The Problem with ‘Yes’ Landscapes

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler. Follow Jeremiah on Instagram @j4.sandler

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I don’t work for a landscape company, nor have I ever worked for one. The company I do work for contracts with these companies to do health care on their landscapes. For example, we scout for insects and diseases, spray pesticides when necessary, make recommendations of proper cultural practices, and fertilize.

Something has been bothering me for the past two years about the landscapes in metropolitan southeast Michigan. Both commercial and residential landscapes have at least two things in common: the same plants, and the same poor management of these plants. The clients have no idea they’re being ripped off.

The landscape companies I have experience with seem to think the homeowner is always right.

The ‘Yes’ Conversation

You want a Colorado blue spruce in humid Michigan? Sure, no problem. Let’s put six trees within 15 square feet. Don’t bother removing the cage and burlap. We also won’t tell you the massive expense you’ll pay in the future to spray fungicides on your spruce to keep it alive. If one dies, we’ll just replace it with the same plant.

You want a green hedge? Boxwoods or yews. They’ll be sheared multiple times a year by our crew of expert (and underpaid and exhausted) workers. At the first sign of new growth, we’ll be there mutilating your plants to ensure that they stay at right angles. You see all of those ripped apart, discolored leaves on your shrubs? Ignore that; plants are meant to be tamed into perfect geometry. Oh, that’ll be an extra charge to spray insecticides and fungicides.

Here’s a list of plants you can get to add to the monotony in your neighborhood: crabapple, hawthorn, cherry, honeylocust, blue spruce, oak, red maple, Japanese maple, pear, white pine, boxwood, yew, hydrangea, arborvitae, burning bush, and wax begonias.

Why is your hemlock tree neon yellow? We don’t know, let’s just replace it. Why is your Norway maple declining? Well, when we planted it, we kept the cage on its root ball, despite this tree having notorious girdling roots. Let’s get you a new one. Why are some of your shrubs rotting out? We left the soaker hoses on them for years and kept them running regularly. Yes we can spray all of your plants. We can kill everything before it’s a problem.

We’re the best landscapers in town! Our services are top of the line, and we guarantee your landscape will look exactly the same as your neighbor’s.

That’s a very sardonic, hypothetical conversation between a homeowner and a landscape company. A sensible company knows you don’t know best. As a homeowner, it is wise to heed the advice of a company’s horticulturist. Cost is always a consideration for the homeowner. However, the more expensive company is not always the highest quality. Here’s why.

So, you want a Colorado blue spruce?

A responsible company won’t let you plant a blue spruce in a place with wet springs and humid summers. They will tell you why it is not a good idea, and they will suggest alternatives. For example, a concolor fir (Abies concolor) looks similar to a blue spruce. They are resistant to needle cast diseases and cytospora canker, and they can tolerate southeast Michigan’s alkaline soils. In the long run, it is much cheaper to get the right plant in the right place.

You will pay more for your blue spruce because, not only are you paying for installation, you are paying to spray fungicides year after year to avoid having a skeleton in your yard. Companies know there is a likelihood of replacing your newly planted blue spruces, so you are charged for it.

We love boxwoods and so do you

Maybe you do like the classic, formal look of hedges. And maybe you do like the texture offered by a boxwood or yew. That’s fine. This is the problem I see literally every single day: over-shearing.

An appropriate cultivar selection is the answer. Cultivars and hybrids exist which only grow to x-amount tall and x-amount wide. Simply read the tag from the nursery. If your landscape company planted the proper plants the first time, they wouldn’t be able to charge you as much as they do to “maintain” them. The right plants in the right places need very little maintenance. I will concede, a few plants can tolerate being sheared. Once in a great while is acceptable; not three times a year.

Excessive shearing stresses out a plant. In fact, certain chemicals released by the open wounds of the leaves attract insects. Wet, exposed tissue serves as a breeding ground for fungi. Some of the problems your shrubs face are directly caused by the shearing itself.

PlantAmnesty, a website dedicated to stopping bad pruning practices states:

Any pruning book will explain that one prunes to open up the center of the plant, allowing air and light penetration to make the plant healthy. Shearing, on the other hand, creates a twiggy outer shell that gets ever denser and collects more deadwood and dead leaves every year, the opposite of a healthy condition. The results create the perfect protected place for pests and diseases, akin to locking up the house so the garbage can’t be removed. After many years, this treatment can lead to disease and general bad health without actually being a disease itself. If plants have mites and blights, bugs and mildews galore, how they were pruned may be the root of the problem.

Not to mention, the plant is spending all of its energy regrowing those leaves you continually cut off. There are correct ways to prune plants, and none of them include the excessive use of motorized shears. A plant grows to reach an equilibrium with its environment. If the environment is adequate, the plant will grow. If the environment is unfavorable, the plant will decline. In other words, if it is growing, let it grow!

What’s a monoculture?

There seems to be only 15 plants which are acceptable to the landscaper. The plant selection is predictable. Certainly there are more than 15 different species of plants you can have on your property. Sure, some redundant species are okay: white pines, oaks, maples (except that damned Norway maple). I don’t want to discourage people from exploring new options, though.

Native plants offer easy beauty. They have evolved in your region for millennia and are therefore adapted to your environmental conditions. These plants often tolerate both biological and environmental stressors better than non-native plants. Expenses are saved when you don’t have to pay for disease control. You wouldn’t buy a vehicle, for example, that you know would break down and require fixing all the time.

There are dozens of other shrub options for texture, winter interest, privacy walls, etc., that you don’t have to hire a crew to shear every month. Surprisingly, some large yucca species are hardy in colder zones, which offer a different texture. Red-twig dogwoods provide colorful winter interest; there are red, green, and yellow-stemmed cultivars. Coyote willow is native to southeast Michigan. It is a thin-leafed, rhizomatous Salix species which forms beautiful yellow walls in the fall. An entire, separate article can be written on the subject of alternatives. Just know there are plenty of species to choose from no matter where you live.

Ask, and you shall receive

This request comes from homeowners and is often fulfilled by companies: “Can’t you just spray it?” Granting this request is entirely wrong. One cannot, by law and by principle, go around as a pesticide desperado. You live in that environment. Why would you want pesticides in excess? Chemicals are used as a last resort and strictly on an as needed basis.

Appropriate timing, safety precautions, and proper insect identification are all legally required before insecticides can be applied. Some of the ‘yes’-type companies will comply with all uneducated (and sometimes unsafe) requests.

Some of the appointments I have with customers address very rudimentary horticultural problems. The homeowner’s concerns are legitimate. Most problems they are having, though, can be avoided with an ounce of foresight. Issues include planting hemlock trees in full sun, or replacing a Japanese maple killed by verticillium wilt with another Japanese maple. The list goes on…

Saying ‘No’

There’s a myriad of things that can go wrong in a landscape. It is an artificial environment containing plants which evolved continents apart. Plants often don’t have the capacity to combat pathogens that they are not exposed to in their native habitats, but certain issues are impossible to predict. There is a base knowledge one should have before making these kinds of decisions. The “customer is always right” philosophy doesn’t apply in this domain. You should have some creative influence on your landscape; it’s yours, after all. Spend the time in the nursery looking for interesting plants, make a list, and run it by your landscaper. If they say ‘yes’ to all of your choices, fire them. The people you hire cannot be too timid to tell you ‘no’ sometimes.

“Right plant, right place” is the mantra among plant health care technicians. We are the people who have to clean up the messes made by your landscapers. If your landscaper did their job with longevity in mind, I probably wouldn’t have much to do.

Plants Use Mycorrhizal Fungi to Warn Each Other of Incoming Threats

The March 2015 issue of New Phytologist is a Special Issue focusing on the “ecology and evolution of mycorrhizas.” This is the second of two articles from that issue that I am reviewing. Read the first review here.

Interplant signalling through hyphal networks by David Johnson and Lucy Gilbert

When an individual plant is attacked by an insect or fungal pest, it can warn neighboring plants – prompting them to produce compounds that either repel the pests or attract beneficial organisms that can fight off the pests. There are two main pathways for a plant to send these communications: through the air by way of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) or through the soil by way of a vast collection of fungal hyphae called mycelium. Plant communication by aerial release of VOC’s has been well documented; communication via mycelium, however, is a fairly recent discovery, and there is much left to learn.

“The length of hyphae in the soil and the ability of mycorrhizal fungi to form multiple points of entry into roots can lead to the formation of a common mycelial network (CMN) that interconnects two or more plants.” These CMN’s are known to play “key roles in facilitating nutrient transport and redistribution.” We now understand that they can also “facilitate defense against insect herbivores and foliar necrotophic fungi by acting as conduits for interplant signaling.” The purpose of this research is to explore the “mechanisms, evolutionary consequences, and circumstances” surrounding the evolution of this process and to “highlight key gaps in our understanding.”

interplant signaling

An illustration of plant communication (aka interplant signaling) by air and by soil form the article in New Phytologist.

If plants are communicating via CMN’s, how are they doing it? The authors propose three potential mechanisms. The first is by signal molecules being transported “in liquid films on the external surface of hyphae via capillary action or microbes.” They determine that this form of communication would be easily disrupted by soil particles and isn’t likely to occur over long distances. The second mechanism is by molecules being transported within hyphae, passing from cell to cell until they reach their destination. The third mechanism involves an electrical signal induced by wounding.

If signal molecules are involved in the process, what molecules are they? There are some molecules already known to be transported by fungal hyphae (lipids, phosphate transporters, and amino acids) and there are also compounds known to be involved in signaling between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Exploring these further would be a good place to start. We also need to determine if specific insect and fungal pests or certain types of plant damage result in unique signaling compounds.

It has been established that electrical signals can be produced in response to plant damage. These signals are a result of a process known as membrane depolarization. “A key advantage of electrical-induced defense over mobile chemical is the speed of delivery.” Movement of a molecule through cells occurs significantly slower than an electrical charge, which is important if the distance to transport the message is relatively far and the plant needs to respond quickly to an invasion. Various aspects of fungal physiology and activity have been shown to be driven in part by membrane depolarization, so involving it in interplant signaling isn’t too far-fetched.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

How and why does a system of interplant communication involving mycorrhizal fungi evolve? And what are the costs and benefits to the plants and fungi involved? Determining costs and benefits will depend largely on further establishing the signaling mechanisms. Exploring real world systems will also help us answer these questions. For example, in a stable environment such as a managed grassland where CMNs are well developed, a significant loss of plants to a pest or disease could be devastating for the mycorrhizal community, so “transferring warning signals” would be highly beneficial. Conversely, in an unstable environment where a CMN is less established, assisting in interplant signaling may be less of an imperative. Regarding questions concerning the degree of specialization involved in herbivore-plant-fungal interactions: if a “generic herbivore signal” is sent to a neighboring plant that is not typically affected by the attacking herbivore, the cost to the plant in putting up its defenses and to the fungus in transporting the message is high and unnecessary. So, in an environment where there are many different plant species, species-specific signals may be selected for over time; in areas where there are few plant species, a generic signal would suffice.

As research continues, the mysteries of “defense-related” interplant communication via CMN’s will be revealed. Field studies are particularly important because they can paint a more accurate picture compared to “highly simplified laboratory conditions.” One exciting thing about this type of communication is that it may mean that some plants are communicating with each other across great distances, since “some species of fungi can be vast.” CMNs can also target specific plants, and compared to communication via aerial VOC’s, the signal will not be diluted by the wind.

Since I am in the process of reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, I have decided to include her description of a tree-mycorrhizal fungi relationship:

The trees in a forest are often interconnected by subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. The mycorrhizal symbiosis enables the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates. The mycorrhizae may form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected. These fungal networks appear to redistribute the wealth of carbohydrates from tree to tree. A kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time. They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.