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Garden Q&A: Saving a dying tree

Last summer our neighbor installed an ornamental pond right beside our big old holly tree, destroying 1/3 of the roots minimum. Very likely the tree is dying. We see leaves yellowing and wilting. Can we prune the heck out of it now to lessen the stress of root loss? Would fertilizer help or hurt?

Let it cope with the damage itself at this stage. The tree will "self prune", allowing some branches to die back to reach a proper balance so the volume of root system can support the top growth. Watch your tree carefully this year so it does not lack for water during dry spells. Marylanders expect at least one drought each summer, but we also can have droughts in spring or fall. An easy-to-see rain gauge is a huge help determining exactly how much water your plants are getting, since rainfall is often spotty or localized. Over-fertilizing will stress your tree. A one-half to one inch layer of compost over the root system would fertilize it naturally. Prune out dead branches. Next year, in early spring, you can shape the tree somewhat. Normally holly can handle drastic pruning, but that would put tremendous stress on this tree until it has had a couple of years to adjust to its new root capacity.

Cable was installed recently leaving trenches back-filled with the excavated soil. Can I sow fescue seed now to germinate when the soil reaches the correct temperature in the spring?

You take the chance that seed may rot or be eaten by birds before the soil warms enough, usually March through April. To germinate, seed needs to stay consistently moist. Weed competition are fierce in spring. It's not the ideal time to sow grass. (Aug. 15-Oct. 15 is best.) Tender seedlings also require watering through the summer and often don't survive the heat. Expect to overseed in fall. Though more expensive, sod may be your best option. For seeding basics, read Lawn Establishment, Renovation and Overseeding on the HGIC website.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click "Ask Maryland's Gardening Experts" to send questions and photos.

Digging Deeper

Lovely lavender and purple canes in winter mean juicy black raspberries ahead. Black raspberries are the earliest of the small fruits to ripen. But all brambles, including red raspberries and blackberries, along with blueberries are great producers for home gardeners. They produce the most fruit in the least space with the least insect and disease problems. It's the Year of the Small Fruits on the UMD Home and Garden Information website. The blog of the Grow It Eat It section will be loaded with first hand experiences and tips. This is in addition to the website's usual cultural information on each small fruit, including grapes. (Click on Fruit on the homepage.) Pruning, for instance, is crucial for small fruit success. A black raspberry plant has a rooted crown which produces crazy long canes. Canes need to be pruned to about one yard tall and side shoots pruned to one foot for the most berries. Details for each small fruit are on the website.

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