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Prepare Your Woody Plants For Winter

The woody plants on your property are, arguably, the most valuable plants in your landscape. Trees and shrubs are big, so we assume they’re strong. Some shrubs seem to bounce back, almost miraculously, from trauma. This makes us think that nature takes care of our trees and shrubs.

There are those who point to forest plants as examples of self-sustaining plants and use that as an excuse for not performing certain maintenance tasks. The truth is, however, that individual forest plants aren’t self-sustaining. They depend on the forest ecosystem to sustain them. There’s great synergy in the forest.

Landscape plants do not have the same support system as forest plants. They often stand alone and defenseless in the yard. Shrubs usually have neighboring shrubs in the same planting bed but they were selected for their aesthetics rather than their synergy with surrounding plants. That’s why landscape plants need our tender, loving care.

Few landscape plants are true species. Most are cultivars or varieties that were bred in a nursery for specific traits. They are about as close to a forest plant as your dog is to a wolf or your cat to a cougar.

That’s why we need to prepare our woody landscape plants for winter. I discussed in previous blogs about adding extra mulch to protect plant roots from temperature swings and wrapping trees to protect them from bitter wind, hungry wildlife and road salt spray.

If you’ve applied anti-desiccant to your evergreens in the past, you know how this treatment protects plants from winter burn. I swear by anti-desiccant. If you only have a few evergreens (both broadleaf and needled), you can purchase this product in spray bottles at garden stores. The most common brand is Wilt-Pruf. If you have lots of plants that need anti-desiccant, it’s more economical to call us. We buy it in bulk and one of our technicians will apply it with a backpack sprayer.

Evergreens don’t go completely dormant in winter like deciduous trees and shrubs. Their natural functions just slow down. When the ground freezes, the plants can’t absorb water and nutrients from the soil but they still transpire water through their leaves as a byproduct of photosynthesis. The wind often blows the water droplets off the leaves before the plant can reabsorb and reuse the water. This dries out the leaves and they turn brown. Anti-desiccant is a clear, wax-like material that coats the leaves to prevent the wind from blowing the water off them while still letting sunlight reach the leaves.

Finally, your trees should be inspected each fall to be sure they can withstand the rigors of winter. This inspection will determine whether the tree will be safe while being battered by wind and coated with ice and snow. The inspection will also identify weak, broken, dead or dying branches that should be pruned before they can cause personal injury or property damage. We will also check for any root damage, insects, diseases or other hazards.

Going back to the pet analogy above, you are responsible for the behavior of your landscape plants just as you are for the behavior of your pets.

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Mulch Around Your Plants To Protect The Roots This Winter

During our hot, dry summer, I advocated mulching your landscape to help insulate the soil against the heat. Insulation, however, is a two-way street. It can also insulate against the cold. So, I’m now advocating mulch for winter.

Mulch can also regulate the amount of water reaching your plant roots. Mulch absorbs some of the water from rain and melting snow and then releases it into the soil over time.

Spread up to four inches of organic mulch around the base of your plants. If you spread two inches for the summer, add a couple more. If you spread three inches, just add another inch.

Remember last week’s blog about closing down your critter café? I warned against  letting the mulch touch tree trunks and shrub stems. In particular, don’t pile the mulch up the trunk in a mulch volcano. Mulch provides the perfect picnic pavilion for little rodents like mice. Also, mulch touching trunks releases its water on to the trunk, rather than into the soil. Any crack, cut or break in the bark can create a perfect environment for rot and other microbes.

When I talk about the benefits of mulch, I’m referring only to organic mulches like wood chips and pine bark. In addition to moderating soil temperature and regulating water absorption by the soil, organic mulch also decomposes and returns nutrients to the soil. Inorganic mulches like stone chips are only decorative and don’t provide any environmental benefits.

I’m particularly partial to double ground hardwood mulch because it’s made from recycled debris from tree trimming operations. Recycling this material contributes to plant health while reducing the stream of waste going to landfills.

If you spread four inches of mulch for the winter, don’t forget to remove an inch or two in the spring. Four inches are too thick for the growing season. Measure the mulch depth before removing any in spring. Some may have already decomposed.

You can buy bags of mulch at garden centers and home stores but that’s expensive, especially for large areas. We can deliver it in bulk much less expensively. We can either dump it in your driveway for you to spread or one of our professional landscape crews can spread it for you.

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Shut Down The Critter Cafe

If you emerged from last winter’s doldrums excited to get reacquainted with your landscape only to find that the wild animals had a feast at your expense, now is the time to take action before this winter.

For the most part, our uninvited dinner guests are rabbits, mice and deer. These pests may stop in for a quick snack in the spring, summer and fall, but they’re regular visitors in the winter when their other food sources are in short supply.

Your first step is to identify your unwelcome diners and then take appropriate action to deter them. Field mice eat tender bark around the base of trees and shrubs. They’re attracted to smaller, younger plants because they are most tender. Mice have been known to kill plants by girdling all the way around the trunk or stem.

Mice don’t like dining in public. They burrow under the snow when possible. When that’s not possible, they often dine at night. Rabbits, on the other hand, aren’t quite as paranoid. They’ll stand on top of the snow and eat bark and twigs. While they, too, tend to be nocturnal, they can also be seen dining by daylight at times.

Deer are probably the most serious problem. They’ve become so bold that they’ll rise up on their hind legs if necessary to reach a tender tree branch. When they’re hungry enough in winter, they aren’t fussy about their diet. They’ll even eat plants you wouldn’t think they could swallow – plants like holly and barberries.

There are a number of ways to discourage mice and rabbits. The most basic deterrent is to keep mulch and snow away from the trunk and stems. This open space will eliminate a hiding place so the animals (mice in particular) feel vulnerable dining at that restaurant. Barriers are popular and directions for making them are all over the internet, The easiest barrier can be made by wrapping the trunk with hardware cloth, plastic pipe or tree wrap. Some barrier directions say to offset the hardware cloth out from the trunk with wooden or PVC frames. There are also many chemical and natural sprays that you can apply. My personal choice is pulling snow and mulch away from the trunk and wrapping the trunk with hardware cloth.

Deer are more difficult to discourage. People try all kinds of deterrents but there’s no one technique or product that is near foolproof. With nature, nothing is foolproof. Fencing may be the most effective but it has to be at least eight feet tall. Netting is said to work on shrubs and small trees. There are also repellents, which can be purchased or made using household items, and deer resistant plants like herbs. Deer love tulip bulbs but not daffodils. There’s also the old method of stuffing socks or panty hose legs with human hair and suspending them over the plants you want to protect. Strategically placed motion activated lights may also work.

This is just a sampling of remedies. There is no one size that fits all. One deer deterrent may work for your neighbor but not for you. You’ll just have to experiment. If you find a way to control rodents and deer, I’d like to hear about it so I can share it with others. Send it to me in the comments section below.

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Kill Weeds Before They Go To Seed

Ever notice how certain weeds like dandelions pop up in spring before almost anything else? Nature has equipped these plants with a very simple mechanism for doing that. They produce seeds late in the season, which fall to the ground and lie latent during the winter. They’re all ready to germinate as soon as weather conditions are just right in spring.

You can short circuit that cycle by killing these weeds and their seeds this fall. Apply a broadleaf weed killer before they go to seed. To be sure there are no latent seeds lurking in the garden or on your lawn, also apply a weed preventer. Some products include both a weed killer and preventer in the same package.

Be careful of what product you buy and how you apply it. Herbicides may be selective or non-selective. Selective products will kill only the weeds for which they are labeled. Non-selective herbicides will kill any green plant. Products like Glyphosate (Roundup) are non-selective so you have to be very careful applying it, especially in flower beds. Spot treat in flower beds by applying the material only to the target weeds. Glyphosate can also be purchased in a formulation that includes a weed preventer.

If you prefer not to use a chemical pesticide, there are natural products on the market. They contain active ingredients like clove oil and vinegar. These products don’t provide long term control, however. They only kill the leaves because the material doesn’t make its way to the roots. There are also recipes on the internet for making a natural herbicide using salt, vinegar and dish soap.

As with any pesticide, it’s important to read the label carefully and follow its directions and warnings to the letter.

If you want to eliminate the fuss and bother of having to read all that tiny label print, you can call us and one of our Plant Health Care professionals will be happy to check your property and take appropriate action to get rid of the weeds and keep them away.

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Fall Planting Includes Dividing Perennials

A few weeks ago, I reminded you why fall is for planting. Fall planting includes transplanting, and dividing overgrown perennials qualifies as transplanting. Most perennials, especially woody perennials, exhibit the characteristics that makes fall the preferred planting and transplanting time.

The same weather conditions that make this such a good time to plant or transplant tree and shrubs also make it a good time to divide perennials and give each new perennial that you create an opportunity to become well established before winter sets in.

If you’ve never split perennials before, it’s easy. Dig up the whole plant with as much root as possible. Shake the soil from around the root on to a tarp. Lay the plant on its side on the ground and, with a sharp tool, cut it in half and then quarters. The tool you use is a personal preference but be sure it’s sharp.

Replant one quarter in the hole from which the plant was dug. Backfill and water the same way you would a nursery-fresh plant. Plant the other three quarters in nursery pots and give them to friends for their gardens, plant them in different gardens on your property or donate them to a plant exchange.

If you have lots of perennials that need splitting but don’t have the time or interest in digging them up and splitting them, give us a call and one of our professional landscape technicians would be happy to do the job for you.

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Don’t Forget That Spring Flowering Bulbs Have To Be Planted This Fall

After the hot, dry summer we’ve just endured, it’s hard to imagine that cold, bleak days of winter are just around the corner. By February and March, we’ll be scanning the snow drifts for the first color of an approaching spring, and the appearance of colorful crocuses pushing up through the snow can signal that spring is coming soon.

Daffodils, tulips and hyacinths will make their appearance soon after the crocus. While these are all spring flowering plants, their bulbs need to be planted in the fall. Fall planting allows bulbs to become acclimated to their new home before the ground freezes and to get a head start on spring.

Garden centers now have displays of every color and variety of bulbs. You can buy mixed packages with different colors, packages in a single color or even single bulbs so you can plant them according to your own design.

It’s a good idea to sketch out what you want your bulb garden to look like before shopping for bulbs. This holds true regardless of whether you buy packages or single bulbs. If you don’t have a plan, you’re apt to be disappointed with the results.

Leave the bulbs in the ground and they’ll re-bloom spring after spring. If you’re disappointed with the garden design after the first blooming, however, you can dig the bulbs up and replant them. Your plan will direct you to where you planted each color. When you replant them, sketch out another plan to show each bulb’s new location.

All you really need to plant bulbs is a trowel, although garden stores also have fancy bulb planting tools. Just thrust your trowel into the ground and pull it back toward you until you have a hole about the diameter of the bulb and twice as deep as the length of the bulb. Drop the bulb into the hole and backfill. You don’t have to put any fertilizer in the planting hole. Bulbs are made up almost entirely of the starches the plants need to live through the winter, push through the soil, leaf out and flower next spring.

Be sure to plant the bulbs right side up. The root side (flat with small hair roots) faces the bottom of the hole. After backfilling, tamp the area lightly to eliminate air pockets and then water the newly planted bulbs.

You can plant right up until the ground freezes but I recommend planting bulbs as soon as you buy them, giving them the maximum amount of time to acclimate.

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My Annual Reminder That Fall Is For Planting

We’ve just been through a summer that was difficult for us and for our plants. Now that the temperatures are starting to moderate and the rain is returning, it’s time for me to remind you that fall is for planting. If you’re planning to add trees, shrubs or perennials to your yard, many are best planted in fall. Besides weather conditions that plants prefer, fall planting also gives them an opportunity to become established in their new location before they have to withstand an unpredictable winter.

There are only a few trees and shrubs that would prefer that you wait. That list includes some slow to establish species, like bald cypress, American hornbeam, ginkgo, larch, magnolia, hemlock, sweetgum, tulip tree and willow. Also, broadleaved evergreens, such as rhododendrons, and narrow-leafed evergreens, such as yews, prefer spring planting. In general, plants with shallow, fibrous root systems can be planted easier in the fall than those with fewer, larger roots. The fall planting list includes pines and spruces as well as most deciduous trees.

I can assure you that Fall is for Planting is sound plant biology, not a scheme by the nursery industry to get rid of their nursery stock that suffered through the hot, dry summer. Many nurseries and garden centers order new plants for fall planting. This year, you should have no trouble differentiating the new stock from the old. If you’re looking for a bargain, you may be able to negotiate deep discounts on the survivors. Personally, I don’t like to do that. I rather pay list price and get new stock.

Right Plant, Right Place, the other arboricultural axiom, holds just as true for fall planting as it does for any other time of the year. You also plant the same way as I’ve discussed in past blogs, all of which are listed by month and year on the right sidebar. If you don’t want to select the plants, haul them home and plant them yourself, call us. We have landscape professionals who will do it for you.