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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.

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Raised Beds For More Than Veggies

Some gardeners have been using raised beds for years but they’re really just coming into their own. In fact, they’re becoming downright trendy for a variety of reasons.

Until recently, raised beds were used primarily for growing vegetables. Some were nothing more than railroad ties that raised the bed up only the height of the tie. Their primary purpose was to define the planting bed or to provide extra depth in which to add top soil or organic matter. Other utilitarian planting beds are simply large boxes made of plywood nailed to a dimensional lumber frame. Both styles did the intended job of providing a defined, enhanced environment for growing crops in the backyard.

As the gardening population began to age, raised beds began to be built waist high with a wide, flat top cap so the gardener could work standing up or sitting on top. Either position could be less painful for ailing knees and backs.

People have been planting flowers in window boxes for a very long time. They must have realized more recently that raised beds are like big window boxes that can hold a lot more plants. Now raised beds can be seen with all kinds of flowers, herbs, mixed plantings and even water and aquatic plants. The raised bed can be lined with rubber pond liner material and planted with water lilies and other aquatic plants.

Look through online garden supply catalogs and you’ll find raised beds on legs. Some even have wheels attached so you can roll them to different locations on your patio, deck, yard or garden. For the rural look, some people began using horse troughs for plantings and resourceful

companies responded by making troughs in various shapes and sizes, and marketing them through the garden supply outlets.

Whether they are on legs or directly on the ground, raised beds function like really big container gardens, giving you plenty of garden versatility. They can define borders, provide accents for in ground planting and even serve as a temporary garden if something happens to a permanent planting bed.

The photo, courtesy of bulb importer and distributor Brent & Becky’s Bulbs, illustrates the ultimate versatility of raised beds. These form a roof garden on their home in Virginia. Clever idea, professionally crafted.

If you think raised beds will be a good addition to your landscape but would like them customized, talk with one of our professional designers. They can create just what you’re looking for, and we have access to some of the most talented craft people in the area to build them and landscape professionals to install them. All you have to do is enjoy them. And glow in the satisfaction of being the first in your neighborhood to embrace the raised bed trend.

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Your Ash Trees Can Survive

Even before our pandemic, ash trees were suffering from their own pandemic. An invasive insect, the emerald ash borer (EAB), had arrived on our shores. It was hidden in packing material but soon made its presence known by decimating ash trees throughout Michigan.

Soon the emerald ash borer had spread to neighboring states. When it made its debut in our area of New York, we were ready. Over the years, we’ve treated thousands of trees. But the owners of thousands more chose not to treat. Most of their trees are firewood today, because that’s the only legal use for infested ash wood. What a fate for the majestic trees that helped make baseball America’s pastime. (Wood bats were traditionally made of ash.)

Your ash trees can survive. Trees not yet infested need to be treated every other year. Infested trees need a professional inspection to determine if they can be saved. If one third to one half of the canopy is still alive, the prognosis is fairly good if the tree is treated annually.

Now is the time to schedule an inspection and treatment for your ash tree(s). One of our Plant Health Care (PHC) professionals will visit your home, conduct an inspection to determine if EAB is present, and if it is, how much damage has been done. From there, they’ll make recommendations.

We use the same material as a preventive and a treatment. It has to be injected into the tree trunk annually as a treatment, every two years as a preventive. At the strength required to be most effective against this prolific pest, the material is only available to licensed professional applicators. We have tried all the products labeled for EAB control but found only the material we use provides sufficient protection.

One reason EAB is so hard to control is that it spends most of its life inside the tree. Soon it will be time for the adults to emerge and mate. The photo shows how small they are. The adults bore “D” shaped holes from which they emerge. The small holes are hard to see from the ground because the EAB lays its eggs at the top of the tree and works its way down in subsequent generations. 

 After mating, the males die. The females bore indentations in the bark, deposit an egg in each indentation and then die. Each female can deposit 60 to 100 eggs. When the eggs hatch in about a week, the new larvae begin boring into the tree, disturbing the tree’s vascular system that’s so vital to its life. Xylem transports water and nutrients from the roots to the crown where photosynthesis takes place. Phloem distributes the food made by photosynthesis throughout the tree.

Preventive treatments can be made for a good, long time before equaling the amount that it costs to remove a dead ash tree and replace it. That’s why I urge you to schedule an inspection and control.

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Spring Bulb Plant Maintenance

Hopefully your spring is being brightened by gardens of beautiful crocuses, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. If so, here are some tips for maintaining the plants so you’ll be able to enjoy an encore performance next year.

Plants from spring bulbs flower only once a year. When the flowers fade and die there’s a tendency to cut them off at ground level. Resist the temptation. Instead, just remove the dead flowers and keep the green leaves and stems until they, too, turn brown.

It’s best to remove spent flowers before they go to seed so the plant won’t waste energy on this process. It’s better that their energy be directed to the bulb where food is stored until it’s needed to grow again next spring.

Retaining the green leaves even after you remove the spent flowers is necessary if you want the bulbs to grow again next spring. The leaves continue to make food through photosynthesis, and sends it to the bulb, where it’s stored until it’s needed to bloom in the spring.

When it’s time to cut back the dead leaves. I suggest you leave an inch or two of the stem sticking up so you know where the bulbs are. Don’t worry about those stubs attracting squirrels and other wildlife. Any animal who wants to feast on your bulbs knows where they are regardless of whether there’s a marker sticking up or not.

New bulbs don’t need fertilizer when first planted. They have plenty of food stored in them but they’d appreciate being fertilized in subsequent years. Some people dig up their bulbs after the foliage dies and store them inside until fall. When you replant them, put a little fertilizer in the hole before you replant the bulbs. If you leave your bulbs in the ground year round, you’ll want to sprinkle fertilizer on the ground in the fall. Don’t use bonemeal fertilizer, however. It’s too much of an attractant for dogs. They probably won’t eat the bulbs but will dig in search of an actual bone where they smell the bonemeal.

If you are one of the few who have such good topsoil that you don’t have to fertilize your other plants, your bulbs shouldn’t need fertilizer either. The role of fertilizer is to replenish essential elements in the soil, not to feed the plants. Plants make their own food through the process known as photosynthesis.

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Some Early Spring Landscape Chores

Is your green thumb itching? Are you having a tough time resisting the urge to get outside and start working on your landscape? Well, it’s too early for most landscaping tasks but there are a few you can do now.

As long as the ground’s thawed, you might start by dividing overgrown perennials, if you didn’t do it last fall. Dig up the whole plant and lay it down on a tarp. Remove the soil to expose the bare roots. To keep your lawn or planting bed clean, keep the soil on the tarp.

The next step is to cut the plant into quarters. First cut the root in half and then cut each half in half. The tool you choose depends on the size and thickness of the root. If it’s thin and hairy, you may be able to use sharp, ratchet pruning shears or loppers. A thick, woody root may require a saw. The best choices are a pruning saw or bow saw. I don’t recommend that any untrained person use a chainsaw.

When you have the plant quartered, replant one section back into the hole where the whole plant once lived. Backfill with the soil on the tarp, tamp down the backfill and water. Plant the other three sections in other beds in your yard or give them to family or friends. Charity plant sales might also appreciate your contributing the other sections to them.

Another early spring task is to remove the extra mulch you spread for the winter. Three or four inches were fine for winter but you should only have two or three inches in spring and summer. Spread the excess mulch in another bed or compost it if you have no other place for it.

If you have ambition left, this would be a good time to rake or blow any leaves you didn’t get to last fall into the compost bin. Two other tasks you can do now are to clean up debris that blew into your yard and check your trees and shrubs for visible signs of insect or disease activity.

Plants that look less than healthy may be suffering from nutrient deficiencies in the soil. A soil test will give you the answers. Most DIY soil test kits available at garden centers only measure the pH – the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Our Plant Health Care (PHC) and lawn care professionals send soil samples to a professional lab, which also reports on all the elements present in your soil. Our professionals use this data to prescribe a fertilization program, if necessary. They can also apply fertilizer at just the right time.

While testing the soil, our PHC pros can also inspect your trees and shrubs for insect or disease activity and present you with a proposal for managing any pests they find.

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How To Join The Lawnless Legions

Are you one of those people who does their best thinking when riding around on your lawnmower every week of the growing season? If so, you’re in the minority. Most people spend that time trying to think of ways to get out of that weekly chore.

Few of us would argue with the statement that the lawn is the most expensive, highest maintenance piece of your landscape. But most don’t do anything about it. Some because they like a lush, green, weed-free lawn. Others because they want their yards to fit in with the others in the neighborhood. And then there are those who just don’t know what alternatives are available.

The idea of going grassless hasn’t caught on in our area of the country, perhaps because we don’t have the number one problem that exists in many parts of the country – lack of sufficient water. We seldom have to irrigate established lawns.

In many parts of the country, property owners are replacing all or portions of their labor intensive lawns with alternatives that are attractive while requiring far less work. Those who want the look of a lawn without the work may plant groundcover or even evergreen moss. The more adventurous may opt for wildflowers or even annual or perennial beds. Front yards in desert communities often consist of stones with cactus and succulents, and possibly a few rocks for accents.

Depending on the species you select, ground cover or evergreen moss may never need mowing. Some species may need mowing once a year. Wildflower gardens need mowing once or twice a year. Annual or perennial bed maintenance varies with what plants are in them.

If you have children, planning your landscape without any lawn becomes a bit more complex. Natural lawns are good, safe playing surfaces for children. The soil usually has some “give” and the grass is soft. This doesn’t mean you have to have to give up on your idea of no lawns. Modify your plans. Only remove and replace the grass in areas where the kids don’t play. They usually play in the back yard, so why not keep that in grass and replace the front lawn?

Removing sod isn’t a particularly hard job but designing and selecting the best replacement for your situation can be intimidating. If this is a project you’d like to undertake but are a bit overwhelmed by the challenge, we have professional designers experienced in developing just what you’re looking for. They would be happy to work with you to create the perfect design, and our landscape professionals can handle the installation. Then all you have to do is enjoy your low maintenance, environment-friendly landscape.