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How To Choose A Christmas Tree

We all love Charlie Brown but that doesn’t mean your Christmas tree has to stand as a tribute to him. Read these suggestions before buying a cut tree and you won’t be confused with the Peanuts comic character.

The first thing you should do is decide where you’re going to buy your tree. The freshest tree is one from a local Christmas tree farm. At many, you have the choice of cutting your own tree or having farm staff members cut it for you. Even the pre-cut trees at a local farm are usually fresher than those sold by sellers who pop up on street corners or in vacant lots. Those vendors buy their trees from growers who may be miles away and cut their trees months ago.

Make tree shopping a family affair. Before you go, though, do some research on the available species. Fir, spruce and pine are the three most popular Christmas tree species in this area. Douglas, balsam and fraser fir are the main Christmas tree species. Firs have soft, flat needles with rounded tips. Norway, white and blue are our popular species of spruce. Spruce have short, sharp needles that grow thickly on the branches. The most popular pine is white pine. This has long, soft needles that grow five to a cluster. Scots pine, another popular tree, has stiff, short needles that grow two to a cluster.

Before leaving for your Christmas tree outing, it’s also important to measure the space where the tree will go. Measure the available floor space, but also measure the floor to ceiling space. When determining how tall your tree can be, include the angel at the top and the height of the stand in your calculations. Also measure the diameter of the opening in your stand. Reducing the trunk’s diameter to make it fit the stand can damage the tree and shorten its life.

Unless you cut the tree yourself, put it through this battery of tests to check its freshness:

  • Bend a few needles – fresh firs snap, pines don’t.
  • Pull on a branch to be sure the needles are secure.
  • Rap the trunk butt on the ground to see if the needles fall.

Be sure the trunk is straight or its lean will look funny when you put it in the stand. If you fall in love with a tree that isn’t straight, ask the tree farm if they are able to fix it. Some have a jig that they place the tree in and then drill a hole in the base. You’ll need a special stand that they can sell you. It has a pin in the bottom that fits into the drilled hole to keep the tree straight. There is also a tree stand on the market whose base can swivel to make a tree look straight.

Be sure the workers at the tree farm bale your tree to protect it on the way home. When you get it home, cut a half-inch off the bottom and place the tree in a bucket of water. Keep it in a cool, sheltered place until you’re ready to bring it indoors. Put it in the garage a few days before you’re planning to take it inside so it can acclimate to the warmer interior environment.

I like to buy my tree early so I can take care of it, rather then leaving its care to the tree farm people. Don’t be too hasty taking the tree indoors. The warmer temperature could shorten its life.

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Is That Big Tree An Asset Or A Risk?

As Fall continues to envelope us, it’s obvious that winter is not going to pass us by this year. It’s just taking its own sweet time and giving us an opportunity to extend our outdoor season.

If you’ve done all of the winter preparations I’ve shared over the past few weeks, everything should be secured and you are ready to relax and begin planning for spring. Or are you? Have you inspected your big trees, or had one of our Certified Arborists inspect them? This is one task that’s free from weather restrictions. Tree inspections can be done in anyweather.

Even if you want us to inspect your trees, a glance up and down and all around your tree(s) will give you an idea of what to expect. Then the results of our professional inspection won’t come as a complete surprise.

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) has published this checklist to guide you:

  • Are there large, dead branches in the trees?
  • Are there detached branches hanging in the trees?
  • Do the trees have cavities or rotten wood along the trunk or in major branches?
  • Are mushrooms present at the base of the trees?
  • Are there cracks or splits in the trunk or where branches are attached?
  • Have any branches fallen from the trees?
  • Have adjacent trees fallen over or died?
  • Have the trunks developed a strong lean?
  • Do many of the major branches arise from one point on the trunk?
  • Have the roots been broken off, injured or damaged by lowering the soil level, installing pavement, repairing sidewalks or digging trenches?
  • Has the site recently been changed by construction, raising the soil level or installing lawns?
  • Didthe leaves prematurely develop an unusual color or size?
  • Have trees in adjacent wooded areas been removed?
  • Have the trees been topped or otherwise heavily pruned?

This self examination is like a self examination for your own health. If you answered yes to any of the questions, it’s time to call our professionals. Our arborists work throughout the winter, so their season isn’t over. They actually prefer working in winter when deciduous trees are leafless and they can see their structure.

Our arborist may recommend pruning the tree to remove dead or dying branches, or branches that are damaged in some other way. If more than one branch is growing from one point on the trunk, cabling and bracing may be the best treatment. We install threaded rods in the trunk near the point where the multiple stems grow out from the main trunk and cables up in the crown to reduce wind stress and the added weight of snow and ice. We’ll check the root zone for such problems as girdling room and correct that surgically.

In some cases, such as trees with significant rot, we may have to recommend removing the tree for your safety and that of your neighbors.

After a tree inspection, you can enjoy the winter with the peace of mind that you’ve done all you can to assure that your valuable trees will be less apt to cause any damage to themselves or their surroundings.

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Winterizing Your Water Feature

Nothing beats the sound of running water to rinse away stress or to cool a back yard on one of the hot summer days we just experienced. Now, the weather has cooled down and has even dropped below freezing. And, we’ve gotten our first real snowfall.

If you haven’t done so, it’s time to winterize your water feature. The extent of your winterization depends on the type of water feature you have. If it’s a free-standing fountain, for example, you can empty the water, unplug the pump and put it away with your other hardscape items. If it’s a permanent pond, you have to consider the needs of the fauna and flora that live in it.

Your main goal is to prevent the pond from freezing solid. Those with no fish or plants can be covered with an insulating material. If you do have fish and plants, place one or more floats in the water, as many people do with their swimming pools. This will lessen the chance of ice damage. You may also need a floating deicer.

It’s important to keep fallen leaves out of the pond. This can be done with a pool skimmer or by covering the pool with netting. A layer of rotting leaves on top of the pond depletes the oxygen and inhibits its replenishment. This can kill fish and water plants.

You’ll need to disconnect the pump, filter and clarifier. It’s recommended that you store them indoors for the winter. You may also have to store tender plants and even warm weather fish indoors. Hardy plants can survive with only a cut back. Hardy fish can survive, too, as long as the pond is deep enough to provide sufficient warmth and the pond isn’t frozen over completely.

This may seem like a lot of work, but all you have to do is remember the soothing sound of water and the cooler summer temperatures that your water feature provides.

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Keep Cozy This Winter With Nicely Seasoned Firewood

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about keeping your various landscape plants comfortable this winter. Today, I have a suggestion for keeping yourself and your family comfortable.

Nothing beats a nice, cozy, wood burning fire on a cold, winter night. The dancing flames, the crackling sound, the aroma… they all tell you that the cold weather is here. But you don’t have to be cold. Not if you have a wood burning fireplace or stove.

At Birchcrest, we have plenty of firewood, and it’s all well seasoned hardwood. I recommend calling and having your winter supply delivered now, before winter sets in. That way, you can have it safely stored away before it gets soaked. Even more importantly, you can be sure you’re getting seasoned wood. All firewood dealers will begin running out of seasoned wood soon. Some will begin substituting green wood and softwoods.

Seasoned hardwood burns clean and leaves very little soot and virtually no creosote on the inside of your flue or chimney. Hardwood burns slower than softwood and gives off more heat for greater comfort.

Green wood contains more water than seasoned wood. Even if you can get the fire lit, all the water has to evaporate before the wood begins burning. That’s the hissing sound you hear when green wood is trying to burn. Besides its inefficiencies, green wood also gives off water vapor that can corrode the iron or steel parts in your fireplace or stove. As this vapor escapes up the flue or chimney, it can corrode sheetmetal flues and liners, even if it’s galvanized.

Soft woods are loaded with creosote and water. As this material is drawn up the flue or chimney, creosote is deposited on the walls. A sufficient build-up can easily catch on fire. To be safe, you’ll need to have your chimney cleaned more often.

There are some simple tests to determine if the wood you are buying is seasoned or green. Seasoned wood is a grayish color while unseasoned wood is tan. A second test is to hit a piece on a rock or something else that’s hard. Seasoned wood should bounce off and sound almost hollow while green wood will just make a thud.

Our delivery includes dumping the wood in your driveway. For a slight bit more money, our crew can stack it in your garage or another accessible place. Don’t wait to order, though. Our seasoned hardwoods are going fast.

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Leave Your Landscape In The Fall As You Want To Find It In Spring

It would be easy to just go into winter mode at the first sign of fall because the snow will soon cover your landscape and you won’t have to look at it until spring. You may not like what you see in spring, however, and it’ll probably cost you money as well.

Last week, I touched on how brutal winter can be on trees. It can also be brutal on patio furniture and other hardscape items. So be sure to tend to the hardscapes. Move them under shelter or cover them.

Resist the temptation to let leaves overwinter where they fall. When the snow melts, they’ll still be right where they fell so you’ll have to rake them up when they’re saturated with snow melt. And, you won’t like the look of the lawn underneath. Leaves left on grass trap water between the leaves and grass and this is the environment that fungal diseases love. When you pull the leaves away in spring, you may be greeted with big patches of brown or gray dead grass. The only fix is expensive, time consuming renovation.

Waiting until all the leaves fall before raking or blowing them can lighten your fall workload. If you rake before all the leaves are off the trees, you’ll only have to do it again after the last leaf falls.

In addition to removing leaves from your lawn, cutting the grass short for the last mowing of the season will reduce conditions that lead to fungal diseases. We advocate mowing at a cutting deck height of at least three inches during the growing season. For the last mowing, however, you should lower it to two or two-and-a-half inches. Higher grass tends to matte down under the weight of snow and it holds water like a sponge, creating the perfect environment for fungi.

I wrote about winter mulching a couple of weeks ago, so you know that I’m a big proponent of applying up to four inches of double ground wood chip mulch to help insulate the roots of your trees, shrubs and perennials.

Finally, if you didn’t get around to planting that tree or shrub you wanted, take heart. There’s still time. You can plant until the ground freezes. You can also plant spring flowering bulbs right up until the ground freezes.

Do all of the things proposed above and you can enjoy the winter season secure in the knowledge that you won’t be burdened with held-over tasks next spring. You can do normal spring clean up of debris that has blown into your yard over the winter, remove excess mulch and tree wraps, and then go right into your normal spring routine.

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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.