Editor’s Note: Mark Weathington is taking over the monthly Ask the Gardener column. Weathington is director of the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.
Q. The News & Observer ran an article a couple of years ago about a native shrub that benefits a host of animal life and makes an attractive privacy screen. I have a 40-year-old privet hedge that has gaps I’d like to fill in with the best possible option. Cedar waxwings enjoy the privet, but I’m open to your suggestions. Any idea for improving the hedge and giving us privacy? Thanks for your help.
Alice Bracey, Raleigh
A. I agree that there are few sights more enjoyable than watching a flock of cedar waxwings feasting on plants in the landscape. Cedar waxwings feed mostly on fleshy fruits in fall and winter, but during the summer they eat insects so it is a great idea to encourage them to forage in your yard.
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One suggestion for a native evergreen plant for a hedge is southern waxmyrtle (Myrica cerifera), which will form a dense, tough hedge for sun or part shade. The bayberry-scented fruit are prized by cedar waxwings.
Native evergreen hollies such as the non-spiny yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) also respond well to hedging, and the twiggy branching and dense growth are excellent for nesting birds as well. The American holly (Ilex opaca) can grow quite large if left unpruned but will respond well to yearly trimming to keep it in check.
Another outstanding native evergreen hedge plant is Carolina cherrylaurel (Prunus caroliniana), especially in its dwarf forms, “Compacta” or Bright ‘N Tight. The dense, very glossy evergreen foliage responds well to pruning, and the small black cherries are absolutely loved by a variety of birds.
To get the widest variety of birds over the longest period in your garden, it is best to plant a variety of shrubs for different fruit and seed types, extended timing of fruiting, and a variety of nesting cover. A mixed hedge of several shrubs including a sprinkling of deciduous ones makes an attractive display and a smorgasbord for our feathered friends. Make sure to also provide a clean, shallow water source and you are sure to have an active wildlife habitat.
Man vs. squirrel
Q. I have planted some Cherokee Purples this year but have not been able to enjoy even one of them. The problem? Squirrels. They rip them off the plant still green, eat them partially, and I find the wreckage in the morning.
So, does anyone have a solution to these thieves aside from putting up a fence worthy of Central Prison and electrifying it? Or packing a .22 and risking getting arrested over a tomato? It’s apparently a problem that’s rife across the land. Is getting at least one vine-ripe tomato planted organically and with all care and love too much to ask?
Edie Chiavatti, Raleigh
A. I feel your pain. I long ago learned to appreciate the antics of squirrels as they raided my bird feeders rather than battle futilely with them, but I draw the line at food I grow for myself. There’s no foolproof method to keeping the squirrels at bay, but a few tricks have proven to be moderately effective.
Cages do work to keep squirrels away from your tomatoes. If you have just a few plants, they can be caged individually with rolls of hardware cloth. This may be more difficult if you are growing heirloom tomatoes, as many of them, like your Cherokee Purples, are indeterminate and will outgrow their cage fairly quickly. Another very easy method to protect your entire veggie garden is to install tall bamboo poles and cover the entire bed with bird netting.
There are various bottled predator urine sprays like wolf, mountain lion or coyote, but I’ve never found them to be terribly effective. You can also purchase or make your own hot pepper spray – there are plenty of recipes online. Any sprays will need to be re-applied after a rainstorm, though.
Perhaps the most effective solution is to plant two to three times as many plants as you really need and resign yourself to losing the battle against the bushy-tailed rats. At least you’ll still have some tomatoes for yourself.
Mark Weathington is the director of the JC Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University in Raleigh. Info: jcra.ncsu.edu. Please send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Common name: Bright ‘N’ Tight Carolina Cherrylaurel
Botanical name: Prunus caroliniana ‘Monus’
Family: Rose (Rosaceae)
Category: Large evergreen shrub
Primary uses: Hedges, natural and native plant gardens
Dimensions: 8-15 feet tall by 5-8 feet wide in 10 years.
Culture: Full sun to part shade; prefers moist, well-drained soils, but will tolerate less than ideal conditions. Prune, if necessary, during active growth in the spring or early summer after flowering.
Bloom time: Spring.
Hardiness: Established plants are winter hardy to at least 5 degrees (USDA hardiness zone 7).
General attributes: This compact form of our native Carolina cherry laurel is a good performer in the Southeast. Its glossy evergreen leaves make a good backdrop in the landscape, and the small, white flowers in 2-3 inch clusters are extremely fragrant. Birds like the somewhat showy black fruits and will flock to the plant to devour them.