Archive for 1998

The Traditional Christmas Tree

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on December 1, 1998 – 8:22 pm

In our home, the selection of the family Christmas Tree has been a cherished tradition going back many generations. It is not unusual for the selection process to take in most of the day and require traveling hundreds of miles. There are just some things that cannot be rushed but must be savored. I think we have had just about every type of tree imaginable, short needled, long needled, and everything between. The one common denominator they all had was they had to be big and full. One year when we were living in an upstairs apartment the tree we bought would not fit up the stairs and we had to pull it up with a rope through the front window. 

Actually the Christmas Tree dates back to Roman times. Martin Luther, in the 10th century, is credited with being the first to decorate a tree indoors. The custom of the Christmas Tree was introduced into the United States during the War of Independence by Hessian troops. Franklin Pierce introduced the traditional Christmas Tree into the White House in 1856 and the first National Tree was lighted in 1923. 

Some interesting Christmas Tree Facts are: 

  • Christmas Trees are grown in all 50 states.
  • Trees are often cut weeks before they hit the retail market.
  • Over one million acres are planted in Christmas Trees.
  • Two thousand trees are planted per acre with only an average of 750 surviving to market.
  • One of Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of Christmas lights.
  • Teddy Roosevelt banned trees from the White House as wasteful.
  • 34-36 million trees are produced annually.
  • California, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina produce most of the trees.

The best-selling trees are the Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, Virginia Fir, and White Pine. Most of these can be found on any retail or cut your own lot farm. A nation wide listing of many of these locations can be found at Christmas Tree USA. The University of Georgia provides a good description of most trees atBugwood USA. Some good tips on selecting your tree are put out by The Illinois Christmas Tree Association 

Whatever you do, try to make selecting a tree a family event, take time and enjoy the experience. Do not be afraid to experiment with different species of trees, after all Cherry and Hawthorne trees were once very popular indoor holiday trees. We have even seen Weeping Figs and Norfolk Island Pines used as Christmas Trees. Times such as these last forever as fun times and fond memories.

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Autumn in Our Gardens

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on November 1, 1998 – 8:54 am

November finds most of our garden plants well past their prime. Only the hardiest annuals and perennial’s survive into November here in Zone 5, in Southwest Lower Michigan with our last frost free day being around October 15th. Those plants that make it into November usually put on quite a show. 

As we look out into our gardens, here and there a mule marigold or nicotiana pokes out its head. Even an occasional begonia can be seen in protected pockets. For the most part, annuals are gone for the year. 

The ornamental grasses are still looking good, particularly in the morning sun, aglow with nature’s frost. In particular Panicum virgatum “Nine Clouds” stands out althoughMiscanthus snersis “Morning Lite” is not far behind. Team these two with some taller Artemisia such as “Silver King” and you really have a Late Fall show. 

It really is the perennial’s that take center stage in late fall. Our Chrysanthemums Clara Curtis are just at their peak. Five foot mounds of brilliant clear pink three inch flowers. Clara Curtis will survive the coldest of fall weather. In our gardens, it is not unusual for them to keep blooming well into December. Usually, it takes a heavy snow fall to finish this show. An added treat this season was the first blooming of our Eupatorium rugosum “Chocolate.” Until now, we have only had a few weak blooms but that has all ended. They are covered with clusters of creamy white flowers that are carrying well into November. 

We know it cannot last forever; but, for now, at least we have some color left. Who knows, maybe they will last until the Witch Hazel start to bloom. For now, we continue preparing for next season and, of course, we have our birds to watch.

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Green Manure

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on October 1, 1998 – 5:13 pm

In September we discussed how important soil quality plays in successful gardening and how vital organic matter was. Green Manure cover crops are a major way to provide organic matter to your garden and protect that valuable soil. 

We give the name Green Manure to any crop grown only to be turned into the soil to improve it’s quality. Green Manure benefits the soil in many ways: 

  1. It reduces wind and water erosion.
  2. Cover crops hold nutrients otherwise lost over the winter.
  3. Green Manure provides organic matter.
  4. Its roots help break up the soil and keep it loose.
  5. Cover crops are a good indicator of soil problems.
  6. Legume cover crops can increase the nitrogen level in the soil.

Cover crops have been used for years to reduce water and soil erosion particularly during the winter months. When the soil freezes, the surface becomes very dry, similar to freeze dried oranges, and is very susceptible to erosion. The plant’s root system locks the soil in place and prevents compaction of the surface. 

Green Manure crops take up excess nitrates in the soil that would normally leach out during the cold weather months. When tilled in, the plants release the locked up nitrogen back into the soil. 

Cover crops are a good indicator of potential soil problems to the observing eye. By watching how the cover crop grows, we can spot areas that need attention. You can be assured that if the cover crop does not grow well in an area, there is an underlying problem that will adversely effect your garden. 

Green Manure crops should be planted, when possible, in late summer or early fall to become established before winter. This will vary from location to location based on your weather pattern. Here, in Southwestern Lower Michigan, in hardiness Zone 5, the crop should be sown before Mid-September. The following are some common cover crops, recommended planting times, and seeding information. 

Cover Crop Planting Seeds/100sf
Annual Rye September 5-10 oz.
Winter Rye September 5-10 oz.
Oats September 5-10 oz.
Winter Wheat August – October 5-10 oz.
Buckwheat Summer 5-10 oz.
Clover Summer 1-4 oz..
Barley September 10-15 oz.
Fava Beans October 12-14 oz.

To be useful, your selection should germinate rapidly, produce abundant and succulent tops, and grow well in the site conditions. It is often better to use a legume because of the benefits of the nitrogen fixation and the microbial activity it promotes. 

In the spring, you will want to turn the cover in at least two weeks before you plan to work the area. This can be done by rota-tilling, plowing, or using a spading fork if the area is small. It is often helpful to mow the crop before tilling. The nitrogen held in the Green Manure’s tissue will now be available to future crops through decomposition. 

Cover crops can be a valuable tool to the home gardener in developing high quality soil when used correctly. Green Manures are an inexpensive way to produce organic matter and protect your soil. Take time this fall to try it.

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New Garden Site Preparation

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on September 1, 1998 – 5:21 pm

September is a transition month, not quite Fall but no longer Summer. Here in Zone 5 in Southwestern Michigan, the Summer flowers have seen better days while the Fall asters and toad lilies have not yet started to bloom. We always use this time to evaluate our gardens, to see what worked and what did not. September is also when we decide what changes we want to make in our gardens. If you are like us, there is always something new to try or do differently. This is the time of year my wife guards her lawn as a mother hen guards her chicks as it seems to disappear as if by magic. This leads us into this month’s topic, “New Garden Site Preparation.” 

We always start in late summer to prepare next season’s new bed sites. Since this is usually a slow time of year, it allows us to spend the time we need on this important function. Good soil is the basis on which all successful gardens are built. We view top quality soil as relatively dark in color, active in microorganisms, plant nutrients, organic matter, and a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. Since a garden is usually in place for many years, it’s vital that the soil be properly prepared before planting. 

The first step, once you have selected a site, is to have your soil tested. You need to know the strength and weaknesses of the soil you are starting with. Your local Extension Agent can help you obtain soil test forms and instructions. The test result will be your guide for all future work. 

If the results of your test suggest adding lime, now is the time to do it. Often we have heard people say that they will add lime later as a top dressing like they do on their lawns. Gardens are different from lawns, apply the lime “Now” and “Work it in Deeply.” Having the proper pH is critical for plants to absorb the nutrients they need. 

The next amendment you want to look at is organic matter. Your soil should contain at least 5% organic matter. Work in at least 3 – 4 inches of compost or well-rotted manure. Till the organic matter into a minimum depth of six inches. Surface application of organic matter does very little for new soil. By preparing beds in September, you can incorporate yard waste such as leaves, crop residues, straw, or similar items as they will decompose during the fall and winter. 

If your soil test recommends the addition of other nutrients, we like to add them at this time. This is a personal preference of ours and you could wait until actual planting if you like. This is one area where we like to use chemical fertilizers as a source of nutrients. We feel they allow us to more accurately control the application that translates into stronger plant growth. Remember, this is probably the last time you can work the soil so thoroughly. 

Just how deep you should till the soil is a hard question to answer. With our heavy clay soils we cannot work the soil deep enough. Six inches is the bare minimum with 12 – 18 inches preferred. If you are planning to plant deep-rooted plants, you may have to go even deeper. This is another reason we like to start new beds in September as we have the time to work the soil to its maximum. 

Once we have the soil thoroughly tilled, we like to work in an additional one inch of organic matter and plant a cover crop of rye grass or buckwheat. This protects the soil from wind and water erosion and adds organic matter. These cover crops called “Green Manures” are usually tilled into the soil two to three weeks before planting. 

Take your time while preparing a new bed, work everything in thoroughly and deeply, and protect your investment with a cover crop. The time you invest now preparing the soil will produce years of strong healthy plants. In future issues we will talk about extreme soil conditions such as rocky or heavy clay which take some special treatment. Again, take your time and do it right, as once the plants are in, it is very hard to make corrections.

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Water and Gardening

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on August 1, 1998 – 8:50 am

September is a transition month, not quite Fall but no longer Summer. Here in Zone 5 in Southwestern Michigan, the Summer flowers have seen better days while the Fall asters and toad lilies have not yet started to bloom. We always use this time to evaluate our gardens, to see what worked and what did not. September is also when we decide what changes we want to make in our gardens. If you are like us, there is always something new to try or do differently. This is the time of year my wife guards her lawn as a mother hen guards her chicks as it seems to disappear as if by magic. This leads us into this month’s topic, “New Garden Site Preparation.” 

We always start in late summer to prepare next season’s new bed sites. Since this is usually a slow time of year, it allows us to spend the time we need on this important function. Good soil is the basis on which all successful gardens are built. We view top quality soil as relatively dark in color, active in microorganisms, plant nutrients, organic matter, and a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. Since a garden is usually in place for many years, it’s vital that the soil be properly prepared before planting. 

The first step, once you have selected a site, is to have your soil tested. You need to know the strength and weaknesses of the soil you are starting with. Your local Extension Agent can help you obtain soil test forms and instructions. The test result will be your guide for all future work. 

If the results of your test suggest adding lime, now is the time to do it. Often we have heard people say that they will add lime later as a top dressing like they do on their lawns. Gardens are different from lawns, apply the lime “Now” and “Work it in Deeply.” Having the proper pH is critical for plants to absorb the nutrients they need. 

The next amendment you want to look at is organic matter. Your soil should contain at least 5% organic matter. Work in at least 3 – 4 inches of compost or well-rotted manure. Till the organic matter into a minimum depth of six inches. Surface application of organic matter does very little for new soil. By preparing beds in September, you can incorporate yard waste such as leaves, crop residues, straw, or similar items as they will decompose during the fall and winter. 

If your soil test recommends the addition of other nutrients, we like to add them at this time. This is a personal preference of ours and you could wait until actual planting if you like. This is one area where we like to use chemical fertilizers as a source of nutrients. We feel they allow us to more accurately control the application that translates into stronger plant growth. Remember, this is probably the last time you can work the soil so thoroughly. 

Just how deep you should till the soil is a hard question to answer. With our heavy clay soils we cannot work the soil deep enough. Six inches is the bare minimum with 12 – 18 inches preferred. If you are planning to plant deep-rooted plants, you may have to go even deeper. This is another reason we like to start new beds in September as we have the time to work the soil to its maximum. 

Once we have the soil thoroughly tilled, we like to work in an additional one inch of organic matter and plant a cover crop of rye grass or buckwheat. This protects the soil from wind and water erosion and adds organic matter. These cover crops called “Green Manures” are usually tilled into the soil two to three weeks before planting. 

Take your time while preparing a new bed, work everything in thoroughly and deeply, and protect your investment with a cover crop. The time you invest now preparing the soil will produce years of strong healthy plants. In future issues we will talk about extreme soil conditions such as rocky or heavy clay which take some special treatment. Again, take your time and do it right, as once the plants are in, it is very hard to make corrections.

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Butterfly Gardening

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on July 1, 1998 – 8:47 am

In this issue of Yard Talk, we are going to discuss butterflies and butterfly gardening. Once you have decided to create a butterfly garden, the first step is to choose the butterflies you wish to attract. Why try attracting Southern Dogface Butterflies unless you live in the Southwest’s High Desert Country? To find out what butterflies are in your area, we suggest visiting public gardens, parks, country roadsides, and meadows. Keep track of not only what species are found but, their location, such as wet meadows, sunny fields, partial shade, or riverbanks. This will help you not only in deciding what species to try attracting but, where to locate your garden.

Most butterflies like sunny locations protected from the wind. A sunny area close to a wood line or hedgerow is ideal. A fence can be used also to provide an artificial windbreak.

Since butterflies feed on nectar, you will need to provide plants rich in this food source. Like hummingbirds, butterflies are attracted by bright colors such as red, orange, yellow, and purple. Flowers with short petals, plumes, or flat tops are particular favorites of the butterfly.

One factor often overlooked in butterfly gardening, is that while butterflies feed on nectar, their larvae eat only plant material. Butterfly’s larvae, in fact, eat very specific plants and female butterflies will only lay their eggs on these. No eggs mean no larva, that translates into no butterflies.

When providing plants for the larva, remember the purpose of these plants is to be eaten. This means no pesticides or insecticides. In fact, no insecticides should be used anywhere near a butterfly garden and this includes your lawn. You will be amazed how many more butterflies you will see just by eliminating insecticide usage.

Make sure when you plan your garden you include some creature comforts such as, a comfortable bench or chair. Most people find butterfly watching very relaxing and habit forming. You might even want to read a few chapters of Barbara Ellis’s excellent book “Attracting Birds and Butterflies” while enjoying nature.

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Maintenance of Cool Weather Lawns

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on June 1, 1998 – 6:07 pm

This month we are going to talk about lawn mowing. Specifically, we will be addressing the maintenance of cool weather lawns found in Zone 5. These lawns are usually made up of a mixture of Kentucky Blue Grass, Red Fescue, and Perennial Rye Grass. Most lawns are usually of medium density, with upright blades, and bright green in color.

There are some factors to consider in mowing these cool grass lawns. Whether new or established grass apply, it should not be cut lower than 2 1/2-3 inches in height. For best results, never remove more than 1/3 of the blade’s length at each mowing. Not only are lawns maintained at this height more attractive but, they are more vigorous. Lawns cut too short not only look pale but, are weakened and more prone to weed invasion. Close cut lawns also require more water and fertilization. So, for a quality lawn, keep those blades raised!

Do not skimp on buying a mower. Quality mowers not only do a better job but, last longer and require less maintenance. Another area you do not want to skimp on is lawn mower blade sharpening. Keep those blades sharp! Dull or poorly maintained blades not only tear the grass blades but, can be downright dangerous. Even when using proper equipment with sharp blades, grass will take a “set” or lean in one direction if mowed the same way each time. We recommend alternating mowing vertical, horizontal, and diagonal whenever possible. This also adds a little variety to mowing, increasing your fun, and even providing a more attractive lawn.

Mow your lawn when the grass needs cut and not on a set schedule. Just because you like to cut your lawn before the big rugby match each week does not mean it is best for your lawn. Your lawn may require mowing several times a week, particularly in the spring and fall. While mowing when the grass is wet will not hurt the grass, it does pack down the soil.

Grass in shady areas can be mowed less frequently than the remainder of the lawn. We also like to mow these shady areas longer as this promotes denser growth. All areas of the lawn do not have to be treated the same.

Contrary to popular belief, grass clippings do not cause thatch build up. Clippings are composed of water and readily decompose adding nutrients back into the soil. Do not remove clippings if a fungicide or herbicide has been applied as it cuts down on their effectiveness. The only time we recommend picking up the clippings is, if the grass has been allowed to grow beyond the standard height. Healthy, regularly mowed lawns do not need the clippings picked up.

All lawns are not the same, nor are all areas of the same lawn equal. Also, what works best for your neighbor’s lawn is not necessarily good for yours. Do not be afraid to experiment, your mistakes will all too quickly grow back.

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Wildflower Gardening

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on May 1, 1998 – 5:43 pm

Wildflower Gardening has, in recent years, enjoyed an increase in popularity as gardeners have discovered just how versatile our native plants can be. Wildflowers are not only finding their way into the traditional garden but, are being used increasingly as a replacement for the traditional lawn, all but eliminating mowing. States are turning to wildflowers along highways to reduce maintenance costs. Like all gardening though, wildflowers have their own demands.

Successful wildflower gardening requires careful planning, soil preparation, and seeding. Pick your site carefully, preferably not north facing or one that has a history of heavy weed growth. Make sure that the area receives enough sunlight for the wildflowers you will be using. Usually site preparation will take one to two years using a combination of cultivation and herbicide applications to eliminate existing growth, roots, and weed seeds. Your task will be made easier if you choose a site that does not border areas of aggressive weedy plants. You will also have to allow for the soil type in site selection. For example, many plants hate heavy clay soils while others cannot stand to have their feet wet.

Make your seed selection carefully. Look not only for flower type but also purity of seed. We recommend using nothing less then 95% pure seeds. Also, avoid those packaged seeds geared to the tourist trade. It might be nostalgic to use “North Manitou Island Wildflowers” in remembrance of that special moment in your garden, but the chances of them growing into something beautiful are slim. Select a variety of wildflowers including some of our native grasses. You want to have a variety, not only for color but to maintain bio-diversity. By providing plants occupying different parts of the soil, you help insure that wildflowers will squeeze out competing weeds. This is one of the secrets to having a low maintenance garden.

Wildfowers certainly have a place in the garden but, do not expect to buy a packet of seeds at the corner drugstore, sprinkle them around, and magically have a field of flowers. It just does not work this way. With a little planning and some up-front work, you can have something that will last for years with little maintenance. The butterflies and birds will love you too.

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Annuals in the Perennial Garden

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on April 1, 1998 – 6:27 pm

We have now spent the last few issues discussing perennials in the garden. If perennials are the bread, then annuals are the butter for the avid gardener. Bright, showy, long blooming, highly versatile, and inexpensive annuals really are the gardener’s friend.

What better way to fill in while a new perennial bed becomes established than with the splash of color. How often annuals have saved the day in our gardens. They are great for hiding those barren, drab areas that seem to pop up at the worse time. Best yet, annuals can usually be grown from inexpensive seed. Often sown directly in the garden or as plants purchased at your local nursery. Today, even some larger mail order nurseries are offering annual plants for sale.

Our favorite annuals based on color and versatility are: 

1. Cleome – Also called the Spider Flower, 4-6 feet tall, bright airy flowers in shades of white to pink, attractive to bees and butterflies. Favorite varietyPurple Queen.

2. Cosmos – These frilly leafed plants growing anywhere from 2-6 feet, providing a wonderful backdrop with their daisy like flowers, easily grown. Favorite varieties:Seashells or Versallies Tetra.

3. Hollyhock – Single or double flowering, 5-6 feet tall, often blooming the first season although considered a biannual, and self seeding. Favorite varietyHeirloom Black.

4. Sunflowers – Another tall showy group with new varieties being introduced daily, height from 1-18 feet, excellent background plant. Favorite varietiesRussian Mammoth,Mexican, or Gloriosia.

5. Zinnia – A stunning hardy flower in many colors, sizes, and shapes. This annual provides cut flowers from June until frost. Favorite varietiesCactus or Giant Double Mix.

6. Nicotiana – This is another bright showy plant that can provide instant color to the garden. Most are 12-16 inches tall in dark pink to white shades. Favorite varieties:Sensation or Nicki Bright Pink.

7. Marigold – An all-purpose flower from 4-36 inches from almost white to dark orange, blooms continually until frost. Favorite varietiesPinwheelMoonbeamGold ‘n’ VanillaStarfire, and Tiger Eyes.

8. Impatiens – What other plant can you throw in both sunny or shady areas? They are used in window boxes, gardens, baskets, and even grown indoors. Favorite varieties:Super Elfin or Blitz.

9. Petunia – An old time favorite, found in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes. Another versatile plant for the sunny garden but often under used today. Favorite varietiesBig Daddy Series and Giant Cascade.

All of the above are easily grown, requiring minimal care, while providing a splash of excitement.

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Plants for the Sunny Garden

Icon Written by GeoffM1968 on March 1, 1998 – 7:12 pm

This month’s issue of Yard Talk is, as we promised, devoted to “Plants for the Sunny Garden.” Our selections are based on our experiences growing in hardiness Zone 5, with heavy clay soil amended yearly with compost, and growing in direct sunlight. We are purposely leaving out several large plant groups such as roses, iris, and day lilies which will be covered in later issues. Our focus will be on those plants that out perform all others and provide a base on which to create a truly spectacular sunny garden. With that out of the way, we would like to present the following: 

1. Echinacea-Coneflower– Vibrant showy flowers with raised centers, long blooming, drought tolerant, great fresh cut, and naturalize well. Recommended varietiespapurea Mangus and White Swan.

2. Rudbeckia-Black-Eyed Susan– You can never have too many of these in your sunny garden, colorful, long blooming, usually vibrant yellow with a dark eye.Recommended varietiesfilgida Goldstrummaximatriloba, and our favorite locuniata Herbstonne.

3. Coreopsis– Tickseed-Mostly yellow daisy like flowers from June until first frost, an excellent cut flower, and attractive to butterflies. Recommended varietiestripteris and the ever popular verticillota Moonbeam.

4. Phlox-Garden Phlox– Showy summer blooming, variety of colors although, our favorite is white. Recommended varietiespanuculata DavidMt. Fuji, and Nora Leigh.

5. Aster-New England Aster– Daisy like flowers in late summer and fall, durable, and easy to grow. Recommended varietiesSingle Apricot KoranVenus Daisy, andBecky’s Daisy.

6. Boltonia-False Aster– Masses of small usually white late season flowers, attractive to butterflies, and easily grown. Recommended varietiesSnowbank Sorry we fell in love with this one and had no desire to try others.

7. Eupatorium-Joe Pye Weed– Wish they had called it something besides a weed, every garden should have this, if for no other reason, than the masses of butterflies it attracts. Its billowy flowers are usually hard to see because of all the butterflies. It provides an excellent backdrop for other perennial. Recommended varietiesfistulosum orrugosum that has an exciting chocolate colored foliage.

8. Sedium-Ice Plant– A very large succulent group, attractive foliage, easy to grow, drought tolerant, and with a showy flower head that is attractive to butterflies.Recommended varietiesAutumn JoyFrosty Morn, and Rosy Glow.

9. Monarda-Bee Balm– Colorful, aromatic sun loving plant that really has been improved upon in the past few years with some new mildew resistant varieties. Recommended varietiesCambridge ScarletMarshall’s Delight, and Jacob Cline. The last two are particularly mildew resistant

There are some excellent groups that we had to leave out such as Delphiniums, because, frankly, we have not been able to consistently grow them successfully. We look for showy, vigorous growing plants that consistently, year after year, out perform all others. As you can tell, we also like them to be attractive to butterflies. For those of you, like us, who think that butterflies are a part of gardening, there is an excellent newsletter published four times a year called Butterfly Gardener’s Quarterly. We understand this newsletter costs less then $15.00 and is put out by Claire Hugen Dole. You can get more information by writing P O Box 30931, Seattle, Washington. 98103.

In next month’s Yard Talk we will talk about “Annuals in the Perennial Garden”, “Growing Moss in the Shade under Trees,” and provide you with some useful fertilizing tips.

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