Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Winter, Bunnies & Ice - Not So Nice

I wish I had never ended the last post with, "Here's hoping the spring thaw brings you a garden unfazed by winter weather." Talk about a jinx- geez! If your garden escaped without burned evergreens, a moldy lawn, broken branches, shrubs girdled by rabbits, roses that appear dead... Well, run and get a lottery ticket, 'cause you're one of the lucky ones.

Let's not dwell on how our plants got in this fix. We know how it happened. Let's get to solutions. There are some symptoms that we can be proactive about. Other damage is going to require patience and a wait-and-see-what-happens attitude.

Burned Evergreens - The Falsecypress damage pictured below is fairly typical. Lots of evergreens are showing bronzing of foliage. In particular, damage can be expected on south or west-facing sides that get the brutal combination of winter sun and wind. Patience, please. Most evergreens' growing points are on branch tips and can still be alive, even if the rest of the branch looks dead. If every needle is brown or orange the plant MAY be dead.

Fried Falsecypress

Is there any way to predict dead or alive? One way to get a better idea of your plant's future is to break off a bud at the end of any branch. If the bud is soft and pliable, and both of the break points (bud and stem that it came from) are moist and green, there is hope. The question is: If all of the buds grow out in May, what will the tree look like when the growth from previous years is dead? Time will tell.   

Moldy Lawns - Many consecutive days of grass being buried under snow caused some lawns to show snow mold. As soon as melt occured the grayish-white fungus showed up on the dormant grass. Some lawns were completely covered with it. Warm temperatures, perhaps a very light raking to remove leaf debris (if present), and an application of fertilizer and it should be gone. Do not dethatch!  

Branches broken by ice or snow? Get out the Felcos and make clean cuts. One thing that may show up later on deciduous branches is "canker". Canker is a symptom, a discoloration on branches or trunks. They might be described as black, purple or brown lesions, large or small. They may or may not have distinct margins that contrast with the normal bark color. They are secondary bacterial or fungal invaders due to plant stress. This warrants removal of the diseased stems. A perfect example would be the blackening of stems often seen on older Redtwig dogwood stems.

Did the Easter bunny visit your landscape prematurely? I wish he'd just left the milk chocolate eggs rather than the chewed up bark of crabapples and fruit trees! Where the bark has been completely removed (girdled) the branch will die. It may try to leaf out and then will collapse and die later. Arborvitae missing branches 3' off the ground now? In that case stems with no foliage will never produce leaves on those branch "stumps". Start pruning, but you may not like what you're left with.

Branches girdled by rabbits

Roses are looking baa-a-a-a-ddd, lots of dieback to the ground. If you're itching to get out and work you could start with a "rought cut". That is, prune out the tallest dead canes down to roughly the point where you see green. With so many people using "own root" roses, like the "Knockouts", they MAY completely regrow from the crown and make perfectly fine plants. You can go in later after they leaf out (about the time you make the first fertilizer application) and prune out any stems that are dead.

Dead rose canes

Is it alive or is it dead? That's the $64,000 garden question this year. Time and nature will bring answers in the coming weeks.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What to Know about Plants and Snow

Recent snowfall and record-shattering temperatures are impossible to ignore. Can you imagine being a plant out in those conditions 24/7 with your roots in wet, frozen ground, snow knee high, and the rest of your "body" exposed to brutal winds? It certainly goes beyond my definition of chilling.

What's a plant to do? There is good news. Snow is an incredible insulator. So, things like perennials and shrubs that are buried under snow are really safer than tender stems that are above the snowline exposed to the full force of below-zero temperatures and wind. Further, plants recognize real air temperature, not wind chill.

The latest USDA plant hardiness map shows the area adjacent to Lake Michigan as Zone 6 (minimum low -5/10 degrees F.). The temperatures our landscape plants have just experienced are Zone 5 minimums (-15/20 degrees F.). So, those of us that push the hardiness boundaries with Zone 6 plants may get our garden comeuppance this spring. I should check my black suit as I may be holding spring services in my own garden. Oh well, we plant die-hards (haha) say you really haven't tried a plant until you've killed it three times!

Sorry, I digressed. Again, snow is beneficial. The best thing that could happen for the rest of the winter is that temperatures would rise to the upper 20s/low 30s, allowing snow cover to remain until late winter. It's alternating freeze/thaw, warm/cold, warm/cold cycles that really damage plants.

The logical question that arises from that statement is, "So, it's alright to bury them in snow?" Yes, with a big caution about how the snow is placed on them. Perennials are kind of a nonissue since they're largely cut back. There's not much of consequence to damage. For things you left standing, like ornamental grasses, it's not the end of the world if their foliage is bent over and broken.


On the contrary, flowering shrubs and evergreens that have slender, breakable stems shouldn't have shovelfuls of heavy, wet snow dumped over the top. If the snow is light and fluffy, and can be placed gently around plants, that's fine. For those that use snowblowers - If you can direct the top of the chute so you're throwing snow beyond the plants, that's great.

Ice encasing plants is very different than snow. Not only do you have more potential for physically breaking branches, but there is a likelihood of plant parts dying from being encased in ice for long periods of time, particularly evergreens. Preventing these stalactites from reaching the plant and encasing it may prevent a lot of branch amputation come spring.
Should we remove snow and ice from branches? That's a great two part question. If you see evergreen branches weighted down with SNOW and you can gently shake it off without breaking that's great! Use something soft like gloved hands or a broom that doesn't have hard parts to physically damage the plant.

If the plant is encased in ice you can only hope for a gradual melt. Don't be tempted to use a bucket of hot water as a deicer. Don't laugh. Anything that can be conceived can be done... and has been. The results aren't good.With ice, you just have to wait and see what happens in the spring.

With plants buried in snow, damage can come from deer and rabbit grazing. With little leafy and green in the winter landscape certain evergreens must be looking mighty tasty. At this stage I would recommend draping valuable plantings of arborvitae and yews with black mesh netting (appropriately called "deer netting"), pegging it down with bricks or stones. That should reduce animal browsing.

Pay attention to the deicing products you use on surfaces. Avoid salt-based products which can damage plants either by splashing on foliage, or being absorbed through roots later. We recommend products like Paw Thaw (calcium magnesium acetate) that decompose into by-products that are safe for plants and pets, while not having negative effects on soil.

Here's hoping the spring thaw brings you a garden unfazed by winter weather!

Monday, January 6, 2014

TO YOU: Clean Air..... FROM: Hardworking Houseplants

Jade Plant

Have you thanked your houseplants recently for the gifts they give you? Sure, you know they produce oxygen. Did you know they're working 24/7 to detox your home? Unfortunately, I've taken them for granted, too. I water, give them periodic showers, feed regularly during the growing season, check for livestock infestations, and think that's enough. Do I consciously think about what my tropicals do for me every day besides being beautiful, calming and oxygen-producing? Not so much!

Our emphasis on energy efficiency and "tight" construction comes at a cost. Toxic compounds like benzene, formaldehyde, styrene, trichloroethylene and a host of others are lurking in our homes. Cigarette smoke, emissions from construction materials, cleaning fluids, paint removers, adhesives, flooring, hair care products and nail polish are just a few of the volatile organic compound (VOC) producers.

Boston Fern

We should all know about the NASA studies done years ago that prove just how much houseplants do to protect us. They literally absorb and remove VOCs from our indoor environment. Want a staggering fact to share when conversation lags at your next party? Having fifteen (6-8" diameter pot size) houseplants placed throughout an 1800 sq. ft. house removes 87% of the total toxins in just one day! Isn't it great to know you can dramatically improve your family's air quality with the addition of some houseplants? How much easier can life be?

Are all plants created equal in their ability to purify air? Evidently there are plants that are specific in their toxin-removing capabilties. So, it would seem logical to have a variety of plants to capture as many different pollutants as possible. The plants that show up on everyone's list of great air cleaners are:

* Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)                           * Philodendron
* Golden Pothos                                                 * Schefflera 
* Spider Plant (Chlorophytum)                         * Ferns
* Palms                                                                * Orchids
* Dracaena (many - including marginata, Corn Plant and  'Janet Craig')

Golden Pothos

Research has even suggested room-specific plant placement. If you're concerned about oxygen in your home consider Bromeliads, many orchids and succulents (think Jade Plant) for your bedroom. Why? These plant families really increase their oxygen production/carbon dioxide absorption cycle at night. Wouldn't it be great to know your plants are working hard to enhance your personal health, even while you're sleeping?

In addition to better air quality, another plant benefit is increased learning. Sounds incredible, doesn't it? But, at the university level, European research found that attendance improved, test scores rose and behavioral issues dropped more than 60% in classrooms containing plants- as opposed to plant-free environments. To be fair, let's put the shoe on the other foot. Parents, you can improve your reaction time up to 12% on computer tasks in a room containing plants. Touche.

Spider Plant

Everyone, rise from your beds and computer stations right now. Go thank your Schefflera, your Spider plant, your Dracaena for the daily gift of clean air. It's easier than writing a thank you note, don't you think?
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