Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Off to the Amaryllis Races

It's really easy to understand why amaryllis are so wildly popular. They grow quickly once awakened from dormancy, have flowers that are the epitome of spectacular, are practically maintenance-free (can be grown in water or soil) and are just plain fun to watch! I heard people are even having amaryllis races - they all pot them the same day, then keep track of whose grows fastest, tallest, or has the most flowers. But they're so-oo-o-o easy even a tot could grow them.

Big bulbs!
My first memory of amaryllis was shopping with Mom at the florist for an azalea. I saw a box on the counter full of the biggest bulbs I had ever seen. The picture promised an amazing plant full of huge red trumpet-like flowers. I was hooked and coughed up $ 5.15 of my own money. I was so taken by the idea of this big, not-so-pretty bulb throwing up a flower spike like the picture that I would have paid double that. Remember, this was 1959 and that was weeks (plural) of allowance.

I potted the bulb upon arriving home and a few weeks later bada-boom, bada-bing, the payoff came as promised. It grew jack-in-the-beanstalk fast producing not one, but two spikes of dinner plate dahlia-sized flowers that blew me away. Too cool. I felt up to any horticultural challenge after that.

The hybridizers are having fun!
In the ensuing decades hybridizers have been busybusybusy with amazing results. The color range has been dramatically increased. Varieties now have contrasting star-burst patterns in the center. There are also doubles that resemble florists' roses, as well as dwarf cultivars with more delicate flowers.

There are plenty of articles on growing them successfully, so I'd like to share a few tidbits you may not find elsewhere.

1) They may or may not bloom for Christmas. If they've been grown in the southern hemisphere they'll have fulfilled their full dormant period and should be ready to start growing as soon as you pot them. If they've been grown in the northern hemisphere they may need more "rest" before the show begins - so be patient. They'll brighten winter days in January and February just as well.

2) Water thoroughly when you first pot them. Don't water again until you see buds or leaves emerging from the neck of the bulb. That may be weeks if the bulb is still dormant. That's okay. If the bulb isn't ready to grow, don't force it by watering. That may lead to a rotten bulb. It'll grow when it's good and ready.

3) If you're trying to save the bulb to rebloom for next year, feed heavily throughout the spring and summer. It takes a lot of stored energy to produce those enormous blooms. I read once that for every four leaves the plant produces you should expect one flower spike the following season.

4) I'm loathe to mention this as is seems horticulturally perverse, but for those that have suffered tall amaryllis, they can be given a 4-6% alcohol solution (absolutely no more). This will stunt them and keep them more compact. Flowers will be full size, but the stems will be shorter. You'll need to Google that formula. I won't dispense moonshine concoctions for innocent amaryllis.

If I was a parent or grandparent with young children trying to interest them in the natural world an amaryllis race seems a perfectly fun place to start. Gentlemen, ladies, start your plants.


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'.

Friday, August 29, 2014

"High" on 'Drangeas

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'

If plant popularity is directly proportional to the number of new varieties debuting annually, Hydrangeas are HOT, HOT, HOT. Exciting new varieties are popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain.

Why all the Hydrangea excitement?

  • Something-for-everyone range of flower forms including mophead (softball), panicle (cone-shaped) and lacecap (flat-topped donut with a lacy, open center). Flowers not only last a long time, but many develop interesting seed heads for winter interest.
  • Sun or partial shade tolerance. If you're putting them in sun in hot summer climates, find a site with some afternoon shade. But do give them at least 4-5 hours of sun. Don't test their shade tolerance by placing them in an hour of dappled sun and expect great flowering. They'll have great foliage instead. If you have little sun plant Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). 
  • Fabulous color range of white and creams, pinks, blues, lilacs and in-between.
  • Many paniculatas (cone-shaped flowers) are available as shrubs or single-trunk trees called "standards".
  • They're very easy care, low maintenance plants.

Some amazing varieties worthy of consideration for your garden:

Annabelle (H. arborescens)  The grande dame of hardiness, versatility and performance. Softball-sized, long-lasting heads of creamy white in midsummer. Flowers on both new and old wood. Shade tolerant. 5' tall and wide.

Bobo (H. paniculata)  Just a flower-making dwarf powerhouse, even when young. The creamy white flowers, like all paniculatas, are cone-shaped. Strong stems support the masses of flowers well. Sun, partial shade. 3' tall, 4' wide. Rock hardy, blooms on new growth. Love it- have six myself!

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'

Endless Summer (H. macrophylla)  The standard for "mophead" Hydrangeas. Has the potential to bloom on both new and old wood. Nice medium pink flowers (if grown in alkaline soil), but blue in acid soils. 3-4' tall and wide.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'

Limelight (H. paniculata)  Chartreuse-green, cone-shaped flowers in midsummer on a vigorous plant that can be 7' tall and wide. Flowers are green, pink and burgundy in fall before they age to fish-scale brown. Very strong stems support the sizable flowers well. Sun/partial shade.

Little Lime (H. paniculata)  Small-space gardeners will appreciate this petite version of Limelight that grows only 4' tall and wide. It brings to the garden proportionately smaller flowers, but masses of them, with the same unique color as its namesake. Sun/partial shade.

Pinky Winky (H. paniculata)  Big cone-shaped flowers open white, quickly start turning pink at the base, all the while growing new white tips at the end. Really different, really pretty. Blooms on new growth. 7' tall and wide. Sun/partial shade.
Strawberry Sundae (H. paniculata)  Another choice dwarf for people with small spaces. Beautiful, dense white flowers that gradually change to strawberry pink (bottom up) as you might well have suspected. Blooms on new growth. 4' tall, 5' wide. Sun/partial shade.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Twist-n-Shout'
Twist-n-Shout (H. paniculata)  Distinctive "lacecap" flowers have a row or more of large sterile flowers surrounding a loosely open center of fertile flowers. Subtle, as Hydrangeas go. Pink when soil is alkaline, blue when acid. 4' tall and wide. The red stems and burgundy-red fall color are unusual for Hydrangea.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Vanilla Strawberry'
Vanilla Strawberry (H. paniculata)  The progression from white to pink and strawberry red is a tasty feast for the eyes. 6' tall, 5' wide. Sun/partial shade.

It's o.k. to be plant addicted. If you feel like you're bordering on Hydrangea obsessive, tell people you're a collector. They'll just think you're charming and eccentric.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Garden Training for Excess Raining

I thought I had a handle on just how wet the summer has been. My rain gauge (that measures 100ths of an inch, I'm proud to say) recorded 9.30" for June. I just spoke with a fellow horticulturist who was telling me that she was pruning and found gangs of slugs hiding in yew branches four feet off the ground. We've revealed a new definition of saturation point: So wet that even slugs seek higher ground!

Short of dragging water-soaked containers under overhangs or setting up umbrellas over drought-tolerant perennials, there's only so much a person can do to stem the flood waters. Here are a few proactive things that may help save plants after the recent deluges.

Override the Sprinkler System 
Congrats to those folks that have automatic overrides. For those that have manual controls, please consider shutting off your system on an as-needed basis! We've all seen sprinklers gushing water in the middle of a downpour. In addition to the ecological benefits of conserving water, think about the dollar savings.

Drain Your Saucers
Plants in containers (with holes in the bottom) have much better drainage than plants in our clay-laden garden soils. Hanging baskets or decorative pots with saucers (attached or otherwise) must be checked daily and emptied. The potting mix will have absorbed all the moisture it can hold after 30 minutes. After that, roots are dying. So, be extra vigilant about water removal with all the rain we've been receiving.

Formerly full begonias

Remember to Fertilize
Nutrient deficiencies may start showing up in plants on a patio near you, namely yours. Most potting mixes are "soilless". They are either coarse peat or bark-based to promote drainage. They have minimal nutrient content regardless of whether the bag says "Fertilizer Added" or not. Constant rainfall, like our own frequent watering, leaches nitrogen out of the bottom of the pot. Nitrogen is responsible for leaf and stem growth, as well as leaf color. Add a complete fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorous and potash-containing) to keep your plants in tip-top shape as needed.  

Control the Slugs
Populations of slugs and earwigs are exploding. Protect hostas, lettuce, spinach and other slug faves with the iron phosphate baits. They are applied directly to the ground under and around your ornamentals and vegetables. The varmints eat the bait and crawl away to die within a day or two.

Chewed on petunia
Check New Plantings Daily
Newly planted perennials, shrubs and trees that were container grown will need to be checked daily for water. Remember they've been potted in a coarse mix to promote drainage. That doesn't change because they're out of the pot and in the ground. It is possible that the day after a good rain the root ball of your new plant could be dry, even while the surrounding soil is wet. Never assume anything about rainfall and new plants.  

Check Before Watering
Wilting plants MAY or MAY NOT indicate a need for water. Ironically, plants wilt when they're standing in water just the same as if they're bone dry. So, before you water that wilting Hydrangea or coleus in the midday sun, check the mulch or soil surface to see if it's moist. If so, wait a few hours and revisit the plant in the cooler part of the day, and see if it hasn't returned to normal. If not, water may be needed.

Water stress-induced leaf roll on tomato

Preventative Treatments
Use fungicides preventatively on plants with a past history of fungal issues. Roses and black spot, tomatoes and blight(s), Garden phlox and powdery mildew, are among the common health issues to be expected with constant rainfall and high humidity. Again, prevention of further infection is the goal. Present symptoms will not be reversed.

Enjoy the lush growth in your garden because of, and in spite of, the incredible rainfall!!!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Japanese (Maple) Spoken Here

'Koto-No-Ito'. 'Osakazuki'. 'Asahi zuru'. 'Beni maiko'. 'Shishigashira'. 'Oridono nishiki'. 'Seiryu'. 'Inaba shidare'. These Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) names are, of course, beautiful in their own right. The beauty of the trees exceeds even the elegance of their names.

Feel the thickness of a Japanese maple leaf, especially a cutleaf (dissectum) type, and it doesn't take much imagination to understand how they might sunburn or get wind-tattered if planted in the wrong place. For that reason I'm especially happy when someone says they want a Japanese maple and have an east-facing exposure. Love the idea of the morning sun to fully color the burgundy leaved varieties, but afternoon shade to prevent sunburn. Deep shade for most of the day will muddy maroon leaves and turn them green/brown. Not a color you hoped for when you chose to own a Japanese maple.

Cutleaf (dissectum) type foliage

Another bonus to an eastern exposure is the shelter it provides from prevailing northwest winter winds. That isn't to say you can't grow one successfully in a south or west (with no afternoon shade) facing site. Just avoid planting it against brick walls or surrounded by paved surfaces where it will get reflected afternoon heat and sun, both on its leaves and roots. I have certainly seen good looking specimens planted in afternoon sun, but they've always been placed away from reflective surfaces and were well mulched!

Japanese maples are perfectly happy in average garden soils that aren't excessively compacted or ever experience standing water. If you can meet these site requirements perhaps you should consider adding a Japanese maple to your landscape. Want something distinctive?

'Koto-No-Ito' (Harp strings) - An unusual mixture of slender string-like green leaves, two different sizes at the same time! Golden-yellow fall color, bright green bark. Have one myself, love it.

'Osakazuki' - Durable, non-burning green summer leaves. Considered by many to have the most intense scarlet fall color of any Japanese maple.

'Asahi zuru' (Dawn swan) - Stunning variegation of white, rich green with pink tones that later turn white. Afternoon shade is a plus.

'Beni maiko' (Red-haired dancing girl) - Emerges fire-red, maturing to pinkish-red and green leaves. Stunning pink-red fall color.

'Shishigashira' (Lion's head or mane) - Dwarfish tree with densely tufted green leaves that are sun-proof. Gold and crimson fall color. Very compact with ornamental green bark. Elegant is the adjective to use. Have one, wouldn't be without it. 


'Oridono nishiki' (Rich colored fabric of the master) - Deep, shiny green changing with wide ranges of pink, white and cream variegation. Yes, really pink.

'Seiryu' (Blue-green dragon) - The only upright growing cutleaf type. Emerges bright green with reddish tones, green in summer, fall brings gold, yellow and red!

'Inaba shidare' (Cascading rice-like leaf) - Deep-purple red leaves retain their color well all season, then brilliant purple-red for autumn.

'Inaba shidare'

The addition of even a single Japanese maple (Acer palmatum, A. palmatum dissectum) to a landscape can quickly elevate the beauty of a space. Many of us are familiar with the standard varieties, 'Bloodgood', 'Crimson Queen', and 'Garnet'. Don't let the exotic names of the many hardy varieties mentioned above keep you from "branching out" and considering them for your garden.

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?