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Weeds May Be Robbing From Your Desirable Plants

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Have you noticed that weeds flourish in July heat? You haven’t noticed? Well take a look outside. Many of your desirable plants are showing stress from the summer heat. Leaves are shriveling, the grass is going dormant and turning brown, and flowers are drooping (unless you’ve kept everything watered). Yet the weeds look green and healthy.

Weeds may be the greenest thing in your lawn. And they are very healthy in your flower beds and vegetable garden as well. The first challenge is to define a weed. Weeds have been described as plants that grow in places you didn’t plant them and don’t want them.

Plants coveted as beautiful or delicious by some people are scorned by others as weeds. Consider the hated dandelion. While most of us labor to eradicate them, others harvest them to make wine or use as salad greens. Pulling out those tall Queen Anne’s lace with their big, doily like blooms is stress relief for most of us but florists actually buy Queen Anne’s lace to use in floral arrangements.

Getting rid of weeds as soon as you see them can reduce the number of seeds they drop, thus potentially reducing the number of weeds that will replace those you’ve just eliminated. There are only two ways to control weeds – pull them out or apply an herbicide. In summer, pulling out is the safer method. You’ll avoid collateral damage to your desirable plants.

The best time to pull weeds is right after a rain while the soil’s still damp. If it hasn’t rained lately and rain isn’t in the forecast, you can water the area around the weeds. Let the water soak in for a few minutes, then tug at the weed. Chances are it’ll be reluctant to come out without a fight. Insert a weed extracting tool or a sharp trowel into the soil at an angle to the root. Use the tool to cut the root at as deep a point as the tool can reach. At that point, you’ve won the battle. Just pull the weed out and go on to the next one.

If you decide to use an herbicide, be careful. If you choose a non- selective product, any overspray that gets on nearby plants will kill them as well. Use a selective product labeled just for the target weeds. Even though the product is selective, be careful to avoid overspray; it can still damage surrounding plants.

Protect yourself by wearing personal protective equipment to shield you from the sun and from any chemical that you’re using. That includes gloves, long sleeve shirt, long pants, eye protection, and a wide brimmed hat.

Weeds are the bane of most people but there actually are people who enjoy and find relaxation pulling weeds. Try it. You may find you’ll be one of them, especially during the summer if you aren’t finding relaxation mowing the lawn.

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Prune Evergreens Now

This is the time of year when it’s best to prune your evergreen trees and shrubs. I’m not suggesting that you must prune them just because it’s June/July. Prune them only if they need it. As with any pruning, evergreen pruning, whether needled conifers or broadleaf plants, should be undertaken for a specific purpose. That may be to shape or thin the plant, to remove broken branches, to reduce its size or raise its crown by removing the lower limbs.

This timeframe is when the new growth is finishing its maturation process. New growth is the lighter green foliage at the ends of the branches. That new growth is also softer to the touch and the new wood has yet to harden. Soon, the new growth will darken and be indistinguishable from previous years’ growth. The buds for next year’s new growth will begin forming in late summer or early fall so it’s best to do any pruning before those buds appear.

Shaping taxus (yew) borders or foundation plantings is probably an annual ritual. If you’re just removing the new growth, don’t wait until the it matures. It’s much easier to prune when the new growth has finished growing but before it matures (turns color). The soft wood cuts easily and cleanly, and the color differentiation is a good guide for shaping. Don’t prune too early, though, or the new growth will grow right back, and you’ll have to repeat the job.

Broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons and boxwoods should also be pruned now. They, too, put on new growth in early spring and are ready for pruning right now. Pruning broadleaf evergreens should follow the same procedures as pruning deciduous shrubs. Prune only at a fork. In the case of tight plants like boxwood, cuts can be made just above a leaf’s attachment to the branch. Cuts on looser plants like rhododendrons should be made at a branch fork or at the base of the offending branch. If you can see a branch collar, leave it rather than cutting flush to the stem or bigger branch. Don’t leave stubs.

Shrubs look better when they have a natural shape, rather than the tight geometrical shapes that result from shearing. Also, shearing may leave ragged cuts because branches may be too big around for hedge shears to make a clean cut. Save your shearing for such broadleaf evergreens as boxwoods. Boxwood branches are smaller so hedge shears will leave cleaner cuts.

Please wear eye protection, no matter what size evergreen you’re pruning. If you’re pruning overhead, wear a hard hat. And, if you are using power tools, wear ear protection, too.

Notice that I’ve only advised pruning evergreen shrubs. Pruning a large pine, spruce or other conifer tree can be dangerous in several ways. You’ll, most likely, need to leave the ground to reach the upper branches. The tight, springy branching adds to the difficulty of working in and around these trees. The needles are sharp, especially if they fall on you, or whip around and hit you. And each cut lets more messy sap ooze out and get all over you. That’s why the pruning of conifers is best left to our professional arborists who have the knowledge, experience and specialized equipment to do the job safely and efficiently.

Our arborists don’t just lend their expertise to pruning trees. They’d be happy to prune your shrubs as well, so all you have to do is enjoy your nicely manicured landscape.

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Diagnosing Abiotic Plant Damage

Not all plant deaths are caused by insect or diseases. Many are caused by humans and the environment. These causes are called abiotic and those attributed to insects and diseases are called biotic.

While biotic plant damage is often obvious, diagnosing abiotic damage is usually more difficult. Some common contributors include…

• Planting too deep. Trees and shrubs are often subjected to deep planting. The hole should be no deeper than the root collar (The point at which the trunk/stem joins the root). It’s better if the root collar is above rather than below grade. Planting too deep makes it difficult for water and air to penetrate down to the feeder roots.

• Planting in too small a hole. While the planting hole should be only as deep as the rootball, it should be two or three times bigger in diameter. Spread the roots out and make sure none are crossing each other before backfilling.

• Girdling roots. When one root crosses another, it chokes the root it’s crossing, causing that side of the tree to die back. If there are crossing roots all around a plant, they can kill the whole plant. Crossing, or girdling, roots are most common in plants that come from the nursery in pots. So be sure to spread out the roots and cut the offending root on either side of the root it’s crossing.

• Mulch volcanoes. Piling mulch up against a tree trunk can cause stress, and even death, to a tree. Mulch volcanoes can trap moisture between the mulch and the trunk. Trees don’t like this, and if there’s even the tiniest crack in the bark, that moisture can carry life threatening rot fungi into the tree. Also, rodents like field mice hide in the mulch while they chew on the bark, eventually girdling the trunk.

• Planting the wrong plant in the wrong place. Some plants like full sun while others prefer shade. Some like lots of water while others hate “wet feet.” Some will only flourish in acid soil while others will do just fine in our basic soil. You don’t have to be a plant expert to determine which plants go where. Just read the nursery tags or ask one of the horticulturists at your garden centers.

• Disturbing the roots. Raising or lowering the grade around the root zone of a tree will put it in imminent danger. Try to avoid this practice but if it’s unavoidable, plan to build a retaining wall if the grade must be lowered or a tree well if the grade needs to be raised. Avoid cutting the roots. If you must excavate near tree roots, hire an arborist with an air gun. It’s friendlier than a shovel or backhoe.

• Soil compaction. I’ve seen people park vehicles under shade trees to keep them cool in the summer. This added weight compacts the soil and deprives the roots of water and oxygen.

Often one or more of the abiotic conditions cited above stresses a plant and the decline makes it a good target for insects or disease organisms. When the plant dies, the owner blames it on the biotic cause rather than the abiotic problems that made the plant so attractive to pests or pathogens.

Our Plant Health Care (PHC) professionals can diagnose abiotic as well as biotic causes of plant decline. The prognosis will probably be more positive if you have your plants inspected as soon as you notice signs of stress, rather than taking a wait and see attitude. Left to the plants natural defenses, it’ll get worse before it gets better. 

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Wear Personal Protective Equipment This Gardening Season

Professionals in the landscaping, lawn care and tree care industries are required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) for safety. While the government doesn’t have specific mandates for individuals, wearing PPE for the job you’re doing just makes good sense.

Some PPE should be worn for health reasons whenever you are working in the garden. Others should be worn for jobs that present safety risks. When pruning shrubs for example, safety glasses will protect your eyes from twigs that may fly toward you when you cut them. Gloves can protect your hands from scratches and cuts from rough wood. Ear protection is encouraged when using power equipment, even your lawnmower. Hearing loss is progressive and creeps up on you, so getting in the habit of wearing earmuffs or ear plugs should begin right away.

Arborists are required to wear helmets when there’s a risk of being struck from above or even from the side and steel toed boots to protect their feet. Arborists also must wear chaps or special pants with Kevlar panels in the front of the legs when cutting wood to reduce chainsaw cuts. Compared to gloves, eye and hearing protection, helmets, chaps or Kevlar pants may seem like a major investment. It is but it’s worth it. But I have a better idea: don’t do your own tree work or use a chainsaw. Leave specialized work like that to the professionals who already have the equipment, along with the training and experience to do the job quickly, safely and correctly.

Although we welcome the sun, it’s also important to take precautions to protect your exposed skin and eyes from harmful UV rays. The problems caused by the sun this summer may not manifest themselves until decades in the future. Sun burn is dangerous at any age and, decades later, can result in trips to the dermatologist twice a year or more, often for periodic spritzes of liquid nitrogen or even surgery to remove skin cancers.

The most important protection from the sun is to slather exposed skin with good sunscreen before you set foot outside and touch it up while working. Always wear a wide brimmed hat. Be sure it keeps the sun from your ears, face and the back of your neck. All these areas are very sensitive to the sun. That’s why a baseball cap doesn’t provide sufficient protection.

Be sure you wear a good pair of sunglasses. They’re more than cool. They may save your vision. The sun’s UV rays can exacerbate cataracts and macular degeneration. Both are very common conditions that appear as people age.

Avoid dehydration. Be sure you take frequent rest/hydration breaks from your yard work. Find, or make, a shady place where you can take frequent breaks. Stock it with a cooler of water and drink every time you rest. Balance problems and lightheadedness are common symptoms of dehydration, and the inability to keep your balance can lead to falls. Something you don’t want to happen when you’re outside alone. 

Whether you reluctantly do outside work or are an avid gardener, following these recommendations will help your experience be safe and healthy now and for decades to come. For us, it’s government regulations. For you, it’s just common sense.

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Keeping Trees Healthy During Construction

Beautiful, large trees are often what attracts potential buyers to home sites. Years after the construction’s finished, though, these owners may begin noticing that the trees around which they built their home are declining and dying. That’s when they call me, a Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA).

The time for that call was when they were first considering that site. Tree protection should’ve begun long before the first shovel of dirt was turned. Trees may be the largest living organisms on earth but they’re still sensitive to environmental changes, especially the upheaval and trauma that construction can cause.

Like all aspects of a construction project, tree preservation should begin with a plan. That plan should address all risks the tree(s) can be subjected to on the construction site and steps to prevent damage. Your consulting arborist is the most qualified person to write that plan. Then it should be presented to the owner, architect, building contractor and landscape contractor for review. If any of them can’t work within the plan, even after negotiating any tweaks or modifications that can be made without endangering the trees, my best advice is to search for replacements who can work within the plan.

The first step in implementing the plan should for the owner, arborist and architect to walk the property. At this time, select the trees that you prefer be saved and those you’d like saved if possible. The arborist should then inspect these trees to be sure they’re sound and healthy. If any on the “must save” list aren’t safe to keep, they should slated for removal.

The architect should then sketch the house’s footprint on the plot plan and the arborist check it to be sure that the home’s orientation won’t cause changes, such as adversely changing the light or wind pattern. This could result in the wrong tree in the wrong place, and a stressed tree can become the target for insect and diseases. It will then be a liability rather than an asset. This problem may be eliminated by just changing the house’s orientation slightly.

Before the first builders enter the property, an area around the base of the tree should be fenced off with bright colored material. The critical root zone (CRZ) for the fencing is one foot out from the trunk for every inch of trunk diameter. Penalties for contractors and others who violate this area with people, building materials or vehicles should be written into the contract.

Heavy weights in the CRZ compacts the soil, reducing the amount of water and air that can reach the roots. Stacking building materials and parking vehicles in the CRZ can also break branches and damage bark. The resulting tree health problems may not become apparent for several years.

Changing the grade near the trees even a few inches can disrupt their life functions. If there’s no choice but to change the grade, it’ll be necessary to build a retaining wall if you’re lowering the grade and a tree well where the fence is if you’re raising the grade. One more precaution: Don’t let the contractors running your utility lines to the house trench inside the fence. They’ll sever roots. Insist that they drill. That’ll move the roots out of the way, rather than sever them.

Trees may be the largest organisms on earth, but they don’t fare very well when the status quo is disturbed. You paid a premium for the lot because of these trees that were there long before you, and retaining a qualified arborist for your team and following the advice presented here will help to assure that those trees will be healthy and magnificent long after you’re gone.

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Creating A Flower Garden

Memorial Day is next Monday (May 30). Originally called Decoration Day, it began in nearby Waterloo soon after the Civil War, as a day set aside to place flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. Today we honor all fallen military members.

Aside from the parades and ceremonies, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of the growing season in upstate New York. It was selected because we can be relatively certain that we’ll have no more frosts or freezes. It’s when you can safely plant vegetables and annual flowers. In the interest of full disclosure, you can usually plant these safely a week or even two weeks before Memorial Day.

Why not use this three-day weekend to plant a flower garden, or gardens, in your yard? I think you’ll agree that color adds life to every landscape. These days you have more varieties of plants available and infinite ways to display them.

You can enhance curb appeal by planting perennial borders on either side of the walk leading up to your front door or on either side of the driveway. Hang baskets of annuals from the eaves or the front porch. Plant a border of annuals around the planting beds containing shrubs. Most of the spring blooming shrubs have finished blooming and this splash of color will add pizzazz to an otherwise monochromatic area.

Other beds can be dedicated flower beds with perennials, annuals or a mixture of both. These beds can be free form in shape. Make them big enough that you can plant enough of each plant to provide masses of spectacular color. Be sure to plant the taller plants to the back and progressively shorter plants toward the front. For planting beds that can be accessed all the way around, place the taller plants in the middle and the cascading look 360 degrees around.

Flower gardens can be any type you want. Consider a wildflower or cottage garden. Refer to some of my earlier blogs and thoroughly research these types of gardens before tackling them. All your flowers don’t have to be planted in the ground, either. Some can be planted in containers and window boxes. They can be planted vertically and in raised beds, too.

I realize that many of you are shaking your heads, thinking this is a nice idea but more than you want to tackle. In that case, I recommend a meeting with one of our professional landscape designers to share your thoughts and then let them demonstrate their creativity. Once you and the designer have agreed on the layout, we have professionals who can obtain the plant material and install your gardens for you. All you have to do is enjoy you landscape’s newfound beauty.

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What Compost Can Do For Your Landscape

Compost is one of gardeners’ favorite materials these days. Garden writers and “experts” believe that every home should have the facilities to make compost. Some even refer to it as black gold. I agree with them, and one of the reasons I do is because compost is free. It’s made with waste products, diverting them from landfills.

Compost is easy to make. You can use almost any organic waste. The leaves that drop in the fall, landscape debris that you prune, flowers you deadhead are just a few of the materials you can compost. You can also add vegetative table scraps (no meat scraps), newspapers and even coffee grounds still in their filters.

Facilities to make compost can be as simple as a big wooden box you can make yourself to various types of commercially available composters. Using a rake, you’ll have to turn the material in a DIY composter. Many of the commercial composters can be turned by a crank. Commercial composters are available at home and garden centers, as well as online.

Compost is cheap fertilizer. It’s loaded with nutrients that plants need, which the compost releases as it decomposes. Compost also improves soil structure, which much of our soil needs. It’s a shame to throw that rich material into the trash and let it decompose in a landfill, when you can use it to grow spectacular plants with minimal effort.

There’s quite a bit of discussion on the internet about compost acidifying the soil. It won’t make our basic soil ericaceous (able to grow acid loving plants). Depending on what you’ve put into your compost, it can move the pH needle a little bit. Evergreen material like pine needles, or oak leaves is particularly acidic, as are citrus peels.

Part of compost’s job is to act as a buffer to keep soil neutral. Ideally, it’s pH should be between six and eight. So, don’t try to make compost do what it’s not intended. Its primary purpose is to return organic material to the soil. It’s a natural source of the nutrients your plants need.

Best of all, you can enjoy all compost’s benefits with almost no cash outlay and very little extra effort. Besides improving your landscape, you’ll also be doing a good turn for the environment.

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Getting To The Root Of Your Tree Problems

As you look at big, majestic trees, realize that you’re only viewing half of the tree. The rest is below ground – the root system. Without the below ground portion, the above ground beauty that we enjoy so much couldn’t exist. So, don’t be surprised when our arborist recommends a root excavation.

Contrary to popular belief, most trees don’t have a giant tap root that descend deeply into the ground. Rather, most roots are concentrated within the first few feet below the surface. And they spread out to the dripline (the extreme edge of the crown) or beyond. The job of some roots is to stabilize the tree while others have the task of seeking out and absorbing water and nutrients.

Roots share the subsurface world with a host of microbial organisms. Most of these are beneficial but a few are not. The latter can be lethal. I’m thinking specifically of fungi that cause root rot. If left unchecked, these microscopic organisms can, eventually, cause the tree to topple.

Beneficial soil borne organisms range in size from earthworms to microscopic fungi, called mycorrhizae, that colonize the roots, extending their reach. Worm waste, called castings, is rich in organic matter, which is returned to the soil. It’s like nature’s fertilizer. Some organic gardeners buy worms to raise in a controlled environment. They harvest the castings and work them into the soil around the base of their plants to provide natural fertilizer. It’s called vermiculture.

As fungi, mycorrhizae have no chlorophyl to manufacture food. Also, they’re below ground and have no access to the sun, needed to manufacture food by photosynthesis. So, they enter into a symbiotic relationship with the roots. The mycorrhizae extend the length of the roots and help them find water and nutrients and the tree allows them to partake of a portion of the food stored in the roots.

Much of the time when arborists diagnose stress in the crown, it’s associated with a root problem.  The cause is mechanical, or abiotic. Girdling root is by far the major culprit. This condition is caused by the roots outgrowing the nursery pot or the planter not checking the roots to make sure they’re growing outward instead of around the tree. It’s very visible as one root grows over another, virtually choking it to death.

A girdling root can be corrected by a simple surgical procedure. However, it used to be more time consuming than it is today. We used to have to dig into the root zone with a trowel, being careful not to sever the many feeder roots. Today, we use a device called an air spade. This tool uses high pressure air to blow the soil on to a tarp, leaving the root structure intact. The soil is then put back in place after the procedure.

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Is Your Lawn Ready For Mowing?

Soon enough mowing your lawn will be a weekly task, so don’t rush it. Make sure it’s sufficiently dry before mowing. If the soil feels soft to walk on, you’ll not get a clean cut and you’ll leave tire tracks in the lawn.

That first mowing of the season should be viewed as the culmination of a series of tasks, rather than the beginning. Your lawn will look nicer if you pick up fallen branches and debris before mowing. If there are leaves on your lawn, waiting for them to dry before mowing will eliminate having to rake them. Instead, you can mulch them when mowing. This returns essential nutrients to the soil, nutrients that you would have to replenish with fertilizer. The first fertilizer of the season can be applied anytime after it’s safe to walk on the lawn. Otherwise, the spreader’s tires will leave track marks just as the mower will.

Weeding before the first mowing will assure that there’s still plenty of the weed’s broad leaves, which is helpful no matter how you go about the job of weeding. If you choose the manual method, the weeds will be easier to see than they will after you’ve mowed off the foliage. Also, you’ll have the leaves and strong stem to help you pull the weeds out of the ground. It helps even if you cut the roots with a tool.

For those opting for chemical weeding, broad leaves give you a good target for broadleaf weed killer. And, you’ll also have a good “handle” with which to pull dead weeds out of the ground. A word of caution though: be sure to use a product labeled specifically for broadleaf weeds. Anything else is probably a non-selective herbicide, which means that it will kill any plant it touches, even your grass.

Wait until after your first mowing to repair any winter damage. Rake out patches of grass that succumbed to the various winter fungal diseases. Then rough up these areas, as well as any other bare spots. Spread fertilizer or compost and seed on those spots, rake it in and water. Keep those spots well-watered but don’t flood them. You’ll probably start seeing grass poking up from the soil in seven to 10 days.

If digging weeds is difficult and the soil is compacted, consider aerating. This is best done before the weather heats up. A specialized machine, which can be rented from equipment rental stores, punches holes in the soil and pulls out plugs of soil. Soil can then loosen up, creating more pores for water and oxygen. This is a job that you may want to turn over to our lawn care professionals because the machine is heavy and cumbersome, and you will have to transport it from the rental yard to your yard and back.

One last tip: set your mower blade height at three to four inches. Your lawn will be thicker and healthier. This will discourage weeds and there will be more leaf surface for the grass to make food through photosynthesis. This length lawn is easier to maintain than one that’s putting green length.

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Celebrate Cleaner Air, Celebrate Arbor Day

This Friday, April 29, is, arguably, one of the most underrated holidays on the calendar. There’s no gift giving or partying. Arbor Day is only observed by schools, service organizations and some communities. But what about families?

Unlike gifts given during popular holidays, giving the gift of a tree is literally giving a gift that keeps on growing, often beyond the giver’s lifetime. Trees can keep growing for hundreds of years. As they grow, they keep sequestering the carbon that’s said to cause global warming.

During their centuries of growth, trees give us the gift of life. They take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and use it in the food making process known as photosynthesis. The waste products given off by the tree are the oxygen we need to breathe and water. This alone should elevate the status of Arbor Day.

It’s fun to celebrate Arbor Day as a family. If you can’t do it on Friday, postpone your celebration until the weekend. Your celebration may be as simple as planting the seedling your child brought home from school or as elaborate as a trip to the garden center to select a tree and then bringing it home and planting it.

For best results, I suggest that you plant the seedling in an appropriate size pot and then transplant it in progressively larger pots for several years until it’s big enough to live on its own. Otherwise, it could get stepped on, eaten by animals or run over by the lawnmower. When the tree grows to the same size as nursery shrubs, then it’s safe to plant it in the ground.

Before going to the garden center to select your Arbor Day tree, select a planting site. When making your selection, read the nursery tags so you buy the right plant for the planting site. When ready to plant, involve the whole family. Dig a hole two or three times bigger around than the root ball but only as deep as the ball. Place the tree in the hole and have someone hold it straight while you backfill. Periodically, tamp the soil lightly as you backfill. This eliminates air pockets. Finally, water well. Don’t stake unless it’s planted in a very windy place.

Happy Arbor Day to you and yours.