Worth branching out?
With warmer winters, landscapers try less hardy trees, but it's still risky
A few hours south of the Capital Region, spring is a riot of flowering trees and shrubs that traditionally haven't thrived locally.
But with recent winters trending on the milder side, area gardeners have begun to wonder if less hardy landscape features might have a shot in their yards.
Experts are divided on the subject.
Bob Daly, owner of Blue Spruce Nursery Landscaping in Clifton Park, is still a bit gun-shy around Mother Nature.
“This is nothing new that we can go for several years with relatively mild temperatures and then get one real bad winter and then bam! All of a sudden you get slapped in the face by Mother Nature. She can be real tough,” he said.
Daly remains conservative in the types of plants he uses in his landscaping jobs, opting for hardier varieties.
Playing it safe doesn’t have to mean planting the same-old, same-old, he noted.
“Hybrids and all that stuff have come a long way,” he said. “It's not a bad idea to try to look for new varieties. . . . They've improved things a lot and things are hardier.”
Hydrangeas are one example of a plant with many new varieties. One of Daly’s favorites is the hardy Pinky Winky hydrangea. There are also tougher dogwoods available now, he said.
Gardeners who decide to risk planting something marginally hardy can help protect the plant’s roots from temperature extremes with mulch, he noted.
Christian Cash, a professor in SUNY Cobleskill's animal and plant science department, has a more liberal opinion on local planting practices.
“I would say in the last 10 years or so, we haven’t seen severe minimal temperatures. We haven't seen the minus 20s in Cobleskill or the Albany area, so that does open the door for planting more tender materials,” he said. “I think it's a pretty good roll of the dice, understanding that you might lose.”
Trees like Japanese maples, which were a shaky bet locally in years past, have a better chance of thriving now, as long as they are planted in the right spot and cared for properly, he said.
Wisteria, a climbing perennial woody vine that blooms profusely, is another attractive garden feature that could have a chance to thrive if winters stay mild.
Less hardy plantings should be protected from the northwest wind, which brings cold, dry air from Canada, and also should be sheltered from the beating southwest sun.
“The Japanese maple and plants like that just want moderate — not a lot of sun, not a lot of wind, not a lot of cold, not a lot of heat,” he explained.
Soil conditions should also be moderate — not too heavy or too sandy.
Planting a tender tree or shrub where it can benefit from the radiant heat emanating from a building can help boost its chances of surviving the winter, but if it’s planted too close to a structure, it might also be sheltered from much needed rainwater, Cash noted.
By the beginning of August, plant fertilization should stop, but watering should continue.
“One of the best things you can do to get a plant through the winter is to water it if it’s dry in August,” he advised. “If you keep watering in the summer, the plant will build its food reserves to get through the winter. If they're stressed in the summer, that means they’re very much in danger in the winter.”