Plan ahead!

Plants don't a have a choice--they must do the best they can where they are.

Plants don’t a have a choice–they must do the best they can where they are.

Sometimes Mother Nature doesn’t leave enough growing space for her trees and shrubs.  Once the plants start growing out in the wild they have to do the best they can with the space they have.

The trio of trees in this top photo, a cherry (Prunus serotina) and two longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) have a problem.  The cherry’s major surface roots have a stranglehold around both of the pines and eventually the pines will become weakened at their bases as they try to expand and the cherry tree’s roots expand as well.  Right now the cherry tree trunk is about a foot in diameter, but it and the pines will continue to grow.  The pines will become a hazard in this suburban yard and are likely to blow over in a tropical storm.  It’s possible that all three of them will come down together during a wind event.

A magnolia planted itself too close to the sprinkler head.

A magnolia planted itself too close to the sprinkler head.

Native volunteers in the landscape

It’s best to take care of moving plants that volunteer in the wrong spaces before they get too large.  Here a southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) planted itself too close to the sprinkler head. There are oaks in there as well.  The oaks in my yard are plentiful and I’ll just pull them out, but the magnolias are worth saving because of their beauty and evergreen habit. I have root pruned this baby so that it will generate new roots closer to its trunk and will have a better chance of surviving the transplant.  I’ll move it this winter.  Winter is our dry season, so I won’t do this unless I know that we won’t be traveling for a month or two so that I can tend to its irrigation.

One place I will not plant a magnolia is in the middle of the lawn.  These trees lose their big leathery leaves all year long and it’s just too much work to pick up after them. When we first moved into this house, transplanting the two magnolias from the middle of the front lawn was one of our first landscaping projects.  See my article: “My magnificent but messy magnolias.” After nine years, they are still doing well in their new locations, but if I had to do it over again, I would have removed the lawn and planted native azaleas, blueberries and other native shrubs and groundcovers around them.  Wouldn’t that have been pretty? And with other plants around the magnolias, I would not have had to worry about the constant magnolia leaf drop.

Human-designed landscapes

A road planting project in Orange Park, FL.

A road planting project in Orange Park, FL: Crepe myrtles in the median strip and longleaf pines under the power lines.

When we design landscapes, we should be smart enough so that our woody plants have enough room to grow and are placed so that they won’t need much corrective pruning to fit into the landscape, but guess what?  We are not that smart.

Here are a couple of examples and in both cases, the people doing the planting should have known better.

In Orange Park, a town in Clay County in northeast Florida, a road-widening project was finished off with sound barrier walls on either side and then with plantings of mostly native trees.  But someone didn’t think about the future and like so many projects, it was planted so that it looks good today.

While there are the non-native, over-planted crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) in the median strip, the other trees are natives–the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and the ‘East Palatka’ holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘East Palatka’).

The hollies are probably a good choice because they only grow to 30 or 40 feet tall and have a compact conical shape with a spread of only 10 to 15 feet. This holly is a natural  hybrid between I. cassine x I. opaca–it was discovered in 1927 growing near East Palatka, FL.

Longleaf pines in a row.

Longleaf pines in a row.

The pines are another matter. They will grow to 60 or 80 feet and their crowns can spread to 30 to 40 feet. They’ve planted them about 6 or 7 feet apart and on one side of the street, they are planted close to an array of power lines. What were they thinking?

They could have planted a few longleaf pines on the side of the street without the power lines and planted some groups of easy-to-care-for native shrubs combined with smaller trees on the other side.  Greater diversity would have made this strip of roadside a better habitat. I would add these shrubs: beautyberry (Callicarpa americana),  firebush (Hamelia patens), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), and  winged sumac (Rhus copallinum).  All of these shrubs are readily available and grow well in a wide variety of habitats.

A longleaf pine with half a crown because it's too close to the power lines.

A longleaf pine with half a crown because it’s too close to the power lines.

What bothers me most about these blunders is that when they outgrow their spaces and need constant trimming, people will say that natives just don’t work in urban areas. When the truth is that someone just needed to have enough vision to PLAN AHEAD!

As an example of what will happen with these trees, I took a photo of a longleaf pine in my neighborhood that has only half of its crown, because the power company comes around every couple of years to trim it back.

Know what you are planting

Back in the fall of 2005, Jack Scheper of Floridata, a plant encyclopedia, gave me a pot of blue palmettos (Sabal minor). There were 3 little plants in the pot and he said that they like more moisture than the more common saw palmettos (Serenoa repens). Armed with that piece of information, I planted two of them near the pond out front and one 5 feet away from a sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) growing in a damp area that holds water after heavy rains.

A blue palmetto shortly after planting in spring 2006.

A blue palmetto shortly after planting in spring 2006.

Here’s how the palmetto looked in the spring following its planting.  At this point, I was not certain that it would survive.

I made two mistakes in this planting. 1) I did not know that the blue palmetto’s leaves would be almost twice as large as the saw palmetto’s and I was not prepared for how large it would get. 2) I should have noticed that the sweetbay magnolias were sending up a lot of suckers and should have guessed that they would continue to build a nice thicket.

In 2010, just after I gave the blue palmetto a topdressing of compost.

In December 2010, just after I gave the blue palmetto a topdressing of compost.

This is the present state of the blue palmetto and the sweetbay magnolias. Too crowded!

This is the present state of the blue palmetto and the sweetbay magnolias. Too crowded!

This could be a story about how well the compost topdressing works for encouraging plants, even natives, but it’s also the story of how I failed to PLAN AHEAD!

So what would you do? Should I move the palmetto farther away from the magnolias and take a chance that it might not survive the transplant at this stage of its life or should I trim the suckers and the low branches away from the palmetto knowing that the trimming job would become an ongoing chore into the future?

Hopefully, I’ve learned enough about Florida’s flora so I can avoid bad planning in the future. What about you?  Have you learned from your own failure to plan ahead?

© 2013, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Ginny Stibolt

Ginny Stibolt, a naturalist with a master's degree in botany, lives in Green Cove Springs in northern Florida.  She's written 2 Florida gardening books, Sustainable Gardening for Florida and Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida , both published by University Press of Florida.  Her website, Green Gardening Matters contains a six-year log of Florida gardening, nearly 100 articles, and links to more than 100 podcasts about gardening in Florida.  She's an active member of the Florida Native Plant Society and is one of the primary FNPS bloggers.  She is also an active member of the Lawn Reform Coalition.


  1. Random Guy says:

    Collect ripe seeds off the palmetto and sprout a backup. then try to transplant.

    • Ginny Stibolt says:

      Palmetto seeds are very slow to germinate and take a really long time to go through their formative stage. There have been no flowers or seeds on this palmetto and it’s been in the ground for nine years.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Short-day onions & more…

      • Random Guy says:

        I have had success fermenting the fruit as you would a tomato and then cold setting at 20 degrees for one week. Within five weeks of planting the sprout should appear. If your plant has not bloomed, I would look for others setting fruit from late June to the end of August.

  2. Marilyn says:

    An instructor used to tell us, “What you know, you see.” Probably because I’ve lived through a couple of serious ice storms, its hard for me to imagine anyone planting a tree without first considering its eventual height. Our neighborhood has many large, mature trees, and used to have a lot more. I’ll never forget shivering in bed with no power, listening to the continual loud popping noise as their limbs broke under the weight of the ice.

    I was reading an article by a veteran rain gardener. She wrote about the mistakes she made, and one of them was in choosing some plants that were just too tall for her small yard.

    The native plant catalog I recently ordered includes information about the height and spread of all their plants. Those are now the first columns on the grid that I look at. So many trees that I would have liked to plant are not going to work. Now to figure out which ones WILL. With all of that, I still admire the gardeners who just get out there and do it. Sometimes I take too much time thinking and planning, and don’t get to the actual job.

    • Ginny Stibolt says:

      Good advice Marilyn, but those estimates are just that. In the right place, a place may grow larger than the estimate. The height range for the blue palmetto tops out at 9 feet, but the way this one is growing, I would bet that it will surpass that mark within the next year or so.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Short-day onions & more…

      • Marilyn says:

        Thanks, Ginny. I will definitely be keeping that in mind now as we choose trees to replace the ones we’ve lost.

  3. Suzanne Dingwell says:

    Don’t move the blue! I vote to keep the palmetto in place, you have to wait so long for them and they are such a striking and useful trees in the landscape, also harder to come by than the magnolia. Over time, I bet the magnolias adapt to the situation to certain degree in ways you might not imagine now.

    This brings up a good point to keep in mind – no matter how much information you read in a book, there really is no substitute for the experience of hands-on growing. You know a plant in such a different dimension when you have lived with it. And so no reason to feel one has fallen short in the planning stage. Really, the ever expanding knowledge, along with the new revelations, are two things that keep the gardener engaged and interested!

    • Ginny Stibolt says:

      Thanks Sue. I think I will leave it in place because it is obviously in an environment that it likes. But I try to keep the maintenance chores to a minimum and chopping off the magnolia’s suckers is an annual chore I was trying to avoid. On the other hand, I recently learned, while writing “The Art of Maintaining a Native Landscape” that if you pull out root-borne suckers rather than cutting them off that they won’t come back, because pulling them out destroys the growth bud in the surface root. This is the perfect situation to test that method.
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Short-day onions & more…

  4. Gregory Overcashier says:

    Could the Pines be brought to the attention of those responsible and suggest moving them now. Swapping with the crepe myrtles might be an option. Native plums might work against the wall. Do we know who did the planting? I would be glad to contact them.
    Gregory Overcashier recently posted..Hover Fly 5

    • Ginny Stibolt says:

      Gregory, that’s an excellent plan of action. I was just using it as an example, but a more proactive approach is certainly called for and would save so much money and aggravation in the future. I would start with the town of Orange Park first. I just searched for their website, but it’s not working.

  5. loret says:

    Let them battle it out …see who is strongest. I’m taking the side of the palmetto. Go big blue :)
    loret recently posted..Arnold surfs the windshield

    • Ginny Stibolt says:

      Thanks Loret, but I feel that if I leave the palmetto in place that I should prune back the sweetbay magnolia branches and suckers. I’ll proceed slowly…
      Ginny Stibolt recently posted..Clay County Delegation Hearing and Plan Ahead!

  6. Marcia says:

  7. Mary Thornhill says:

    I think there may be a bit of a mix up here with names that may have caused a part of this issue.

    Blue palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a color form of the normally green palmettos. They are in deed blue in color but they are the same size as “normal” palmettos and along the east coast of Florida can be seen growing intermingled with them.

    Sabal minor – Common names: dwarf palmetto, bush palmetto, bluestem palmetto, and blue palm. This is a small (in height) growing cabbage palm. This is why the leaves on your plant seem so much larger than a saw palmetto’s leaves. This of how large the leaves are on a cabbage palm, that’s basically what you have there. The leaves of this species have a blue coloring to them where the more commonly seen Sabal palmetto (cabbage palm) are more green. In the wild these are not seen nearly as much as they used to be.

    If it ever flowers you will see the difference quite clearly. The flowers are formed very differently and the fruits are as well. Palmettos (Serenoa repens) make fleshy fruits while the Cabbage Palms (Sabal sp.) have small round hard dry fruits in much larger numbers.

    I hope this info helps. It is an excellent example of what can happen when a common name gets used for more than one plant. Hope this info helps.

    And yes, for my vote I would leave the Sabal minor where it is. They are not often seen in cultivation and it appears to be VERY happy where it is.

  8. Carole says:

    I’d vote for leaving the palmetto. I believe the magnolia suckers will either be shaded out or form trunks. If they form trunks the palmetto will be a nice understory plant for the tree.



  1. Plan ahead! - Native Plants and Wildlife Garden... says:

    […] Sometimes Mother Nature doesn't leave enough growing space for her trees and shrubs. Once the plants start growing out in the wild they have to do the best they can with the space they have. The trio of trees in this top photo, a cherry …  […]


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