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Spring Cleanup – Preparing For The Growing Season

The growing season is almost upon us. It officially begins on Memorial Day, which is just over a month away. Many people are outside working on their landscapes much earlier.

Newly Planted Tree 2Now is a good time to begin planting trees and shrubs, but I recommend waiting until Memorial Day to plant temperature sensitive plants. We could have a late frost or freeze that will wipe out all of your hard work. That doesn’t mean you can’t get everything ready during the next month, though.

As soon as the soil is firm enough in your beds, you can remove any extra mulch you added for the winter. If the beds are slow to dry out, rake the mulch to the edges of the beds to let the soil beneath it dry. Then rake back just the summer thickness of mulch. Don’t be alarmed if you only have enough mulch for the summer depth. Some mulch may have decomposed over the winter or it may have simply sunk into the wet soil.

When your lawn’s soil is dry enough to hold your weight, so you won’t leave footprints in the grass, then it’s safe to walk on and to prepare for the season. It may not be firm enough, or long enough, to mow yet. You can, however, fertilize, spread pre-emergent weed killer, overseed and pull weeds.

You can save time by dragging a garbage bag or other container along as you do these tasks and pick up any trash you find along the way. That way, you won’t have to go on a walk around the yard just to pick up trash. If you picked up trash on nice winter days, you shouldn’t have much to pick up now.

I don’t think spring cleanup ranks at the top of anyone’s list of favorite landscape jobs. Combining it with more pleasant jobs, as I’ve proposed above can make it more tolerable. If you’d rather just enjoy your landscape without doing any of the jobs above, we have landscape professionals who can do these and any other landscape maintenance job you’d like them to do.

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Arbor Day 2021

One of the oldest environmental observances will take place all over America on Friday, April 30. That’s when we observe the 149th Arbor Day. The first was held in Nebraska in 1872, and soon, each state scheduled Arbor Day during the best time to plant trees in that state. Since 1970, the last Friday in April has been recognized as National Arbor Day.

J. Sterling Morton is credited with the birth of Arbor Day. When Morton, a newspaper editor and politician, moved from Illinois to Nebraska City in the Nebraska territory, he was surprised by the lack of trees, and set out to change that. One million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872.

Arbor Day can be a real teaching moment for families. Sometimes schools observe the day by sending a tree seedling in a styrofoam cup home with each student. Some get planted and some don’t. Some get planted in the back yard with no protection around them and fall victim to the lawn mower. This year, hybrid and remote learning programs may cause cancellation of this tradition.

If your child brings home a seedling, I suggest planting it in a container to give it a better chance of surviving. Find a container that’s big enough to hold all the roots. Don’t pick one that’s too big or weeds will grow in it and use up all the nutrients you want for the tree. Some seedlings may be small enough for a 4” nursery pot. Other seedlings may need a bigger container but I doubt if any will need one larger than one gallon.

To plant the tree, put some potting mix in the bottom of the pot. Then have someone hold the tree up in the pot so the roots are just below the top of the pot. Fill with potting mix all around the tree roots. Then push down on the soil until the tree stands up on its own. Be careful not to compact the potting mix and don’t plant the tree too deep. Finally, water well.

Trees aren’t houseplants. They have to live outside, so place it on the deck or patio, or in one of your planting beds. Keep it watered. For the winter, find a spot that’s sheltered from the wind but still gets sunlight. Wrap the pot in bubble wrap or other insulating material and put plenty of mulch around the pot. Each spring, transplant it to a bigger pot until it’s big enough to join the other trees in your yard and still survive.

If you don’t get a seedling, you can schedule a family outing to your local garden center to buy a sapling or larger tree and plant it in the yard together as a family. Dig a hole two or three times wider than the root diameter but only as deep as the rootball. Remove the tree from its pot before placing it in the hole and backfilling. If it’s balled and in burlap, put the tree in the hole and cut the string or wire holding the burlap in place but leave the burlap. It’ll rot away. Backfill being careful not to plant the tree below grade level. Tamp down the backfill and water well. Don’t stake unless it is in a windy area.

When selecting your tree, be sure it’s the right tree for the place you’re planning to plant it.

Regardless of how you observe it, have a happy Arbor Day.

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Emerald Ash Borer Still Killing Trees

You might call the emerald ash borer (EAB) the invisible killer. That’s because they spend most of their life inside your stately ash trees. When the adults finally do emerge, they ‘re smaller than a penny and only live long enough to mate and start the next generation on its path of destruction.

EAB On Penny (LR)

Photo: Howard Russell, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

High up in the tree the females carve out indentations in the bark of the tree and deposit one egg in each. Each female can deposit 60 to 100 eggs. They hatch in about a week and the youngsters immediately begin boring galleries into the tree’s phloem, where they eat the food the tree has made through photosynthesis. The EAB starts its destruction at the top of the tree, which is why trees die from the top down.

With treatment, that beautiful ash tree growing in your yard can fend off this tiny attacker. Without treatment, it’s doomed. Unlike some insects, the EAB isn’t drawn to weak or distressed trees. They like them all, as long as they’re ash trees. Granted, it would be cost prohibitive to treat a forest of ash trees but it’s a very good investment to treat that specimen in your yard, and you can have it treated for decades for the cost of removing and replacing it after it succumbs to the EAB.

We have looked into all of the control products on the market and have found only one that we consider to be truly effective. This product is injected directly into the tree trunk near the base. Trees that haven’t been attacked by the EAB only need one treatment every two years. Control may be achieved on trees that have been attacked but only if the destruction is limited to a quarter to one third of the tree. These trees have to be treated annually.

The product we use can only be applied by New York State Certified Pesticide Applicators. I wouldn’t apply anything else to my own trees. It’s just not strong enough. Ash trees are beautiful trees that deserve all the help we can give them to survive.

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Spring Color After Bulbs

Flowering bulbs are the first to announce the pending arrival of spring. The crocuses are the first to peek out, often through the snow. They’re followed by daffodils, then tulips and hyacinths. Then what? Many people go back to late winter drab until shrubs like lilacs and forsythia flower. It’s too early for most annuals.

It may be too early for most annuals but not all of them. There’s a group of cool weather annuals that can take up the slack. Around here, the most popular of that group is, arguably, the pansy. Even at the southeast entrance to Highland Park, at the corner of South Goodman Street and Highland Avenue, visitors are greeted by a sea of color from the pansy bed. When Mother Nature delays the lilac bloom, the pansies still come through.

Containers on Stoop (NJ)Pansies are in the viola genus, as are violets, which also are cool weather species. Marigolds and snapdragons are popular early spring flowers, too. Additionally, the 70 species in the Nemesia genus can be planted locally. So, you have a wide choice of plants to provide post bulb color to your landscape.

It’s recommended that you plant these cool weather annuals in containers. You don’t know what kind of weather we’ll have this spring so it’s not a good idea to work in your planting beds until you can squeeze a handful of soil that will be damp, but no water will run down your arm. The containers will look nice on your patio, deck or porch. Or even in your planting beds.

If you do place containers in your beds, place them near the edge so you don’t have to disturb the wet soil in the bed. They may not want to stand up in the wet soil. They could sink or tip, so put them on a platform of flagstone, bluestone or wood. In addition to keeping the containers upright, a platform will also keep them cleaner than standing them in soil.

Most gardeners have their own potting technique. The most common potting method is to place potting mix directly in the decorative container and plant the flowering plants in the mix. The drawback to this method comes if you plan to change the plants out for warm weather annuals later in the season. You’ll then have to empty the container, wash out the inside and sanitize it with bleach before refilling it with potting mix and planting the new plants.

An easier method is to buy your cool weather annuals in nursery pots that will slide right into your decorative container. When you’re ready to change them out, buy your warm weather annuals the same way and make the swap. If your garden center sells the flowers you want only in six packs, ask them if they’ll pot them for you in nursery pots. Some will and some won’t. Shop around until you find one that will.

If you can’t find a garden center that will pot up your plants, it’s still easier to pot your purchases in nursery pots than decorative containers. If you don’t have a collection of different size nursery pots at home, shop the garden centers and landscape companies. You’re sure to find someone who will give them to you or sell them to you for a half a buck or less

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Kill Lawn Weeds Before They Appear

Few things are more frustrating than having a lawn full of weeds before the grass is high enough to mow. That doesn’t have to be. You can apply pre-emergent weed killer now, while the weed seeds are still dormant.

You may be familiar with pre-emergent crabgrass killer. Applying this pre-emergent is really the only way to control the highly invasive crabgrass. There is no effective post-emergent product for crabgrass. For broad leaf weeds like dandelions, both pre and post emergent products are available. So, it’s easy to spread both crabgrass and broadleaf pre-emergents at the same time.

Like annual flowers, weeds drop seeds to the ground before frosts and freezes kill off the plants. I believe Charles Darwin referred to that as survival of the fittest. And when it comes to strength, weeds are stronger than grass, or any desirable plant, it seems.

Applying pre-emergent will prevent the seeds overwintering in the soil from germinating but it’s not one and done. Once untreated seeds from the neighbors’ yard or the side of the road begin blowing some are sure to take up residence in your lawn.

One way to reduce the opportunity for weeds to set down stakes in your lawn is to be sure it’s nice and thick. If your lawn has thin spots, or you can see soil through the turf, overseed it with a good, hardy seed mix. Weeds are adventitious plants. They’ll germinate in a spot where they have the least competition from other plants. Thick turf discourages weeds from trying to compete.

To overseed, rough up the soil with an iron rake. If you typically fertilize your lawn, spread fertilizer and then seed. Go over the overseeded areas with your rake, again to be sure the seed and fertilizer are worked into the soil. Then be sure it receives at least an inch of water a week, either from rain or irrigation. While doing the overseeding, pull any weeds that you come across before they get a foothold.

If you’re a Birchcrest lawn care customer, you’ll receive pre-emergent crabgrass and broad leaf weed treatments. We also offer this service on an ala carte basis. Our lawn care professionals would be happy to help you achieve a weed-free lawn.

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Cut Back Ornamental Grass

Spring is here. Your ornamental grass has done its thing. It provided texture and color poking above the snow. Now it’s time to press the refresh button…figuratively of course.

The ornamental grass that graces your yard today is dead, thus the yellow or tan color. In order to repeat the show Frost editednext winter, the dead grass has to be cut to allow a new crop of green ornamental grass to grow. And now’s the time to do it.

Your new crop will grow best if the old is cut as close to the ground as possible. Usually, that means three or four inches. You might notice new, green blades starting to show themselves among the yellow or brown stubble after you’ve trimmed away last year’s crop.

The tools available for the job are numerous. Just pick the one that you feel safest using. Most people choose either power or manual hedge trimmers. These are great for large plantings of ornamental grass. Hedge trimmers cut wide swaths relatively level.

If you don’t have a pair of hedge clippers and are going to buy them, I recommend that you shop both power and manual models. While the natural tendency is to go right to the power tools, they can be heavy and awkward to use. Gasoline powered models are the heaviest, followed by battery powered models and corded electric models. With corded models you also have be aware of where the cord is at all times so you don’t cut it.

If you have had unpleasant experiences using old fashioned steel blade, wood handled manual clippers, be sure to check out the new ones on the market today. They have lightweight alloy blades and fiberglass handles. Be sure and try one with a geared pivot point. The old fashion models consist of the two blades held together with a pivot bolt. Today’s higher quality models have a gearing mechanism. Open them up and you can see the gearing. These are lighter weight and easier to use than even the best power unit, especially for a homeowner who only uses them once a year to cut ornamental grass.

Loppers can also be used, especially if you only have a small patch to cut. Loppers are like extended reach pruning shears. Neither is very practical for a large patch. They take small cuts and the top won’t be perfectly flat. A string trimmer can be used but it scatters the clippings, making clean-up harder. Don’t even think about using a chainsaw. Besides the saw being dangerous, the grass stalks are too flexible for a good cut. This can lead to an accident waiting to happen.

If you have to cut down a patch of ornamental grass, I’d suggest investing in lightweight, geared, manual hedge clippers. Whatever you use, though, the time to do it is now. If you wait too long, you’ll be cutting off green stalks, reducing the number of yellow or brown color next winter. And isn’t that the reason you planted ornamental grass?

If you don’t have the time or the interest to do it yourself, we have landscape professionals who would be happy to do it for you.

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Why Your Spring Bulbs Haven’t Bloomed

Your spring bulbs – crocuses, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths – are starting to bloom. If yours haven’t appeared yet, it may be for one of the reasons listed below.

If your bulbs have bloomed in previous years but not this year, here are some causes:

• Did you cut them back to the ground after they bloomed last year? Removing green leaves when you remove spent flowers takes away the plants’ food making machines. When first planted, the bulbs had plenty of stored food. They used that food to bloom and leaf out in their first spring. It’s OK to remove flowers when they’re finished but keep the leaves on as long as they’re green. They’re making food through photosynthesis and storing it in the bulbs. The time to remove leaves is when they turn yellow.

• Did you fertilize them last year? You didn’t have to fertilize when you first planted the bulbs, but they need fertilizer in subsequent years. The time to fertilize is after the flowers are spent and the leaves are still green.

• Bulbs are naturally annuals in our climate, but many varieties have naturalized and now are perennials. You may have purchased an annual variety by mistake. Read the package to be sure you’re buying naturalized varieties that will bloom year-after-year.

• Check the bed to see if hungry animals dug them up for dinner.

If you just planted bulbs last fall and they don’t come up this spring…

• Check first for disturbed soil, which would indicate that an animal got to them.

• If the soil isn’t disturbed, dig up the bulbs to be sure they’re planted right side up. The pointed end should be facing upward and the hairy, root end should point downward. Orient them correctly and they should grow next year.

• When you have the bulbs exposed, check to see if they’re waterlogged and if the hole is too damp. If so, you’ll have to relocate the bulbs to a drier location.

Spring bulbs require little maintenance once they’re planted. Follow these simple suggestions and you will enjoy a sea of color next spring and for many springs to come.

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Be Aware – The 17 Year Cicadas Are Coming

This year, 2021, a natural phenomenon will occur that you can either marvel at or be scared of. It’s the return of the 17-year cicadas. This insect is commonly known as the 17- year locust but they aren’t even related to the locust. It’s thought that they received that misnomer because they were associated with the plague of locusts in the Bible.

Even the term 17-year cicada is incorrect, according to Michael Raupp, PhD, professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland. In a recent magazine article, Dr. Raupp refers to them as periodic cicadas because some take only 13 years to mature. He also notes there are more than one species of this insect. There are four species of 13-year cicadas and three species of 17-year cicadas.

Periodic Cicada: Photo by Chris Evans, University of Illinois, Bugwood.org

When we talk of them coming, that won’t be from afar like the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie. In fact, if you didn’t have any in 2004 or 2008, you probably won’t have them now. They don’t go away for all those years. They’re living below the ground at the base of the tree(s) they occupied on their last visit.

For 13 or 17 years the immature nymphs live up to a foot below ground, feeding on plant roots. They go through five growth spurts, or instars. At the end of the fifth instar, they come to the surface, shed their exoskeleton and expand their wings. When their new adult exoskeleton hardens, thousands, even millions, of periodic cicadas take off all at once.

Dr. Raupp believes this swarming is for survival. Many predators like to feast on the periodic cicadas. (Some humans like them, too.) Emerging in huge swarms assures that, while many will fall prey to their hungry predators, they will overwhelm the enemy and a sufficient number will survive to reproduce.

If you’ve ever experienced periodic cicadas, you’re familiar with the din that comes forth from the trees hosting them. That noise is mating calls from the males wooing the females with their earsplitting choruses.

The females have a sharp appendage, called an ovipositor, with which they slit tender young twigs high in the crown of the tree, and deposit 20 to 30 eggs in each slit. Dr. Raupp says each female can lay up to 600 eggs. The slits in the twigs cause the tips of the branches to die.

Dr. Raupp cited research in which some trees were treated with chemicals and others with netting of various densities. The bottom line was that the only effective control was one centimeter netting. This is impractical for large shade trees, but those trees are big enough to survive. We may have to prune the dead branches, however. Small, young trees and fruit trees should be covered in netting to protect them. A periodic cicada infestation can cause significant damage to these trees.

All of this drama takes place in the spring, beginning in mid-May, and lasting until late June. After the nymphs hatch, they drop down to the ground and begin their subterranean life, until it’s time to emerge again in 2038. Reading this story almost makes you want to watch the movie (or musical play) Brigadoon, in which a Scottish village is visible for only one day every hundred years.

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Dormant Oil Kills Many Pests As They Sleep

Petroleum jelly is good for treating burns and other human injuries. It’s also good for treating trees and shrubs for insect pests while they sleep. In the case of trees and shrubs, I’m referring to dormant oil spray.

Dormant oil spray is particularly effective against aphids, mites and scale. This material is highly refined oil – like very dilute petroleum jelly. Thus, the analogy above. The insects hibernate for the winter in the deciduous trees or shrubs whose leaves provide them with food in season. Spraying the trees/shrubs with dormant oil in early spring kills the insects while they are still asleep. Dormant oil can also coat gypsy moth egg masses to prevent the eggs from hatching.

We have a very small window of opportunity to apply dormant oil. That’s why we’re starting to schedule our applications now. It has to be applied after the temperature rises above 40 degrees and before the plants leaf out. Dormant oil coats the insects, smothering them. But plants transpire water through their leaves. Applying dormant oil to foliated plants can interfere with photosynthesis.

The dormant oil target insects are very small, scarcely visible to the naked eye. Aphids are small (adults are no more than an inch long), soft body insects that suck nutrients from the leaves. Mites pierce leaves and suck out the chlorophyl. Mite damage is easier to see than the mites themselves. Mites are black specs the size of a grain of pepper. Sucking the chlorophyl out of leaves results in yellow spots that are clearly visible. The best way to check for mites is to hold a piece of white paper under a branch and shake it. The mites will fall on the paper just like shaking pepper on food. Scale insects also pierce and suck the chlorophyl, leaving yellow spots.

A dormant oil application is part of our Plant Health Care (PHC) program. If you’re on a PHC program, you don’t have to do anything. We’ll apply it at the proper time. But we also offer it as a single application for those who aren’t on a PHC program. Time’s running short for you to arrange for an application. Act now if you want this environmentally sound protection for your valuable trees and shrubs.

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Beware Of 5G Small-Cell-Sites

Every positive thing comes with some negatives, including 5G communications. Why would we want to talk about this subject in a landscape blog? Because it’s affecting our professionals and could affect you as well.

Certain 5G transmitting hardware has caused discomfort to arborists close to it. Earlier cell phone transmission depended on those ubiquitous cell towers that dot the landscape. We all know their shortcomings – flat spots where there was no service. One advantage of 5G is that this problem has been pretty much solved.

The way cell phone companies solved the problem is to install signal boosters all over the place. Called Small-Cell-Sites, most are installed on utility poles. Last month, a tree care trade magazine ran a story that featured two arborists who discovered this problem the hard way. They were working with cranes near Small-Cell-Sites, which were also near radio station transmission towers. The cell equipment and the towers were hidden by the surrounding trees, so they didn’t see them or the warning signs. The combination of both the Small-Cell-Site and the radio towers gave the arborists significant injuries.

Yes, Small-Cell-Sites have warning signs that include the name and contact information for the provider that owns the installation. Further research by tree care industry leaders found that arborists and landscape professionals who need to work near a Small-Cell-Site need only contact the provider a couple days before the work is scheduled and they’ll reroute the calls temporarily. It’s like calling the authorities to locate underground utilities before you dig. I don’t know whether the cell phone providers will extend the same courtesy to individuals as they do to professionals.

The takeaway is: If you see a can like object attached to a utility pole with a sign on the pole, read the sign before you start working. Then either contact the Small-Cell-Site owner or call us to do the work for you, and we’ll work with the cell provider. The one bright spot in this story is that the author contacted the American Cancer Society to see if these radio waves cause cancer. They were told that they do not. They were the same type of waves emitted by your cell phone or microwave oven.

Whenever I write or talk about tree work, I warn against the dangers of leaving the ground or being struck by a falling branch. To that, we add RF(Radiofrequency) radiation from a Small-Cell-Site. While you aren’t about to get cancer from exposure, appreciable discomfort is possible.