Plant this, not that, Part 2

This red buckeye is a great alternative to a crape myrtle. It doesn’t mind sandy soils, requires little water and enjoys mostly full sun. It attracts hummingbirds in the spring.

In my last column, I referenced the “Eat This, Not That” book series by David Zinczenko.

This week, I make reference to another author. Jill Connor Browne’s humorous novel, “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love,” contains the only piece of advice her grandfather ever gave her: “be particular.”

This is sage advice for any life decision, but for gardeners, it’s especially important to be particular when choosing and planting trees.

When chosen carefully, trees can increase property values, provide shade, lower energy bills and support wildlife. Poorly chosen trees, planted incorrectly, can die prematurely and cause numerous headaches during their lifespan.

When planting new trees in the home landscape, Clemson Extension Commercial Horticulture Agent and certified arborist Mark Arena recommends choosing small containerized trees over larger specimens since they are easier to handle and establish roots more quickly.

Arena also warns that gardeners need to monitor soil moisture carefully so that the newly planted trees don’t dry out.

My advice is to carefully examine the tree before purchasing. Is the trunk straight? Is the root ball in proportion with the size of the canopy? Is there evidence that the tree has been pruned in the nursery? Trees that look like lollipops, large on top and skinny on the bottom, are easily toppled by wind. Are the roots white and plump? If they are brown, yellow or slimy, move on!

When planting, amend the soil in the entire planting area, not just the bottom of the hole. Plant the tree so that the root flare is above the soil line and avoid stomping on the backfill after planting since this can compact soil around delicate new roots.

You may have to remove the potting media from around the top roots to expose the root flare.

Sometimes trees sink in the container during the transplanting process, and if so, they may grow a circling top root, which can choke a tree to death. Water well and apply 1 to 2 inches of organic mulch at least 3 inches beyond the drip line.

Here are a few “plant this, not that” tree recommendations to consider when buying a new tree:

Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana) offer little to recommend them other than a brief cloud of smelly white flowers in the spring. Now that it appears on the South Carolina Exotic Pest Plant Council’s Terrestrial Exotic Invasive Plant Species List, it’s time to switch things up in suburbia!

Instead of reaching for this tired standby, consider planting an Eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), commonly called ironwood. This small tree (20 to 30 feet) tolerates a range of soil conditions and has bright green catkins in the spring. Enjoyed by squirrels and birds, the fruit, which are actually clusters of nutlets, resembles the flowers of the hops vine used in beer making.

Crape myrtles are so ubiquitous in the South that newcomers believe this Asian species is native. While they do have lots of ornamental value, they don’t do much for the local wildlife, unless you count the aphids.

Instead of planting another crape myrtle, why not try a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)? With bright red firecracker-like flowers, this small tree has a lot to offer.

It doesn’t mind sandy soils, requires very little water and enjoys mostly full sun. The flowers attract hummingbirds just as they are returning in the spring. Although poisonous to humans, the squirrels enjoy the brown nuts in the fall.

Other swaps for crape myrtle include the pink flowering Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis) and the wildlife supporting powerhouse common persimmon (Diospyros virginiana L.). Plant persimmon trees to support luna moth larvae, native bees and European honeybees and enjoy gorgeous fall color.

Evergreen screens made of rows of Leyland cypress are a common sight in South Carolina, but their short life span, massive size and intolerance of wet sites make them less than ideal. Swap Leyland cypress for Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) cultivars such as ‘Alta’ or ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ which make excellent evergreen screens.

Mixed hedges are attractive and help avoid problems associated with monocultures. Combine evergreen trees such as Foster’s holly, Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata), camellia and wax myrtle with deciduous shrubs like beautyberry, blueberry or oakleaf hydrangea for seasonal color and interest.

For more “plant this, not that” suggestions, visit your local nursery or garden center, check out or the International Society of Arboriculture at treesare

Join Clemson Extension and Cypress Gardens for the Garden Gathering, a one-day garden-based workshop for garden and nature enthusiasts on Nov. 10th.

Focused on nature exploration and gardening, participants may enjoy hands-on workshops led by experts, lunch and free compost plus Ask a Master Gardener, plant shopping and more. Go to

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and tri-county Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to