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Protect Your Evergreens from Winter Winds

Colder weather and higher winds keep reminding us that Ol’ Man Winter is just around the corner. Winter winds can cause your evergreen leaves and needles to dry out and die. You don’t have to experience this reality every season. Make this the year that you protect your evergreens.

Unlike deciduous trees and shrubs that go dormant in the winter, evergreens’ bodily functions simply slow down. Photosynthesis continues, just at a slower rate. However, water is necessary for photosynthesis to take place. During the growing season, plant roots absorb water and nutrients from the soil. In winter, when the ground is frozen, the plant roots can’t absorb water. But transpiration – the loss of water through the leaves/needles – continues. Losing too much water through transpiration causes affected branches to die and turn brown.

Under normal winter conditions, the leaves/needles reabsorb the transpired water and reuse it. Wind across leaves/needles, blows the transpired water off, leaving them high and dry. With no water for the photosynthetic reaction, the leaves dry out and die. In spring, you’ll see brown patches on your plants.

My favorite protection is to spray evergreens with an antidesiccant. This is a harmless, wax-like material that coats the leaves/needles, holding the water on them so the plants can reabsorb it and reuse it for photosynthesis.

I’ve used the term leaves/needles throughout to emphasize the need to apply antidesiccant to broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons, as well as needled conifers. In fact, broadleaf evergreens may need antidesiccant even more than conifers. Leaves have more surface area than needles, and conifers have adapted better to the effects of winter winds.

Antidesiccant is available at garden centers in spray bottles. The leading brand is Wilt-Pruf. Hand spraying works fine for a couple of small shrubs but your hand gets tired quickly. An easier, more economical way to apply antidesiccant to a number of plants, especially tall conifers, is to have one of our Plant Health Care professionals apply it. They use a powerful backpack sprayer that reaches the top of most trees.

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Beware Of The Enemy Above

An enemy may lurk high in your beautiful trees, undetected until it comes crashing down on you. No, it’s not a wild animal. It’s the tree itself.

When people reach a certain age, health care professionals advise having a physical each year. Early detection of problems can result in more positive outcomes with less aggressive treatment.

Arborists recommend the same for your mature trees, except that we call it a tree hazard inspection instead of a physical exam. The purpose is the same – to diagnose any problems early so they can be taken care of before they cause any injury or damage.

Some of the problems we encounter include…
• Broken branches that are just hanging and could break and fall any minute;
• Weak branches that could break from just a little wind;
• Insects like emerald ash borer, mites, aphids and hemlock woolley adelgid;
• Fungus, disease and rot;
• Girdling roots that are strangling and killing the tree.

Hazard tree inspections aren’t DIY diagnoses. Many problems occur high up in the tree. Our arborists need to climb up or go up in a bucket to see them. They’re trained to identify such problems as weak branches. When diagnosing girdling root, they have to excavate the soil around the base. Digging through the tangle of roots manually can be backbreaking work. Our arborists use an “air spade” that removes the soil without disturbing the roots. They then use great care to surgically remove the offending root.

An annual tree hazard inspection is an investment, not an expense. Your trees are valuable living organisms that add monetary, as well as aesthetic, value to your property. Letting problems progress to the point that the tree dies results in a costly removal plus another expense to buy a new tree and have it planted. The bottom line is that an annual inspection is very inexpensive insurance.

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Stock Up On Firewood, Not Insects

You’d be surprised at what’s lurking in your firewood. It won’t be a pleasant surprise, however, if these hitchhikers turn out to be one of the increasing number of invasive pests that have been assaulting our trees. Most of these insects “sneak” into the country by hiding in the packing material of shipments from foreign countries. Once here, they get a foothold before being discovered. Because they come from other countries, controlling them may be more difficult.

Insect immigrants like gypsy moths like to lay their eggs in any out of the way place. Hiding places include the underside of vehicles, camping gear and firewood. The vehicles, camping gear or firewood is moved to a new place, where the eggs hatch and the insect establishes a new beachhead. Some other hitchhiking alien insects include the emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, hemlock woolley adelgid, spring and fall cankerworm, winter moth and a newly identified pest called the spotted lanternfly.

The spotted lanternfly first reached our shores and began its destruction in eastern Pennsylvania. It has now jumped to other states like Maine, and Yates and Albany Counties in New York. While the other insects listed above all attack trees, the spotted lanternfly also likes fruit plants like grapevines, hops and blueberries.

The best way to be sure you don’t contribute to the spread of these insects is to check the underside of your camper and tow vehicle before leaving a campground and scrape off any egg cases. When you get home, carefully check all your camping gear before stowing it away. Don’t bring any firewood home with you, and know where the firewood you buy for your woodstove, fireplace or fire pit originated.

Every state has wood products quarantines. In New York, wood can’t be transported and sold more than 50 miles from where it was cut, except with a permit. Permits are issued only when the transporter can certify that the wood has undergone an accepted process to sanitize it and that it is definitely free of pests.

As with all things, there are always bad apples who think the law doesn’t apply to them, and buyers who fail to realize that, if a deal sounds too good to be true it probably is. Don’t contribute to this scourge. Buy wood only from local sellers or those with permits.

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Still Time To Protect Your Ash Tree(s)

Even though we’re past the mid-point in September, there’s still time to protect your valuable ash trees. Our battle against the emerald ash borer (EAB) doesn’t stop just because we’ve passed the unofficial end of summer. Although trees can be treated until the ground freezes, it’s best if you have them taken care of as soon as possible.

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

EAB control is systemic, which means it’s injected directly into the tree’s vascular system. That’s because these insidious insects live most of their lives inside the tree, where they disrupt the phloem – the vessels that distribute food throughout the tree. Trees continue to take up water until the ground freezes but they stop making food when the leaves start turning color. Since we don’t know when that will happen, it’s best to have them treated early rather than wait until the last minute.

If your ash trees are starting to turn color or have already begun dropping their leaves, they should be inspected by one of our arborists. You may already have EAB. If between 50 and 70 percent of the leaves are still green, it may be worth treating them. If less than 50 percent are green, its chance of survival is quite slim.

If your ash trees look green and healthy, don’t pat yourself on the back for having dodged a bullet. Any untreated tree is fair game for EAB. That’s why it’s important to have a preventive treatment applied.

EAB treatment isn’t a DIY task. The formulations labeled for consumer application just aren’t potent enough to knock out this strong, invasive insect. The formulations for licensed pesticide applicators are much stronger. Plus, it takes finesse and experience to know exactly where to inject it into a tree.

The material we use needs to be applied every two years as a preventive and every year as a treatment for trees already hosting EAB.

Ash trees are beautiful, stately specimens. They are also commercially valuable for products like baseball bats. It would be a shame if these trees go the way of the chestnut and American elm. Prevention and treatment are investments in both the present and the future. The cost of removing and replacing a dead ash tree could pay for many years of treatment.

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Keep Mowing Until Grass Goes Dormant

After Labor Day, we begin thinking that it’s fall already. But, the calendar says autumn doesn’t officially arrive until later in the month. Even after that, summer-like weather can linger, so don’t put the lawn mower away too quickly.

Your grass is enjoying our typical fall weather with its warm days and cool nights. At the same time, weeds are also enjoying this ideal weather, and would like nothing better than to take over your lawn. During this time, your lawn should continue to be mowed at a height of 3 to 4 inches. The longer, thicker grass will discourage weeds. Weeds are lazy or, more appropriately, adventitious plants. They want to grow without putting in any effort. So they look for sunny breaks in the lawn cover. That’s easier than fighting the grass plants for sunlight, water and space.

As we get further into fall, the daytime temperatures begin to drop, the days get shorter and the grass slows down its growth. As that happens, fewer and fewer clippings will come out of the chute. For the last few mowings of the season, lower the mower deck down to 2 ½ to 3 inches.

Over the winter, the snow pack can cause long grass to mat down, and this makes it easier for winter fungal diseases to attack your lawn. The shorter blades of grass stay more upright under the snow, and this doesn’t provide optimum conditions for fungal diseases. That’s not to say that you won’t have any fungal disease problems next spring. It simply means that the risk will be less.

When the grass stops growing for the season, you may not need the mower any more. But you can repurpose it as a leaf mulcher. How well that works depends on how many leaves you have. If you have big piles of leaves, or they are spread over your lawn so densely that you can’t see green grass showing through, it would be better if you rake or blow. If there are fewer leaves, you can save time and energy by setting the mower deck in its mulch position and driving over the grass. The mower will chop up the leaves very finely and drop them on to the lawn. As the leaves decompose, they’ll become compost, returning nutrients to the soil. This will give your lawn a head start next spring as the grass plants work to green up.

Maintaining your lawn is, arguably, the most labor-intensive task that faces you each growing season. I can’t blame you for wanting to get that mower into storage. But, giving your lawn those final, lower cuts and mulching leaves in place will save you a lot of work in the end.

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Why Fertilize In Fall?

This is a question I get asked quite often. Fertilizing in spring seems logical. After all, plants need energy to flower, leaf out and sustain themselves all through the summer. In the fall, however, they are getting ready for winter dormancy. So, why do they need energy if they’re “going to sleep”?

Confusion may have been created by some garden communicators and manufacturers who refer to fertilizer as plant food. It’s not. Fertilizer aids in the food making process much like vitamin supplements aid in our metabolic process.

Plants are hard at work over the growing season making food through photosynthesis. The food they make in the fall will be stored in their roots and distributed to other parts of the plant that need nourishment all through the winter.

Nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, as well as the micronutrients plants need to make food, are all found in good topsoil naturally. The problem is that many residential soils aren’t that good. The topsoil is often removed during excavation and not returned when the house is finished. I even saw one case in which the contractor raised the grade in a back yard by spreading three layers of subsoil on top of the original topsoil. Subsoil is almost always deficient in one or more nutrients and the only way to replenish them is with fertilizer.

If you fertilized in the spring, the plants used those nutrients all spring and summer to make the food they needed during the growing season. Now, as they are in the midst of a full court press to make enough food for the winter, they need more nutrients. In addition to winter sustenance, the plants need to have enough energy in reserve to break their flower and leaf buds in the spring. Fertilizer is the source of those nutrients.

Granulated fertilizer is fine for lawns and perennial beds but trees and shrubs need accessibility to the nutrients quickly so we apply balanced fertilizer in a liquid form. A giant needle is placed in the soil right at the root zone and liquid fertilizer is pumped directly into the area where the roots can immediately begin absorbing the nutrients. It should be noted that all fertilizers must be in liquid form for plant roots to absorb them. That’s why you should apply granular fertilizer within 24 hours of impending rain or be prepared to water it into the soil by irrigation.

Sometimes, roots need some help finding water and nutrients in the soil. In that case, we’ll mix mycorrhizae with the liquid fertilizer. These beneficial microbes (bacteria and fungi) attach themselves to the roots and extend their reach. The mycorrhizae pass the nutrients on to the plant and the plant shares its food with the mycorrhizae. It’s called a symbiotic relationship

The answer to the title question is that plants need extra nutrients in the fall to “bulk up” for winter dormancy, much as bears and other hibernating animals need to binge eat before they lie down for their long winter nap.

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Fall Is For Planting

The unofficial start of autumn will soon be upon us. If you’ve been thinking about planting any new trees and shrubs in your landscape, this is when you should finalize your design decisions. This will give you plenty of time to shop the nurseries and garden centers for your plant material.

Fall planting has a number of benefits for the plants and for you. They include:

• With more moisture, you won’t have to irrigate as often as you do in spring and summer. You may not have to irrigate at all.

• Warm days and cool nights are ideal growing conditions.

• Planting in fall gives the plants time to get established before winter. Spring plants don’t really have this establishment time before they have to battle summer heat and drought.

• Moist soil is easier to work than dry soil. This makes planting easier on your back.

Many nurseries and garden centers order new plants for fall planting. If you are looking for a bargain, you may be able to negotiate deep discounts on those that survived the summer. Personally, I’d rather pay list price and get new stock.

Planting in fall is no different from planting in spring. Select a planting site whose conditions are right for the plant you select. Remember – right plant, right place. Dig the planting hole two to three times bigger than the rootball, but only as deep. If potted, remove the plant from its pot. If balled and burlapped, remove the wire basket or rope but leave the burlap around the ball.

Set the plant in the hole and backfill, stopping occasionally to press the backfill to fill in any air pockets. Do not pile soil up against the trunk. Finally, mulch and water well.

Remember the mantra, Fall is for Planting. Your new plants will appreciate the temperate thermometer readings, more bearable humidity and the return of rain.