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Winter Landscape Prep Checklist

As the days get shorter and temperatures creep downward, it’s not the time to retreat into the house and begin our winter hibernation, especially this year when we’ve already spent a lot of time inside. There’s still plenty to do outside to prepare our landscapes for winter.

Here is a checklist of recommended projects to ensure your landscape has a good winter and is ready in the spring. This is nearly as complete of a list as possible. I realize that some items may not apply to you and some items that apply to you may not apply to your neighbors. Some items may remind you of things you have to do that aren’t on the list.

  • Clean up all trash that has blown on to your property.
  • Remove dead stems and leaves from perennials. Toss them onto the compost pile.
  • Divide perennials.
  • Rake, blow or mow fallen leaves for mulch or compost.
  • Apply grub control if your lawn needs it.
  • Lower your mower blade to 2”-2 ½” and mow your lawn for one last time.
  • Prepare your lawn mower and other power tools for winter storage, following the manufacturers’ instructions.
  • Put your deck or patio furniture in storage.
  • Take your containerized plants indoors or place them in a cold frame for the winter.
  • Finish harvesting veggies from your vegetable garden.
  • Apply anti-desiccant to evergreens.
  • Wrap tender young trees.
  • Critter proof trees and shrubs.
  • Mulch trees, shrubs and planting beds.
  • Fertilize as necessary

Have us inspect your trees and remove any hazards.

Just in case you’re tempted to wait until spring to do some or all items on the list, let me remind you that there will be another list of projects in the spring to prepare your landscape for the growing season. You may not want to add the work you put off now to that list. Postponing things like putting your deck or patio furniture in storage, winterizing your outdoor power equipment or removing fallen leaves may lead to performing repairs in the spring. So, now that you’ve read the list, check off those that apply to you and schedule them. According to the calendar, fall has begun so there’s no time to waste.

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Protecting Water Features From Leaf Fall

Water features add so much to the ambiance of a landscape but whenever we try to tame nature there is work associated with the process. Keeping leaves from falling into your pond or fountain may be a year round task that intensifies as fall approaches.

Water features that have few trees between the path of the prevailing wind and the pond may get only a stray leaf blowing in. You may be able to remove these leaves by hand or with a pool skimmer. In the fall when leaves are falling and blowing, you’ll probably have to skim the pond surface more often.

Property owners with more trees may have to take more aggressive action. First, try to determine where the leaves are coming from. See if tree limbs hanging over the pond are the major cause of the problem. If they are the biggest contributor, our arborists can naturally prune the offending trees so they will no longer hang over the pond, while still retaining their natural shape.

On a heavily wooded property, the offending leaves are, no doubt, blowing in from all the trees on the property, especially in the fall. In this case, a better tactic might be to invest in a pond net. Nets are on the market in many sizes and styles. Depending on the size and shape of the pond. You may be able to use a surface net that you stretch across the pond surface and stake to the banks. This works similar to a pool cover. Net tents are also available. These hold the netting above the pond surface.

When using a pool skimmer to remove leaves from the water surface, you’ll probably have to remove leaves from rocks and the pump filter using a leaf blower, vacuum or your gloved hand.

Regardless of whether or not you have fish in your pond, you should keep it free of leaves. Leaves that accumulate on the surface block sunlight and oxygen, creating an unhealthy environment for aquatic flora and fauna. When the leaves start to decay and fall to the bottom, they create a slippery mat on the bottom that is unhealthy as well as messy looking. Sinking leaves can be carried to the pump where they can clog the filter, causing the pump to burn out. Then you have a stagnant pond that attracts mosquitoes, algae and aquatic weeds. Stagnant water is unhealthy for fish and humans.

The place for falling leaves is in your compost pile, not in your pond. Whether you use a skimmer, pond net, blower or vacuum to keep them out of your water feature, place them in a wheelbarrow or other garden conveyance and get them in the compost pile where they can help return organic matter to your landscape next spring.

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Time To Divide Herbaceous Perennials

One reason perennials are popular is because they flower every year so you don’t have to plant new ones like you do with annuals. Herbaceous perennials are those that die down to the ground each year but whose roots remain alive and send up new top growth each year.

Although herbaceous perennials rebloom every year, they are not completely maintenance-free. One task that’s required every few years is dividing. Perennials like to keep growing. Some spread out and may try to take over the whole planting bed. Others grow new shoots within their original crowns, making them very dense or thick. And still others grow new shoots around the outer edge of the original crown, stressing the original crown.

I recommend dividing perennials after they flower. So, those that flowered in spring and summer should be divided now. Those that are still in bloom shouldn’t be divided until spring. Although the best time to divide is right after they finish blooming, it can be done any time before the ground freezes. The ideal conditions are when the weather is cool, overcast and damp.

It’s best for the plants if you water the ground around them the day before and that you prepare the holes for each section of transplanted perennial before you start removing the parent plant. The holes should be twice as wide as the plant section and just as deep. For best results you should plant all of the sections right after dividing them. If you have to store them, they should be wrapped in moist burlap or covered with mulch.

When digging the parent plant, dig the circle wide enough to keep the root intact. When you get it out of the hole, lay it on a sheet of plastic and remove just enough soil to make the roots visible. If the root system is the spreading type, such as asters, bee balm, Black-eyed Susan, it can often be pulled apart by hand. If you can’t split the roots by hand, use a shovel or garden fork. If the plant has clumping roots, such as Hosta, Lily of the Nile, a sharp shovel, axe or saw will be required to split them. A third type of root, rhizomes, such as Bearded iris, are very fleshy and may be able to be cut with a sharp knife.

To plant the sections, return one to the hole in which you removed the parent plant and plant the others in the new holes you prepared. Backfill, lightly tamping the backfill, water and then mulch.

Dividing does more than prevent your perennials from taking over your planting bed. It also promotes healthy growth, more flowers and makes them more insect and disease resistant. It’s good for perennial growth in the same way that pruning is good for trees and shrubs. As a bonus, divided perennials provide you with free plants for your yard or to share with friends.

If you would rather leave dividing perennials to somebody else, we have just the professionals who are up for the task.

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Preparing Recently Planted Trees & Shrubs For Winter

Let’s face it, winters in Rochester and the Finger Lakes can be brutal. That’s why we take special care to bundle up our children when they go outside. We need to do the same thing with our young trees and shrubs, especially those that we planted this year.

Start with the roots. Make sure your young trees and shrubs get plenty of water right up until the ground freezes. Moist soil holds more heat than dry soil so trees and shrubs have more time to stay active until frost and freeze force them into dormancy.

Spreading three or four inches of good, organic mulch over the root zone will provide additional insulation for these new plants that are still getting acclimated to their new home. Don’t pile it up against the trunk in a mulch volcano. Rather, leave a couple of inches gap between the trunk and the mulch. If you see cracks in the backfill, fill them up with soil.

Moving up the tree, wrap thin bark, deciduous tree trunks with paper tree wrap or plastic tree guards, available at garden centers or home stores. This protects the trunks from sun scald. Sun scald can result in frost cracks, which are vertical cracks in the bark.

Apply anti desiccant to the foliage of evergreen trees and shrubs to prevent winter burn. Anti desiccant is a wax like material that reduces the amount of water that the wind can blow from their leaves or needles, causing them to turn brown.

Really tender evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs should be wrapped in burlap to further protect them from the wind and road spray. Use poles to hold the burlap several inches from the tree branches. Keep the top open so the tree or shrub will get sunlight and moisture.

If you use a plastic tree guard to protect against sun scald, it will also protect against hungry rodents who eat the outer and inner bark when they can’t find food in winter. If you don’t use plastic guards, I recommend wrapping the trunk in a material called hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is a flexible steel mesh. Wrap it around a young tree trunk to about a foot above the height of the highest average snowfall. Be sure you don’t wrap it too tightly.

Finally, rake up fallen leaves from beneath deciduous trees, otherwise they can mat up, hold water and block sunlight. Also, check the branch structure after the leaves fall to be sure all the branches are sound. Look for branches that are crossing, rubbing or broken and remove the weakest or the broken branches if you can reach them without a ladder. Leave climbing to our professional arborists. If you want, you can leave all of the winter preparation of your young trees and shrubs to our professionals.

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Fall Is For Planting

Can you believe it? Summer is almost over! In two weeks, we’ll celebrate Labor Day, which marks the unofficial beginning of fall. Officially, fall doesn’t arrive until Tuesday, September 22, and hopefully there’s plenty of good weather in store until then and beyond.

For some, all planting takes place in the spring. I’m not sure why but suspect that it has to do with agriculture and vegetable gardens where crops are planted in spring and harvested in late summer and fall. This mindset is not the same for ornamental plants.

Except for fruit trees, shrubs and vines, most crop plants are annuals. Most ornamental plants are perennials. The nursery industry recommends planting most trees and shrubs in fall. Even herbaceous perennials can be planted or dug up and split in fall. And spring flowering bulbs like daffodils and tulips need to be planted this fall if you want them to bloom next spring.

The reason for this apparent break with conventional wisdom has to do with weather. Fall planting gives plants a considerable period to get established while the days are warm, the nights cool and the soil just the right growing temperature. The cool nights are ideal in helping plants get used to cold temperatures gradually. When winter arrives, they’ll be ready for dormancy.

In spring, fall plants will break dormancy and begin growing several weeks before spring planting can get underway. Because of their earlier start, last fall’s plants require less care during the summer than spring plants. That means less watering and, possibly, less fertilizing, saving you both time and money.

Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to do outside in spring. Evergreens should be planted in late spring. They retain their leaves or needles and don’t go completely dormant. If planted in fall, this can result in unsightly winter burn, unless you apply anti desiccant. Also, wait until spring to plant perennials that flower on new wood like butterfly bush and big leaf hydrangeas. Otherwise, you’ll have to prune the old wood away in the spring to allow new wood to grow.

Fall is for Planting isn’t just a way for garden centers to get rid of their remaining nursery stock. Most buy fresh stock for the fall. If plants look like they are leftovers, don’t buy them. If they look fresh, go ahead. Nurseries aren’t going to invest in stock that they’ll have to overwinter.

You can turn to our landscape professionals if you want to be sure you have winter hardy plants and the right plant is planted in the correct place. Then all you have to do is sit back and enjoy you new plants this fall, next spring and for years to come.

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Continue Summer Color Straight Through Fall

How are your annuals looking? If they made it this far into the season, consider yourself lucky. If they’re starting to look tired, it’s late enough in the season that, rather than spend money on replacing summer plants, you can change them out for fall annuals.

Chrysanthemums, undoubtedly, pop into your mind when you think of fall flowers. Mums are nice, especially in the striking fall hues that are available today. In mid-August, however, you might consider mixing some bright colored mums in with the more muted fall colors. After all, they will probably be with you for quite a while. If you give mums plenty of sun and water, but not too much of either, you can expect up to six weeks of blooms.

You can have the longest flower display if you select plants with the buds just starting to open. You want to see a bit of color peeking out but not fully developed flowers. You can expect better performance if you select hardy or fall mums. But hardy doesn’t mean that they will last through the winter in our climate. Further south they will but not here.

Many people who buy mums for containerized display repot them as soon as they get them home. Nurseries plant them to present a striking display in the store but as they grow they get crowded. For best performance, repot them into a container that’s twice as big around as the original pot.

While chrysanthemums are certainly the most popular fall flowering annuals, they aren’t the only ones. Pansies and violas rank right up there, too. Fall pansies and violas can be planted in September and continue through October. They can survive fall frosts and even hard freezes. Further south than zone 6, they can survive all winter and bloom into April and May. Here in our zones 5 and 6 it becomes a little tricky because they won’t survive sustained temperatures below 25ºF.

There are several perennials that also provide fall color and grow back every year. They include asters, purple coneflower, yellow daisies and Autumn Joy sedum. These are easy to grow, don’t have to be replanted every year and don’t require much maintenance during the season. Unlike mums, pansies and violas, these fall perennials grow quite tall.

You don’t have to depend on turning leaves to provide fall color in your landscape. As you can see, you have a good choice of fall blooming annuals and perennials. You don’t have to put your green thumb away the day after Labor Day; trips to the garden store can be as exciting and fun in the fall as they are in spring.

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Start Planning Your 2021 Landscape Updates

Hopefully, you’ve stopped to enjoy your landscape on these hot summer days. Now is a good time to begin looking ahead to next season. As you’re relaxing, hopefully, you’re in the right frame of mind to contemplate landscape updates.

There are only two lightweight tools required for the task. One is a camera and the other is a notebook (either paper or electronic). If you keep a garden journal, this is the ideal place for these notes.

I suggest that you take photos and make notes now because your landscape may look the best it is going to all season. Many plants are still in bloom. All are still foliated. You’ll be able to see any deficiencies that have to be corrected. Store the photos in a safe place where you can find them this winter if you’re planning a 2021 project.

There’s also still time to do landscaping this season. If that’s your plan, pour another cool drink, sit on your deck or patio and let the sun generate ideas just like it generates food in plant leaves.

Thinking about 2021 projects while they’re still fresh in your mind and you’re sitting in the middle of your landscape allows you to make notes as ideas come to you. If you need more photos, you’re right there where you can take them.

If the ideas are slow coming or they don’t satisfy you, consider professional design assistance. We have a group of creative landscape designers who can bring your thoughts and dreams to life on paper. And when you and our designer create the design you love, we have landscape professionals who can create the design in your yard.

Having photos of the current landscape “in season” and notes on what you want the space to look like will allow our designers to better understand what changes are required. So often, they get their first look at the space in winter when it’s under a blanket of snow.

Whether you finalize your landscape plan now or during the winter, this will allow us to get your project on the schedule for early next spring so that installation and construction is finished as early as possible allowing you a full “season” of enjoyment.

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Changing Your Hydrangeas’ Color

Hydrangeas are one of the most popular perennials today. One reason may be that the large mop like flowers last a long time without them needing to be deadheaded.
In fact, there is even a cultivar (a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) called Endless Summer. This is a bigleaf variety, also known as a mophead hydrangea.

Flower color, as well as bloom duration, are also features that endears hydrangeas to people throughout the world. These large flower clusters range from white to purple. The most popular colors, though, are pink and blue. Those two colors are determined by the pH level of the soil.

Many gardeners are fascinated by pink and blue hydrangeas’ ability to change color, even during the growing season. People often ask how that’s done. It sounds complicated but it is simply done by manipulating the soil pH.

If your hydrangea flowers are pink, it means that the soil is alkaline (pH of 7 or above), also known as sour, basic or neutral. If the flowers are blue, it means the soil is acid (pH of 6 or less), or sweet. The best way to turn pink flowers blue is to add aluminum sulfate to the soil. If you want to turn blue flowers pink add lime to the soil. You can buy aluminum sulfate or lime at garden centers. Follow the label directions.

Some common household products can be used in place of aluminum sulfate or lime. Coffee grounds, Epsom salts or vinegar can be used to lower the pH. You probably won’t have to worry about changing blue flowers to pink in the Rochester, NY and Finger Lakes area because most soil is alkaline here.

Changing hydrangea flower color isn’t a party trick in which you place a potion on them, say an incantation and your guests watch the color change before their eyes. It takes awhile; the plant has to absorb the material you put on.

People also ask why their hydrangea flowers turn green. It’s a function of age. Green is the natural color of the sepals. As the sepals age the green color overpowers the pink, blue or white color. Thus the blooms fade to green over time.

When discussing hydrangeas there are two other important points to be aware of. Unlike most flowering shrubs, hydrangeas can be pruned in spring because their flowers grow on new wood while the plants we caution against pruning grow on old wood. The second point is that hydrangeas like partial sun, well drained soil and plenty of moisture.

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Got Grubs?

The next generation of grubs has recently hatched. Checking your lawn for these destructive white larvae is easy and can be done before they get a foothold and begin damaging your lawn. Because they just hatched, grubs are quite small. As a result, they don’t have as big an appetite as they will when they grow up.

Photo Credit: Bruce Watt, University of Maine, Bugwood.org.

Grubs are the larval form of European chafer grubs and Japanese beetles, both of which are active in the Rochester and Finger Lakes regions. You may have seen big brown beetles flying around over the last few weeks. You may have even heard them. They tend to fly toward light and smack into windows. Those are last year’s grubs in their adult stage. They are flying around with mating as their prime objective.

After mating, the adults, which are commonly called June bugs, lay their eggs in the turf and then die. Upon hatching, the tiny grubs burrow just below the soil surface and begin feeding on grass roots. To check your lawn, select several spots in various areas of the yard. With a sharp knife, cut a one-foot square section of sod and peel it back.

If June bugs have selected your lawn to be home for the next generation, you’ll see white, crescent-shaped grubs. Count the number in each patch. If there are six or fewer, there is no cause for concern. Seven or more indicate the need for a grub control treatment. When you’ve finished counting, you can just lay the sod back in place and walk on it so it makes contact with the soil beneath it.

Left untreated, the newly hatched grubs will continue to gorge themselves on grass roots until the fall temperatures start to feel more like winter. Then they’ll burrow deeper into the soil to overwinter. In the spring, they will again come up to the root zone to dine until it’s time to pupate and morph into adults.

Late summer and early fall are the best times to treat for grubs. They are small and weak so the control material is more effective. If you wait until spring to treat them, they will be about two inches long and stronger, possibly too strong for the treatment to be lethal.

If you would rather leave grub management to our professionals, we would be happy to do an inspection and treat if necessary, regardless of whether or not you are on a lawn care program.

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Hold Off Fertilizing Woody Plants

Your woody plants, especially shrubs, may look a bit stressed on these hot summer days. Your first diagnosis may be that they’re hungry so you should feed them. Resist the temptation! They may be thirsty but they’re not hungry.

Don’t fall victim to that common misconception that you can feed plants with fertilizer. Plants make their own food through photosynthesis. Nutrients from the air and soil enter into the process, too, and fertilizer replenishes the nutrients in the soil that have been depleted.

Nutrients are carried by water, which is absorbed by the plant roots and carried to the leaves. In summer, water is often scarce so plants slow down their nutrient–laced water absorption until fall. In fact, woody plants’ roots absorb the most water in spring and fall. Consequently, these are the seasons of greatest root growth.

The food they make in the fall is stored in the roots to sustain them through the winter and to break dormancy, flower and leaf out next spring. In spring, the plants need extra energy for new growth. Applying fertilizer in the summer may encourage tender late growth that may not have enough time to harden off for the winter.

If you want to give your summer-stressed woody plants a treat, make it water instead of fertilizer. They’ll appreciate it more, as will the environment and your wallet since you won’t have to buy fertilizer. When deciding which plants to water, start with any young trees and shrubs. They need it most. Some of your other shrubs may appreciate water, too. Large, mature trees have found water so you can skip them unless they look extremely stressed.

You can leave fertilizing to our professionals if you’d rather not have to worry about formulation and timing. Our Plant Health Care professionals will apply just the right formulation when it will be most beneficial to your trees and shrubs.