La Nina is giving you an opportunity that you don’t have every winter. That’s a chance to get out and check on the condition of your landscape during the breaks from snow and bitter cold.
When your landscape is buried under snow and the temperature’s freezing or below, I bet you look out the window and wonder what’s going on under that blanket of white. This year, nature is giving you the opportunity to know what’s going on and to repair anything that needs fixing. Just bundle up and go out for a stroll around the yard. Here’s some of the things to look for:
• Debris that has blown in from the neighborhood. Take a trash bag with you so you can easily scoop it up and dispose of it.
• Leaves matted on the lawn. Even if you cleaned up your fallen leaves, the wind might have brought you some more. Lift the leaves up and put them in your trash bag. Check to see if the grass is all matted and discolored. If it is, you probably have one of the winter fungal diseases. Using a flexible lawn rake, rough up the area. The dry period will be long enough to kill the fungus if you’re lucky.
• Tree branches on the ground. The wind may have deposited some broken branches or they may be from your trees. Clean the branches up then look up into the crowns to see if there are any uneven branch stubs or broken branches still hanging in the tree. Any of these conditions indicate that we should prune the tree(s) this winter. Don’t be macho and attempt this job yourself. Tree pruning is best left to our professional arborists.
• Look for signs of deer browsing activity. Look for deer tracks in the soft ground, deer droppings or chewed ends on tender young branches. You may be able to remove lower branches to let the deer know they’re unwelcome. Or you may want to try one of the spray repellents.
• Check the base of your trees for rodent activity. If mice, rabbits and other rodents have begun chewing on the bark at the base of trunks you hadn’t wrapped in hardware cloth or plastic tree guards, take a trip to your local hardware store or home center to get some wrap. Hardware cloth is steel mesh that lets air get to the trunk but not rodents’ sharp teeth. If you don’t protect the trunk(s), the rodent can chew all the way around. Girdling the trunk will sever the vessels trees use to get water and nutrients from the roots to the crown, and this will kill the tree.
• Check your evergreens for any brown spots. Brown spots will indicate that the leaves or needles are losing water. If you didn’t apply anti-desiccant in the fall, we can do it now to protect the plants from further desiccation. If you did apply anti-desiccant, temperatures may have been mild enough to melt some of the material, indicating that you need a touch-up.
• Check plants for heaving. In the case of perennials and other herbaceous plants, you can right them and then tamp the soil down. Be sure to mulch around each plant or, better yet, mulch the whole bed. Fixing heaving trees is best left to our professional arborists.
Walking your property during a winter thaw is good for you and your plants. You get out in the fresh air and take in some exercise. Your plants will receive maintenance in winter when they need it rather than having to wait until spring. Letting some problems go until spring can require more aggressive, expensive work. Last but not least, you’ll have a good head start on spring clean-up, so you can begin enjoying your landscape earlier this spring.
La Nina is giving you an opportunity that you don’t have every winter. That’s a chance to get out and check on the condition of your landscape during the breaks from snow and bitter cold.
What is the new normal? After a topsy turvy year, I referred to Garden Media’s annual Garden Trends report for the answer. I wanted to find out what our customers might be asking for this spring. As in the past few years, this year’s report had a lot of social, as well as landscape and garden trends. I chose to concentrate on the landscape and gardening trends.
Last year, I reported on the growth in demand for houseplants by young professionals who were opting for urban apartment and loft living. This year, houseplants continue to be a major growth factor but for a different reason. People who are working from home are interiorscaping their offices. Also, families are creating garden rooms bringing the outdoors into their living space.
The road to urban living is two-way. While young people are flocking to the cities, families are fleeing them for safety reasons. They believe that they’ll be safer from the corona virus in less populated areas. With so many working remotely, they don’t have to worry about the time and expense of commuting, either.
Avoiding the commute, remote workers now have more time to devote to their families and property. Many of these newbies are trying their hand at both ornamental and edible gardening. The majority are 35 to 44 years old and have more discretionary, spendable income than any other age group. They aren’t spending that money on their lawns, either. They’re actually removing some of those lawns and replacing them with pools and patios, as well as vegetable, pollinator, bulb and cutting gardens.
This group of new gardeners still want some lawn but they also want a bigger variety of other plants. Due to perceived food scarcities, many want to grow their own food, and many will be doing so in raised beds. The report mentions interest in the full range of plant sizes from tiny plants to large shade trees.
One fallout from the pandemic that may temper your enthusiasm is that retailers are reducing the number of products they’re offering. If the big box stores are doing this, your local garden center is apt to also. Don’t let this discourage you, though. Work with one of our professional landscape designers.
A design professional can help the first time gardener make sure the right plant is in the right place, and that the plant and the placement enhance the overall aesthetics of the property. They can help you blend the ornamentals and edibles into a beautifully integrated landscape. After all, even edible plants bear flowers before they bear veggies. The edibles become part of the overall design rather than being stuck in the outback where nobody sees them. Imagine just stepping outside your kitchen door and picking your homegrown tomatoes for dinner. And picking fresh herbs from the containers on the step as you return to the kitchen.
Here’s another way our designer may be able to help. Let’s say your heart’s set on a specific variety of plant. You can’t find it because it’s one of the casualties of the garden centers’ shortened inventory. Our designer may be able to find the plant at one of the countless wholesale nurseries we work with. The designer will also check to make sure your plant will be happy in the site you’ve selected and, if necessary, make any modifications to make it, and you, happy.
Winter recently began. What kind of winter can we expect in this unpredictable year? Knowing the answer to that will give us insight into what kind of tree and shrub damage we can expect. It will also help us to plan our winter work.
It has already been reported that this will be a La Nina year. NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) defines La Nina as a weather pattern that occurs in the Pacific Ocean. It results in strong winds that blow warm water at the ocean’s surface from South America to Indonesia. La Nina, which is the opposite of El Nino, is a weather pattern that can occur in the Pacific Ocean every few years.
These patterns, though thousands of miles west of us, influence our weather and our landscape plants especially our trees. Although La Nina generally means that we can expect a cold, wet winter, at least one Rochester meteorologist has been indicating that we’ll have short term cold snaps, frequent spells of mild weather and episodes of snow to rain and back to snow. It’s also predicted to be windy.
For most of us, a partially mild winter is a good thing. For our plants it may not be so good. Plants don’t like weather that oscillates back and forth from cold to mild. Those freeze/thaw cycles that we take in stride may result in trauma for some trees.
Frequent freezing and thawing can cause the fluids inside a tree to contract when they get cold and expand when they get warm. When these cycles become extreme, the expanding fluids can cause the bark to crack vertically. This is especially true for trees with smooth, thin bark. Frost cracks can become entry points for insects, diseases and rot-causing fungi.
There is no treatment for frost cracking. Healthy trees will form a callous around the wound as a defense against insects, diseases and other pathogens entering the wound. A customer owns the pictured ginkgo tree that he rescued from the trash heap. The tree developed the frost crack in the nursery. It has survived for about 25 years, including one move, 20 years ago, from the customer’s former home to his new yard. We deep root fertilize it once a year and prune it periodically and it’s very healthy.
Freeze/thaw cycles may also result in soil heaving as water in the soil contracts and expands. Damage may be mild heaving of the soil around the tree or shrub’s root zone. More often, however, the heaving will be sufficient to break roots, causing the tree or shrub to lean. In the most severe case, the tree will topple, especially if it’s shallow rooted.
We can often repair soil heaving damage if the tree is just leaning. On a warm day, we will examine the roots and then stand the plant upright and stake it. In the spring, we’ll determine whether the plant is able to regenerate enough roots during the growing season to stabilize itself after being staked for a year. We may opt for removing and replanting it or it may have to be removed. Toppled trees almost never can be righted and have to be removed
Nothing’s as boring to look at as piles and piles of white snow. It doesn’t have to be so boring. Many landscape designs include ornamental grasses, hollies with their red berries, and trees. But the deck or patio still looks bland. Why not use hardscape to add winter interest?
I know you don’t want to expose your good patio furniture to the elements but it won’t hurt to leave unupholstered furniture in place or even set up a winter patio using furniture made of wood or steel. Metal or wood chairs that have cushions on them in summer will look just fine without the cushions when they are covered in snow.
You can pick up some pieces if you don’t have such furniture. Check ads in the local shopping news or an online marketplace. Garage sales may also yield results, as may cruising around the neighborhood on garbage day. I’m sure you can find someone who has what you need and would be happy to see it repurposed. Your winter patio set doesn’t have to be comfortable, just rugged.
Durable garden art, such as certain statues, can be left in place. Wind chimes or garden bells tickle your auditory as well as your visual interests, unless the snow gets too deep for them to work.
Some families like to grill outside the year around. If you closed up and winterized your outdoor kitchen, don’t compromise that serious investment. Instead, buy a charcoal or an inexpensive gas grill for the winter patio. It won’t have all the bells and whistles of the winterized grill but it will give you a taste of summer on a cold winter night. Be sure and get a cover for it. Keeping it clean and covered will help it last for years.
The photo is a customer’s patio in winter. He used to put everything away but as pieces developed a pantina, he began leaving them in place. He protects another bistro set and love seat by placing them in a sheltered corner of the patio out of the picture. They are made of cast aluminum and the wind can blow them away easily. When this picture was taken, he was still putting two concrete statues away for the winter. Now they stay in place.
The table, chairs and firepit are all steel and mosaic tiles. The chiminea is concrete on a steel base. They withstand the weather well and the patina improves every year. Now, instead of looking out over a barren patio of snow, these residents have an interesting view of a southwest style bistro set and firepit, along with a Mexican chiminea and weathered park bench peeking out of the drifted snow. An interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?
This is a time of uncertainty….for the weather as well as everything else in our lives. However, the early predictions I’ve seen indicate that this may be a mild winter with less than the usual amount of snow. The map I saw showed major snow events taking place north of Lake Ontario.
If this long term forecast is accurate, you’ll enjoy the mild weather but your landscape plants won’t. They’ll be subject to ongoing freezing and thawing cycles. Among other possible problems, the roots could heave, destabilizing the plant. In a cold winter, a near constant snowpack insulates the roots , protecting them. In a constantly changing winter, your plants need your help.
Organic mulch is a smart insulation choice for many reasons. Mulch moderates soil temperature and regulates the amount of water that the soil absorbs. While insulating the root zone, the mulch begins decomposing, returning organic matter to the soil. Organic mulch made from chipped and ground wood chips is good for the environment, too. It’s made from waste from our tree care operations. When pruning or removing trees, our arborists chip the brush in the field and bring it back to our facility where it is further ground into pieces of nearly equal size. It is then left to age and begin decomposing before it’s ready to be spread as mulch.
Although it’s December already, mulch can still be spread since the ground hasn’t frozen yet. If the area beneath trees and shrubs, as well as your perennial beds, already have a layer of organic mulch, you only need a top coat for the winter. It wouldn’t hurt to mulch your annual beds, too. As the mulch decomposes, it’ll fertilize the soil so it’ll be all ready for spring planting.
Ideally, your mulched areas should have a layer two or three inches deep. Before calculating how much mulch you need, it would be a good idea to measure how much is left. Dig down into the mulch with a garden trowel until you reach only the native soil. Measure it with a ruler. If the mulch is less than three inches deep, you should consider adding enough to bring it up to four inches.
Be prepared to remove the top inch or two in the spring. During the growing season, mulch should be no deeper than two or three inches. When preparing for the growing season, use the same method to measure the depth as you did to determine how much winter mulch to add. If you have to remove mulch in the spring, either use it in beds with less than two inches or add it to your compost pile.
Mulch is sold by the cubic yard. To calculate the amount you need, measure the length and width of the bed and multiply the two figures together to determine the area and multiply that by the number of inches you have to add to get the volume. It may be best if you calculate the length, width and depth in inches and divide by 46656 (the number of cubic inches in a cubic yard). If you can convert the depth to feet, measure the length and width in feet and then you’ll only have to divide by 27 (the number of cubic feet in a cubic yard). The area around the base of a tree or free-standing shrub will be round, so you’ll have to use the formula radius squared times 3.14 (Pi) for the area and then multiply it by the depth to calculate the volume.
Depending on how much mulch you need, it may be more economical to buy in bulk than in bags. We can dump bulk mulch in the driveway for you to spread, or we can spread it for you. If you spread it, don’t pile it against tree trunks or shrub stems. Leave a couple of inches exposed to discourage rodents from dining there.
This has certainly been a unique year, like no other in our lifetime. As you weathered this challenging time, I hope you were able to embrace the bright spots like the flowers that bloom after a long winter.
As we head into the heart of the holiday season, I wish you and your family a happy and safe Thanksgiving from all of us here at the Birchcrest family.
Snow removal can be dangerous to the health of your landscape plants. Certainly the safety of your family and visitors is the first priority when planning your attack on Ol’ Man Winter but risks to the landscape plants should also be taken into consideration.
Here are just a few of the hazards that can befall your valuable landscape plants after a snowfall:
• Salt Spray. When the snowplow clears your street, it deposits a spray of snow and salt spray. The snow is thrown up by the plow on the front of the truck and it’s, possibly, saturated with salt water from previous plow runs. And, pure salt water is thrown out the back of the truck as part of the deicing operation. Salt can kill grass and damage trees and shrubs, especially young ones, in the path of the spray.
The only remedy for salt damaged grass is reseeding in the spring. Trees and shrubs can be protected by wrapping them in burlap like you would to protect them from the wind or sunscald. Wood A-frame tents are also effective protectors.
• Snow Piles. Trees and shrubs, planted near the driveway, can be damaged by snow being piled up against them. Damage can be caused by snow being
thrown from a shovel or a snow blower or pushed by a plow. A plow is the most powerful and can exert enough pressure to topple a small tree.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer you can take care to throw or blow the snow on the other side of the drive or in such a way as to avoid hitting the tree. If you hire a plowing service direct them not to pile snow against the tree but to pile it on the other side of the driveway.
• Avoid Divots. Perhaps the most common snow removal problem is the appearance of divots in the grass. These usually are from a blade extending beyond
the pavement and digging up pieces of sod along the edge of the lawn. Some may be found in the middle of the lawn.
Of the three most common snow removal methods – shoveling, blowing and plowing – shoveling is the gentlest. You can see and feel the edge of the pavement and seldom venture into the lawn. Blowing is also relatively gentle on the lawn. You should be able to see the snow blower well enough to guide it away from the lawn. Plows most frequently violate that line between the pavement and the grass.
A truck with a plow can’t aim as accurately as a shoveler or a snow blower operator. They put fiberglass poles on the plow so they can locate it and at the edge of the driveway to help their aim but still miss occasionally. Dealing with divots is a price you pay for having someone plow your drive. In spring you can usually replace the divots. If they are missing or mangled, you can reseed very easily.
I’m a big fan of anti-desiccant. That’s why I post a reminder every fall. It’s clean, easy to apply and protects evergreens very well. Best of all you don’t have to wrap burlap around most trees and shrubs protected by anti-desiccant.
Although it’s November already, you can still apply anti-desiccant. Just don’t pick a day that’s too hot (over 50ºF) or too cold (below freezing). It’s a wax like material that becomes too runny in the heat and too firm in the cold.
If anti-desiccant is new to you, let me introduce you to it. Anti-desiccant is sold in garden centers in pump bottles. The best known brand is Wilt-Pruf. Landscape and Plant Health Care professionals buy in bulk and apply it with truck-mounted or backpack sprayers.
Unlike deciduous trees and shrubs that go dormant in winter, conifers and broadleaf evergreens’ life functions continue through the winter, although at a slower pace. Normally, water and nutrients are absorbed by the roots, and are taken up the tree where they become part of the photosynthetic reaction. Water is then given off through the leaves or needles to remove heat from the tree. This is called transpiration.
When the ground is frozen in winter, the roots can’t absorb water, so the plant reabsorbs the water given off in transpiration and reuses it. However, the wind often blows the drops of water off the leaves before they can be reabsorbed. Anti-desiccant keeps the wind from blowing the transpired water away.
Unprotected evergreens branches can develop brown spots, or even turn entirely brown and die when they can’t reabsorb enough transpired water. The only treatment is to cut out the brown foliage and dead branches.
Applying anti-desiccant to one or two evergreen shrubs yourself can be a good DIY project. But I recommend professional application for properties with a number of evergreens, especially large conifer trees. You’ll actually save money over buying all those small bottles. And your hand will feel better than it would squeezing the trigger on all of those bottles.
While there’s still time apply anti-desiccant, you never know when the weather will turn cold, drop below freezing and stay there. Conversely, if we get a January thaw and the temperature rises above 50ºF and stays there, your plants may need a touch up. But it’s a good investment.
Each year at this time, property owners ask for advice for keeping deer from eating their valuable landscape plants. There are no foolproof methods. When a deer is hungry enough, it will eat anything.
Each year, one of our customers puts a container of flowering annuals on loved ones’ graves in three different sections of a cemetery. The only plant he has tried that has any deterrent effect is wax leaf begonias. Up until now, they have lasted all season. This last August, he reported that the two pots of the begonias whose flowers were red were just fine, and they were adjacent to the woods where the deer live. The pot with white flowers in the middle of the cemetery were all chewed off. The moral of the story is that although deer are color blind they are also unpredictable.
The most effective deterrent is planting plants that deer don’t like. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Warren County’s website has the most complete list of deer resistant plants I’ve seen. To review the Cornell list visit
There are also commercial repellants available for spraying the plants. These ideas may work or they may not.
Wrapping shrubs, evergreens and young trees with burlap, will not only protect them from becoming deer food but will also protect them from wind damage. Wrapping is a rather easy process. Begin by driving three long stakes or poles into the ground to serve as a frame. Then attach the burlap to the poles. Keep the top open so light and water can still get to the plant. Because deer can reach nearly eight feet when they stand on their hind legs, the burlap should be eight feet tall or a little taller than the plant. Hopefully, when the deer encounter the burlap, they will go elsewhere rather than trying to remove the burlap.
Deer will eat the tender branch tips on deciduous trees. Bucks will also rub their antlers on the trunk to remove the velvet that covers new antlers. The result is unsightly on any tree but rubbing thin bark trees also results in bark removal, which can kill the tree. The most effective deterrent is plastic trunk guards.
When they’re done rubbing their antlers, the deer may reach up and eat the tender branch tips. For this, you need our arborists to raise the crown by removing the lower branches so none is below eight feet. Don’t compromise your safety and the tree’s health. Let our arborist use their specialized equipment so you don’t have to use a dangerous ladder or work overhead. The arborist will also advise you whether removing the lower limbs will compromise the tree in any way.
While you’re protecting your plant against a big nucience – deer – don’t let the little guys – rodents – swoop in and help themselves. Extend plastic trunk guards all the way down to the base of the tree or wrap the trunk in hardware cloth. Finally, be sure the mulch is an inch or two from the trunk.
When preparing your patio or deck for winter, don’t forget your containerized plants. Plants that have required common care during the warm growing season will need specialized care for the winter.
Plants that are hardy to USDA zone 3 or 4 should be able to survive the winter outside. As a precaution, though, I would move them to a location that is sheltered from the wind but gets a good amount of sun. You can do the same with plants hardy to our zone 5 or 6 but, as an extra layer of protection, wrap the containers in an insulating material like bubble wrap or Styrofoam insulation and place a layer of mulch around the container. Only the container stands between the plants’ roots and the freezing cold, and most container materials aren’t very good insulators.
Speaking of container material, many do not fare well in bitter cold weather. Terra cotta is one material that will break in freezing temperatures. Some ceramic and concrete materials will also break. These containers are usually manufactured in places where cold weather isn’t a problem. My personal preference is faux terra cotta made of heavy gauge plastic. Besides being weather safe, they are lighter to move around than the real stuff.
You’ll have to make other arrangements for more tender plants. Those that are indoor plants just enjoying a summer vacation in the fresh outdoors, should be returned to their indoor home. Plants that can’t stand the extra cold that the winds bring should spend the winter under glass or transparent plastic sheeting. A greenhouse would be a perfect place for them but most suburban properties are too small for another structure. Instead, invest in a cold frame. Cold frames are available at garden centers, home centers and online in many different sizes and shapes using a variety of materials.
Wood and glass cold frames may be purchased in kit form or fully built. You can also build one from scrap lumber you have around the house and using an old storm door or windows to let the sunlight in. You can also purchase temporary, folding cold frames like the one pictured. If you have an annual bed that’s not being used for the winter, you can erect a temporary hoop house.
Super tender plants have to go inside for the winter. This doesn’t mean the garage, either. Most garages aren’t insulated or heated so they’re too cold for the plants. Few garages have enough windows to let in sufficient sunlight, and if the plants are sharing space with vehicles, they will be subjected to carbon monoxide and other pollutants.
If you have a three season room, also called a Florida room, that would likely work as a winter home for these plants. You might have to place a space heater out there to bring the temperature up to their liking. Be sure to follow the published safety precautions if you use a space heater.
No matter where you overwinter your containerized plants, they’re going to need some care. Outdoor plants would appreciate a drink of water whenever the temperature rises above freezing. Those stored inside should be watered on a regular schedule when they get dry, just as you do with houseplants. On a sunny day when the temperature is above freezing, it would be nice to open the cold frame and let them get some nice, fresh air.