of Sharon shrub, of which I had many. But when it shot up to shoulder height, I got the news: a mulberry tree.

I backed off, gave it a brief moment of thought, and decided, Okay. It'll grow up and shade the porch from the blistering summer sun. So I let it grow...and grow...and grow, barely four feet from the foundation. Of course, as the tree matured, its branches played havoc with roof shingles. During severe storms, its swaying and lashing threatened to do even more damage. And we won't even mention the masses of purple mulberries that rained onto the porch and got tracked indoors during the fruiting season.

Eventually, we had to remove the too-close mulberry. Sadly surveying the vacated spot, I replaced the volunteer with a crape myrtle that would grow and provide shade without turning into a 100-pound gorilla in the room.

All too often, trees growing too close to structures started out as volunteers that someone lacked the heart or the interest to evict. The tree at the right is undoubtedly one of those, its trunk pressed right up against a stone wall. (This sad example has the added misfortune of being wrapped in Treacherous Beauty.) Someday, this misfit will feel the bite of a chainsaw and be brought down long before its time.

But trees growing too close to structures were often put there on purpose. I've seen young Japanese laceleaf maples planted next to walkways in foundation beds barely 18 inches deep, when these pricey trees mature into mushroom shapes that will turn into an obstacle course for pedestrians.

And that's one of the most common mistakes homeowners make when planting trees: not taking into consideration their mature size and shape. Unlike the furniture in your living room, these important elements of the landscape cannot be moved around when their size or shape has matured into proportions that no longer suit their location.

Shrubs tend to be an even more common "too close for comfort" problem. When most people plant a tree, they expect it to get bigger, and so at least make an effort to plant it some distance from structures, even if that distance eventually proves to be not far enough. But for some reason, the cute little arborvitae or American holly plant brought home from the garden center in a one-gallon container often doesn't get the same amount of consideration.

Needless to say, an 8-foot-tall shrub growing 2 feet from a wall won't be able to mature into its full glory. And, as with a tree growing too close for comfort, the cramped plant is likely to be less robust, more vulnerable to problems caused by poor air circulation, and more apt to succumb to extreme weather conditions.

Even when shrubs are spaced properly, they're no gift to the landscape if they are neglected. The plantings at the left have been allowed to grossly overgrow their purpose,  darkening the windows from the inside and all but hiding the house on the outside. If this property were to be put on the market, the run-amok shrubs alone would be enough to turn off many potential buyers. And the overgrowth makes it impossible to do routine maintenance work on the exterior of the house.

On my own recently-purchased property, two crape myrtles were planted right up against a window bump-out, where they scrape against the paint and don't have room to grow into their proper shape. So,although they are obviously long-established plants, they will have to be dug up and moved out a few feet next spring. Then they will have to undergo rehabilitation pruning for several years to come.

How much simpler it would be if they had been properly located when they were originally planted.

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