Posts Tagged ‘Gardening Tips’

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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I can’t think of another shrub that can claim more striking fall colors than the common blueberry (Vaccinium.) Even after 18 inches of snow and several nights of below freezing temperatures this one hung on to its leaves. A shaft of bright sunlight on a cloudy day made it seem as if it was lit from within. Finding such a healthy bush told me that the soil here is most likely a highly acidic, well drained sandy loam.


I had been having a lot of ear trouble and then one day I noticed this maple tree with an old wound that looked very much like an ear. Was it a sign? An interesting fact about trees is that their wounds do not heal like ours do. Instead they are covered over by callus tissue that develops at the edge of the wound and gradually grows inward toward the center. You can actually see  how that process takes place in the photo above. While the wound calluses over the tree uses built in natural resistance to fight off insects and disease. This is such a large, deep wound though, that the tree might lose the battle. Wounds like this are excellent points of entry for fungal diseases like those of the turkey tail fungus, below.


I found this bracket (shelf) fungus called turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) growing on an old hemlock stump. This fungus is considered a mushroom and is very common.  It is also the bane of the forestry industry because it causes heart or sap rot in trees and is the kiss of death; once the fungus attacks a living tree it cannot be stopped, and the tree will die.  On the brighter side, turkey tails have been found to contain a carbohydrate (Polysaccharide-K) that is used in Europe and Japan for the treatment of many types of cancer. Turkey tail is said to biodegrade some types of pollutants and is a favorite food of fungus moth (Nemaxera betulinella) caterpillars.


 The pointy clusters of red berries (drupes) of the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) can be seen everywhere at this time of year. They are an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.


Lichens grow on a Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Lichens are actually a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and algae or a fungus and bacteria. The fungus, which doesn’t have the ability to produce chlorophyll by photosynthesis, relies on the algae or bacteria, which do produce chlorophyll, for food.  Unlike the bracket fungus, they don’t usually harm the trees that they grow on. Lichens are very sensitive to pollutants, so when they are seen in great numbers in an oak grove it means the air quality is good. Many animals feed on lichens and some birds use them for nest building.


The large growth on this Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trunk is a burl. A burl is a growth defect caused by insects, a virus or fungus, or an injury. Most burls grow underground on a tree’s roots but they can also be found above ground like this one. Inside a burl the grain is twisted, interlocked, and very hard and forms figural patterns that are highly prized by woodworkers, furniture makers, and artists.  This burl, larger than a basketball, could be worth hundreds of dollars or even more depending on the grain pattern.  Museum quality bowls made from burl are rare and can fetch thousands.

All of these things were seen within a half mile of my house. Why not see what nature has to offer near yours?

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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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I spent a large part of the day last Saturday raking leaves again. It wasn’t a great comfort, once I’d finished, looking up and seeing thousands of leaves still clinging to the two oak trees in my neighbor’s yard, (that would fall in my yard) but neither was it a surprise. 

I’ve learned over the years to make peace with the late falling oak leaves. After all, spring cleanup should always include raking the lawn, and a few scattered leaves on it aren’t going to matter in the grand scheme of things.  Even though it would be so much more convenient if all the trees dropped their leaves at the same time, why they don’t is part of nature’s plan.   

In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing to the leaves they lose chlorophyll and the reds, yellows and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding finally become visible. 

In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus) , this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence. 

Nobody really seems to know for certain why trees retain dead leaves but some believe that one reason might be to ward off foraging moose, deer and other animals. Animals will eat the bud bearing twigs from the lower parts of older trees and from nearly all parts of younger trees. One theory says that they don’t like the taste or texture of the dead leaves so they stay away from the trees, which means the buds stay safe and can grow on.

 Another theory says that dead leaves clinging to the lower branches trap snow and ensure that the trees get plenty of water in the spring when it melts.  I’ve seen nature do some pretty amazing things, but this idea seems a little far fetched to me. What, I have to ask, if the tree is on a hillside-doesn’t all the water from the melting snow just run down hill? 

Even though we know how the leaves remain on certain trees, we don’t really know why, so I’ll view the “why don’t some leaves fall in the fall?” question as just another one of nature’s great mysteries. It will give me something to ponder as I rake more leaves today.

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I have a friend who is against forcing bulbs because, she says, “it isn’t natural.” Forcing simply means that you are exposing bulbs to warmth sooner than if they were growing outside, so I’m not sure it could be considered unnatural either. Most spring flowering bulbs, except paper white narcissus which don’t need a cold period, can be forced, including the smaller grape hyacinth, crocus, and scilla.

Forcing bulbs is easy; simply pot up your favorite bulbs in soilless potting mix, water them well and then put them in a cold, but not freezing, place for at least 15 weeks.  Cool soil stimulates root growth, which continues until it gets quite cold. Warmth after the cool period stimulates top growth and flowers.

Using the correct soil is probably the most important part of forcing bulbs because they will not stand soggy soil. A soilless potting mix like pro mix is an excellent choice, or you can make your own with 2 parts compost, 2 parts sphagnum peat moss, 1 part vermiculite and 1 part perlite. Personally I find using pre mixed easier.

Fill the pot half full of mix, place the bulbs in it and finish filling around them.  Do not compact the potting mix. Give them a good soaking to settle the mix and then add more if necessary.  When finished the tip of the bulb should be just peeking out of the potting mix. Tulip bulbs should have their flat side toward the pot, because this is where the first leave will form. Label the bulbs clearly!

After potting I dig a trench just deep enough to sink the pots to the top of their rims and then pack leaves or straw loosely around the pots. Then I cover the pots and trench with a foot deep mulch of leaves or straw. Finally I cover everything with plastic or a tarp so it doesn’t get wet and become a big frozen together mass. After 15 weeks I pull back the plastic and mulch, grab a pot of bulbs, bring them inside and water them, set them in a cool spot until I see top growth, and then set them in a bright window. 

You can also use an unheated shed, garage, crawlspace, or even a refrigerator. Many people put them in cold frames but the temperature can rise quickly on sunny winter days, so the top will have to be opened occasionally to keep the temperature at or below 45º F (7.2º C). Bulbs need cold but they shouldn’t freeze, so temperatures shouldn’t fall below 35 º F (1.6º C). Bulbs cooled in a trench should go in no later than November 15th for late February blooming. 

When bulbs have finished blooming put them in the coolest, sunniest spot available and continue watering until they can be planted outside. It may take up to 2 years for the bulbs to produce large blooms again after they have been forced.

 Tulip Potting Photo by Iowa State University Extension service


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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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