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Horticultural Pet Peeves


There are some things I need to get off of my chest and what better place to vent, than a news column. In a profession from astronaut to zookeeper and all careers in between, we learn and do tasks, which in our mind, are the best practices. Imagine you are a professional shower tile installer, and I am a guy who learned to tile a shower on YouTube. If you were standing over me watching as I installed tile, you could point out all of my common mistakes that drive you bananas. In other words, we all have pet peeves when it comes to the practices we learn on the job and how we observe others going about those same tasks.

What irks me in the world of horticulture? Here are my top three horticultural pet peeves.

Tree Topping

This annoying landscape practice is not only bad for the long-term health of a tree, its ugly! Most of us have accepted the topped trees around power lines, where we have little to no say in the matter, but driving around numerous communities I see topped trees nowhere near utility lines. There are even ads in the paper marketing tree topping.

Tree topping consists of cutting the trunk, and upper primary branches back to stubs at a uniform height. (Picture buzz cut for trees) When a tree is topped, the growing points and active buds are removed, which activates latent buds in the tissue behind the bark. (Think of these as an emergency back-up) These dormant buds have a flush of twiggy growth, termed epicormic shoots or water sprouts, to replace the loss in photosynthesis from all the leaf cover that was removed. Water sprouts have a weak attachment to the tree and are at higher risk for damage from foul weather and pests.

Driving around a town in Central Illinois there seems to be one street particularly fond of tree topping. During an intense windstorm a few years ago many of these topped trees were damaged and still have hanging limbs in their canopy to this day. But the regrowth is so dense and twiggy you can't see these "widow-makers" until the leaves fall.

Grass in the Street and Mowing Ditches

Okay, technically these are two annoyances lumped under one heading. However, the linking factor is the discharge of debris into our storm drainage ways. My wife will attest to my lamenting as we drive by yards where grass clippings are blown on the road, and the all too common sight of mowers in the ditch. Often my tirade is met with a roll of her eyes or change of subject.

Research has shown that mowed ditches add debris to the storm drainage system, which favors the development of mosquitoes. Additionally, longer vegetation creates more friction, slowing water, so it drops sediment and doesn't carry our soil into streams and rivers.

Another water quality issue arises when lawn clippings wash down a storm sewer. Cut lawn debris adds excessive nutrients and potential pesticides to our waterways, degrading these systems.

Leaving clippings on your lawn replaces nitrogen in the soil. This extra boost of nitrogen is enough to supplement one application of fertilizer per year. If there are excess clippings, don't blow them into the street to be someone else's problem. Rake up the piles of clippings and put them into the compost pile or those silly paper landscape waste bags. (Pet peeve number four – landscape waste bags!)

The Leaves are on Fire!

And finally, my most frequent vexation this time of year – burning leaves. I am grateful most towns in Illinois have made it illegal to burn leaves in city limits. However, I live in the county. Leaves are rich in carbon and potential energy that can compost back into the soil, promoting healthy soil biology and recycle nutrients to plant roots. Much of those lovely benefits are lost in the choking black smoke when we burn leaves.

In my yard, fall leaves are collected, shredded and bagged via my mower, and then spread in my shade garden as mulch. By next fall the leaves will have decomposed back into the soil, and the process begins again.

The one caveat with using fall leaves is to be cautious if foliar diseases like anthracnose plague your trees. Extension mantra when dealing with foliar disease on deciduous trees is to dispose of the leaves offsite. Disposal could also include a "hot" or managed compost pile or (read this next part in a begrudging tone) put them in landscape waste bags and set them to the curb.

These pet peeves are landscape practices so common, a wager that most reading this article have performed such tasks would be a sound bet. I am thankful that I make my living in the field of horticulture; mostly because I owe my wife a lot of flowers after this shower tile debacle.


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