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Episode 89 – The Decorator’s Approach to Gardening

Ground Breaking Banter - Rick

Decorators as gardeners inspire us: for them, it’s not about the science, the origin of the plant, the rules of growing it. They just want it to be pretty. They just want to express themselves and their personal style through plants. We are in full support! In this episode, we share some of the techniques we’ve seen designers use in the garden centers and share resources for combining plants, like the Proven Plant Pairings website and the Proven Winners recipe search. 

Join us at the YouTube link above or on your favorite podcast platform to hear our whole conversation. And here’s this week’s decorator-inspired Lim-A-Rick:

My flowers are ideal

My colors are surreal

My neighbors I impress

So drive by my address

I live for curb appeal.

My front walk is gold plate

I’ll never acclimate

My front door is jade green

On the cover of a magazine

Year round I decorate. 

My place has a pink trellis

My style is overzealous

You might call it vanity

This addictive insanity….

But I think you’re just jealous. 

They say that I have a gift

And others got the short shrift

So each holiday I’ll be giving

subscriptions to Martha Stewart Living

to heal our neighborly rift. 

I went back and forth for a long time on today’s plant on trial. My first instinct was to go for a hydrangea because what’s more decorative than a hydrangea in full bloom? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I’d be doing listeners a disservice to put forward a plant that is really only decorative for part of the year. After all, if we’re talking decorating with plants, you want something that’s decorative in every season! So I decided it was the perfect opportunity to cover an evergreen – and not just any evergreen, but one that is extra colorful and contributes a strong decorative structural element, too: Anna’s Magic Ball arborvitae.

This is one of those irresistible little evergreens that everyone seems to like. It naturally grows as a tidy little globe of bright golden foliage, reaching just 2-3’ tall and wide. You never need to prune it or trim it to keep this shape, and the gold foliage persists all year round. It looks perfect in more formal settings, but even if your decorative style tends more to the informal, it adds an ideal touch of structure to your beds. You can plant it on its own, or make it into a low hedge. Its shape is perfect for planting on either side of an entry way or to frame any kind of space around your house. It’s also great in containers – I’m imagining it in some beautiful classic urns for a French or Italian garden style accent. If it was a larger urn, you could even plant some annuals around the outer edge for some extra interest.

This plant has another gift for decorators that many people don’t consider – its structure is perfect for putting Christmas lights on! You’ll get that professional look without spending hours trying to get it just right.

Anna’s Magic Ball arborvitae came to us from Casey Van Vloten of Canada, a member of a long-standing nursery family originally from the Netherlands. Though his nursery, Van Vloten Nursery, is now closed, he is still active in the horticulture industry. This particular arborvitae is named in honor of his mother, Anna Van Vloten, who led a pretty amazing life before she passed away in 2007

Growing this arborvitae is simple. It’s hardy down to USDA zone 3 and heat tolerant through USDA zone 8 – yes, arborvitaes are much more heat tolerant than previously thought! But that said, while it can take full sun in cold areas, in those hotter climates, you are going to want to plant it in shade to part shade. And in all climates, it will benefit from a good 2-3” layer of shredded bark mulch because the fibrous roots grow close to the surface. As an arborvitae, it is not deer resistant, though it does seem that by and large, deer tend to favor low-growing varieties like Anna’s Magic Ball than the taller varieties used for privacy hedging. Same seems to apply to bagworms as well.

If you’d like to add Anna’s Magic Ball arborvitae – or any of the 320+ Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs – to your garden or landscape, you’ll find a list of local retailers here

Gardening Mail Bag - Stacey

Generally speaking, when this happens, you should prune the broken branch back to where it meets the trunk, or if it’s a branch from a branch, where it meets the larger branch. Pruning back to those areas means you make your cuts at what’s known as the bark branch collar, which is an active zone of cellular activity, so the cut will heal properly. It also looks the most natural. This video explains how to make a proper pruning cut on a tree – it is different than pruning shrubs or other types of plants. 
The only exception to pruning a branch all the way back would be if it’s a very small tree and making that cut would leave it with little or no growth, but these situations would likely be rare. To prevent damage on trees when you are transporting them from the nursery or garden center to your home, it may be helpful to purchase some bags of mulch, potting soil, or other amendments to help cushion and stabilize the tree. You can also bring moving blankets from home. And if you are transporting the tree in a pickup truck, be sure it is covered with a tarp, especially if you’ll be on a highway or driving at higher speeds. That wind will whip the moisture right out of the leaves, causing the tree unnecessary stress as it tries to get itself established after planting.

While we northerners may envy your mild winters and ability to grow a lot of very cool plants that would never survive up here, we definitely do not envy your fire ants. Fire ants are a very serious problem and have caused the deaths of both animals and humans. Even if they don’t cause death, their bites are very painful, and their tendency to swarm the cause of any disturbance to their mounds means that you are unlikely to be bit once – you’ll be bitten dozens or hundreds of times. As such, managing fire ants is a crucial responsibility, and takes a multi-pronged approach.


Wood or pine straw mulches not only create good conditions for them to live in; they also make their mounds more difficult to see, which not only makes management more difficult but also increases the risk of stepping on one and getting bitten. According to this article from Texas A&M University (and Texas is a hot spot for fire ants), the only mulch that’s effective against fire ants is pea gravel. However, that definitely doesn’t help keep conditions cool around your plants. This article mentions that cedar mulches may be more effective at deterring them than other wood mulches, but there’s no scientific evidence proving that at this time. Another alternative is a relatively new alternative known as green mulching, or “sedging it.” In this practice, native sedges are underplanted around trees, shrubs, and perennials to act as a living mulch. Here’s an article about it; you would have to adjust this for sedges that were heat tolerant in your area, but that shouldn’t be too hard to do with some research. 

The same article I linked to above offers this dire warning: “Cultural practices alone will never eliminate this pest.” So while switching up your mulch game can help, to manage fire ants, you will also need to employ a strategy of baiting them. Fortunately, ant baits are very targeted pesticides that pose little risk to non-target organisms when applied properly.

There’s no question this tree – which is indeed a pink version of our native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is established. And while it is a bit more shaded than would be ideal, flowering dogwoods are actually more shade tolerant than most trees and in nature, grow on the edges of woods and in areas of a high, light canopy. Rick also points out that the plant is likely drought stressed, based on the bare patches in the lawn. But the real culprit here shows itself on the photos you sent of the flowers – the tree has anthracnose. Anthracnose is a fairly common fungal disease, and dogwoods that are experiencing stress due to low light, low air circulation, and watering issues, are far more susceptible to it. You can start to help manage it yourself simply by removing and discarding fallen foliage, as that is where the fungal spores will spend winter, ready to reinfect the plant the following spring if conditions allow, but if you really want to keep the tree, you might need to call in an arborist. One or two years of managing it professionally could get rid of it and get the plant back to health. 

A pink dogwood flower with several brown spots indicating it is infected with anthracnose. A tall, thin tree grows beside a house.

Do you have a question for us? We’re happy to help! E-mail us or use the contact tab above. Due to high volume, we may not get to your question, so if you need an answer quickly, please reach out via the Proven Winners website.

Branching News - Rick

Rick kicks off Branching News this week with some advice about using string trimmers that you aren’t likely to hear elsewhere:
–  Go battery powered. They’re lighter, easier to start and use, and not smelly or as noisy.

– Store your trimmer line in water. It takes about a week for it to completely soak.

– Always walk from right to left. This means you are walking backwards but that is the correct way.

– Trim with the very tip of the line. The only thing that will cause a good quality trimmer line to break at the head or taper down for an inch or more is operator error.

A California man ordered by his city to conceal the boat parked in his driveway with a fence hired his artist neighbor to paint a photo-realistic image of the vessel.

On average, people need to spend 67 minutes outside each day in order to feel refreshed, according to new research.  

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Pink rose of Sharon flowers bloom on a plant with variegated foliage.

Episode 92 – Weeding by Example

Ah, weeds – maybe the #1 thing that discourages people from gardening. But weeds are interesting and become a lot easier to manage when you apply some basic IPM principles. Featured shrub: Sugar Tip rose of Sharon.

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