March 5, 1999 | By: Haven Miller

You may experience joy this spring when you discover that a local store sells an attractive tree or shrub you've been wanting. But your joy may turn to sorrow if you haven't done your homework prior to making your purchase.

The fact is, some types of popular landscape plants simply don't grow well in Kentucky.

"I call it the 'southern magazine syndrome' because people who subscribe to certain southern-oriented magazines will often see a photo of a colorful plant and then go buy it," said Bill Fountain, Extension horticulture specialist in the UK College of Agriculture. "The problem is, Kentucky has a winter climate more similar to Michigan than to Mississippi."

According to Fountain, mass marketers of landscape plants often lump Kentucky in with other southern states in terms of distribution. But Kentucky's winters tend to be colder than states farther south, and won't support certain types of trees, shrubs, and grasses.

"Zoysia grass is an example, as is the southern magnolia," Fountain said. "The trouble with magnolias is that on sunny winter days those broad leaves will lose moisture. The moisture cannot be replaced, so the result is that in late May the leaves will turn brown."

Some plants are marginally suited to Kentucky. Although they may not be recommended by arborists or horticulturists, experienced gardeners may have success with them.

"Dedicated gardeners can sometimes push the edge of the envelope by providing protected sites for plants that are marginally hardy," said Fountain. "One thing that will help is

putting them in locations where winter sun will not hit them. This is especially true for rhododendron."

Some plants may grow well, but may not give you the results you want. For example, the seedling red maple often sold in this region does not usually exhibit the bright fall color often seen in photographs. Putting this seedling-type in your yard may cause disappointment if what you're wanting is brilliant, red fall color.

"Our summers are different than those in New England where you're more likely to see the bright red fall color," said Fountain. "With the red maple it's best to go with a well-known name, such as the cultivars October Glory, Red Sunset, or Autumn Flame."

Fountain said the most expensive plant you can put in your landscape is often the "free one." Trees collected from Kentucky's wooded areas, such as the box elder, are fast growing and have roots close to the surface. Fall color on box elders tends to be poor, and young plants tend to be weedy and invade flower beds and sidewalks.

"If a fast-growing tree gets too big and causes problems with power lines, or drops a branch on your car, then the so-called 'free' tree suddenly becomes very expensive," said Fountain. He said people are often impatient, and want plants to grow fast. But growing fast isn't the only feature to consider when choosing what's best for your landscape. Unfortunately, fast-growing trees are generally the ones most prone to problems.

"Take arborvitae for example - it grows fast but often invites a host of other problems such as spider mites, bag worms, ice damage, and damage from pets," Fountain said.

If you want to avoid problems this spring with your landscape plant purchases, Fountain advised learning as much about the plant as possible. For trees, you should look for a large soil ball for the tree size, good branching structure, and plants not already showing signs of stress. You should avoid buying a plant for sentimental reasons, or because you saw an attractive picture of if in a magazine.

"We have lots of unusual plants that are well-adapted to Kentucky, and it's often enjoyable to plant something different from your neighbor," said Fountain. "But you should make sure that whatever you plant won't outgrow the location and cause problems, or fail because of extreme fluctuations in weather."

Fountain said it's always a good idea to seek the advice of a certified nurseryman, certified arborist, or UK county Extension agent for agriculture or horticulture before making your spring selection.

Contact: 

Writer: Haven Miller
(606) 257-3784

Source: Bill Fountain
(606) 257-3320