Q: Why use salt marsh hay? Is this just a sales gimmick? Why not use cheaper plain old barnyard straw to mulch the garden? Wouldn't it do the same job?

A: No, it's not a gimmick. Salt marsh hay is a coastal crop, a special product of the eastern United States. Most comes from our own special part of the world, the salt marshes of the East Coast, and is seldom seen or heard about west of the Appalachians. Most people who garden outside of the Northeast region don't know what salt marsh is! The grass is harvested in early July through the fall until the salt marshes freeze solid.

Until the 1930s, it was harvested using hand labor and draft horses. In Colonial times, salt marsh hay was harvested as a valuable crop and used for animal fodder and bedding, as well as mulch for gardens.

Its advantages in your garden? It resists rotting, it doesn't pack down and smother plants, and it's not weedy because seeds never sprout. Salt marsh hay requires the saltwater tidal changes to germinate and grow, and your garden isn't a salt marsh. You can find salt marsh hay at garden centers through the Northeast. Buy it early because it disappears from the market by late fall.

Q: Now that summer is coming to an end, I see lots of special offers for sale plants I would like to grow. Is it safe to buy these plants this late — or are they really just soon-to-be-dead leftovers? How late can I continue to buy them into the fall and still plant them safely this year?

A: Bargain plants — and midsummer planting — are easier in the fall when rain is more predictable and temperatures are cooler. Late season planting is safe but caution is necessary. It's a temptation: At bargain prices, you can afford to try some new varieties.

There are bargains out there! Most nurseries don't have the necessary space to carry them over until next year, so they can be great bargains when put on sale. Do your homework. It's not worth any sale price if it's a dying plant. If possible, buy locally so you can inspect the plant. Whether they are perennials in pots or burlap wrapped trees, has the seller taken good care of this stock all this summer? Were they watered regularly and cleaned of dead and dying leaves and flowers as needed? Were they protected from extreme sun and wind?

When you get them home, be prepared to plant promptly. Have the space dug and the hose nearby. If you bought a tree, be prepared to stake the tree for at least the first year. Plan to continue watering new stock right up until the ground freezes.

Buy your plants as early in the fall as you can; the root systems must grow before the ground freezes, if they are to live through their first New England winter. In the spring, you'll have some wonderful new plants already in the ground that you bought at bargain prices.

Q: I have what I believe is called a pear tree, although I believe it is because it is the shape, not that it bears fruit, but is in the shape of a pear. They are somewhat common in my area, but mine seems to not take on the shape. Would you suggest professional care and pruning, or can you give me other insight to achieve the shape?

A: Can't tell from your description, but could it possibly be a Bartlett pear tree? They are very common around town as they are easy to care for and fast-growing. They do have tiny "pears," about three-quarters of an inch long that are not edible, but the birds and squirrels love them! (They are one of the last fresh foods a bird/squirrel sees after the first snowstorm.)

They can be pruned. Be careful not to cut the main leader too short, and feel free to cut branches that might be rubbing on the house or otherwise obstructing your property. They aren't meant to be carefully sculptured trees.

You can do it yourself if you are careful and have a safe ladder, or you can call in a professional tree company. The financial choice is yours.

Q: Any guidance on planting a sassafras tree?

A: Sassafras tree — nothing difficult about them. Give them plenty of sun and a well-drained spot.

If you are collecting your seeds and plan on planting them, you'll need to stratify the seeds over the winter by refrigerating them, or collect and plant in the spring, or buy a young tree. They quickly grow very long, strong tap roots, so choose the location carefully. Stake the young tree for early support, and mulch well to conserve moisture.

The tree is a native of North America, growing 20 to 40 feet high. Centuries ago, liquid distilled from the bark was thought to cure syphilis and rheumatism, but this use has been disputed. Now it is often used to scent cheap soaps and perfumes.

As lumber, it's a beautiful wood to work, and has a spicy smell that lasts for many years in the finished project. Another name for the wood is cinnamon wood. This strong scent also makes it desirable as a wood for smoking meats and sausages.

Q: I have a lovely, approximately 14-foot-tall Japanese maple, and my helper has, I believe, mulched too close to the trunk. What is the recipe for mulching a tree? How close, how deep?

A: Allow breathing room between the mulch and the tree trunk or crown: About 6 inches deep is fine.

I see so many young, expensive trees planted around the mall parking lots, mulched right up to the trunk in volcano style of mulching, and I know it's for ease of maintenance to keep out weeds, trash, etc., but I wonder how long they will live? Give all your plants some room to breathe and keep all mulch away from the center or trunk area.

Q: My daughter has a couple of questions for you: I only got two blossoms on my peonies this year; they used to do much better — any ideas? Perhaps the shade over them has increased — would that matter to peonies?

A: Yes — sun has a lot to do with peony blooms — I had to move my peonies a few years back, and the disturbance cost me a season or two of bloom because a replanted peony takes a year or even two to re-bloom after being disturbed.

Trees and bushes continue to grow and shade nearby plant and beds, and sometimes there's not a darn thing we can do about it. We sure don't want to remove the tree or shrub, although some pruning may give you another year or two of sun.

This week's dirt

A gardener's joke, and for a change, it's not about hiding zucchini: Name a popular variety of French asparagus: Britney Spears, of course!

• • •

North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday's Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by e-mail at nsgardener@comcast.net or write to her c/o Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at www.nsgardener.com.

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