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Originally published May 29, 2014 at 6:15 AM | Page modified May 29, 2014 at 4:25 PM

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Q&A: Renovating heathers, keeping birds from cherries

Garden writer Ciscoe Morris gives tips to help keep new heathers looking great longer and to keep birds from eating the fruit on cherry trees.

Special to The Seattle Times

Gardening Events

Ciscoe’s Picks

‘The Connoisseur’s Table, a Look at Exceptional Plants’: Lecture by Dan Hinkley, renowned plant explorer and collector, 5-6 p.m. June 6. Advance tickets, $15 per person, include light refreshments. Molbak’s, 13625 N.E. 175th St., Woodinville (

2014 Fern Festival-Hardy Fern Foundation Plant Sale: Noon-6:30 p.m. June 6 and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. June 7. Ferns and companion plants available. Carlos Sanchez, professor of botany at the University of Havana in Cuba, will speak on the “Ferns of the Caribbean” at 7 p.m. June 6. Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 N.E. 41st St., Seattle (

Sorticulture Garden Arts Festival: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. June 6, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 7 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. June 8. Ciscoe Morris will speak at 1 p.m. June 7. Free parking in the Everett Community College Broadway parking lot (900 N. Broadway) to catch Sorticulture shuttle bus ($1 adult fare). Disabled parking available at the event at Legion Memorial Park, 145 Alverson Blvd., Everett (

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In the Garden

Q: Is it possible to renovate heaths and heathers that have died out in the middle?

A: Heaths and heathers are members of the rhododendron family. Heaths are the ones that bloom in winter, while heathers flower in summer. Unfortunately they are highly susceptible to dying out in the middle, and once it happens, it’s nearly impossible to renovate them.

I suggest buying replacements and, fortunately, there are steps you can take to help keep your new plants looking great for a reasonably long time. To start, these plants must have a sunny location. They won’t survive long in shade.

Make sure you plant them in well-drained soil amended with compost. Work organic rhododendron food into the planting hole, but avoid feeding on an annual basis. Instead cover the roots with a quarter-inch thick layer of compost every spring and fall.

The easiest way to do this is to rub a handful of compost over the plant, letting it fall into the foliage, and then brushing the leaves with your hand to allow it to filter down to the roots. The compost helps protect the roots from winter cold, while keeping the roots cool and preserving moisture in the heat of summer.

Finally, shear the foliage back to within a half-inch of the bare stems every spring. Do it just when new growth starts. Shearing in this way on an annual basis will retard flowering by two or three weeks, but it will encourage vigorous new foliage to fill in to keep the center green, floriferous and attractive for years to come.

Q: How can I keep the birds from eating my cherries? The tree is too tall to cover with bird netting.

A: Bird netting is the only foolproof method to keep birds from eating cherries, but just as you point out, it’s pretty much impossible to cover a tall tree with netting.

The only practical alternative is to use bird-scare flash tape, available at Ed Hume seed racks at garden centers. This mylar tape is silver on one side and red on the other. The tape automatically spirals when you pull it from the dispenser, and fastened in the tree, twists in the breeze causing the alternating colors to flash in the sun, which for some reason, scares the living tweetle out of the birds.

Although it can be quite effective if used properly, you can’t simply leave it in the tree year-round. Left in place, the birds become used to it, and its ability to frighten them is lost. Therefore, wait to put the flash tape up until just before the cherries start to ripen and remove it as soon as the harvest is over, storing it for future use.

The best way to use it in a cherry tree is to tie the inner end of the tape to a lower outside branch and string the tape loosely all the way around the tree, making sure it spirals as you wrap. Continue looping, working your way upward toward the top of the tree. In a tall tree, it may be too difficult to loop all the way to the top.

But, hey, the birds have to eat too! You’d probably never climb up into the tree to harvest the cherries in the top third of the tree anyway, so let your bird friends have the ones on top and use the bird-scare flash tape to give yourself a fighting chance for the lower cherries.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING 5.

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