Archive for 2001

The Christmas Poinsettia

Icon Written by Geoff on December 1, 2001 – 8:14 pm

There are many long standing Christmas traditions in the Martin household such as (selecting Christmas Tree), baking Christmas Cookies, and choosing the Christmas Poinsettias. In the past, the tree selection and cooking making took most of a day with picking out the poinsettias taking less than an hour. 

Well, those days are long gone, poinsettias now come in all sizes and shapes. We now have not only the traditional reds but also yellows, pinks, roses, whites and even spotted poinsettias to choose from. This plant now ranges in size from the dwarf, at 6-12 inches to some over 60 inches tall. Everyone now has their own favorite color or size. 

Where we use to put one or two around the home, we now have been known to fill our entry way with them. Nothing beats walking into a home smelling of fresh baked cookies, a garland tree, and being greeted by a profusion of warm colored poinsettias. Add Christmas Carols being sung by an open fire and you will never want to leave. 

Once selected, poinsettias require little care during the Holidays. Keep them out of drafts, away from heaters, and water occasionally. Let the soil dry to the touch between waterings and make sure they are not standing in water and they will be happy. We like to remove any decorative wrappings and repot ours in terra -cotta pots with gravel in the bottom to improve drainage and perspiration. The repotted plants are then set in trays and placed on display. If you want to soften the look of the clay pots surround them with poly-snow or other seasonable decorations. 

Once the Holidays are over, and the poinsettias are starting to get a little tattered, just take the pots outside, pop the plant out, and throw them swiftly onto the compost pile. As far as I am concerned the best thing you can do with this plant after Christmas is throw it away and go on to better things. 

My wife, on the other hand, believes that this plant deserves a better fate. Marty feels anything this beautiful should not meet its end on the compost pile. Of course, she has had very good luck growing poinsettias year round while I quickly kill them in a few weeks. 

For those of you that feel as she does, I have listed the steps she takes to insure or at least increase the chances of successful year round growing as this month’s tips. Give it a try!

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Gardening Equipment – Pruning Tools

Icon Written by Geoff on November 1, 2001 – 5:06 pm

This is the first in a series we will be doing over the next few months on Gardening Equipment. This month we will be looking at pruning tools for the home gardener. As with any gardening tool, always keep it clean and sharp and never use a tool beyond its capacity. Good pruning tools are not cheap. This is one area you really do not want to skimp on. Good tools with proper care will last a life time. Some of the tools we use have been passed down for generations. 

Selecting the proper tools for pruning saves time, effort and frustration. Using the correct tool assures the job will be done correctly and safely. Most pruning jobs can be done with just three or four simple hand tools. We will be discussing those tools that we have used and found, through experience, works best for us. 

The Bypass Pruner is ideal for cutting soft stems up to 3/4 inch in diameter. It is also recommended for roses. The bypass pruner allows cutting closer to the trunk of the plant, which means quicker healing of the bark. This pruner also allows a close, clean cut without crushing the end of the twig or limb. Great for cut flowers. Without a doubt, our best hand shears is the original Felco that has remained unchanged for over forty years. The Felco has replaceable precision ground forged cutting blade, with sap groove and soft wire cutter, easy grip forged alloy handles, and rubber shock absorbers. 

Anvil Pruners are best for cutting woody stems or dead wood up to 3/4 inches in diameter. Anvil pruners are usually lighter in weight and are easier to sharpen. Felco Anvilsbuilt with quality in mind having 1 1/2 inch carbon steel blade and a 3/4 inch cutting capacity. 

Bypass Lopping Shears are pruners with a long handle for extra leverage to cut branches up to 2 inches thick. Bypass loppers will cut a branch closer to the trunk. Corona Extra Large Professional Lopper we have found to hold up under hard use year after year. 

The Hedge Shears are used for shaping ornamental hedges. Hedge shears have scissor-like cutting action and are very easy to use. Some blades are serrated or notched to prevent foliage and small stems from slipping away during the cut. 

Pole Tree Trimmers are especially useful if you have tall trees. This trimmer usually has a cutter blade operated by a lanyard or rope pulled downward. The best poles are in sections that fit together in a telescoping fashion and have a combination cutter and saw. 

The Turbo Pruning Saw should have a curved blade with teeth sharpened in three directions that cuts on the draw strokes. This saw is recommended for work too large for a lopper. 

For heavier work, the home gardener should invest in a few good quality power tools. While these are relatively more expensive, they can save a lot of time for larger tasks. We would recommend the following: 

  1. Echo’s 18 inch chainsaw is a good quality, general purpose saw, which is also easy to handle.
  2. Echo’s powered pruner with a 12 inch cutting bar makes overhead tree pruning a snap.
  3. ECHOHedge Clippers SHC2100 offers great reach and superior balance because of its shaft-type design. The 20-inch double-sided, double-reciprocating blades, and 33-inch shaft increases reach.

While there are a number of excellent manufactures of pruning tools, we have found the ones made be the following to work well for us: 

  1. The people at Felco describe their product as “Simply the Best Pruners in the World” and we agree with this statement. Made with Swiss precision, their pruners are highly regarded by experienced gardeners. Many of us start out buying cheap pruners, often with a similar Felco-like appearance, from the local hardware store, not even aware of the difference. Once you have tried a pair of Felco pruners you will understand.
  2. Echo tools are world class. Made by Japan’s leading manufacturer of high quality power equipment, Echo offers, unmatched performance, unequaled quality, unbeatable reliability and unflagging durability.
  3. Corona Clipper began business in the late 1920’s manufacturing one product, orange clippers, in an old “Corona Foothill” packing house. Forgings were obtained from Los Angeles, as our manufacturing equipment did not include drop forge hammers. Others settle for stamped or cast parts. But only pounding, compressing and flowing hot steel under the blows of the forge hammer can yield the dense, uniform structure and greater strength-to-weight ratios required for Corona’s precision cutting tools.

We cannot say this enough, “Buy Quality Tools”! Once you have these tools, keep them clean, sharp, and well oiled. Good tools are a gardener’s best friend.

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Plants for Winter Landscapes

Icon Written by Geoff on October 1, 2001 – 5:29 pm

Winter is a time when understated details come to the foreground. Dead withered flowers, like the faded blossoms of Autumn Joy linger on the plant, providing a somber beauty inviting one to touch their crisp dry flower heads. Because there are fewer garden chores, we can settle back and appreciate the small things such as the intricate pattern found on cherry bark or the graceful form of a dogwood tree silhouetted against dark winter skies. One can really appreciate the contorted shape of the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick on a grey Winter day. 

Molly Dean, a frequent contributor to Flower and Garden magazine wrote: 

“The beauties of winter gardens, dictated by uncertain weather conditions, are fragile, fleeting and subtle. Because of these qualities, though, they are to be valued like the rarest jewels. Much is written about planning for winter gardens — and planning is certainly a factor. Chances are, though, many of us are unaware of the “winter gardens already blooming in our back yard. The key to their discovery is to look at gardens with a different perspective and learn to appreciate winter’s more subtle beauties.” 

The most notable plants in the Winter garden are; of course, the trees, their massive form dominates the landscape. The beautiful corkscrew willow provides a kind of elegant contortion, especially when curling, greenish-yellow shoots are highlighted by a calm backdrop such as water. Other trees that have especially graceful branching patterns include the star magnolia, hinoki cypress and Japanese maples. 

Winter still finds some plants besides conifers, colorful even in Zone 5

  1. Calluna vulgaris – Summer heather is standing erect with foliage in gorgeous hues of bronze, coral and red.
  2. Hellebores niger – Christmas Rose is still green, and there are buds forming under the slightly tattered foliage.
  3. Gallium – Sweet woodruff still looks green and sprightly.
  4. Primula elatior – Red’s foliage is still as crisp as lettuce.
  5. Heuchera micrantha – Purple Palace is a bit battered, but still colorful.

Other plants are no longer green, but they do present an interesting look: 

  1. Salix vitellina – Coral Embers Willow presents strong vertical lines.
  2. Coreopsis verticllata – Moonbeam is an interesting silhouette in bronze.
  3. Sedum – Autumn Joy’s remains are still attractive in late Winter
  4. Fescue – Elijah Blues are still blue beneath their dead tips.
  5. Ulmus parvifolia – Chinese Elm has fascinating bark with small irregular patterns of reddish brown, pale green and silver.
  6. Calamagrostis arundinacea – Karl Foerster has a strong vertical shape that when used in mass is outstanding.
  7. Hydrangea quercifolia – Oakleaf Hydrangea provides beauty with its warm-toned, exfoliating bark.
  8. Cornus sericea – Yellow-twigged dogwood has bright yellow branches.
  9. Kerria japonica – Alba’s green twigs are outstanding in Winter.

These plants really show up against snow or a dark backdrop of conifers. The strong vertical and horizontal manner of growth of many of these bring to mind how important a plants shape becomes, even more important in winter — the design elements line and form. 

There is a wealth of plants that can be used to enhance the Winter landscape. In fact, given the right location, any plant can be used effectively. One needs to look at the lines provided by the hardscape, buildings, fences, rocks, walks, and even roadways that are often only visible in Winter. 

Take time now in Late-Fall to evaluate your garden. Make notes and drawings or, better yet, take pictures so that with the coming of Spring you can take the necessary steps to improve your Winterscape. It is easy to forget how the garden looks in the spring with everything in bloom.

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Gardening for Wildlife

Icon Written by Geoff on September 1, 2001 – 5:08 pm

Why is Gardening for Wildlife so important today? The answer is that habitat used by wildlife is rapidly disappearing due to suburban sprawl and loss of farmlands. There is now much less habitat for birds, butterflies and other creatures to use. Also much of the land along migration routes no longer provides the food, water, and cover that birds and butterflies need. By gardening with wildlife in mind, we can help make up for the loss of these traditional habitats. 

The Official Backyard Wildlife Habitat site summed it up when they said: 

“The population boom has changed forever the living conditions of our wildlife. We humans invaded the animals habitat and forced them to live among us. By planting only berry-producing shrubs and trees which bear fruit, my whole property has become a wildlife habitat. To aid in my war against insects, I encourage a large population of birds in my yard by supplying them with their basic needs.” 

To attract and help wildlife, it is important to consider their requirements for food, shelter, water, and a place to raise their young. Take into consideration the size of your backyard, what plants are already present, and what wildlife you would like to attract. Form a plan, consider mature plant size, shape and spacing. A sketch is particularly helpful in planning where future shade will be needed and where shading may not be desirable. Allow flexibility in your plan to provide for replacing such trees or shrubs. Remember that open space is important too. 

Plants are perhaps the most important part of a backyard habitat because they provide an environment for the family as well as for songbirds and other wildlife. Plants provide shelter, nesting sites, and a variety of foods such as fruits that may otherwise be unavailable. Proper selection of plants can fill family needs for beauty and comfort while providing a haven for wildlife. Even dead and dying trees provide nesting sites for many species such as owls, flying squirrels, and other cavity-nesters. 

Plants are the primary source of energy supporting food chain even in your backyard environment. Plant parts such as leaves, twigs, bark, roots, fruits, nuts, and seeds are eaten by insects, mammals, and birds that in turn are eaten to sustain larger animals. Leaves, nuts, fruits, and seeds are available only seasonally and the time of year differs by species. Therefore, the diets of many wildlife species also change. The backyard garden that provides greatest diversity of plants will provide better food source. 

When choosing your plants, make sure to include at least one good clump of evergreen trees and shrubs to provide year-round protective cover. You should also plant deciduous shrubs to offer effective summer cover for nesting and escape from predators. Rock, log, and mulch piles also offer good cover. Selection of native plants suited to the site conditions, will minimize maintenance by eliminating the use of fertilizers, herbicides, or additional watering. A good source of information on native plants can be found at The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Clearinghouse. The Center’s Clearinghouse offers a wide variety of native plant information which can be custom searched for your area. 

Another good source of information is Wild Ones. They are a direct outgrowth of a natural landscaping workshop offered by the Schlitz Audubon Center of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wild Ones are a fast-growing, non-profit organization encouraging natural yards with a sensitivity to land use in harmony with Nature now located in six states. The National Resources Conservation Services of the United States Department of Agriculture also has a lot of helpful information. 

Some plants that can be used in the garden for wildlife here, in Zone 5, as compiled by Kenneth R. Bolen, Director of Cooperative Extension, University of Nebraska are: 


  • Burr Oak
  • White Oak
  • Red Oak
  • Black Walnut
  • Hickory
  • Black Cherry
  • Russian Olive
  • Crabapple
  • Hawthorne
  • Eastern Red Cedar


  • Dogwood
  • Sumacs
  • Elderberry
  • Cotoneaster
  • Honeysuckles
  • Serviceberry
  • Viburnums
  • Firethorne


  • Blackberry
  • Virginia Creeper
  • Wild Grape
  • Raspberry
  • American Bittersweet


  • Sunflowers
  • Asters
  • Zinnias
  • Cleome
  • Black-eyed Susan

Additional information on the values of different plant varieties can be found at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County at

Wildlife also need water, for drinking, bathing, and in some cases, breeding. Water can be supplied in a birdbath, a pond, or a shallow dish. A small pond set into the ground provides water for drinking and bathing. Aquatic animals, such as frogs, toads, newts, dragonflies, and other insects, deposit their eggs in ponds, vernal pools, and other wetlands. Maintaining native conditions in uplands adjacent to wetlands will help to assure access to habitats required for the entire life cycles of these species. Emergent and shoreline vegetation in and adjacent to aquatic areas will provide food and cover requirements for many wildlife species. Travel corridors from uplands to existing water supplies such as ponds and streams on or adjacent to the site will allow access by many species. If you decide to provide water, make sure you do so year round. 

Home landscapes can help offset the habitat loss that occurs in urban areas. We just need to think and plan for wildlife when we plant. How boring the garden would be without birds, butterflies, and other animals.

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Water Gardening Maintenance

Icon Written by Geoff on August 1, 2001 – 5:54 pm

While last month we briefly covered most of the basics of water gardening, this month we are going to focus on the maintenance aspects of water gardening. We will assume you are managing or interested in a small to medium size pond with both animal and plant life in Zone 5. Since we are in the midst of summer, we will begin there: 

Summer Maintenance 

Summer is the season our ponds are at its peak glory with vibrant and showy plants. Plant growth is at its maximum along with feeding demand. This increase activity increases the stress put on your pond’s biological system so more intense attention must be given to it. 

The first part and probably the most important part of your pond’s biological system is the filtration system no matter how simple it may be. For the simple pond without animal life but with mechanical water movement, you will need to keep the sponge filter to the pump clean along with any other filter systems you may have added to enhance the filtration (i.e. mechanical filtration media, chemical filtration media, biological filtration media). The best way to measure the success of your filtration system is to measure the amount of ammonia and nitrites dissolved in the water. Too high of each indicates a problem with your pond’s biological system which can be fixed with additional and improved filtration, improved feeding, and/or decreased fish stock. (Note: Newly established ponds must mature for approximately a month before the natural nitrogen cycle, Ammonia – Nitrite – Nitrate, establishes itself. As the nitrogen cycle establishes itself, you will see spikes in each in progression.). 

The second part of your pond’s biological system is the plant life. Plant pest activity is at its most vigorous during the summer months. Make sure to watch for pest activity and take action promptly since these problems can spread at an alarming rate. Remove all dead and damaged leaves and blooms on a regular basis to prevent increased biological load on your filtration system from the rotting plant matter. Healthy plants should be thinned out as appropriate along with dead leaves and blooms. 

It is probably obvious that evaporation is a significant problem during the summer especially with fountains, cascades, waterfalls, little surface cover from plants, and high air temperature. Topping with water on a small and frequent basis will not generally require dechlorination treatment for people using municipal water sources and will replace the water lost during the hot summer months. 

The last part of your pond’s biological system to watch is the amount of dissolved oxygen since these amounts may drop significantly during hot and humid nights. Aeration from a fountain or venturi attachment should be left running at all times. If you do not have these available, spraying the surface with a mist of water from a garden hose in late evening will help. 

Autumn Maintenance 

Autumn is the season we start seeing the reduction of biological activity in our ponds. As long as you keep your pond and its surroundings from deteriorating to the point where conditions will adversely affect the health of the fish and other aquatic life, the maintenance needs are much less. 

The major objective in maintaining your pond in autumn is to prepare your plants and fish for the transition into winter making sure to protect the tender species and varieties from the cold. Bring the needy ones indoors into the warmer environment and move the more hardy varieties into deeper water. 

Another daunting part of maintaining your autumn pond’s biological system is keeping the autumn leaves out of your pond. Any leaves that drop onto the pond must be removed regularly to stop them from sinking to the bottom and rotting. Covering the pond with netting may look unsightly, but it is the most effective way of keeping leaves off the water and is only needed for a few weeks in autumn. 

Before the really cold weather sets in, the last part of your autumn maintenance, cleaning and repairing your pond equipment, should be preformed. You should preferably clean the equipment with plain water especially with no harsh chemicals. 

Winter Maintenance 

The pond’s maintenance needs during the winter as you would expect is at its lowest. Your primary concern will be keeping the equipment from freezing and keeping an opening in the surface of the water to allow toxic carbon dioxide to escape from under the ice if you overwinter your fish (Pond must have depth greater than 18 inches for success). This can be accomplished by keeping your fountain running with the addition of a floating pond heater placed near the fountain. Once the water temperature falls below 4-6 degrees C (39-43 degrees F), stop feeding your fish since they will go into hibernation in the deeper water. 

Spring Maintenance 

Spring is an exciting time for the pond’s biological system as well as the garden. This time of year is a gradual process with distinct changes from one week to another. Activity keeps increasing from the emergence of the frogs, the increased energy needs of your fish, to the emerging plant life. Focus is placed on getting your pond ready for the rapidly changing environment. 

Start measuring ammonia and nitrites making sure to perform a partial water change if either amount is above normal. Add a dechlorinator if you are using a municipal water source and do NOT change more than 10 – 15 percent of the total water volume. 

With the increasing amount and intensity of sunlight, there may be an algae bloom resulting in free-floating algae (“green water”) and/or clumps of filamentous algae (blanket weed). The free-floating algae blooms can be kept under control with the use of an ultra-violet sterilizer. The filamentous algae will require regular removal. An alternative method for controlling string algae is to stuff a few ounces of barley straw per 30 square feet into an old stocking, sink to bottom of pond, and replace every six months. Once pond plants become established, these blooms should reduce. 

Disease is often encountered in the spring with overwintered fish from the stresses encountered from hibernation to the changing spring environment. It is often called “Spring Sickness” but is actually several problems (bacterium to excessive body slime). Keeping the manageable stresses (ammonia and nitrite levels) to a minimum after successful winter management will help the fishes immune system combat these problems. 

While the seasonal changes brings new and challenging maintenance needs for your pond’s biological system, it brings you excitement from the changes it goes through. Every year I am amazed with my pond and the challenges it brings. I hope to one day successfully raise fish in my pond but have to wait until I remove my old faithful walnut tree which is twenty yards away (juglone toxicity keeps killing my fish).

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Water Gardening

Icon Written by Geoff on July 1, 2001 – 5:52 pm

Not all of us are fortunate enough to live by lakes or streams. Most of us, if we want a water feature, must create one from scratch. The charm of the water garden lies in its cool appearance and the freshness of its vegetation during the hot summer months. Hopefully, the following will encourage you to create a patio garden feature. 

Almost all water plants prefer a sunny location, four to five hours of direct sun is needed before most water lilies will bloom. Avoid overhanging tree limbs since they can cause extra maintenance with dropping leaves. Water gardens can do well with at least a filtered sun if you are not interested in plants flowering. 

Once a suitable site is found, you need to decide the size. This is really up to the individual and how much time and money we want to invest. We would suggest for the average home gardener, to start small. Ponds can take more work than you may think. We all know about the large maintenance requirements of a backyard swimming pool, just think of now trying to grow plants and fish in it. We would also suggest using one of the prefab garden liners. These come in many sizes and shapes, select one that you can at least reach the center of from at least two sides. This is similar to what we recommend with raised beds, it really simplifies the work. We would also recommend one of medium depth to begin with. 

Today you can buy pond kits that will quickly get you started. These include the liner, filters, pump, and necessary fittings and connections. Also, they should at least contain basic installation and operating instructions. Your pump should run 24 hours to help keep the water well oxygenated. This is especially important during hot summer days. The filter should be cleaned whenever water flow to the pump is noticeably restricted, at least every 2-3 weeks. 

You can expect to give your water garden a cleaning once or twice a year. Drain your pond and place your fish in a separate container of pond water, remove all plants and clean out any debris that has collected at the bottom of your pond. Refill your water garden with fresh water and return all plants. Before adding your fish, give them a chance to adjust to any change in water temperature and treat the water to remove any chlorine that may be found in tap water. Water can be added to replace evaporation as needed during the summer. Cleaning can be repeated any time during the year that your water becomes dirty with floating debris or waste. However, with proper balance and care it should not be required more than once a season. 

Water temperatures above 80 degrees can be harmful to fish and plants. During extreme heat spells it is best to partially shade your garden. Placing potted plants around the perimeter to shade the sides of the pot is also effective. 

Your water garden may go through an algae’s bloom before your plants become well established. This is harmless to fish and plants and will clear up as your plants grow and absorb the nutrients algae needs to survive. The green covering on the sides of your pots below water is normal, desirable and a sign of a healthy pond. Once in balance, your pond should remain clear enough to see near the bottom of the garden. Snails may also help keep your garden clear. 

The successful water garden is one of balance. Plants balance a pool by oxygenating and shading it. For the small garden, use containers for planting, such as plastic tubs or clay pots. This will help prevent spreading and overcrowding. Also, containers provide an easy way to remove plants in the winter months. There are four types of plants suited for the smaller gardens, shallow water, medium water, bog, and floating plants. A mix of all four provides a self-sustaining system. Fill containers with moistened soil, pack soil tightly, cover with pea gravel to keep the soil from floating up, and lower the container to the correct depth in the pond. Introduce plants to the pond during the active growing season. If you plan to add fish, wait at least 4-5 weeks after planting. 

For shallow areas 6-8 inches deep, in zones 5, we suggest the following: 

  1. Purple Iris
  2. Spiky Green Rush
  3. Miniature Spearwort
  4. Floating Heart

In medium depths, 9-18 inches, in zone 5 use:

  1. Lavender Musk
  2. Lizard’s Tail
  3. Water Pennywort
  4. Suwannee Mist Lily or Helvola White Lily

For the bog areas, include cattail, Japanese and water iris, bamboo, papyrus, and other grasslike plants. Bog plants grow naturally in mud or in up to 6 inches of water so they also need a container set just below the water line. 

Plants known as water weeds, although not appearing above the water, are important to your pond’s health. They slow the growth of algae, absorb excess nutrients that would cloud the water, and provide fish with food. Such varieties such as “elodea/anacharis” and “cabomba” are very inexpensive and can be bought by the bunch from suppliers. The plants require sandy, gravel-like soil and are hardy enough to survive the winter. 

Aquatic plants are hungry feeders and need a good supply of nutrients throughout the growing season. An application of a slow release aquatic fertilizer tablet about May 1 followed by a second application in July will be adequate. Waste from fish will provide supplemental fertilizer during the season. 

Water lilies are one of the most popular pond aquatics because they are colorful, easy to care for, and highly fragrant. In northern areas, they bloom later in the season. Unless stored, they die when frost occurs, most gardeners store them in a greenhouse pond over winter or treat them as annuals. 

Going into winter, trim back all hardy plants to about 3-6 inches. The pump should be disconnected from any spouting ornament and placed about 2-4 inches below the water surface so that the moving water prevents total freezing. Another option is to replace the pump with an inexpensive birdbath heater. If you have tropical plants you can bring them indoors as a houseplant over the winter or discard and replace them next spring. Tropical water lilies and floating plants are best replaced each year. 

Use no more than 2 -3 fish in a small garden pond unless you want to install a filtering system. We recommend common goldfish, black moors, or a variation on the common goldfish. It is best not to feed your fish in a patio garden on a regular basis so that they will scavenge on their own for natural food such as insects, and algae. If you do wish to feed them, try feeding them 2-3 times a week removing any food not consumed within 10 minutes. Stop feeding if the water begins to cloud or water temperatures drop below 50 degrees. 

As we mentioned before, our intent is to encourage you to try water gardening, give you some basic pond information, and sources of reference. We will be covering the various aspects of water gardening in depth in following issues. Most communities now have a garden center that specializes in water gardens and this is a good time of year to visit them as they have more time to spend with you. Also, many give seminars or hold classes on gardening during the Winter months. You may also want to visit The Aquatic Gardeners Association (, their purpose is to distribute information about aquatic plants and increase interest in aquatic gardening.

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Herbs in the Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on June 1, 2001 – 5:15 pm

This month we are looking at herbs in the kitchen garden. Although herbs have always had a place in the garden, it is only in the last decade that interest in growing and using herbs has really bloomed. Freshly harvested herbs have pungent and aromatic qualities that far exceed those bought at the local market. Even after the outdoor growing season is over, you can still enjoy dried herbs in fragrant potpourris and sachets. Herbs can also be grown indoors in pots. Herbs are easy to grow and use. They require little care, have very few insects or disease problems, and generally require little fertilizer. 

The first thing we need to consider is site selection. Drainage is probably the most important single factor in successful herb growing although, most herbs like a lot of sunlight too. Very few of the herbs will grow in wet soils. If the area is poorly drained, modify the soil by removing the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches and placing a 5-6 inch layer of crushed stone or sand on the bottom. Before returning the soil to the bed area, mix some compost in to lighten the texture. Adding 4-6 cubic feet of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil condition and retain needed moisture. The soil at the site does not have to be especially fertile, so little fertilizer should be used. A kitchen garden can be an area 20 by 4 feet, preferably raised. 

Historically, nearly all herbs were grown from seed. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Sow anise, coriander, dill, and fennel directly in the garden since they do not transplant well. Most biennials should be sown in late spring directly into the ground. Work the soil surface to a fine texture and wet. Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory, or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows and firm the soil over them. Starting herbs from seeds takes longer than most other seed except basil, which germinates quickly. A few herbs, such as mints, need to be contained or they will take over. 

Your herb garden will need attention throughout the growing season. Weed control and provision for adequate moisture are two important cultural necessities. The use of a mulch is an effective means of controlling weeds, maintaining constant soil moisture, and temperature for the root systems (see February 2001 Yard Talk). To be effective, the mulch should be applied at least 3 – 4 inches deep. 

Many herbs can be grown successfully in containers on the patio. Some reasons for growing herbs in containers rather than in the garden are: 

  1. Many of them are small and get lost in a landscape.
  2. Growing herbs in containers brings them closer to the viewer.
  3. Container growing is recommended for herbs that need a lot of drainage.
  4. For tender herbs that need to be over-wintered indoors.

Any container is suitable for growing herbs as long as it has a drainage hole. Clay pots are often preferred because they are porous. Other containers that work well include window boxes, strawberry jars, and hanging baskets. Watering is the most difficult part of container gardening. Plants growing in containers dry out faster than in the ground. On a hot, sunny day, a container may require water once or twice daily. When the top of the soil feels dry, apply enough water to allow a small amount to come out the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. 

While most herbs prefer a hot sunny location, there are a few that will tolerate shade such as: 

  1. Sweet Cicely
  2. Chervil
  3. Sweet Woodruff
  4. Wintergreen
  5. Pennyroyal
  6. Coriander
  7. Fennel
  8. Dill
  9. Rosemary

Fresh leaves may be picked when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves or seeds after dew has disappeared but, before the sun becomes too hot. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick the seed heads as the color changes from green to brown or gray. 

Dried herbs can be just as tasty as those bought at the store. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering, so this is a good time to collect them for drying and storage. However, proper handling is important to the success of your herb harvest. 

  1. Cut off the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has dried. Cut annuals off at ground level, and perennials about one-third down the main stem, including the side branches.
  2. Wash herbs, with the leaves on the stems, lightly in cold running water to remove any soil, dust, bugs, or other foreign material.
  3. Drain thoroughly on absorbent towels or hang upside down in the sun until the water evaporates.
  4. Strip leaves off the stalks once plants have drained and dried, leaving only the top 6 inches. Remove all blossoms.
  5. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark by hanging plant upside down in bunches in paper bags.
  6. Tie whole stems very tightly in small bunches. Individual stems will shrink and fall. Hang in a dark, warm well-ventilated, dust-free area.
  7. Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly in about 1 to 2 weeks.

For quick oven drying, take care to prevent loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven for about 2 to 4 hours. Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds. 

When completely dry, the leaves may be screened to a powder or stored whole in airtight containers, such as canning jars with tightly sealed lids. Seeds should be stored whole and ground as needed. Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just before use. Once you are sure the herbs are completely dry, place them in the airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place away from light. Never use paper or cardboard containers for storage as they will absorb the herbs’ aromatic oils. 

Herbs also can be frozen. Harvest herbs according to recommendations. Wash them thoroughly and blanch them in boiling, water. Cool them quickly in ice water and then package and freeze them. 

Most perennial herbs are hardy plants that can survive winter. Here are some suggestions to help with plant survival. Pruning should be done during spring and summer; avoid excessively cutting the plants back in the fall. The growth serves to catch leaves that help insulate the plants. An additional mulch can be placed around the plants. Avoid a mulch that packs down and stays too wet during the winter, which would cause the plants to rot. Plants that are marginally hardy (such as rosemary and Greek oregano) should be dug up, potted, and over-wintered indoors. They can be moved back to the garden the following spring. 

Some of the most popular herbs are:

  1. Tarragon – Tarragon leaves have a distinctive anise flavor and are used in salads, marinades, and sauces. Tarragon grows best in full sun but seems to do better in semi-shade. It can be propagated from root cuttings or by division. It has multi-branched growth with narrow, somewhat twisted, green leaves and grows to about 2 feet.
  2. Woodruff – Sweet woodruff is most often used in flavoring wine and in other drinks. Sweet woodruff can be grown as a perennial. It is a low, spreading, perennial plant that forms clumps about 8 inches in height. Harvest and dry plants in the spring when fragrance is the strongest.
  3. Winter Savory – Winter savory is a condiment often used as a flavoring in liqueurs. Winter savory does best in a light, sandy soil. Keep dead wood trimmed out. Propagate by cuttings or raise from seed. Winter savory has dark green, shiny, pointed leaves, It grows about 2 feet tall. Pick young shoots and leaves any time.
  4. Thyme – Thyme is widely used as a seasoning. It goes well in soups, poultry stuffing, and slow-cooking beef dishes. This plant grows best in light, well-drained soil. Thyme is a low-growing, wiry-stemmed perennial that reaches about 6 to 10 inches in height. The stems are stiff and woody and leaves are small, oval, and gray-green in color. Propagate with cuttings or divisions. To harvest, cut leafy tops and flower clusters when first blossoms open and dry.
  5. Sage – This bitter herb is used in stuffing for poultry, rabbit, pork, and baked fish. It also can be used in sausage or meat loaves. Plant sage where it will receive full sun. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart. Sage is a woody, hardy perennial plant with oblong, woolly, gray-green leaves that grows 2 to 3 feet. Start from seed or cuttings. Harvest by picking leaves before or at blooming.
  6. Rosemary – Rosemary is a popular flavoring for meats and dressings or as a garnish on pot roasts. Rosemary grows best in well-drained, sunny locations in lime-rich soil. Rosemary is a hardy evergreen shrub. It can be propagated by cuttings or grown from seed. Leaves may be harvested anytime.
  7. Oregano – Sprinkle leaves over lamb or steak rubbed with lemon juice, or add to other Italian-type sauces. Oregano grows well in poor soil and with lots of sun. It is propagated by seed or division. Use fresh leaves as needed.
  8. Sweet Marjoram – Sweet marjoram leaves, fresh or dried, can be used as a flavoring in cooking. Sweet marjoram, usually grown as an annual, it is very fragrant. This plant can be easily grown from seed or cuttings. Its growth habit is low and spreading, and it reaches a height of about 8 to 12 inches. It has small, oval, gray-green leaves that are velvety to the touch. Sweet marjoram leaves can be used anytime.
  9. Florence Fennel – Fennel leaves have an anise-like flavor and the stems can be eaten like celery. Fennel is a perennial that grows to about 3 to 4 feet tall. Fennel grows easily from seed planted in the garden in spring. Pick seeds when ripe. The best stems for eating are the tender flower stalks just before they blossom.
  10. Hyssop – Hyssop’s pungent leaves are used as a condiment. Hyssop will grow in poor soil. When it is established, it is a quite hardy plant. It is propagated from seed. Harvest leaves and stems as needed.
  11. Dill – Both the leaves and seeds of dill are used for flavoring pickles and sauerkraut. Dill is easily grown from seed sown in the garden in spring after all danger of frost has passed. Pick leaves just as flowers open and seeds when they are flat and brown.
  12. Coriander – Coriander seeds are used as a condiment in confections. This plant does well in any good garden soil. Coriander is easily grown from seed. Gather seeds as they ripen in midsummer.
  13. Peppermint – The leaves are used in tea and for other flavoring. The plant will grow in sun or shade. Peppermint is a perennial plant with spreading roots and many upright stems 2 feet in height. Propagate by division or cuttings. Use leaves any time.
  14. Parsley – Parsley is used for both garnishing and flavoring. Plant in full sun in average soil. Parsley is a hardy annual. Leaves can be used fresh or dried. Can be harvested as needed.
  15. Chives – Chives are used to give an onion-like flavor to foods. Chives demand little care other than dividing occasionally. They are easily propagated by division. Cut fresh leaves for use as they are needed.
  16. Sweet Basil – Basil is used for tomato dishes in either fresh or dried form. Basil is an attractive annual, about 18 inches tall. Basil grows easily from seed planted after all danger of frost has passed. Green leaves can be picked anytime but it is best to cut leaves for drying just before flowers open.
  17. Chervil – Chervil leaves are used in soups, salads, sauces, and egg dishes. Chervil is an annual plant that grows up to 2 feet tall. Chervil can be raised from seed sown in the garden. Pick leaves just before the buds break.
  18. Borage – Borage flowers and leaves are used to give a cool, cucumber-like flavor to summer drinks and with tomato dishes. Borage is easily grown from seed. This plant does best in dry, sunny places. Pick blossoms as they open and use leaves fresh anytime although they are seldom dried.

Herbs are fun and easy to grow, most fit in well in a sunny border with your other perennials. We like to use herbs along walks where their fragrance can be released as you walk by. Most add charm to cut flower arrangements and are a natural when dried for wreathes and baskets. Not everything can be enjoyed in so many ways like herbs.

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Selecting and Growing Tomatoes

Icon Written by Geoff on May 1, 2001 – 7:21 pm

Tomatoes are our most popular vegetable (actually they are a fruit that was once considered poisonous) found in the home garden. It is one of the easiest plants to grow. More seed catalog pages are devoted to this plant than any other. We have bush tomatoes, vine tomatoes, and even tree tomatoes. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the mammoth Beefsteak to the lowly Pearl. Colors range from the almost black “Black Knight” to the light green “Granny Smith.” Although they are a warm climate plant, originating in Mexico, tomatoes can be grown outdoors in all 50 states. 

For this month’s Yard Talk we will be talking about the round red slicing tomato. Future Yard Talks will be devoted to the other varieties such as the cherry, low-acid yellows, sauce tomatoes, and colorful specialty plants. We are also limiting ourself to growing tomatoes from seedlings rather than seeds. Growing tomatoes from seeds can be an excellent means of obtaining select plants but is a subject we will also cover later. 

The first thing we need to consider is site selection. Tomatoes like full sunlight and warmth, a little wind protection is also appreciated. A sunny spot on a hillside against a stone wall is ideal. We also like to grow our plants in raised beds to improve drainage and air circulation. Raised beds also makes picking easy. The rock wall stores heat and the hillside elevation helps protect the tomatoes from frost. Never plant tomatoes near nut trees such as walnut or butternut as all parts of the trees produce toxins that can be fatal. Even the roots are harmful long after the trees have been removed. 

Tomatoes need fertile soil to produce well; although, overfeeding will grow large plants and reduce fruit production. We like to prepare the bed to a depth of 18-24 inches, working in lots of organic matter. Each season we add a 6-8 inch layer of compost, chopped leaves, and blood meal. Tomatoes respond well to inorganic fertilizer applications, especially phosphorus. Apply 2 to 3 pounds of fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, 5-20-20, or 8-16-16 per 100 square feet of garden area. Work the fertilizer into the soil about two weeks before planting and then cover with a light mulch. 

Next, we must choose the varieties we will be growing. Other area gardener’s experience can help you here, they know what has worked in their garden in the past. A good garden center can also tell you what preforms best in your area. Seed companies such as Burpee’sJohnny’s or Territorial’s offers a wealth of information that can make the selection easier. For information on organic varieties visit Seeds of Change web site. Some of these seed companies even offer seedlings for sale on line or mail-order. 

There are two kinds of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes stop growing and flowering when they reach a certain height. People in short season areas like to plant these kinds of tomatoes because they produce lots of fruit for a short period. Unfortunately, the key word here which is often overlooked is “short period.” We have often heard people say “I do not know what happened all of a sudden all my plants died.” Determinate tomatoes tend to take up less space than the indeterminate varieties. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow and fruit until the first frost kills them. We always try to plant a few varieties of determinate tomatoes, for an early crop, followed by a main crop of several indeterminate varieties. These generally require staking, cages, or better yet a trellis. 

Actually, we recommend supporting for all varieties. Supporting the plants helps prevent disease, keeps the fruit cleaner, and makes maintenance and harvesting easy. Tomatoes can be supported with a variety of staking methods. A cage made out of 5 foot long sheet of concrete reinforcing mesh, which was rolled into a cylinder and staked into the ground works well. Make sure the size of the holes in the mesh is wide enough for your hand and the tomato can go through at harvesting time. Smaller varieties can be supported with branches or bamboo poles, weaving vine or raffia around the branches. Last season we built a 60 foot trellis out of ten foot 4 x 4’s and 1 x 3 stringers that worked out extremely well. Our plants were taller than our home, the yield was the best ever, and we still were harvesting tomatoes after the first snow. 

Choose a tomato that is resistant to diseases that are present in all gardens soils such as verticillium wilt, Fusarium wilt, Nematodes or Tobacco mosaic virus. The plant tag will have initials such as V. F. N. or T. to indicate resistance to these diseases. 

Key to Common Tomato Resistance:

EB – Early Blight
F1 – Fusarium wilt, race 1
F2 – Fusarium wilt, race 2
LB – Late Blight
N – Nematodes
TMV – Tobacco Mosaic Virus
ToMV – Tomato Mosaic Virus, strains 0, 1, and 2
V – Verticullium wilt, race 1

Whenever possible, practice a rotational planting program. Also, destroying all the vines at the end of the year is a good practice. 

Tomatoes have few insect pests. Flea beetles can be a problem early in the season. Use Rotenone or a crop row cover to discourage them if necessary. Tomato horn worms can be controlled with Bacillus thuringienses although most can be easily picked off. 

Some varieties we have that preformed well in our garden are:

  1. Burpee’s Big Girl Hybrid: – Combines the quality of Big Boy with disease resistance. Large, smooth, crack-resistant fruits. Mouth-watering flavor. Proven tops for performance, flavor and wide adaptability.
  2. Brandywine: – This is the best known of all heirlooms. The fruit has a very large beefsteak shape and grow on unusually upright, potato-leaved plants. The fruits set one or two per cluster and ripen late. At summer’s end, Brandywine’s qualities really shine when it develops an incredible fine, sweet flavor. Fruits average 1 lb. each.
  3. Celebrity Tomato: – All-purpose variety with superb flavor, disease resistance and heavy yield in 70 days. All-purpose variety with superb flavor, disease resistance and heavy yield on determinate plants. Crack-resistant fruits average 7 oz.
  4. Burpee’s Big Boy Hybrid: – Enormous productivity and gorgeous, perfect, extra-large scarlet fruit. What has kept it ahead of the pack all these years is its wonderful aroma and rich flavor. The large fruit average 10 oz., with many more than 1 lb. Healthy, indeterminate vines.
  5. Rutgers Heirloom: – Its flavor, both for slicing and cooking are unequaled. Red fruits are slightly flattened. Tall vines, fusarium resistant.
  6. JOHNNY’S 361: – Delicious beefsteak type. This early tomato has established a following in the Northern U.S. and Canada. Johnny’s 361’s slightly flattened fruits are firm and medium-large, deep red, and delicious. The plant is compact and has a heavy early set. Determinate.
  7. Stupice Red: – Extremely early, prolific variety with exceptional taste. Sweet and juicy small to medium-sized fruits grow on compact vines, and are glossy red. Its potato-like foliage protects 2-3 inches in diameter fruits from sun scald. 2-4 foot plant. Indeterminate.
  8. Better Boy: – Huge, delicious, red fruits many 1 lb. each. Good leaf coverage. Excellent disease resistance.
  9. Bucks County Hybrid: – It’s got wonderful old- fashioned flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture. The breeders took a luscious and richly flavored heirloom and added modern high yields, early ripening and a perfect shape.

With a deep root system, tomatoes enjoy a deep watering, down to at least 18 inches. It’s better to water heavily than just sprinkling each day. At the same time, they do not like standing in water. The top inch needs to dry out between watering. Consistent watering prevents cracking and end rot. We prefer using a drip irrigation system with our tomatoes. 

Select stocky, dark green tomato plants without fruit, to set out in the garden. Be sure there are no spots or insects. Choose several varieties of tomatoes to plant in your garden to insure against crop failure. We always try to plant on a cloudy, rainy day, after May 15th here in Zone 5. Plant tomatoes deeply and bury most of the stem, even on its side, up to the first set of true leaves. The buried stem will send out deeper roots. This makes sturdier plants because new roots will grow along the stem that has been buried. If you have acid soils or have been bothered by blossom end rot, a handful of bone meal should also be added to each plant. Space determinate variety’s 18-24 inches apart and indeterminate variety’s 20-30 inches apart. Allow 36 inches between rows. Water immediately after planting. 

Remove the suckers or side shoots that grow in the joints between the main stem and leaves until the plant sets the first fruits. After that, allow some of the suckers to grow to provide shade for ripening tomatoes. 

Tomatoes need a proper balance of nutrients throughout their growing cycle. Inorganic fertilizer should include on its label the Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium ratio, such as 5-10-10 or 10-10-10. Sprinkle the fertilizer mix approximately one foot from the base of the tomato plant, make sure you encircle the entire plant. Work the fertilizer lightly into the soil’s surface or apply a layer of mulch. Fertilize every 15 to 21 days. Avoid contacting any part of the tomato plant with your fertilizer as this could burn the plant. Lately we have tested a balanced time release fertilizer that slowly breaks down over a 6-9 months period. While more expensive, it takes some guess work out of fertilizing. 

Let’s face it, tomatoes are fun to grow! There just is something rewarding about being able to easily harvest armful after armful of beautiful shinny red tomatoes. They also taste good.

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Landscape Mulches

Icon Written by Geoff on April 1, 2001 – 5:18 pm

In this month’s Yard Talk we will look at mulch and mulching (Cedar Chips, Cypress, Bark, Cocoa Beans, Stone, Straw, and More). First, let’s take a look at why we should mulch in the first place. Applying mulch to your garden is a good conservation practice. Thick mulch helps prevent loss of top soil from wind and water erosion. Mulching reduces soil compaction, decreases water loss from the soil through evaporation, and lessens soil temperature fluctuations. Mulch tempers the effects of heat and cold. In the winter months the soil in a garden heaves between the combined effects of freezing, thawing and then refreezing, which also can damage plants and shrubs. A layer of mulch over soil acts as an insulator by keeping it cool in the summer months and mulch helps eliminate danger to plants from the freeze-thaw cycle. 

Organic mulch decomposes and becomes part of the soil, improving drainage, organic content, and texture. Microbes work by the millions to break down the organic matter and turn it into humus, this buffers the soil pH and improves the soil. A continuous supply of mulch means the bacterial and fungal activity can crowd out the bad stuff. Since pathogenic and pest activities are reduced, your plants should be healthier. Mulching enriches and protects soil thus, helping to provide a better growing environment. 

Organic mulch is also important from the visual perspective. How others see our garden is very important to most gardeners. Mulch keeps our gardens neat and trim. Mulch is useful for weed suppression and control. Mulch comes in a variety of colors and textures to meet your needs. Gone are the days of wood chips and pine bark. Many companies now offer wood and bark chips that have been colorized to match a gardens decor. Colleges and universities now have their landscape areas mulched to match their “school colors.” What true Nebraska “Husker” Fan would be without his or her own perennial bed mulched in red and white. 

Inorganic mulch like stones, black plastic and landscape fabric are also useful tools. Stones and marble chips do the same job as organic mulches. They lend a more formal look to a landscape and help prevent weeds. Most inorganic mulch is used with plastic sheeting to stifle weed growth. Landscaping fabric is an alternative to plastic sheeting that offers a barrier while allowing water to pass through into the soil. They allow the soil to breathe and absorb oxygen unlike plastic sheeting. While inorganic mulches have their place in the garden, they lack the soil improving properties of organic mulches. An inorganic mulch may be difficult to remove if you decide to change your garden plans later. 

Mulching is one of the simplest and most beneficial tools you can use in the garden. Mulching then does the following:

  1. Protects the soil
  2. Reduces compaction
  3. Conserves moisture
  4. Maintains an even soil temperature
  5. Prevents weed growth
  6. Enriches the soil
  7. Makes the garden look good

In choosing a mulch, consider first what is available in your area. The best place to look at different types of mulch is at a garden center. A mulch with course particles remains loose and lasts longer so it’s a better choice. A mulch with fine particles can become compacted and will decompose faster. 

Most of us have grass clippings that can be recycled as mulch when dry and shredded. Vegetables will benefit from dried grass clippings that are rich in nitrogen. Do not use grass clippings that were treated with broad-leaf weed killers. Leaves are a good source of organic mulch if ground up. You can buy wood bark chips and nuggets in bags, which cover roughly 10-12 square feet spread 2-3 inch thick. A better way is to buy bark chips in bulk form. In some communities the local tree services offers bark chips. 

Types of mulch:

  1. Bark chips – biodegradable, apply 2-3 inches. Advantages: Attractive, good for permanent mulch, and reusable. Disadvantages: May hinder water penetration. Decomposes slowly unless composted first.
  2. Brick chips – will not decompose, apply 2-3 inches. Advantages: Cheaper than stone mulch and non-flammable. Disadvantages: Not readily available, high moisture retention, and no organic matter added.
  3. Compost – biodegradable, apply 1-2 inches. Advantages: Contributes nutrients, turns quickly to humus. Disadvantages: Needs heating period to kill off weed seeds and diseases and may have unpleasant odor.
  4. Corncobs and cornstalks – biodegradable, apply 3-4 inches. Advantages: Readily available in most areas and good weed control. Disadvantages: Water cannot penetrate well and may generate heat.
  5. Cottonseed hulls – biodegradable, apply 2-4 inches. Advantages: Fertilizing value similar cottonseed meal. Disadvantages: Very light, wind scatters.
  6. Grass clippings – biodegradable, apply 2-3 inches. Advantages: Improves soil by adding organic matter. Disadvantages: Absorbent, may carry weed seed.
  7. Hay – biodegradable, apply 4-6 inches. Advantages: Legume hays (alfalfa) add nitrogen. Disadvantages: First cut hay full of weed seeds and offers poor weed control.
  8. Leaves – biodegradable, apply 2-3 inches. Advantages: Contain many trace minerals, best food for earthworms. Disadvantages: May become soggy and pack, hindering water penetration.
  9. Paper – biodegradable, apply 5-6 pages or 4-6 inches, shredded. Advantages: May add trace minerals, decomposes readily. Disadvantages: May pack and hinder water penetration.
  10. Peanut hulls – biodegradable, apply 2-3 inches. Advantages: Adds nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and decomposes rapidly. Disadvantages: Not readily available in North.
  11. Peat moss – biodegradable, apply 3-5 inches. Advantages: Clean and free of weed seeds and improves water retention when tilled into sandy soil. Disadvantages: Extremely absorbent, water penetration hindered and expensive.
  12. Pine needles – biodegradable, apply 3-4 inches. Advantages: Light, usually free of weed seeds, absorbs little moisture nor does it pack. Disadvantages: Decomposes very slowly.
  13. Polyethylene – will not decompose, apply one layer. Advantages: Retains but absorbs no moisture, black is effective weed control. Disadvantages: Weeds grow under clear plastic and rain will not go through easily.
  14. Rock – crushed gravel or marble chips, will not decompose, apply 1-2 inches. Advantages: Relatively inexpensive, not absorbent, water penetrates, and non-flammable. Disadvantages: Poor weed control and adds no organic matter to soil.
  15. Salt marsh hay – biodegradable, apply 4-6 inches. Advantages: Usually weed-free; available in marshy areas or along coast, very long lasting. Disadvantages: Not available to everyone. Expensive if purchased.
  16. Straw – biodegradable, apply 4-6 inches. Advantages: Adds nutrients and lightens soil when tilled under. Disadvantages: Can be a fire hazard.
  17. Vermiculite or perlite: will not decompose, apply 1-2 inches. Advantages: Totally sterile, so will not carry disease and no weed seeds. Disadvantages: Expensive, very light; scatters, and hinders water penetration.
  18. Cocoa bean shells – biodegradable, apply 4-6 inches. Advantages: attractive color and smell. Disadvantages: Poor water retention, will float out in heavy rains, and makes you want to eat a chocolate bar.

Agricultural publication G06960 Revised July 31, 1998 has reference charts that will help you select which is best for your application. 

While cypress chips make an excellent long lasting mulch, we prefer to use other materials for environmental reasons. This endangered slow growing tree is being indiscriminately harvested to be ground into chips throughout the south. Our favorite mulch is 100% pure shredded sawmill bark that has been double ground. This has excellent uniform texture, color, and decomposition rate plus we like how it sets off our plants. A shredded double ground hardwood mulch with bark would be our second choice. We try to avoid soft woods and fruit woods because as a rule they contain a lot of resins. 

When to apply mulch depends on what you hope to achieve by mulching. Mulch, by providing an insulating barrier between the soil and the air, moderate the soil temperature. This means that a mulched soil in the summer will be cooler than an unmulched soil. While in the winter, the mulched soil may not freeze as deeply. If you are using mulches in your perennial garden, it is best to apply them after the soil has warmed up in the spring. Wait until the soil has warmed completely if you are adding additional mulch to existing perennial bed. Mulches used to help with winter temperatures can be applied late in the fall after the ground has frozen. Applying mulches before the ground has frozen may attract rodents looking for a warm overwintering site. 

Mulches are the gardener’s best friend, they reduce maintenance while adding to the garden’s beauty. The best mulch for you depends on many factors but basically boils down to what works best with your landscape. The cheapest mulch is not always the best you must consider what look you want to achieve. How often we have heard that the appearance of a mulch has no place in the selection process. We feel this is wrong, just look at your landscape areas. The area around the planting is what you focus on. A good mulch, be it cocoa beans or tar paper, is the one that sets off your plants the best.

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The Pruning of Shrubs

Icon Written by Geoff on March 1, 2001 – 5:36 pm

The most neglected maintenance task for most homeowner is taking care of our shrubs. Just like our homes, shrubs take a certain amount of maintenance to keep them attractive and healthy. One of the most important ways we can protect our investment is through regular pruning. Pruning is often misunderstood and improperly practiced. Proper pruning is not difficult if done regularly. A plant that has been neglected is difficult or impossible to prune. When a plant has become too large for normal pruning, it should be replaced. The use of dwarf plants reduces but does not eliminate pruning. 

The best time for pruning most shrubs is in the early spring while the plants are still dormant. Avoid major pruning in late summer and early fall, as this may force late growth that will be damaged by freezing. 

Since Spring flowering shrubs bloom on wood that matured during the previous growing season, if those branches are pruned in the fall, you eliminate the flowers that will bear next season. Therefore, always prune immediately after they have flowered. This will give your shrub the entire summer to develop flower buds for the next season. Renew main branches by cutting off old, shaggy branches that will not produce the best foliage or flowers. Cut the old branches right to the ground. Younger branches should be cut back to a bud, or to new green growth that has started during the current year. As you trim, open the center of the shrub to light and air which will encourage the plant to grow flowers on the inner branches. Some Spring flowering shrubs (March, April, May and early June blooming) are:

  1. Shadebush
  2. Common lilac
  3. Viburnum
  4. Fringetree
  5. Cranberry Bush
  6. Forsythia
  7. Weigela
  8. Mockorange
  9. Deutzia
  10. Bittersweet
  11. Flowering Almond
  12. Spirea

Summer flowering shrubs remain dormant through early spring and should be pruned at this time. They are among the last plants in the garden to recover from winter.These shrubs bloom on growth from the current year, and need to be pruned before new growth begins. Generally, prune back new growth once every spring. The best blooms will come from buds on branches that started during the previous season. By pruning young growth every year, the older branches will have newer growth at their tips. This will help it keep its shape from year to year. You should encourage some newer base branches every season so you can cut off the older, less productive branches. Most older branches will not produce vigorously beyond four years. Late-flowering shrubs (late June, July or August blooming) are:

  1. Abelia
  2. Beautyberry
  3. Vitex
  4. Barberry
  5. Rose of Sharon
  6. Butterfly bush
  7. Hydrangea
  8. Crape Myrtle
  9. Privet
  10. Summersweet
  11. Clethra
  12. Winged Euonymus

Most evergreens may be pruned in winter and early spring. Evergreens are often pruned twice: heavy cuts in early spring and a light cutting of the soft new growth in June. Evergreens should never be pruned in the summer and early fall. Prune broadleaf evergreens just before growth starts in the spring or immediately after flowering. As a general rule:

  1. Needle-leaf evergreens such as pines which produce candle-like growth in the spring, may be cut back at about half their length before it completely hardens. Shear young Mugho and Swiss Stone pines for a few years, then selectively pinch back new growth to keep the plants compact .
  2. Yews may be pruned at any time, but best results are obtained when they are pruned in the early spring before new growth emerges. The ensuing new growth will hide the pruning cuts.
  3. Arborvitaes and chamaecyparis can be pruned any time during the summer; but, care should be taken to be sure that where cuts are made, some foliage remains. Never cut back to bare wood, since the result will be unsightly.
  4. Rhododendrons, azaleas, hollies and other broad-leafed evergreensshould be pruned right after flowering as their flowers form during the summer months. Pruning that is carried out too late in the summer, will remove next seasons flowers.

A hedge must be pruned regularly to remain attractive. Most hedges need trimming at least twice a year, in the Spring and again in late summer, as soon as the new growth is complete. Some hedges may need as many as three and four trimmings a year. A dense hedge must be developed slowly. Plants such as privet or barberry need severe pruning immediately after planting and at the beginning of the second year to make them bushy. To develop a hedge that is well filled at the base, always trim so that the base is wider than the top. If the top is allowed to become wider than the base, the base will become thin and open as the top will shade out the bottom. 

Roses such as the hybrid teas, floribundas, grandifloras, hybrid perpetuals and polyanthas should be pruned in early spring as the buds are swelling but before growth has started. Remove all dead wood by cutting at least an inch below the dead area. Vigorous plants that have not been killed back should be pruned to between 18 and 24 inches. Remove all weak, thin wood at the base. Shrub roses that flower only in spring should be pruned after they have flowered. This consists of removing old canes and dead wood. Pruning of hybrid tea roses should consist of removing some of the top growth. Climbing roses should occasionally have the old canes removed. Ramblers that flower in the spring only may be pruned after flowering. Remove old, woody canes that have finished flowering at ground level. Allow new canes to remain and head back those that become too large. 

We should prune to:

  1. Improve survival chances at planting time.
  2. Control size and shape.
  3. Remove dead, diseased, weak or broken branches.
  4. Maintain natural beauty.
  5. Control flowering, fruiting or colored twig effect in certain plants.

We begin training the shrub when we first plant it with the removal of any diseased, damaged, or crossing branches. As the shrub grows, we will continue to remove such growth while trying to maintain the plant’s natural shape. You always want to maintain this natural shape unless you are trying to achieve a special effect such as with hedges, topiaries, cordons, or an espaliers. 

To maintain a plant’s health and vigor, you must regularly remove any diseased, dying, or dead wood. Unsound wood is a sure entry point for insects and diseases. Therefore, you want to make sure you cut back to sound heathy growth, preferably with a sterile blade, when pruning. Thinning out the shrub will also improve the penetration of light and air resulting in a more uniform, vigorous foliage growth. Many shrubs, such as lilacs, benefit from the regular removal of old limbs. 

Pruning will also improve the quality of flowering. When we remove some of the plants woody growth, it then can divert more energy into the production of larger, though possibly less, flowers. Since most shrubs bloom off new or one year old growth, timely pruning will increase the production of flower bearing limbs. 

Sometimes we need just to prune shrubs to keep them under control. While we should always select shrubs suitable for the space limitations sometimes, situations change. We must also keep shrubs off walks, doorways, and drives for safety considerations. Damage to the home can quickly happen if shrubs are allowed to contact siding, electrical wires, or roofing. Security is another factor we must consider when pruning. 

Some suggestions for pruning shrubs is offered by Jay Windsor Agricultural Agent,University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

  1. Barberry – Cut all 3-year-old wood back to the ground.
  2. Butterfly Bush – Prune 1-year-old wood back to a few buds. Remove all 2-year-old wood
  3. Cotoneaster – Remove only dead wood. Some tips may need to be removed to control growth.
  4. Deutzia – Remove 3-year-old wood to the ground. Remove weak growths.
  5. Forsythia – Remove 4-year-old wood to the ground. Do not remove pendulous branches until they become old and woody.
  6. Hydrangea – Prune after flowering to remove old canes. Cut flowering stems back to unflowered laterals.
  7. Honeysuckle – Prune lightly before and after blooming. Remove 2-year-old wood.
  8. Lilac – Remove seed pods, dead and diseased wood. If plants are grafted, suckers should be removed.
  9. Magnolia – Remove seed pods and practice only corrective pruning.
  10. Mockorange – Remove all 3-year-old wood to the ground. Remove spent flowering wood to a lateral.
  11. Privet – Remove 4-year-old wood to the ground.
  12. Rose of Sharon – Remove seed pods and all deadwood. Plant tends to become leggy if not trained well.
  13. Spirea – Remove all 3-year-old wood and 1-year-old wood cut back to a few buds.
  14. Viburnum – Remove dead wood to the ground.
  15. Weigela – Remove dead wood to the ground. Remove flowering wood back to unflowered laterals
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