Friday, January 13, 2017

2017 Landscape Resolutions

In a recent survey the number one resolution for the year wasn't dieting, but to be a better person. Truly admirable. Why not consider some resolutions to make your landscape better in 2017, too? The Hortiholic will happily share a few suggestions.

Help to reduce the spread of a very bad plant, buckthorn
  • Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is a noxious invasive, not an acceptable screening plant. Do yourself and your neighbors a huge favor and get rid of it to slow the spread. Boxelder and Siberian elm are equally awful and should share the same fate.
Assess the front of the house, and elsewhere
  • Tens of  thousands of dollars are spent on home renovations so our houses won't be "dated". How long has it been since you've considered the front of your house? Stand at the street, pretend it isn't your home and objectively ask, "Does this landscaping make my house more beautiful or is it as tired as the _______ (kitchen, bath, fill in the blank) I just replaced? Everyone sees the front of your home. Be proud of it. If you're overwhelmed seek professional help (design, not a therapist), preferably before spring so you're ready to proceed with ideas, or even better, a plan when weather breaks.
  • Just because you divided the Hosta lining the sidewalk and now have 150 or more "plants", don't feel compelled to share Nature's bounty. Compost 'em or throw 'em away. Don't put the neighbors in a position where they feel they have to accept and find a place for them. Neighbors, if you don't want the "seconds", politely decline. Perhaps, "Oh thanks, but I have other plans for that area." I'm sounding like Miss Manners, aren't I?
  • Break out of the rut. Try 3 new varieties of annuals, perennials, veggies or herbs. They don't have to be new on the market. Tried and true is good, especially if you're a newer gardener and building confidence in your green thumb. New to you and your garden is just fine.
  • Make life easier on yourself and stop trying to grow grass under a Norway maple. Too much shade, too much root competition. Consider a really tough shade tolerant ground cover. If that's too daunting make a bed with mulch as the ground cover. Let the bare soil and lack of grass suggest a potential bed outline. 
Create a pollinator-friendly place
  • Bees and Monarchs aren't the only pollinators. Other butterflies, moths, insects and birds can use all the help they can get. Check out "Little Garden Club of Wilmette Pocket Prairie Plant Selection Guide" as a great resource. They've certainly raised my understanding of how even a grouping of 5 or more native plants as a way station in your garden can make a big difference!
  • Do you have a room whose windows no longer "tell" time of day because of the foliage "curtaining" it? Do guests have to walk on the grass, or single file, to the front door because the landscaping is overgrown? If it's just a plant or two and you think it's salvageable, find out what the plants are and whether they can handle a rejuvenation prune or... must be trashed. 
Save tags to replicate what you liked
  • If you're not an obsessive compulsive person (guilty), if you're not a spreadsheet guru (guilty again) save the tags and labels from your plant purchases. I recommend a year, but two would be better. It's so much easier in the spring to replicate a successful container or add to a perennial grouping if you have the tags. Spring is frenzied in the garden center. A rousing game of 20 questions with your favorite horticulturist ("Well, I think it was blue. Maybe a foot tall. I don't remember when it bloomed. What was it?") may not yield the correct answer.
Take up birdfeeding and enjoy the show
  • Get a bird feeder and keep it filled! Winter is tough for our feathered friends when snow cover is deep. Learn the species names. I guarantee you'll enjoy watching them jockeying for a spot at the feeder. The antics of the squirrels trying to get around the baffle is fun, too. You'll be saving lives.

I got rid of so much angst with this post I think I can skip my therapy session this week.                          

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Winter Garden Exhibitionists

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the garden
Early cold temps and deep snow made perennials harden;
Beds and borders held no rabbits or mice,
Tools were hung in the shed, rust-free and nice.
What did my wandering eyes survey
But eight garden wonders flaunting their winter display.

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a lot to flash year 'round, but when fall strips the beautiful scarlet-orange autumn leaves bark takes center stage. For my money  there are few plants that could steal the spotlight from the handsome, curling mahogany bark, even on small branches. A slow-growing ornamental, this is a stunning specimen either as a single trunk or multi-stemmed tree. The leaves are uniquely three-parted and dark green. 20ish' tall and 15' wide, this hardy Asian maple matures to a rounded silhouette. Zone 5.

Evergreens sometimes get overlooked in the color crush of a flower-filled summer border packed with shrubs and perennials. Right now, dead of winter, it's hard to overlook the sculptural elegance of a Weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies 'Pendula'). This is one evergreen that tolerates shade without getting "skanky". The needles seem to darken in shade and appear almost black against winter snow. Zone 3 hardy, this plant, like weeping just-about-anything, can be extremely variable in form. The plant will be taller the longer it is staked upright in youth and has the chance to develop a thick, self-supporting trunk.

While on the subject of artistic evergreens, Weeping white spruce (Picea glauca 'Pendula') is a perfect pencil-point without ever being touched by pruners. Growing rather quickly (up to a foot per year) the branches hang tightly down like arms against a torso. There is a silver cast to the needles, but they are not blue spruce-conspicuous. This weeper eventually grows 25+ ' or more, but only 3' wide. Sun-loving and happy in well-drained to dry soil, I love using this one to create visual interest by interrupting a long horizontal architectural line. Majestic swathed in winter white. Zone 2.

Yes, weeping plants may be an acquired taste. Purple Fountain European beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Purple Fountain') is a fave. Trees have a strong central leader with tightly held branches that come out from the trunk a bit and then turn south. 'Purple Fountain' has elegant, glossy, maroon leaves all summer. This color is intensified with sun, but like all beeches will tolerate some shade. Leaves hang on until late in the fall before turning bright gold. The bark is smooth and gray, like elephant hide before the elephant wrinkles. Soil must be well-drained. P.F. is a great complement to contemporary architecture. Zone 4.

Compact Concolor fir (Abies concolor 'Compacta') is a charming dwarf shrub sub for blue spruce when that strong color is needed, but space is limited. Growing slowly into a predictable 6' tall, 3' wide pyramid, this sun-lover is low maintenance. The needles are feather soft to the touch, but the plant is oblivious to drought, heat cold and winter wind. "Cute" is an appropriate adjective. Zone 4.

The many chartreuse summer flower heads of  Little Lime hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Lime') are now a distinctive brown that provides strong color and bold texture in a snow-drifted landscape. 4' tall and equally wide at maturity this sun-lover provides months of flower effect - from summer through winter. Maintenance of these "panicle" hydrangeas is basically restricted to late winter removal of old flower residue and minimal silhouette shaping. Drought-tolerant when established, use Little Lime in groups to make a powerful statement in your garden- summer and winter. Zone 3.

Golden Mop Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop') is a year 'round  color accent that holds true even in winter. In my experience this is one of the very hardiest Falsecypress varieties. My specimen is in full sun and catches a lot of winter wind with no ill effects after eight years. Zone 4.

Winterberry (Ilex verticiallata) is a rock hardy, native holly. It does drop its gold leaves in the fall to reveal plentiful apple red berries. Requires one male variety to pollinate a group of females. Don't worry, they're sold labelled "male" and "female". Tolerates sun or some shade, as well as wet sites that occasionally flood. The white spring flowers (of both sexes) are not showy, but when the berries go from green to red in late summer enjoy them before the birds discover and devour. This picture (taken the week before Christmas) shows a female winterberry that escaped complete denuding. Zone 3.

Tho' the lawn was long since frozen and snowy,
Salt crystals sparkled on roads like diamonds quite showy.
While ice and snow caused grasses to topple and shatter,
With these eight beauties in the garden, it just didn't matter.

                                                            Tony Fulmer
                                                            December 2016          


Thursday, December 8, 2016

(Paperwhite) Bulbs and Booze

Forcing paperwhite narcissus is a holiday tradition for many families. They're easy, inexpensive, quick to grow and flower once potted, and bear a distinctive fragrance. They don't even have to be potted in soil to perform. The fact of the matter is most people "pot" them in shallow bowls with gravel, decorative stones or even marbles rather than soil. So, what could go wrong?

The common bugaboo is the stems and flowers tend to stretch and elongate, weakening them. Then they splay open like an arborvitae in icy, wet snow. Unlike many flowers it's hard to support them so they look natural. Try running a stake through stones or marbles and see how that works for you. No, not very well.

As the story goes (and good readers, this is true, not another urban legend) a writer for the New York Times posed a question to Cornell University horticulture professor William Miller. Question- "Does gin affect paperwhites?" Great person to ask, right? Those of you that don't interact with the public daily may be flabbergasted and wonder how such a question could have arisen. Not me. The public's gardening questions have kept me on my toes for decades. And watch out for the full moon...

Paperwhites grown, left to right, in 2% to 10% alcohol
Courtesy Cornell University
Professor Miller and his horticulture student, Erin Finan, did the hard work. In the end their research showed that moderate dilutions of alcohol from certain sources did indeed shorten the plants and keep their flowers and foliage upright. The plants were as much as 1/3 to 1/2 shorter than the water only control group. Flower size and fragrance were, happily, not affected.

For those of you that are tired of battling rogue paperwhites and want more control here's what Professor Miller and Ms. Finan's research revealed:
  • Plant in stones and water as usual. The bulbs will root and shoots will start elongating quickly. Once stems are several inches tall pour off the water.
  • The day day you pour off the water take any hard liquor (gin, whiskey, vodka. etc.) or rubbing alcohol and create a 5% solution.
  • I wouldn't do that to you. Saving you the math to get from a 40% alcohol product to a 5% solution (by the by, don't use beer or wine due to their sugars), just add one part liquor to seven parts water. Easy, right?
  • Rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) is 70% alcohol. So, add one part to ten parts water.
  • This is an ongoing process throughout the life and flowering of your paperwhites, not a one-shot deal. So, each time you need to raise the "water level" in the container use the alcohol/water solution.
  • As with people, too much alcohol can be a problem. Don't be tempted to increase the solution to more than 10%. Toxicity will occur.
For those that are scientifically inquisitive and care the Cornell researchers believe alcohol in that lower percentage affects/slows the plant's water uptake. That lack of water somehow shortens flowers and foliage, yet doesn't change flower quality.

In the end if you love paperwhites and the above process reminds you (chillingly) of chemistry class there's another solution. Sorry, pun not intended. I never joke about chemistry. Get a tall glass vase and still plant them in stones and water. As they grow if they start to flop the vase will hold everything upright like a bouquet. Last call....              

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holidays Without Decorating Disasters

Holidays are supposed to be enjoyable. But everyone, every family, has their personal tale of decorating gone terribly wrong. These (mis)adventures often make for side-splitting merriment when retold years later around the holiday table, disaster participants excluded. Haha. Perhaps a holiday catastrophe can be averted by considering some of these tips during advance prep.

  • Every live tree type has its own distinct advantages and occasionally a downside. For example, if you're the  family that puts the tree up Thanksgiving weekend and keeps it up 'til New Year's Day, a balsam shouldn't even be a consideration. Instead, choose a Concolor, Fraser, Noble or Nordmann fir. They'll perform for the long Christmas stay.
  • Apply an antidessicant spray, such as Wilt-Pruf, to the undersides of the branches of wreaths, roping, fresh greens and trees to reduce dehydration. If indoors, try to keep fresh greens in arrangements in water.
  • Divorce is expensive and seldom amicable. Your tree is the center of the festivities so buy the correctly sized stand for your cut tree and be done with it. Don't try to whittle a 6" trunk into a pencil point for a stand with a 4" diameter opening. If you spend the hour(s) and somehow succeed in this engineering miracle be prepared for the fallout, or more accurately "fall over". Stability in all aspects of the holidays shouldn't be underestimated. The aesthetics of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree are somewhat lessened when guy-wired to the walls to stay upright. Trust me, this happens regularly.
  • Sorry, but tree stand again. Example, 6" trunk in 6" stand. Even without high school physics this scenario means there is no room left for water. Can you say dangerous?
  • NEVER let your fresh tree run out of water. A dry tree is a hazard. Make a fresh cut just before placing the tree in the stand indoors. Fill immediately with warm (not cold) water. Check the water reservoir at least twice daily the first few days when the tree is hydrating. Once uptake slows a daily inspection of the stand should be sufficient. You know the only fire you want for the holidays is in the fireplace!
  • Follow light manufacturers' recommendations for the limit on how many light strands can be put together for one continuous sequence. Failing to do so may result in all manner of electrical hijinks.
  • Test your lights before stringing the tree. Holiday cheer fades quickly after weaving them artfully in and out of the branches and the plug-in ceremony reveals they're not live. Use cardboard tubes to store individual light sets after the holidays. Only cats enjoy playing with tangled light sets.
  • Ask if the artificial berries or greens you're purchasing for outdoors are suitable for that purpose. Don't assume. Usually the water-resistant ones will be labeled as such. If they aren't, dyes may bleed and stain surfaces. Colored berries or podded stems may crack and expose their white interior. I'm pretty sure that's not the look you're trying to achieve.
  • Be mindful of leaving ceramic, terracotta or ceramic containers full of soil outdoors for the winter. Alternate freezing and thawing of wet soil may cause cracking, deterioration and the premature demise of these porous pots. Instead consider using the plastic or composite containers with the faux finishes. No one will ever know what they're not.     
Hope this saves even one family from a holiday disaster, large or small!            

Friday, November 4, 2016

"Winter Wear" for Your Mophead Hydrangea

I just hosted my annual "Getting the Garden Ready for Winter" class at Chalet. While the range of questions is always diverse the lack of success in getting the new Hydrangea macrophylla varieties to bloom seems universal. It's a valid frustration given the assurance from growers that Hydrangea 'Blahblahblah' is the second horticultural coming, and will bloom reliably on both year-old (the previous season's) and current season's growth.

First, some Hydrangea basics. What is a Hydrangea macrophylla anyway? The common name is "mophead" Hydrangea because of its big, domed baseball-sized blooms in pink or blue, depending upon soil pH. When soil pH is alkaline, flowers will be pink. When the soil is acidic and more aluminum is available, flowers will be some variation of blue.

But color is a moot point if you can't get a flower bud on the darned plant, wouldn't you agree? Until recently we had only mophead varieties that bloomed on year-old growth. That meant that in bitterly cold winters if the plant's stems died to the ground you were out of luck for flowers that summer. The root system could still be alive so you'd have a lush plant rising like a Phoenix from the ground in spring. But the plant wouldn't produce a single bloom.

Recently, varieties have been introduced that have the potential to flower on both current season's growth and previous year's stems. Hallelujah, cue the celestial choir. In theory this means twice as much bloom potential...if this year's stems survive the harsh winters of the upper Midwest. With so many disappointed Hydrangea lovers the logical question is: Can I increase my chances for bloom if I winter protect this year's stems?   

The correct answer may be "yes". The previous year's stems of these new, theoretically superior varieties have dormant flower buds from stem base to tip. So, if there's a way to protect those stems from dying to the ground you have just doubled your flowering chances. While I'm not a LasVegas-kind-of-guy those odds are definitely worth exploring!


I'm embarrassed that I haven't experimented with Hydrangea winter protection before this. I need to see if it makes a difference in flowering. I acquired a friend's H. macrophylla, 'Twist-n-Shout', two years ago. I wanted to test the plant's potential and therefore haven't given it any winter protection ... yet. Up to this point the plant has died back to the ground each winter, but still produces an average of three flowers annually on brand new shoots. Admittedly not show-stopping, but better than a sharp stick in the eye.

BloomStruck -  the latest, and greatest?

I just bought the latest guaranteed-to-do-what-the-nursery-people-promise-it-will-do variety. A gorgeous plant of 'BloomStruck' went into my garden just last week. After it goes dormant (leaves discolored and hanging limp, frost in the ground) I'm going to build hardware cloth cylinder to place over it. While everything I read suggests filling 15-18" deep with shredded leaves, that just doesn't feel right with whatever plant intuition I've acquired in 57 years of gardening.

Mound 'em with a cage full

Instead, I'm personally sticking with a long ago recommendation from a veteran Ohio nurseryman who said, "If  I was going to protect those tender Hydrangeas I'd mound 'em with a cage full of chunk bark." That makes sense to me. Medium chunk will be my weapon of choice. That size should be dense enough to pack a bit, insulate, yet have enough air space not to turn stems to mush over the winter like leaves or straw might. Coarse pine needles or stacked evergreen boughs also seem like logical choices, although the latter shouldn't need an engineered cage. In any case, 15" of depth should be enough if it's going to work at all!

So, that's what I'm going to do with my scientifically inconsequential test of one plant. I'll follow this up with periodic Hortiholic mophead updates starting next spring. Good luck with whatever course of winter action you take with your mopheads.    

Friday, October 21, 2016

Fall Garden Punchlist

If you're a DIY gardener in the upper Midwest you can do some garden prep in early November before the real winterizing begins. It's hard to overlook the obvious, like chucking the blackened skeletons of frost-stunned annuals, emptying containers for the next color display and cutting back perennials that don't dazzle in snow. May I remind you of some more easily overlooked chores?

Hopefully, you fertilized the end of August or early September. You're no-o-o-t-t-t fi-i-i-n-i-i-sh-ed. Making another application, whether organic or synthetic, around Halloween or even early November, will give you a head start on thicker grass for 2017.

Keep mowing as long as grass is growing. Or, don't leaf (pun intended) the leaves to freeze on the lawn. Keep harvesting and removing. Leaves that freeze matted into your grass will leave an unpleasant reminder for you in the spring - a bare spot that corresponds exactly to where the leaves froze. This bare soil (in the sunny parts of your lawn) will be where crabgrass may appear next spring, as if by magic!

After planting your new spring-flowering bulbs do fertilize. Years ago we recommended putting the fertilizer in the bottom of the hole and placing the bulbs on top. Research now dictates putting the bulbs in the hole, covering them with soil and placing the fertilizer above the bulbs. Water will move the nutrients down into (but not past) the root zone.

As hardy as tulips, hyacinths and daffodils are a 1-2" layer of an organic mulch (leaf mulch, cotton bur compost, pine fines) is a great recommendation when you've finished planting and watering. We've learned that mulched bulbs produce a more uniform flower show than unmulched. Flowers may be delayed a bit since mulched soil warms slowly, but is that a big deal? Not for me either.

Bringing tropicals and houseplants back inside after a summer vacation on the patio? At least two weeks before the first expected frost do your own USDA-style inspection. Don't overlook the potential livestock biomass hiding and multiplying  even though plants appear clean at a glance.If the plant has mealybugs or mites, I would pitch it. If the plant has less difficult issues to control consider using "Systemic Granules". I recommend sequestering any summer-outside plant in a solitary confinement room (with no other clean plants to infest) for three to four weeks until you're sure it's pest-free.

Deer rubbing. Courtesy Univ. of Maryland
Male deer (bucks) are testosterone-crazed in October and November. They take their itchy-antlered frustration out on young tree trunks (less than 3" in diameter, with limbs at least 5' off the ground). These attacks can easily kill a tree by slashing off the bark. You can try a repellent (like Plant-Skydd), or put three or four heavy temporary metal fence posts in the ground a couple of feet from the trunk to deter.

Well-placed stakes keep deer at bay
Deer will eat arborvitae and yews in winter. They can be dissuaded by covering evergreens with "deer" or "bird netting". It's a black mesh so it doesn't show, but does make grazing difficult. Easier to move to the neighbors' landscape.

Rabbit damage on burning bush. Courtesy US eXtension
Bunnies maybe driven (in deep snow) to chew off arborvitae branches they can reach. They will also strip bark from burning bush, crabapples, fruit trees, Cotoneaster and hornbeam. The easiest solution is to screen the trunks with hardware cloth corrals. Remember to make them high so that with deep snow and standing on tiptoes "Bugs" can't reach over and gnaw a meal off your prized specimens. Stripped bark can be fatal. This should also offer protection from mice and voles. They're all rodents and love the same dinner fare!

Completing any, or all, of the above tasks should put a better face on your garden come spring!      


Friday, October 7, 2016

Bambi-Proof Bulbs

It's fall and a gardener's fancy turns to thoughts of a stunning spring garden radiating color from bulbs. Increasingly many of us have to garden with one eye on that prize and the other on lookout for the next raid from White-tailed deer. If Odocoileus virginianus regularly plunders your garden consider the following spring-flowering bulbs whose flavors are decidedly unpalatable to Bambi.

Allium (Ornamental onion) - Their popularity continues to explode exponentially, as it should. Check out the diversity of flower sizes, colors, bloom times and ease of maintenance that makes one or more of the varieties suitable for almost any imaginable garden situation (except deep shade). Loved by pollinators, Alliums are hated by deer and rabbits for their strong odor and bitter taste when cells are crushed. Don't worry, it won't even get to the taste test.

Camassia (Camass or Quamash) - It's hard to find tall spring-flowering bulbs and Camass does that very nicely, thank you. Grows to 20" and blooms at the end of spring bulb time. Prefers a bit more moisture than most spring bulbs and full sun, but tolerates light shade. Deer and rodents will take a pass.

Galanthus (Snowdrops) - I saw these in a mass planting early this spring and thought, "Why haven't I grown these?" These little charmers bloom right through snow. The downward-hanging, milk-white flowers with green tips remind me of airplane propellers. Subtle, so plant in groups of a dozen or so. They'll naturalize since they're animal-proof. I want to plant the double-flowered Galanthus (flore pleno) this fall. 6" tall, partial sun.

Leucojum (Snowflake) - Late spring blooming, pendulous, bell-shaped white flowers with green dotting on the tips. Long-lasting flowers, elongated, strappy foliage. Part sun/part shade and moist sites. Depending upon species, may get 12-20" tall. Neither deer nor rodent, nary a nibble!

Muscari (Grape hyacinths) - The search for "different" has brought many new forms of this old favorite to our gardens. The standard M. armeniacum is a beautiful cobalt blue naturalizer that doesn't flinch in the face of a deer onslaught. Muscari are different than most bulbs. How so? They produce a few inches of grassy foliage in early fall that remains in place, evergreen, over the winter. Some cunning gardeners use Grape hyacinths to mark areas where larger, major bulbs are- by planting Muscari around the perimeter. This leafy halo helps highlight where the other bulbs are resting during fall and early spring. This can prevent shovel damage if your garden memory gets hazy over the winter. Mine sometimes does, unfortunately....

Scilla (Squill) - The charming blue "haze" in many peoples' spring lawns is almost always from naturalized Scilla siberica. 4-6" tall, grassy foliage blends right into the grass. Reproduces freely by seed and bulbs. Partial shade or full spring sun are fine. Deer and rodents won't stop to dine on this plant.

Daffodils - Deer, rabbits, rodents.No animal is interested in any part, whether it's the bulb, the leaves or the flowers. Totally off limits. Plant daffodils and know that your spring garden will be untouched. 

If none of these suggestions send your horticultural pulse racing (this is by no means a complete listing of all deer-resistant bulbs) and you must have the wonder of tulips I hear you and feel that need, too. So:

  • Check out the small species tulips. They are smaller in stature and flower size, but some do exhibit deer resistance.Otherwise,
  • Be prepared to spray standard tulips with repellents when they emerge, when buds are first visible down in the leaves, and just before buds show color. If you'd like a recommendation, I've had great luck (and beautiful tulips) using Plant-Skydd.

Bulbs, buds, blooms. Just beautiful.