Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett

Q: How do you feel about using native plants in yards and gardens?

A: If you visited my gardens, a quick glance would give you the answer. Although I have many plants with garden origins, and many which are native to other parts of the world, they live side by side with plants native here. My mixed shrub borders include native currant, chokecherry, native dogwood, serviceberry. I have two bur oaks which I grew from acorns and a mountain ash which must have been planted by a bird.

Two flower beds in full sun have a line of native flax, one white and one blue. (In order to keep the white variety from being overrun by the more prolifically seeding blue, I planted the white upwind. When an occasional blue seedling appears among the white, I pull it out.) My shaded beds include two kinds of native ferns, trillium, and bluebells. A native clematis climbs a trellis on a west facing wall.

That is by no means a complete list of the native plants I grow, but it illustrates how I mix natives and exotics. I have had some failures. I can keep bitterroots alive only a few years. I have never persuaded Scarlet Gilia to seed itself, despite several tries. Blue-eyed grass turned into a thug.

Growing native plants can be tricky, since some are very fussy and refuse to establish themselves outside a small area. They die even in places that look similar to their homes. An occasional native turns out to be a nuisance, like the blue-eyed grass in my gardens. It must be pulled ruthlessly for a few years. But I see my gardens as richer for their inclusion of natives, and they blend my boundaries into the surrounding landscape.

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Q: We planted a young tree this spring. It has been windy for several days, and the tree is bending a lot in the wind. Should we be staking it so that it will grow stronger?

A: No, emphatically no. The way to help a young tree grow strong, especially in wind, is to leave it unsupported. Trees can actually strengthen their trunks by practicing bending and straightening. Cell by cell, they add wood fibers; it is the tree's equivalent of a workout at the gym.

Supporting stakes replace a supporting trunk, so that the tree grows taller but not stronger. Tree experts now recommend staking trees only if they are tall and skinny, with a rootball too small for their height, and also are planted in a windy area. In that case staking for a year will give the root system time to spread.

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Q: We have a young tree whose trunk is leaning away from the prevailing wind. Is there any way to straighten it, or will it always be a crooked tree?

A: Your tree can be straightened by staking and tying it. Use a tall stake planted several feet upwind from the tree. Wrap a strong tie, like baler twine or wire, around the tree near the bend. Pad the tree trunk with soft material so that the tie will not cut into the bark. Cross the ends of the tie to make a figure 8 and wrap it around the stake. Pull just hard enough to put a little tension on the tie.

At monthly intervals tighten the tie a little more. Within a few months the tree trunk will be straight. Leave the stake and tie in place for one growing season; when the tie is removed, the trunk will remain straight. By then it should be large enough to hold its own, but the tree may always have shorter branches on the windward side. If it looks lopsided, shortening a few branches on the leeward side will create a more symmetrical shape.

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Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.

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