Posts Tagged ‘Gardening How To’

My favorite choice for a Christmas tree is a balsam fir, which is the tree I remember my family always decorating when I was a boy. Back then we didn’t have all of the choices in Christmas trees that we do today. In fact, I can’t remember anyone having anything but balsam fir which, until about 20 years ago, was the most popular cut tree.

Memories aren’t the only reason I like balsam fir though; fragrance is big on my list as well and balsam fir is the most fragrant of all trees. Fraser fir, which is kind of a southern cousin of balsam fir, runs a close second. Needle retention is another biggie, and balsam fir will retain its needles for weeks provided it has plenty of water and is fresh when bought. I check that by bending the branches, which should bend easily without breaking. The same goes for the needles; on a fir they should feel soft and bend easily without breaking. They should also stay on the branch when you run your hand along it or bang the butt end of the trunk on a hard surface.  If more than a few needles drop off I pass it by.

Cutting a half inch of trunk off when I get the tree home means that it will absorb more water than if it isn’t cut, and letting it sit in a bucket of warm water for an hour or so before I bring it in will get the water flowing.  Having to cut off 2 or 3 inches of trunk is a myth, as is adding aspirin or fertilizer to the water. Adding anything to the water just gums up the works and can actually inhibit water absorption.  It might make the tree owner feel better, but it does nothing for the tree.

Once I get it set up in a cool spot out of full sun I’ll make sure it has plenty of water by filling the stand every day.  A tree can drink up to a gallon and a half of water per day when it is freshly cut, and if it runs out of water it’s almost impossible to get it absorbing it again. Hot water in the stand might get the tree drinking again, but most likely it will just dry out and start dropping needles.  Once that happens, it’s all done.

I think I’m going to be lazy again this year and get a pre cut tree rather than cut it myself and drag it for what seems like 5 miles to my truck. That was fun when the kids were small but now, no so much.

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The weather here this fall has been confusing, to say the least. At my house, we never had a real fall frost or freeze but then, 2 days before Halloween we had 18 inches of snow, which was our earliest ever. After that the temperature shot up into the sixties and all the snow melted. Green grass is still visible and tomorrow is the first day of December. I still have mushrooms in my lawn, which I’m thinking about mowing again, and I’m seeing dandelions blooming here and there.

Before the strange Halloween storm I had cut back all but a few perennials in the backyard and was feeling well prepared for winter. I knew the ground wasn’t frozen, but once 18 inches of snow fell I thought that would be the end of cutting back any more plants this year. I was wrong; in spite of being buried under snow for 3 or 4 days and several below freezing nights, the delphinium in the photo just keeps on blooming. I know delphiniums are hardy plants, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one blooming in December. I’m wondering if  it will get frost bitten before Christmas.

But I’m not complaining; there is nothing a gardener in the northeast likes more than sixty degree temperatures, green grass and fresh flowers in December. I do question what effect such a delayed dormancy will have on plants next season though. It will be interesting to see.

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When a rhododendron does this, it is cold!

Usually at about this time of year my rhododendrons begin to communicate with me in a few different ways. One look out my window at the curled and drooping leaves tells me that it’s cold. How cold? That depends on the variety and the tightness of the curl and drop of the leaf. The best way to know is to watch your plant closely and compare the amount of leaf curl and droop to what the thermometer says. Do this for a winter season and soon you won’t need a thermometer at all, because your rhododendron will tell you all you need to know.  There are several theories about why rhododendron leaves do this, but the most plausible (to me) is that the leaf curls to prevent moisture loss. Another theory that sounds likely is that the leaf is protecting its soft underside by curling it up inside the tougher, waxy outer surface. In any event this behavior doesn’t harm the plant, and once it warms up the leaves will perk up and flatten right out again.

Another way rhododendrons communicate is by bud growth, as the photos below show.

 This large, fat, and kind of roundish bud that appears in the center of the whorl of leaves at the tip of a branch is a flower bud.  Paying attention to how many of these are on the shrub will give a general idea of how many blossoms it will have for the following season. Usually there will be one large flower bud with 2 or 3 smaller leaf / branch buds around its base.


These smaller, slimmer and longer, more pointed buds also appear in the center of the whorl of leaves at the tip of a branch but are leaf/branch and secondary buds. There are usually 3-5 buds in a group with the center branch bud the largest of the group. The center bud will form a new branch with its own whorl of leaves in the spring and the secondary buds will stay as they are. If the larger center bud is removed some of the smaller secondary buds will grow into branches to make the plant bushier. This removing one bud to cause two or more to grow in its place is called “pinching.” More leaf / branch buds than flower buds means poor flowering for the following season, and could indicate a need for more fertilizer.

Another way a rhododendron will communicate is by leaf color. Leaves should be dark green; not olive green, yellow or green with yellow spots or edges.  Yellow leaves could mean anything from an iron deficiency to soggy soil to soil with too high of a pH. Testing soil pH and checking drainage conditions  would be the place to start investigating yellowing leaves, followed by a very light fertilizing in spring if the plant has been neglected. A spray of chelated iron will help with an iron deficiency.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many puffballs as I have this year. Each time I find one it brings back memories of being fascinated as a child by the papery brown skin and how they would “smoke. “

There are probably few among us who, as children, didn’t stomp a puffball to see the “smoke” come out. We didn’t know (or care) that this “smoke” was actually the puffball’s spores which, if inhaled, could be a severe airway irritant. Or that the giant puffball, which can reach the size of a beach ball, can contain 7 trillion spores.

Puffballs are fungi just like mushrooms and if collected at the correct time are edible like some mushrooms. I wouldn’t eat one without the blessings of an expert though, because there are “imitators” like the “earth ball” or pigskin puffball which looks like a puffball but is poisonous. The deadliest fungus known, Amanita phalloides (the death cap) can also resemble a puffball when it is young and in the button stage, so I also wash my hands well after handling them.  Call me overly cautious, but I never eat anything from the wild unless I am absolutely 100 percent certain I know what it is.


On the inside, an edible puffball will always be completely white and featureless as the above photo from recipetips.com shows. If a cap, gills, or stalk are seen it is not a puffball but a mushroom in the button stage and should not be eaten.  As puffballs mature (and become inedible) the inside changes from white to yellow to brown and then finally to a purple-black or brown spore mass. As I found recently by cutting a few open the interiors of some puffballs can appear almost psychedelic, so I’m happy just looking at them and don’t need to eat them.





This one was almost ready to begin shooting out spores.

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Last Saturday I had finished raking the leaves in the front yard and was about to rake the back yard after a short break. Just as I was wondering if we would ever get a frost I looked out the window and saw snow. And it snowed, and snowed, and snowed-fifteen inches in October! But the ground was nowhere near frozen and temperatures warmed so it melted quickly until now, all you see are little snow mounds dotted here and there throughout the neighborhood. Today it is supposed to be 50 degrees and by Monday we should see the mid sixties. That should finish off all the snow mounds left from the freak, once in a lifetime (I hope) October snow storm.

Now that the weather has returned to normal I can get back to raking all the leaves that the snow stripped off the trees. I think I’ll pile them separately in their own pile because I already have plenty on the compost pile. A good mound of leaf mold will come in handy when I want to add organic matter to the soil. Or, more accurately in this yard; when I want to replace gravel with something resembling organic matter. (If you new comers are confused, see “Gardening in gravel” in the June archive)

Some of the leaves will also be used on the roses. Once the ground crusts over and the roses are dormant, and all the rodents have found their winter homes I’ll put a good mound of well draining soil up around the canes at the base of each plant and then cover the soil with a thick mound of leaves. Then I’ll cover the leaves with more soil so they don’t blow away. I could use straw but I have leaves so I might as well save some money. Wetting the leaves slightly will also help keep them in place.

Mounding roses is an old method of wintering over hybrid tea roses and grafted varieties. It is not done to “keep the plant warm.” Instead, it is to keep both plant and soil cold enough so the bush doesn’t come out of dormancy on warm winter days or too early in the spring. This method requires a fairly good memory or a note pad because it is important that the soil mounds are removed in early spring or the canes could rot. I bought two pink, single flowered “Knockout” roses last summer and have heard some people question their hardiness. Since winter nights can get down to thirty below zero in this part of the state mounding might help see them through until spring.

I haven’t even mentioned trenching some bulbs for forcing, so I still have plenty of gardening left to do. One thing is certain; if I don’t stop writing about what I’m going to do and get out there and actually do it, winter really will be here.

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Last Saturday morning I was raking leaves, cutting back perennials, grooming beds, putting away lawn furniture-all the things one would expect a gardener to do in October. We hadn’t even seen a frost here in my yard. By 8:00 pm that night I was shoveling snow that was over my boot tops, which is something I’ve never done in October. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, this is the first time since records began in 1860 that an inch or more of snowfall has been recorded during the month of October. But there I was, 2 months before Christmas on a quiet autumn night, shoveling snow and listening to the frequent snap, whoosh, and thud of big branches falling in the woods that surround my house.

The next morning I was thankful that I hadn’t lost power as over a quarter million others in New Hampshire had. A look out any window told me I’d be repeating the shoveling of last night, and a yardstick told me that 15 inches of snow had fallen. A quick survey of the yard revealed several shrubs flattened by the weight of the snow. I shook the snow off the lilacs, azaleas and Forsythia, but summer bloomers like hydrangea, elderberry and weigela I left alone. Since this is their first year in the ground they will be pruned back quite hard in spring, so a few bent branches now won’t matter.  

The trees along the perimeter of the forest made it through the storm without losing hardly a twig, but I know that deeper into the woods some major branches are waiting for me. The snow is too deep right now, so they will have to wait until spring. The maple in the front yard, full of pumpkin orange leaves Saturday morning, had shed most of them by Sunday afternoon and they looked an even deeper orange against the white snow.

At least we fared better than they did in Central Park in New York; according to the news they had one thousand trees damaged, which is devastating.  A walk around my neighborhood revealed a few bent paper birches, but not much in the way of serious damage. Birches will straighten right up if the snow that pins the top to the ground melts right away, otherwise they may need gentle human intervention and ropes to once again stand straight. I pulled the top of one tree out of the snow and it sprang back quite a bit. In a day or two it should be standing straight up. A drive around town revealed that many neighborhoods weren’t as lucky as mine; I saw some large oak and maple limbs that had broken off one hundred year old trees.

Weather forecasts are something I’m always leery of because they, especially for the first snow storm of the season, always seem to be full of hype. So, when I heard “historic” and “once in a century” about this storm my first thought was that it was just more hype. Wow, was I wrong!

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You could see a witches’ broom this Halloween, but you don’t have to look for a wart nosed hag wearing a pointy black hat to find one.

Witches’ broom is a plant deformation which appears as a very dense cluster of branches, often found on woody plants like trees and shrubs. Blueberry bushes for example, often have witches’ brooms. I know of one bush that I picked berries from for years that had a large broom growing in the center of it. The growth didn’t seem to inhibit berry growth or affect the plant in any way. In fact, it looked as healthy as the bushes that surrounded it.  

In some cases however, as in rice, the fungus that causes witches’ broom can be fatal. In other instances plants act positively bewitched; potatoes with witches’ broom can form tubers on top of, rather than below ground. This isn’t much help for the farmer when you consider that potatoes exposed to sunlight become toxic by forming solanine, which is a poisonous alkaloid.

Witches’ brooms are usually caused by either a rust fungus or a parasitic plant such as mistletoe, but there is an aphid known to cause honeysuckle witches’ broom, and on hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) it is caused by both a powdery mildew fungus and a tiny mite. On cherry and blackberry it is caused by bacteria carried by insects from elm or ash trees.

In the case of blueberry bushes, witches’ broom is caused by a fungus that lives on balsam fir trees. This broom fungus always needs a blueberry and a fir as hosts and is very specific; a blueberry with the fungus can’t infect another blueberry. Most brooms caused by rust fungus need two host plants. The fungus that causes witches’ broom on balsam fir needs common chickweed as a secondary host, and the fungus that infects spruce needs the lowly bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).

Witches broom can cause very desirable dwarfism and increased branching in some plants. In fact, many well known dwarf evergreen shrubs are the result of witches’ broom.  For example, Montgomery Dwarf Blue Spruce is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and is from a witches’ broom. Globosum, a round-headed, grafted form of Japanese black pine, is the result of a witches’ broom.  Another black pine, Hornibrookiana, will be no larger than 6 feet across and 2 feet tall even after 30 years, thanks to a witches’ broom.

So if you should see a witches’ broom on Halloween or at any other time, remember-it is not the home of hobgoblins and witches and is not a Hexenbesen (bewitched bundle of twigs) as medieval writers would have you believe.  No-more than likely it is, once again, just nature doing what it does so well.


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Spiders on your plants aren’t a bad thing. In fact, spiders eat many of the insects that damage house plants, so they really should be left alone. Seeing a spider in the house might be just a bit too much to bear for some, but a house with spiders is more likely to be insect free. (Spiders are not insects.) Though there are dangerous spiders known in the U.S., here in the northeast most spiders living in our homes will be the common house spider, which is relatively harmless.

Spider mites, on the other hand, are critters you definitely don’t want on your plants. Spider mites build webs like spiders and are in the same arachnid family. Some mites cannibalize their own kind, but most prefer plant juices and will pierce a leaf or stem and then suck the plant juices and nutrients from it. This weakens the plant, and large infestations might even kill it.

Plants with spider mites will show small yellowish-brown spots on their leaves. These spots might be quite far apart at first, but as the colony grows leaves will have so many spots that they will appear off color and have a metallic bronze appearance. Small webs on the undersides of leaves and where the leaf meets the stem are where eggs will hatch. To check a plant for these tiny creatures, hold a piece of white paper under a leaf or branch and give the plant stem a couple of good taps. Spider mites will fall off if they are present and appear as small, rust red, moving dots on the paper. (You might need a magnifier.) Mites can travel from plant to plant on a slight breeze, so infected plants should be quarantined or thrown away if inexpensive.

Spider mites like it hot and dry, so keep humidity high by frequent misting and grouping plants together. Keep plants shaded from hot afternoon sun or consider keeping your plants in a sunny room in which the heat has been turned down. Most houseplants will do better at 65° F (18° C) than they will at 75° F (24° C) and you’ll save fuel.

Once spider mites appear on a plant control can be difficult unless spraying is done regularly. Eggs hatch in 4-5 days and mites will reach egg laying adulthood in a week or less. A strong isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and water solution of 2 parts alcohol to 3 parts water should be sprayed twice weekly for at least 3 weeks.  It is very important to spray the undersides of leaves thoroughly along with the rest of the plant. Houseplants should be inspected regularly, even after spraying, so infestations don’t get out of hand.

Before spraying any plant with alcohol always test a leaf first to see if the plant will be harmed by it. Furry leaved plants should not be sprayed. Always protect surfaces and fabrics from alcohol sprays.

Photo magnification of Two Spotted Spider Mite by USDA-ARS-SEL & EMU, using Low Temperature -SEM

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I spent part of last weekend planting Siberian squill around and under the old honeysuckles in the front yard. Siberian squill is a small, early spring flowering bulb also known as Scilla. A neighbor once told me that several people had spoken to her about how seeing my flowers on their way to work each morning brightened their day. If that’s all it takes to make people happy, I’m all for more flowers and Scilla are a good choice because they multiply rapidly and in just a few years there should be large drifts of small blue, star shaped blossoms.

The recent rains knocked bushels of leaves off the maples. They were too wet to do anything with in the early morning but once they dried I shredded them with my mower and tossed them on the compost heap.  I’ll have to remember to keep any that blow around this winter off the scilla so the blooms aren’t smothered. 

I also spent some time cutting back more perennials and wondered how I ever came to have so many as I dumped tarp after tarp full on the compost pile. (And I haven’t even tackled the beds in the back yard yet.) As the weather cools and the soil begins to crust over during the day I’ll come back and do some mulching around the shallow rooted plants. I don’t have to worry about plants like hosta, daylilies, and Siberian Iris but foxglove, yarrow, campanula and sedums can heave right out of the soil on warm days.

On the way to the compost pile I noticed that the leaves on the new bottlebrush buckeye that I planted in the shrub border last spring have turned a beautiful lemon yellow. This shrub really seems to glow against the darker forest behind it and I’m glad that I bought it.

When I finished puttering around in the yard I took a ride down to the farmer’s market for some fresh vegetables. I’m always amazed at the huge selection available there-they even sell furniture and jewelry. One person had several different kinds of chutney preserves that were hard to pass by, but I kept my focus. It’s getting to be beef stew time so I bought some carrots and small turnips. The carrots are sweet and the turnips mild. I could have also bought potatoes and beef at the market but I already had those. An added bonus was the nice tops on the turnips. Those fresh turnip greens sautéed in bacon fat with a little onion and a hint of garlic and then sprinkled with crumbled bacon are great eating! I was hoping I’d stumble upon a nice freshly baked apple pie for desert but unfortunately, I didn’t find one of those.

Well, I think it’s high time I get my mind off food and tackle some more leaf raking.

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Because perennial beds are usually in a state of flux, with plants being dug and divided, new plants added, and older ones removed, I don’t mulch them. Instead I prefer the older method of bed grooming. Grooming perennial beds consists of regular (at least weekly) weeding and cultivating, with the disturbed top inch or two layer of cultivated soil acting as mulch. I’ll speak more about using cultivated soil as mulch in another post.

The only time I mulch perennial beds is for winter protection; typically in late fall and not, as some believe, to keep plants “warm” but rather to keep the soil frozen. Winter mulch should be applied when the soil starts to remain frozen during the daytime and plants have entered their dormant period. In southern New Hampshire this usually means mid to late November. The main reason for mulching as late as possible is because rodents like voles or mice will have already found their winter homes by the time the ground freezes and won’t be snuggling under warm mulch and feeding on a plant’s roots all winter.

During a relatively snowless winter or after most of the snow has melted in spring the soil surface can thaw quickly on warm days. The same thing can also happen during a week or more of a “January thaw.” This daytime thawing and nighttime re-freezing cycle can lift, or “heave” shallow rooted plants completely out of the ground. This leaves their crowns and roots exposed to the air and they dry out and die. Winter mulching prevents this by shading the soil surface and keeping it at a constant temperature.

Except in the case of evergreen boughs, the material chosen for winter mulch should be loosely placed around plants; not on top of them. Evergreen boughs are strong enough so snow doesn’t weigh them down, so they can be placed so they arch over plants. Straw, pine needles, bark, or other loose materials should be placed around the base of plants to a depth of about 2-3 inches. Shredded leaves may be used but they hold a lot of moisture, pack down easily, and are more apt to smother plants, so be sure to keep them off plant crowns. Hay shouldn’t ever be used because of the weed seeds it contains.

In the spring when the lawn feels spongy when walked on even in the late evening and perennial beds have started to dry out, all winter protection should be removed and added to the compost pile. Since it is removed in spring, winter mulching doesn’t have to be an overly neat operation. Remember-the point is to shade the soil, not to cover the plants.


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