Learning from the past

The philosopher George Santayana penned the famous saying, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I'm pretty sure Santayana wasn't referring to grounds care, but the wisdom certainly applies. We all know that plants, especially trees, in the wrong place can cause problems. On January 29, an ice storm hit the Midwest and proved it in dramatic fashion. The Kansas City area was especially hard-hit, and yours truly was one of the victims. My family and I were forced to stay in hotels and with friends for an entire week until power was restored. And we were more fortunate than the thousands of other residents who endured even longer exiles.

We live in an older home graced by several large trees. That's one reason we bought the house. One of the trees is a Siberian elm. It's a monstrous old thing, with awful form that violates every standard of tree aesthetics. But it's one of those specimens you'd say has “character.” Even though Michael Dirr calls the Siberian elm “one of, if not the, world's worst trees,” I like this one a lot. Its huge, overarching branches provide welcome shade, a home to wildlife and probably saves on the electric bills, too.

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But they always made me a little nervous in severe weather. And, sure enough, when the ice storm hit, they started coming down. Believe me, sitting in the dark while branches crash down on your roof is one of those situations that makes you wish you were somewhere — anywhere — else.

Okay, so you're asking what this has to do with Santayana. Here's what. The Siberian elm in my yard is about 50 years old. It's a very common tree in neighborhoods of that age because at that time, Dutch elm disease was destroying large stands of American elm. Looking for something similar (that's a stretch, I'll admit), people planted Siberian elm in large numbers.

We now accept as conventional wisdom that it is a good thing to use a variety of plants. With a diverse mix of species, an epidemic (or any other problem, say … an ice storm) won't decimate entire urban forests, as happened with the American elm and Dutch elm disease. So the lesson is, diversify.

Looking at my neighborhood, which contains thousands of Siberian elms, I'd have to say that the diversity lesson was a little slow to catch on. Unfortunately, you can still travel through newer residential areas lined with mile after mile of the same tree species. We still have some learning to do.

The ice storm illustrated the value of an additional planting principle: Right plant in the right place. In practical application, this can mean a lot of things. One of them is that you don't plant a breakage-prone tree where it could do serious damage by dropping a limb. Siberian elms are notorious for this, but this didn't stop someone from planting one 10 feet behind my house. As a result of that decision, 50 years later, an ice storm finds me huddling beside the fireplace as tree limbs rain down on the roof.

It's amazing that we still widely plant trees that predictably will cause such problems. Maples, Bradford pears, ashes and river birches, to name a few, suffered considerable damage during this ice storm. Because they have been in vogue for a relatively short time, they're comparatively small in size. In 50 years, they'll not be so diminutive, and people will be asking, “What were they thinking?” Just like we are now. Take a look at our coverage of the ice storm in “Kansas City on ice,” on page 44.

As you might imagine, I'm not sorry to see this winter pass. Now that it's spring and the growing season is shifting into high gear, a topic on a lot of your minds is fertilizer, the focus of this issue. Our cover feature, contributed by University of Florida professor Dr. Jerry B. Sartain, discusses the staple of turf fertilization: slow-release nitrogen. Several types of slow-release sources are available; find out which ones will work for you, starting on page 14.

Of course, you need a spreader to apply fertilizer (the granular kind, anyway). Take a look at your choices in this month's “Equipment Options,” starting on page 54.

If you're like many lawn-care applicators, you tank-mix your fertilizer with other products such as herbicides. This is very efficient, but also poses some potential risks. Learn how to minimize these problems in “The dos and don'ts of tank mixing herbicides and fertilizers,” by PBI/Gordon's Dave Fearis, beginning on page 40.

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