• Frothy mountain laurel brightens June
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     | June 28,2009
     
    Photo by Henry Homeyer

    Mountain laurel has pink and white flowers and glossy green foliage.

    Mountain laurel is an evergreen shrub or small tree that produces lovely pink and white flowers in June. During a recent canoe trip on Squam Lake in Holderness, N.H., I was surprised and delighted to chance upon forests of blooming mountain laurel. The glorious diminutive blossoms (each an inch or less in width) were in large clusters along the water's edge and visible from half a mile away.

    Although I bought my home in Cornish Flat in 1972 and many newcomers to town may think I have been here forever, I have a confession: I was raised in Woodbridge, Conn. Yes, I'm a flatlander — or at least according to the seven remaining true Cornish-born residents in town (I exaggerate, of course). But as a former Connecticut boy, I love mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), the Connecticut state flower.

    Mountain laurel has many fine features: It will grow in sun or shade, the leaves are shiny and bright, and the delicate flowers are prolific – usually. What I noticed as I passed through forests of them was this: The more sunshine the plants got, the more flowers they produced. Plants in full sun at water's edge were the most prolific; few of those growing in the shade of mature white pines were blooming. Old plants grown in the shade have great sculptural features – they are twisted and lanky, with furrowed bark.

    Dick Jaynes is probably the foremost breeder of mountain laurel, having developed many named varieties at his Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, Conn. I met with him a couple of years ago to see what would be a good variety for my cold winters. He said mountain laurel is hardy to Zone 4, but that cold winters can damage the buds, causing blooming to be limited.

    He recommended one called Elf, which has bloomed nicely for me and stayed low. He explained that snow cover will protect the buds, and Elf stays under 2 feet in height.

    This past winter was hard on my two taller, upright mountain laurels. We had a period of minus 25 in January that burned off the flower buds above the snow.

    Not only that, it was a hard winter for the deer. For the first time ever they ventured near the house and chewed some of the twigs and evergreen leaves of my mountain laurels and rhododendrons. My two dogs – Daphne, a young corgi, and Abby, an aging mutt – usually deter deer, but this year the hoofed culprits went everywhere.

    One solution to both problems would be to cover the mountain laurel with burlap in the early winter. The burlap won't keep them much warmer, but it should help keep the wind from drying out the flower buds. In my opinion that is key: Wind along with cold is much more lethal than just plain cold. I may try covering them this winter, though frankly, I feel plants that can't survive without my help may not be worth garden space.

    If you are planting mountain laurel, you need to be sure your soil is acidic – preferably in the range of 4.0 to 6.0. A soil test would be good if your soils tend toward neutral (6.5 to 7.0). Pro-Holly and Holly-tone are two good acidifying organic fertilizers that would be good in years two or three, but I do not use them at planting time or after July 1. I don't fertilize any tree or shrub at planting time, because I want the first year to be a time of root growth, not top growth — which is promoted by any nitrogen-containing fertilizer.

    I top dress Pro-Holly on my blueberries, which also need to grow in acidic soil. (Now is the time to fertilize your blueberries.) Never fertilize any tree or shrub after mid-summer as it will stimulate new growth, which will be less hardy and suffer winter damage.

    The solution for organic gardeners is to buy some bagged "garden sulfur" at your local nursery. It is pure elemental sulfur and will drop the soil pH quite effectively. Mix it into the planting hole according to the directions on the bag. I also add rock phosphate to promote good root development. It is a very slow release material, providing phosphorous to your plant for years.

    Mountain laurels have fibrous roots that grow close to the soil surface. Mountain laurels need to grow in well-drained soil but to stay lightly moist. Adding some peat moss at planting time will not only help to acidify the soil, it can also help heavy clay-based soils to drain better. Mulch the soil surface with two inches or so of ground wood chips to help the roots stay moist in dry times.

    As with any newly planted tree or shrub, be sure to water on a regular basis. I like to leave a little ridge of soil around the planting so water will not flow away from the roots, but soak in. That is particularly important when watering from a hose.

    Thanks to breeders like Dick Jaynes, you can now buy many different colors of mountain laurel from white to a deep red. Many of the light-colored varieties are pink in bud, opening to a whiter blossom. I find all mountain laurels glorious and worthy of garden space – even if they require a little pampering.



    Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of the "Vermont Gardener's Companion: An Insider's Guide to Gardening in the Green Mountain State." He can be reached through his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com.

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