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Sustainability. It’s more than a buzzword

The search for sustainability is creeping into all corners of our lives, not the least of which is our landscaping. That’s because living plants lend themselves to sustainability better than inanimate environments.

The Cambridge dictionary defines sustainability as the ability to continue at a particular level for a period of time. Applied to landscapes, sustainability is the ability of an environment to remain diverse and productive indefinitely.

Creating a sustainable landscape begins with you deciding to work with Mother Nature rather than trying to have your own way. She always wins out in the end.

Ground cover is a good, sustainable alternative to turfgrass.

Start your cooperative venture by selecting the right plants for the right places. If the plants are happy with their locations, they’ll grow with minimum maintenance.

Nursery tags on plants communicate their site requirements. Also do some research and avoid those prone to insects and diseases. Often, that means selecting native plants or introduced plants that have adapted well to our area. These plants have also adapted to the water that nature provides, except in times of extreme weather conditions, such as drought.

Turfgrass is, arguably, the most thirsty plant in any landscape. It requires the most maintenance as well. That’s quite the opposite from sustainable, and it’s why an increasing number of people nationwide are replacing all or part of their lawns with beds of less thirsty plants that require less maintenance. Some western states, where water is scarce, have actually paid residents to replace their lawn with more sustainable plants.

When planting new beds or refurbishing existing beds, install plants closer together. This will cut down on weed growth and reduce the need for pruning and the need to constantly replenish mulch. Remember, though, that plants grow so be careful not to plant them too close together.

Be cognizant of companion plants when designing your sustainable landscape. Certain plants grow well together while others are mortal enemies. Check with a horticulturist at your garden store when buying plants to be sure they’re compatible.

Finally, don’t forget the hardscape. Sustainability includes recycling or repurposing hardscape items, such as fountains, benches, bistro sets and statuary. They may need a coat of paint and a new home in a different part of the landscape but that’s better than tossing these items into a landfill and buying new.

Sustainability is quite complex. If you want to modify your landscape with no work on your part, one of our professional designers would be happy to create a plan for the sustainable landscape of your dreams. Do it now, during the “off season” and we can then be ready to install it early in the spring so you’ll have the whole season to enjoy it.

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Who’s At Fault When Your Tree Blows Into Your Neighbor’s Yard?

Trees in the Rochester New York area have had to stand up to some mighty high winds lately. The weaker ones didn’t fare very well against nature’s fury. That’s what has prompted a significant number of people to ask questions about fault and liability when a neighbor’s tree damages their property and what can be done to prevent the potential for damage.

There’s enough interest in the subject for Rochester’s legal newspaper to run a story, recently, entitled, “Timber! Rights and obligations of landowners and their trees”. It was written by Robert Marks, a law clerk with Boylan Code, LLP.

If you want to read all the case law and legal decisions cited in the story, you can read it Here. I’m more interested in how you can minimize the chance of one of your trees causing damage to your neighbor’s yard.

Your trees are your responsibility. If they damage your neighbor’s property, you may be financially responsible. Mr. Marks writes that the tree owner needs to have “actual or constructive” knowledge of the tree’s condition in order to be responsible. How can a tree owner know that a tree has structural problems? By having it inspected by a certified arborist. Why would you want to spend money to protect your neighbor’s property? Depending on wind direction, the failed tree could damage your property instead of the neighbor’s.

Suppose your neighbor’s tree is hanging over your yard, dropping debris on your pool or lawn. Or it’s so dense it blocks sunlight and your grass won’t grow. You are within your rights to trim the tree back to the lot line, as long as you don’t do anything that will put the tree’s life in jeopardy. However, you can’t go on to your neighbor’s property to do any trimming.

Do-it-yourself remedies may be satisfying to you but also dangerous – both physically and legally. Physically because you may get hurt doing the trimming, legally because you may inadvertently land in trouble with the law. My advice is to try to work out your differences with your neighbor, possibly splitting the cost to have it trimmed to your mutual satisfaction. If that doesn’t work, have us trim back the overhang on your side. We’ll do it professionally and legally.

If the offending tree is on the lot line, a whole different set of rules apply. A lot line tree is owned by both neighbors, regardless of who planted it, and both have to agree on any maintenance procedures. This is also the case for a tree that one of you planted on your side of the line that has now grown to straddle the line.

So, the short answer to the title question is that old stand-by – It depends. You have legal, ethical, safety and aesthetic questions that need to be answered first.

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How To Keep Your Thumb Green This Winter

I just saw a Facebook post that read, “A garden and a book. That’s all I need.” How true! With the days getting shorter and the temperatures dropping, this is a good philosophy to have if you’re a gardener.

Winter isn’t the best season of the year for those who like the feel of dirt under their nails. Things aren’t as gloomy as you might think, though. While winter is a naturally “blue” season, you can brighten it up while still taking it easy during the “off season.”

I would guess that you probably spent all your spare time in the spring, summer and fall tending to your outdoor plants. This would be a nice opportunity to spend some quality time with your houseplants. It’ll keep your green thumb limber in the warm comfort of your home. Your houseplants will certainly appreciate that and won’t feel so much like second-class citizens.

Nothing beats relaxing in front of a nice, warm fire and reading a good book to take the chill off a cold, winter night. Make that book a garden book. There are plenty of good, garden-themed books, both fiction and non-fiction. If you browse through a bookseller’s electronic and brick-and-mortar inventory and find nothing interesting, go back and read garden books you read 10, 20 or more years ago. Take it from me, enough time has passed that you’ll learn new things that you either forgot over time or missed on the first read.

Winter is when you get ideas for the upcoming landscaping season. When you want a break from reading books, check out landscape or gardening magazines. These are great sources for ideas.

Winter would also be a good time to take a landscape or gardening course. Check out those at the Rochester Civic Garden Center (rcgc.com) or Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County (monroe.cce.cornell.edu/) or the county you live in.

Most communities have garden clubs. Visit one of their meetings and see if it’s an organization you’d like to belong to. A regional bi-monthly magazine, Upstate Gardeners Journal (upstategardenersjournal.com), lists contact information for many of these organizations in the Calendar section of each issue. This section is also loaded with garden-related programs put on by the various clubs and organizations.

Depending on the weather, you may be able to get outside and do a bit of landscape care over the winter. If the temperature is above freezing and the precipitation is less than normal, tender plants, young trees and shrubs, and those plants overwintering in your cold frame will appreciate a drink of water. If we have a warmer than usual winter, your evergreens may need another anti-desiccant application.

Winter doesn’t have to be a hibernation period. There are plenty of landscape and gardening related things to keep you busy and your green thumb active.

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Protecting Your Landscape From Snow & Ice

Our recent snowfall should act as a warning that winter really is coming soon. However, it’s still possible to protect your landscape while also keeping your family and visitors safe this winter. When the snow begins piling up, that’s not the time to have the work done. Many winter preparation projects should have been done weeks or even months ago.

Here is a list of things to keep in mind as winter descends upon us:

• When shoveling or blowing snow, don’t let it pile up on planting beds, especially those with shrubs in them. Instead, spread the snow evenly across the beds.

• Piling snow against trees will provide cover for critters to eat the bark and will apply pressure to one side of the tree. This could eventually lead to failure. Instead, keep snow approximately six inches away from the trunk, as you do with mulch.

• Use sand, kitty litter sawdust or ashes rather than salt for traction on sidewalks and driveways. Salt can kill grass and damage the soil in flower beds. Traction is the goal, melting the ice is a bonus.

• Beating on tree or shrub branches to remove snow or ice can damage the plant. Branches are brittle in the winter; if you start whacking on them, you may break branches. This will leave the plant vulnerable to insects and disease. The best thing to do is to let the ice and snow melt naturally.

• Leaving fruit on the ground around fruit trees can attract insects and diseases. You should gather up any fallen fruit and put it in the compost bin.

Follow these recommendations and you’ll protect both your family and your landscape.

Have a good winter.

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Winter Mulching

We advocate mulching around the base of your plants all year round but it’s even more important in the winter.

Mulch moderates soil temperatures, reducing the impact of temperature swings on plant roots. These swings are year round considerations. In spring, summer and fall, however, temperature swings aren’t as significant as they are in winter. They fluctuate only a few degrees in a 24 hour period. In winter, that fluctuation can be much greater and plant roots don’t like these wide temperature changes, especially those that drop from warm to below freezing.

Plenty of organic mulch like wood chips will minimize the effect of temperature extremes on your plants. During the spring, summer and fall, two to a maximum of three inches of mulch are sufficient. Any more is too much. In winter, however, three or four inches are preferable.

As you prepare your yard for winter, start by fluffing up the mulch already in place. Using a leaf rake, fluff it up similar to the way you would mashed potatoes or rice. Once the existing mulch is fluffed, you can measure its depth with a yardstick. Add enough new mulch to bring the depth to four inches; no more. Moisture still has to soak through the mulch to reach the plant roots. And, remember – don’t pile the mulch up against the tree trunk. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, that traps moisture between the bark and the mulch and provides a good breeding ground for microbes. It also helps camouflage small mammals that may want to dine on the bark.

Remember to remove any mulch over three inches in the spring. Look at mulching like placing a coat on the root zone of your plants. In winter, you need a heavier coat; in spring, a lighter coat will do fine.

I specified organic mulch because it does double duty. Besides protecting your roots in the cold weather, wood chips and other organic mulches will decompose and return nutrients to the soil. Decorative mulches like stone won’t do that. It doesn’t decompose. Besides, stone mulch is cold to the touch so it won’t moderate the soil temperature as effectively as wood.

If you don’t care for shoveling, hauling and spreading mulch, we have landscape professionals who would be happy to do these jobs for you before winter settles in.

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Fall Clean-Up

Spring clean-up is a traditional transition from winter into spring but we seldom think about fall clean-up. We do the tasks that need to be done but don’t label them. Perhaps that’s because, in spring, we’re anxious to get outdoors and begin doing things in the yard but we aren’t anxious for what follows fall.

If you go into winter with a nice, clean landscape, you’ll have less cleaning to do in the spring. You’ll still have some cleaning to do but only the debris that accumulated after your fall clean-up.

Since you may never have made a fall clean-up list, here’s a checklist:

• Clean up all trash that has blown on to your property.
• Remove dead stems and leaves from perennials and 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 this season.
• Prepare your lawn mower and other power tools for winter storage, following the manufacturers’ instructions.
• Put your deck or patio furniture in storage.
• Bring 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.

As you can see, the fall list is longer than the spring list. Some items may not apply to everyone but I included everything as a reminder where applicable. If this looks like a daunting task, we have trained landscape professionals who will make short work of it.

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What Frost Means For Your Landscape

Meteorologists are talking about frost. That means winter can’t be far off. But what is frost and what does it mean for your landscape? Frost is ice crystals that form when the temperature dips down near freezing. When it’s warmer, we call this moisture dew.

The official frost temperature is 36°F. When the temperature reaches 32°F, it’s a freeze. Frost and freeze warnings are issued so you can take appropriate action to protect your plants, especially those that are very tender. The most serious are killing frosts – those that are actually freezes. They are cold enough to kill all but the hardiest plants and signal the end of the growing season.

At the first warning, your tender, container plants should be brought inside, even if just in the garage for the night. Don’t worry if there are no windows in the garage. It’s dark outside, too. You can take them back outside in the morning. By this time, you should have decided what to do with these plants for the winter. The choices are to bring them indoors, put them in a greenhouse or in a cold frame.

If your vegetable garden still has ripening crops in it, these plants should be covered for the night. Failure to do so will surely result in dead plants in the morning. Any flowering annuals will likely be dead in the morning, leaving you with the task of removing them and throwing them in the compost pile.

Be sure to wrap tender trees and shrubs with burlap. This is primarily to shelter them from buffeting winds and road salt spray. The wrapping may also be sufficient to raise the temperature inside enough to prevent frost from forming. The best practice, however, is to not gamble and plant trees and shrubs that are rated for a zone or two colder than ours.

Mother Nature is in control. There’s no changing her mind but there are opportunities to protect those plants that may be damaged by her fury. Heed these tips and be happy.