In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
November, 2012
Regional Report

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Let a few escapees from a nearby bed fill shady space where grass cannot grow.

Relax and Garden

There is plenty to worry about in life -- and in gardening. Sure, there are weeds and bugs and plants that just will not do right. But gardeners can rejoice that there are also lots of curious things happening in the garden that are not troublesome at all.

Lichen is a living combination of green algae and fungi that does no harm to the plant it lives on. But its presence can be a signal that all is not well with the plant because it doesn't thrive on the expanding bark of actively growing trees and shrubs. I seem to see it most often on shrubs and trees that have apparently never been pruned and are overgrown. Lichen also favors stunted trees, those that have been in the ground five years or more without noticeably growing. It is also commonly found on fruit trees that have produced for years without fertilizer. To decrease the amount of lichens on your plants, figure out first what is keeping them from growing vigorously. Address the underlying problem, then prune out the most affected wood at the right time for the particular species. Follow with a fertilizer regime to stimulate new growth.

Dodder, on the other hand, is a plant that can harm the plant its growing on. A true parasite, it takes all its nourishment from its host. Dodder can be a serious threat to plants, reducing growth and in some cases even killing plants as diverse as alfalfa and dahlia but is strangely beautiful and fascinates at first glance. It is a naked vine that twines around everything in its reach with yellow, orange, and occasionally red leafless stems. More than anything else I have ever seen, dodder resembles a pile of thin gauge, plastic coated wire. It blooms and produces seed that can hang around a site for years until the right host shows up. Dodder is patient but not kind; on the rare occasion that you see it in your landscape, admire its oddity, take pictures, and get rid of it. Its presence in our regions indicates an area that has been neglected too long and is overrun with Virginia creeper or trumpet vine, two of its favorite hosts.

Shady Weeds
Years ago I had a landscape client with a muddy mess under a dense oak canopy. Among the plants there were several that I knew would be useful even though they are considered lawn weeds. She disagreed vehemently and we parted company, but I am still right. If dichondra or creeping jenny or wild strawberry can be contained in a space where the lawn is shaded out, there is no good reason to rip them out in favor of mud. Their roots stabilize the soil, prevent erosion around tree roots, and give a green glow that looks nice. Trim them before they bloom or begin to spread beyond their designated area. Think of such plants as living mulch and let them be.

Moss is another controversial plant that can be a godsend to shady, wet areas if used wisely. Common moss grows in the damp spaces turf grass cannot tolerate. Otherwise reasonable people dig it up, spray it, lime it, and go to extremes trying to get rid of nature's most natural ground cover because of a misconception. They think the moss is killing the grass, but in fact it is the shade that's keeping the grass from growing. Moss may be the only plant that grows well in the conditions it favors, and nothing looks better on a rock or shady soil surface.

Raking Leaves or Not
As with mulch, there are limits to the amount of fallen leaves one garden can take. One inch of organic matter on top of the soil in a garden bed is plenty for most of the garden. Two inches is great, three inches or more is counterproductive. Mulch and fallen leaves can moderate soil conditions to keep the soil from becoming too wet or dry. However, water can be trapped in a thick layer of the material, preventing moisture from reaching the ground below. On the other hand, those mulch volcanoes piled up around trees can hold moisture around the trunk, leading to rot and disease. Raking leaves off the lawn is a good idea, but in the rest of the garden use the two inch rule and relax.

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