9 garden tips from Morton Arboretum's longtime plant whisperer ~By Beth Botts, Chicago Tribune

Doris Taylor doled out advice to thousands of anxious gardeners in her more than 20 years as manager of the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. (The Morton Arboretum)

Doris Taylor has heard from thousands of anxious gardeners in her more than 20 years as manager of the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum, answering letters, calls and emails from homeowners and landscape professionals. Recently retired after 37 years at the Arboretum, she summed up her garden advice in a few good tips — most of which have to do with informing yourself and thinking ahead.

Better care can fix or prevent most problems. “It’s not insects or diseases that cause plants the most trouble,” Taylor said. “More often, it’s something about how the plant has been treated.”

Some common mistakes include planting trees and shrubs too deep; failing to water them when they’re young; watering plants too much so the soil is always wet; and pruning shrubs at the wrong time so they fail to flower. “The more you learn, the less likely you are to create conditions that cause plants to struggle,” she said.

Know what to expect. Often, a homeowner who calls the Plant Clinic is concerned because a plant is just doing what comes naturally. It may be trying to grow to its natural size, which is too large for the yard. It may be dropping fruit, which is normal for that species. “A little research about plants upfront can save you a lot of trouble down the road,” she said.

Understand your yard. Pay attention to how long sunlight lasts in different areas of your property. Check your soil’s texture. Look for places where it’s always wet or especially dry. All these factors are important not only when choosing plants, but when diagnosing problems.

Read the plant label before you buy. “There’s a lot of useful information right there,” Taylor said. For example, the tag will tell you whether a plant needs sun or can tolerate shade and how tall and wide it will get.

Researching plants before you buy can save a lot of trouble down the road. For example, it’s useful to know upfront that bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) can grow to be 12 feet high and 15 feet wide. (The Morton Arboretum)

Plan for growth. “It’s easy to be fooled by a small, young plant in a little pot that has the potential to grow way too large for your space,” Taylor said. “Be sure you check that plant label for the plant’s mature size.”

Allow plenty of space. If trees or shrubs are crowded, they may become misshapen or need to be pruned awkwardly to get branches out of the way. “Planting too close to the house or driveway or other plants can interfere with the beautiful form trees have,” she said.

Don’t rush to spray. When you suspect you have an insect or disease problem, resist spraying with whatever chemical you have on hand. Get expert help to identify the problem for sure and to choose an appropriate control method. Not all pesticides work on all problems, and many must be applied at a specific time or in particular way. “An insecticide applied at the wrong time in an insect’s life cycle will have no effect,” Taylor said. “You may do more harm than good.”

Diversify. “Don’t keep planting the same thing every year,” she said. “Change it up.” You may find a new plant that is better suited for your conditions or brings new interest in your yard. “There are so many great plants that are underutilized,” Taylor said. “I’d need a bigger yard to plant everything I’d like to grow.” The Plant Clinic can help you choose plants as well as figure out problems.

Give up and move on. If a plant is often diseased, requires constant pruning or just looks bad, get rid of it. “Look at it as an opportunity to plant something new,” she said.

For tree and plant advice, contact the Arboretum’s Plant Clinic (630-719-2424 or plantclinic@mortonarb.org).

Beth Botts is a staff writer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle (www.mortonarb.org).

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