There is so much to learn about living in south Florida. Our unique wildlife and plants are irreplaceable assets. Our water supply is in jeopardy due to careless dumping and excessive growth and water use. I believe we have a man-over-nature philosophy at work here: Dominate and crush whatever natural is in the way as opposed to using what is present as an asset. 

Concerned architects can design housing on pilings with wooden walkways in the old Florida cracker style that complements the environment and does not intrude on it. They are doing this in southeast Florida and in the Stuart area now. The alternative is acres of concrete and high rises. 

Tree pruning takes the same man-over-nature form. If the tree or shrub is not pruned into a recognizable geometric shape like a square, circle, triangle, or rectangle then the concrete lovers go mad until the plant is shaped as they want it. The irony of all this is the cost in dollars, unnecessary work year after year, and harm to the plant. 

Q. Our tree trimmer trims the palms using tree spikes. The spikes put holes in the tree. Will this hurt the palms? 

A. Spikes will harm the palms because they cannot heal wounds. The wounds provide openings for disease, termites and carpenter ants. Different palms vary in how quickly they will be affected by the damage. I would get another tree service. 

Q. I always thought trees and shrubs should be pruned after blooming in the fall

A. Gardening rules are a bit different in Florida. Up North, where plants might bloom for one to two weeks, it's common to prune them back after they bloom so next year's display is not disturbed. But here many plants bloom year-round, so they can be pruned as needed. I usually prefer pruning in June or July because there usually is cloud cover and possible scalding from the sun can be avoided. Flowering plants should never be used for hedges or foundation plantings that regularly get pruned. All the flowers get cut off and all you have left is a green bush. It is better to use Surinam cherry or Viburnum suspensum for hedges. Keep the flowering plants out in open lawn area beds where they can grow freely and not be pruned. 

Q. What is the best method of pruning a tree and can you recommend a good tree trimmer?

A. Pruning on all plants can be done at any time of year in Florida. In my opinion the optimum season is at the beginning of June through August, before the main hurricane season. Do not allow any hat rackers on your property. These people stub trees back so they look like a collection of sticks. Don't hire someone who appears at your door just because he has a chain saw in his hand. Proper pruning involves cuts made almost flush with stems. Dead wood and crossing and rubbing branches are removed from the interior of the tree. When a tree is properly pruned it shouldn't even look like it has been touched. Go for drop crotch pruning. This is more expensive, but trees do not need pruning more than every five to six years, which will be a big saving. Reputable tree companies practicing the drop crotch method may be hard to find. Make sure they follow the International Arboricultural pruning standards to insure the best care for your trees. Good companies will probably be members of the International Society of Arboriculture, the National Arborist Association or some other professional association. Check Better Business Bureau recommendations. 

Q. Our community landscaper just cut my 3 ½ foot tall ixoras full of bloom back to 1 foot. I feel this was the wrong time to cut them back. Can you comment on this? 

A. Cutting ixora back to 1 foot in height is radical pruning and hard on the plant. Never remove more than one-third of the total green growth at one time. I normally recommend summer pruning as we usually have cloud cover. This protects the plant from sunscald and the plants recover quicker because summer is the major growing season. 

Q. How long before we can remove the ropes and stakes from a newly planted tree? Can a tree be injured if a rope is looped around the trunk without some protection?

A. Trees should not be staked for more than one year. Bare rope can girdle the tree. Many new staking arrangements are available including staking straps that do minimal damage. Staking is needed only until the tree is established. 

Q. Why are you so militant about not using weed trimmers?

A. I have seen and heard of many cases of tree death in the past few years from weedtrimmers. The combination of excess watering and trimmer damage set the trees up for an attack of Armillaria root rot. Wounds at the bases of the trunk can girdle young trees and provide an entry point for the spores of this fungus. This aggressive root rot causes rapid decline and death in trees once it is established. There is no control but to avoid mechanical damage and to cut back on watering. Protect the base of the trees with a permanent groundcover planting. Water no more than twice a week in winter and only if needed in the summer. 

Q. Should I use a spreader sticker with my fungicide for better control? 

A. Spreader sticker is a good product to use in conjunction with insecticides or fungicides. It helps the pesticide to adhere better, increasing the effectiveness of the product. Brand names include Biofilm and Lesco Spreader Sticker. 

Q. You said in one of your columns that you did not know of a cleaning product that would clean mildew off shingle roofs without hurting the plants. I found a good product that works and did not damage my plants. It is called M-1 Deck and Roof Cleaner and is sold as a liquid concentrate in 1-gallon bottles. For roof cleaning I diluted it 7:1. I sprayed it on the roof with a pump type bug sprayer, let it sit for 10 minutes and washed it off with a low-pressure (1,200 psi) pressure washer. A year later my shingles still look clean, and no plants died. The label says it is biodegradable and non-poisonous. The cleaner is made by Jomaps, Inc. in Alpharetta, GA, and is available through Allied Building Products in Fort Lauderdale. 

Q. I opened some 2-year-old Miracle-Gro packages. The product is moist. Is it safe to use? 

A. Use it quickly. Most of these products have a short shelf life. 

Q. How close should I place the mulch next to my trees and plants

A. Mulch should always be kept way from the bark of trees and shrubs. The mulch keeps the bark wet and prevents it from breathing. This causes the bark to rot and peel off and eventually can kill the tree or shrub. 

Q. Where can I get melaleuca mulch? Can I use it in all garden areas? 

A. Melaleuca mulch is produced in Florida. The company, Forestry Resources, Inc., is located in Ft. Myers. It is utilizing the invasive melaleuca as a mulch product and planting bald cypress in its place. Cutting down cypress trees just for mulch strikes me as very wasteful as cypress wood is very valuable. Melaleuca mulch should last as long as cypress because the tree is durable and the wood doesn't rot easily. More landscape architects are now specifying melaleuca mulch on their projects. There have been some reports of melaleuca seed sprouting in the mulch, but this is probably on very wet sites. Sprouting is not a problem in eastern areas of Broward and Palm Beach counties where the soil is sandy and dries fast. Melaleuca normally does not germinate in dry areas. 

Q. How do we keep a tree trunk from re-sprouting after its been cut down? 

A. The best way is to have the stump and heart of the root system ground with a stump grinder. Certain vigorous trees resist even this treatment including bischofia, women's tongue and rough lemon. An alternative is to use a herbicide like Roundup or Kleenup on the emerging foliage from the stump and roots. Several treatments may be necessary to kill the tree, particularly if it was large. 

Q. What is the procedure for gathering seeds for propagation

A. These steps will work for most any seed. 

  • Mark the plants you wish to keep for seed. Look for good qualities such as good health. 
  • Plant only one variety or strain. If you are using other varieties, keep them at least 100 feet apart to avoid cross-pollination. 
  • Let seed ripen on the plant as long as possible before collecting it. Seed capsules usually are brown when ripe. The pods will be brittle and should split easily. 
  • Clean the seed by rubbing it against pieces of wire screening. Various sizes of mesh should be saved for different seed sizes. Seed and chaff will separate by the rubbing process. 
  • Store seed in a cool, dry place in a covered airtight container. 
  • Test for germination by placing about 30 seeds on blotting paper or raw cotton in a shallow dish. Keep the paper or cotton moist to hasten germination, but do not let the seed remain in water. Keep the seeds warm and dark. When they germinate note how long it took and the percentage of viable seed that you have. If the seed is moldy it is no good. 

Q. I want to take cuttings and root them. How do I do it?. 

A. Most cuttings from plants can be rooted in the following manner. Cut a 5 to 6- inch shoot at a 45-degree angle. Remove the lower leaves. Dip the cutting in Root- tone and plant in a pot filled with a well draining potting soil. Place outside under a tree in the shade, and the cutting should root in a few months. Let it grow to some size before planting it in a permanent location. 

Another way to root plants is to try layering the plant. Take a lower branch and scrape the bark off the underside of the branch where it can touch the ground. Put a Root tone hormone on the wound area. Then put soil over the wounded branch area and hold it down with a brick or stone. Make sure the wounded area makes positive contact with the ground. Check in a few months to see if roots have formed. Recover the rooted branch with soil and then after allowing about another six months for root growth, cut it off and replant it if the layering operation is successful. 

Q. What should I do in the garden to get ready for a hurricane

A. Getting ready for a hurricane is mainly common sense. You probably will be evacuated if you live near the ocean or on one of the barrier islands. I would have a good tree company check my trees and shrubs for problem areas. They should remove branches that overhang your roof. Dead wood and crossing branches should be removed from the tree interior. The tree should be opened up to allow air to pass through. Coconuts should be removed, as they can become bowling balls in a storm. Old fronds can be removed if hey are below the horizontal line on the palm. Upward angled fronds should be allowed to remain. Do not allow tree workers to climb palms with spikes…they can puncture the soft stems of palms like royals and cause rot to occur in the center of the palm stem. Palms cannot heal over puncture wounds like regular trees and shrubs. Put away all potential missiles like lawn furniture, tools, trashcans, etc. Prune shrubbery so it does not rub against the building or screening. 

Q. We are having our house tented for termite extermination. Will the gases kill my plants?

A. Yes. The gases can kill houseplants so move these outdoors to a shady place away from the house. Make sure the tent is draped behind the foundation plantings so they are not killed. 

Q. Every year we get assessed for tree trimming at our condominium. Is it a law that trees have to be trimmed each year?

A. According to Becker and Poliakoff P.A., a firm specializing in condominium law, there is no state regulation requiring that trees be cut every year in a condominium setting. If trees are properly pruned using the drop crotch method, they can go at least five to six years between pruning jobs. If trees are creating a specific problem such as excessive fruit drop and staining, bad root systems, brittle wood, or other problems, it would be cheaper to remove the tree and replace it with something less invasive and more appropriate to the location.