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"Head's up! Literally that is.

Heads up! Literally, that is.

When we're planting tree seedlings -- or any other kind of plant -- it's only natural that we spend most of our time looking at the ground. After all, that's where we're going to plant it, so we're focused on the soil and the rocks and the hole we're going to dig.

But just hold on for a minute! Before you plant your tree, take a minute to look UP. Stand in the spot where you're planning to plant the tree and look up to see what is directly above you. With any luck, all you can see is sky. But if there any cables between you and the wild blue yonder, you might have to reconsider.

In all probability, you have several lengths of "electric rope" strung across your property. Some of it belongs to your local utility company and the rest was probably installed by the telephone company or the cable television folks. What ever the source of the cables, you want to avoid planting anything that is liable to grow tall enough to cause a potential problem. In even a mild storm, swaying tree branches can bring down electric lines causing power outages as well as a serious risk of electrocution. Something you'd probably prefer to avoid.

Does this mean that you should not plant ANYTHING near or under utility lines?

Not necessarily. Obviously, moving your planting spot to another location is a safe option. But it's not the only one.

A viable option is to select tree seedlings whose maximum growth will still be well BELOW the level of the power lines. To be on the safe side, a good choice would be the Dwarf Alberta Spruce, with a mature height of 10 to 15 feet. You could also consider Flowering Dogwoods, Amur Maples or Upright Junipers, all of which should top out at no more than 15 to 20 feet.

If you're set on planting taller trees such as Golden Ash, Amur Cork or Goldenrain all of which have a mature height in the range of around 30 feet you will need to plant them at least 15 feet horizontally away from overhead power lines. And if you're determined to plant the big guys such as White Oak, Red Maple or Norway Spruce, you'll need to place them at least 25 feet horizontally away from that electric rope. (If you'd like to know about a few more options, you're welcome to contact me.)

Oh, and before you swing that pick, look in the phone book and find the utility companies' "Digger's Hotline" numbers. Don't assume that buried utilities are necessarily deeper than you plan to dig!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to The Plant Man or mail to: Steve Jones, "The Plant Man", P.O. Box 686, McMinnville, TN 37111. For resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org

QUESTION: I've heard the term "thatching" in connection with lawn care. What is it and is it something I should do to my lawn?

ANSWER: You're thinking of de-thatching. Thatch is what landscapers call that gnarly tangle of twig-like dead roots and grass stems that begins to form between the soil and the grass. When it gets too thick, your grass ends up growing in the thatch rather than in the moist, nutrient-rich soil, so it's more likely to whither and die during hot, dry weather. If there's more than about a half inch of thatch on your lawn, you need to de-thatch. If you like rigorous exercise you can use a hand-held de-thatching rake, or do what I do and rent a machine called (appropriately) a de- thatcher. Do it when your lawn is dormant or almost dormant. To contact Steve Jones with your comments and questions, send e-mail to [email protected]

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