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Want to avoid the winter blahs? Think vertical

December 28, 2007
The Advertiser-Tribune
Many flower gardens show a completely different and far less attractive aspect to the world in the winter time. The beauty that comes with color and texture has faded, and a flat expanse of soil with a few dead stems sticking up is all that can be seen for three or four months of the year.

Yet other gardens manage to keep their appeal for all 12 months. What makes the difference?

In most cases it is good use of the vertical element. Trees, shrubs, walls, trellis and other structures draw the eye up and away from the barren ground and provide focal points.

To add one or more trees to alleviate the problem is a long-term solution. You will have to wait for several years until a young sapling grows enough to make its presence felt, and is able to add the emphasis you need. That is, of course, unless you fall for one of those advertisements that trumpet the availability of trees that will grow 10 feet in a single year. The claims of fast growth are probably true, but you will most likely have purchased a pawlonia (Princess tree) or an ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven). These weedy trees do grow fast, but have other less desirable qualities. They are invasive, messy, have unpleasant aromas, and do not live very long.

Of course, adding a good tree to your property is a wonderful thing to do, and an investment for the future.

For a faster solution, consider purchasing one or more shrubs. There are hundreds to choose from, with unimaginable selections of size, form and color and suitability for any location. The difference between a tree and a shrub is that the latter is apt to have several branching stems rather than one trunk, and at maturity it is no taller than 15 feet.

Shrubs usually are sold in containers, with the larger varieties ball and burlapped. They are available in different sizes, generally 1 gallon or 5 gallon. A large specimen shrub may have progressed to the 15 gallon size. The decision about which size to buy depends on how long you are willing to wait to allow the shrub to grow to the ideal size. It takes about two years for the one-gallon size specimen to grow to the five-gallon size. In three years, the plants purchased in either container will be about the same size.

Check any shrub you buy to see it is in good shape. Roots should not be showing on the soil surface, and the branches should be evenly spaced. New growth ought to be evident all the way round the plant indicating a balanced root system. And move the container to make sure the roots have not grown through the drainage hole into the soil beneath.

Do think long and hard about location when planting. I will have to move my treasured callicarpa early in the spring, because it has grown larger than I expected, and hangs over the sidewalk. Moving a shrub is not too difficult, but it involves digging a large hole in another location, and in my crowded borders it is sure to mean disturbing a number of bulbs and hidden perennials still waiting for their time to appear. Better to have done some more research before I planted it there three years ago.

I’ll list some of the most attractive shrubs in a future column, with special emphasis on those with winter interest.

Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program.

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