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Despite appearances, trees are getting proper care, firm says

Taxpayers paid millions of dollars for landscaping Dade County roadways. Is their investment beingprotected?

Across Dade County, some of the palms, lush and green when planted, have withered and turnedbrown. A smaller number have died and toppled.

Not to worry, advises the company that planted most of the palms for Metro in recent months. Forthose that die, the county has a 12-month replacement warranty on the plantings.

The trees lost their lushness after repeated cold snaps this winter, which made it moredifficult for them to adapt after transplanting, a company spokeswoman said. Summer rains, she said,should help them recover.

"We've just gone through a horrible winter, the worst since '89," said Lourdes Rodriguez, amanager for Manuel Diaz Farms. "Wait until May and the palms will flesh out."

Tree experts agree it has been a tough winter for transplanted trees -- and worry that theroyal palms may suffer long-term consequences after the warranties expire. They said the palms,grown under optimum nursery conditions, needed more pampering when transplanted into the parched androcky soil along many Dade streets.

"All of them are drying up," said John Harris, a state- certified landscape inspector whochecked palms for The Herald that were planted along Kendall Drive, Interstate 95 and around theCulmer Center in Overtown. "They are living on reserves. Some may not make it."

Thousands of newly planted royal palms especially are at risk if they do not receive enoughwater and fertilizer, experts warn.

"The royal palm likes to be taken care of," said DeArmand Hull, a palm specialist for theDade County Cooperative Extension Service. "It's a swamp palm and likes a lot of water. When weplant them high and dry, they are more susceptible to insects like the royal palm bug. It sucks thejuice out of the leaves. Usually they will outgrow the damage -- if the palm is healthy."

Rodriguez said the palms planted by Diaz Farms are receiving proper care, that the company'screws have regularly watered, fertilized and pruned them since they were planted. Dead trees arebeing replaced, she said -- even those demolished in car accidents. "We want to keep our customers happy," Rodriguez said. "The trees have a one-year guaranteeand the county has a 100 percent performance bond from us. How better protected can the taxpayersbe?" And what happens when the warranties run out? One of Metro's top plant experts worries thatcare of all the new palms may be overwhelming. He said the county's planting program has been toorushed and ambitious.

"Patience is a virtue we could use a little more of," said Paul Carey, the Metro parksdepartment's chief landscape architect. "They need a maintenance plan to go with all thislandscaping. The palms in particular need to be fertilized, especially the royal palms.

A maintenance plan is in the works, said acting public works director Pedro Hernandez, whosedepartment handled most of the planting projects and is responsible for their care. Meanwhile, heacknowledges, the cost keeps growing with every new tree popped in county swales.

"Maintenance is one of my concerns," Hernandez said. "It's nice when you plant and get allthe accolades. But you also have to provide for care of the plantings."

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