Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Year in the Life of a Fraser Fir

I was fortunate recently to have the opportunity to chat with a new friend, Fletcher, the Fraser fir. We talked long distance. He shared highlights of life on the Christmas tree farm before coming to Chalet. There's a lot happening down on the farm!

Where I grew up in Virginia
Where do you come from, Fletcher?
Thanks for asking, Tony. My great-grandparents originally came from Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. I've kinda lost track, but I'm at least the 8th generation of Fraser fir coming from those cool mountains. I started out as a tiny seed from the cone of my parent tree. Did you know we Fraser firs may have cones when we're young, but have to be at least 15 years old to produce seeds? 

How did you spend your early years?
Well, the first 5 years of my life were spent at an evergreen nursery along with thousands of other seedlings. We got everything we needed there, like sunlight, fertilizer and water to grow big and strong. Like all brothers and sisters we were similar, but different. After growing 5 years, we're still shorter than a newborn baby. Can you imagine that?

Baby Pictures - 6 months, 3 years and 5 years old
How did you get to the Christmas tree farm?
This really nice couple, Farmer Bob and Farmer Sue, chose me and lots of my brother and sisters as "liners", which is just another word for baby trees. They planted us at their beautiful farm in Virginia in specially prepared soil in rows 5 feet apart- kind of like corn, but with the rows farther apart. There were over 1700 of us per acre. That's a lot of trees, but we didn't feel crowded!

Tell us about life on the farm.
Life is good. We grow for 2 years in the field before we get our first haircut, which my farm parents call pruning. When we grow 2' tall we start getting pruned every year in the middle of August to stay full and pretty, the way folks like us. My farm parents and helpers use machetes (long, sharp knives) like an action hero to trim our branch tips. It takes 5-10 minutes and doesn't hurt at all!

Then, on our 7th birthday we get even more attention. We don't get cake, but starting in late March Bob, Sue and many helpers pull the young cones off all of us trees. That way our energy is used to produce more branches, not wasted on un-needed cones. They do this plucking by hand so it's lots of hard work. It tickles, but Farmer says this makes us much fuller.

Growing Up - 8-10 years old
What about feeding?
Our farm parents never let us get hungry. We're fed a tasty (at least to us) fertilizer the end of April to keep us dark green. During the year we get showered 2-3 times with special foliar (that means our needles) fertilizers that have things like calcium and iron to keep us growing strong, just like boys and girls.

Are there weeds in your in your field?
Fortunately, Farmer knows how to deal with those pesky plants. The weeds are mowed so they don't steal all the food from the soil. Weeds don't share well, they can be bullies. So, it's really nice in the fields because Bob and Sue plant white clover between the rows. They tell us clover takes nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil for us to use. I love nitrogen - yum! And the bees use the clover to make the most delicious honey. I personally don't eat honey, but I hear humans love it.

So, what happens when you, your brothers, sisters and cousins are ready to be Christmas trees?
About mid-November our farm parents harvest us (a little like a corn farmer) one or two days before shipping us to Chalet. We're cut, brought down the mountain and stood up in a pine forest. Our trunks are touching the ground and we actually take up water before we're wrapped up for the ride. We're really fresh. And boy, do we enjoy the truck ride!

Christmas Tree Graduation
Fletcher, you're 7-8' tall. I don't mean to be impolite, but how old are you now?
Hmm, let's see. 5 years in the evergreen nursery, then growing in the fresh air and sunshine at the farm for 7-8 years. That should be about 12, maybe 13 years old. Wow, I guess that makes me a teenager!

You're right, Fletcher, it does. Thanks for sharing the details about your life as a Christmas tree. I know one day soon you'll play a big role in making a family's holiday very special! 


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Garden Clock is Ticking....

"The days dwindle down to a precious few" is so true for the October garden. As temperatures drop and you face the reality of rain becoming snow, the urgency to complete fall garden tasks becomes almost manic.

You've probably already made the decision whether to cut your perennials now or let them stand as snowy winter sentinels. You've ripped the tired annuals out by their fuzzy little roots. What else could there possibly be to do? Want a few reminders?

1) Don't let fall pass without planting bulbs. The soil temps are finally cool enough to put all the spring flowering beauties in. Who said, 'Spring is disappointing without at least a hundred bulbs in your garden?' Probably a Dutch bulb salesman, but true nonetheless. Applying a balanced fertilizer over established bulb plantings now will pay big bloomin' dividends next spring.

2) Spring flowering bulbs and garlic are planted at the same time- NOW! Cultivate the bed thoroughly, plant 4-6" apart with the clove tips 2-3"below the soil surface. Water as needed, mulch with an insulating layer of straw. You'll be harvesting your own garlic next summer. Baba ganoush, anyone?

3)  Don't forget that second application of lawn fertilizer around Halloween or later. Cold soil temperatures don't matter. Organic or synthetic, your call. Just don't omit this last pass over your turf.

4) Houseplants been outside for the summer? Round 'em up and get them inside before they freeze. Check carefully for varmint infestations, respond accordingly. If you find livestock consider the use of Systemic Insecticide granules. Even then I like to quarantine "vacationers" in an otherwise plant-less room for at least 3 weeks before moving them into the general houseplant population.

5) Treat those acid-loving blueberries, rhodies, azaleas, etc. to a sulfur application applied directly to the soil. If you apply it to mulch the organic matter binds it and the acidifying reaction doesn't occur.

6) Apply several inches of leaf mulch, compost or dehydrated manure to annual, vegetable and perennial beds. Rain and snow, freezing and thawing will break it down and you'll notice positive differences in your plants' performance next growing season.

7) If you're going to overwinter summer bulbs, corms and tubers you'd best be thinking about the harvest. Dig dahlias, begonias, cannas, glads and elephant ears as the first frost blackens the foliage and "cure". Make sure the they're firm and skins are dry, with no surface moisture before storing. Investigate each species particular packing peculiarities. Forgive the Peter Piper picked alliteration.

8) Going to try and keep hardy trees and shrubs outdoors in pots over the winter? Be sure to use the largest container possible, 18" in all dimensions, even larger is better for survival. Do water throughout the winter. Spray evergreen foliage with Wilt-Pruf to reduce dehydration. Expect them to be "annuals" and then it's a wonderful bonus if they prove to be winter hardy.    

9)  When to put the roses to bed for the winter? Apply the 8-10" beaver dam mounds of leaf mulch or compost when the leaves are brown and hanging limp, the soil surface is frozen solid or they've been exposed to 3 or more nights of 20 degree F.

10) Use evergreen branches (buy the bundles or cut from your used Christmas tree) for mulching perennials and to protect unshaded beds of English and pachysandra from winter burn. That's textbook re-purposing.

Tick, tick, tick....    


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Conifers are the Cure

Does our Zone 5 plant palette ever seem limiting to you? Do you yearn for just one specimen plant that no one else in northern Illinois has? Do you ever look at your garden and think, "If I could just get a plant with year 'round interest for that spot I'd be so much happier with my garden?" I know I'm always thinking what would be hot in this or that spot. Do we need a support group for those of us looking for plants off the beaten path?

If it existed I would suggest "Conifers are the Cure". For those that haven't been smitten or bitten yet, but want more landscape interest the world of evergreens awaits. The range of colors (gold, blue, lime, silver and more), forms (columnar, weeping, globe, pencil point and more), needle textures and often wonderful cones is far broader than you might think.

For example: Blue spruces come in different shapes. Love the powder blue color of 'Fat Albert', but lack the space for a 30' tree? Two dwarf forms are popular and readily available. 'Globe' blue spruce exhibits the same intense color typical of the best grafted blues, but with a flattish top, maturing at 5' tall and a bit wider than that.

Globe Blue Spruce
If you want something more sculptural imagine a weeping blue spruce for your garden. One great cultivar is 'The Blues'- kind of clever, eh? Weeping/sad/blue.... But it doesn't look sad. Like most weeping evergreens the mature height and spread tend to be variable based on how they're trained as young plants. A 5-6' height and wider spread might be a realistic expectation after 10 years.

Need another true blue option other than spruce? Pictured below is a Dwarf Blue Concolor Fir (Abies concolor 'Glauca Compacta') . The color is certainly equal to any blue spruce, but the needles are velvety soft to the touch. It withstands temperature extremes and drought, but only reaches 8' tall, with a space-saving 3' girth.

Dwarf Blue Concolor Fir

Norway spruces, with their dark, dark green needles come in all shapes and sizes including weeping, too. Again, like other weepers variability is to be expected. Norway's do tolerate shade, if they're forced into that situation. The dark color on such an architectural specimen arising from winter snow is pretty stunning.

Weeping Norway Spruce
Rich, true gold exists in the conifer palette, too. The use of a gold specimen makes a standout contrast and really puts an exclamation point wherever you place it. There are wonderful yews, like 'Dwarf Bright Gold' (medium height spreader) that is gold for weeks in the spring before "greening off" for the summer. I really like 'Gold Mops' Falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Gold Mops') for a fun broad-based gold specimen 365 a year. It came through last winter's weather horror with no damage in my garden.

Mops Falsecypress
Space calling for a  tall drink of water, as my grandfather used to say? The columnar Norway spruce (Picea abies 'Cupressina') fills that bill perfectly. Growing rapidly to at least 30' with a 6' spread, this one has multiple uses. Could be a specimen (single plant by itself in a starring role), staggered in odd-numbered groupings to define a space or single file to create a screen where height and minimal spread are desired. Again, any Norway spruce can do sun or considerable shade.

Similarly height-blessed, but width-challenged,  is the wonderful Weeping white spruce (Picea glauca 'Pendula')  pictured below. This is a great plant to break the strong horizontal lines of a ranch house. Always a predictable pencil-pointed, silver-gray specimen, pruning is never needed. This shape is just genetic destiny. Like most conifers more sun means a fuller, denser plant.

Weeping White Spruce
Do take the time to explore all your options beyond arborvitae, yew and blue spruce. Honestly, finding just the right evergreen specimen can cure the 'garden blahs'.

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