Posts Tagged ‘Winter’

A Christmas at Martin’s Yard & Garden

Icon Written by Geoff on December 1, 2003 – 7:52 pm


Christmas is a very special time at Martin’s Yard & Garden. Many of our family traditions revolve around the Christmas Holiday. Activities start shortly after Thanksgiving, with our daughter PC and her husband Jon helping to decorate the exterior of our home. Decorating Day begins at the crack of dawn and usually finishing well after dark. 

Cookie Day

This is followed a week later with Christmas Cookie Day, a traditions spanning generations. A fun filled day involving anyone not afraid to measure, stir, bake and of course, eat a few cookies. Even Madison, our English Setter, gets involved. Since we usually bake between 900-1200 cookies, for friends and relatives, this happening lasts well into evening hours. 

Some where between Outdoor Decorating and Cookie Day, Marty (my partner in arms) and I, choose the Christmas Tree. While some of our most cherished memories involve selecting the family Christmas Tree, it is not an easy task. The selection process has been know to take most of the day, involving much discussion, a few minor injuries, and a lot of travel. 

There are just some things that cannot be rushed, they are meant to be savored. Marty and I believe in taking our time, enjoying each others company and the holiday experience. The poem The Last Christmas Tree by Howard D. Fencl is a cute tale of a father and son hunting for the family tree. 

From experience, we know the best evergreens for “the” Christmas Trees are: Concolor Fir, Douglas Fir, Noble Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and White Pine. Most of these can be found on any retail or cut your own tree farm. 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, Norfolk Island Pines, and “Fake Trees” used for Christmas Trees. 

Eggscape Ornament


Yes, last season, we bought an artificial tree for our second tree. Over the years Marty has collected numerous Christmas Egg Ornaments, many made by our son Geoff. 

We first displayed them along with our traditional ornaments, as the collection grew a second tree was required. After several years of trying to find two “perfect” trees we decided to give a fake tree a try. This proved a perfect solution, although it does not smell or taste as good. 

Whether you select an artificial tree, real cut tree, or a living tree, try to make selecting the tree a family event. Do not be afraid to experiment and try new ideas. Get the whole family involved rather it be for Cookie Day, Outdoor Decorating, or Tree Selection. These happenings last forever as fun times and fond memories.

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Forcing Branches for an Early Spring

Icon Written by Geoff on February 1, 2003 – 7:03 pm

We really like Winter, to snowshoe and ski through the cleansing blankets of snow. How different our woodlot appears in the stark glow of a Winters moon. I like to run through the powder, falling down once and again to make snow angels on the hillsides. Being an outdoor person Winter is just another time for me to enjoy the wonders of nature. 

Unfortunately, last year I had to have surgery which meant no snowshoeing, skiing, and definitely no snow angels. I suddenly learned why so many people found Winter to be depressing. That was until I rediscovered the refreshing beauty of forcing branches for early Spring bloom. 

I had forgotten just how easy and how much fun forcing can be. Almost any Spring flowering shrub’s branches can be forced to bloom by February. Just grab those pruning sheers and whack off a few healthy branches just loaded with buds. Actually since we are talking about cutting shrubs which normally you baby the rest of the year you should take a little care with the whacking bit. You want to follow normal sound pruning techniques and cut off 16 – 24 inch branches although size does not really matter. 

Bring the branches inside, cut each branch at a slant, and place in a suitable container. Place the container in a cool dark area away from drafts. Change the water every 2-3 days, maintaining the original level. Bloom times will vary with the type of shrub, when the cuttings were taken, and storage conditions but usually is no longer than 3-6 weeks. 

When the flower buds are just opening move the container to your display location. Bright indirect lighting is best. Keep watering to maintain the original level. To prolong blooming move to a cool area at night. You now have a little bit of Spring to chase away the gloom.

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Forcing Flowering Bulbs

Icon Written by Geoff on November 1, 2002 – 7:05 pm

Winter, even for those of us that enjoy its beauty, can become rather drab for the home gardener. Although growing houseplants helps, they somehow start to lose their excitement after a while. This is when coaxing spring bulbs to flower indoors in the dead of winter is especially welcome. Bulbs can add color, aroma, and excitement to a home like nothing else. One look at a container of Katie Heath daffodils warms the heart and reminds us that spring is just around the corner. 

Getting bulbs to bloom indoors ahead of schedule is called forcing. Forcing is a process by which plants are stimulated to bloom other than at their normal time. Many spring bulbs can be forced indoors with only a little effort on our part. 

The first step is to select those varieties you wish to force. You will want to select the largest, healthiest bulbs for most flowers. Forced tulips do not bloom quite as well as garden planted tulips because they require a long rooting period but are still better than nothing. 

Some of the easiest varieties to force according to Nancy Anderson, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service Agriculture Agent, working as the Urban Horticulture Agent in Cumberland County are: 

  1. Narcissus – Barrett Browning, Bridal Crown, Dutch Master, Ice Follies, Paperwhites, Golden Harvest, Spell Binder, Salome, Pink Charm, Flower Record, Louis Armstrong, Unsurpassable, Tete-a-Tete, Jenny, Barrett Browning, Cheerfulness.
  2. Large-flowering crocus – Pickwick, Rembrance, Flower Record, Perter Pan, Purpurea Grandiflora.
  3. Hyacinth – Amethyst, Blue Jacket, Jan Bros, L’Innocence, Pink Pearl, Delft Blue, Hollyhock, Anna Marie, Violet Pearl, Gypsy Queen, Carnegie.
  4. Muscari – Blue Spike, Early Giant.
  5. Tulip -Apricot Beauty, Bing Crosby, Edith Eddy, Mirjorma, Yokohama, Jingle Bells, Attila, White Dream, Princess Victoria, White Swallow, Estella Rijnveld.

A listing of other suitable bulbs for forcing can be viewed at The Dirt Gardener’s website

Bulbs can be grown in any type of container. The roots are not long so the pot need not be deep. The pot size is important. It should be just large enough to hold all the bulbs without allowing them to touch each other or the sides of the pot. Choose a pot that is at least twice as tall as the bulbs. 

Since bulbs require porous soil and perfect drainage, a mixture of equal parts peat moss, potting soil, sand and vermiculite or perlite works well. Mix thoroughly and moisten with enough water to a damp consistency. Add one teaspoon of 5-10-5 dry slow release fertilizer to every quart of soil mix to give the bulbs an extra boost after flowering. Special bulb fiber may be used in place of potting soil. If you use fiber, place a one inch layer of soil or sand in the bottom of the pot first. Place a few pieces of broken pots or pebbles over the drainage holes, to prevent the soil from running out initially or clogging later. 

Fill the pot with your potting mixture so that each bulb top is even with the top edge of the container. Sprinkle soil around the bulbs until only the shoulders are showing. Plant several bulbs in a container for best display. They should be placed close together, but should not touch each other or the pot. Water the soil and keep it moist. 

Now your bulbs must be “chilled”, this is a period required for most bulbs to develop a strong root system. Begin 15-16 weeks before you want your bulbs to bloom. You need an area where bulbs can be stored at a cold temperature. A cool garage, unheated basement, or even an old refrigerator will do. Beware though that bulbs often do not mix with fruits in enclosed spaces because of the ethylene gas they give off as they ripen. Ethylene gas exposure can cause partial or incomplete flower abortion, retard growth, cause growth abnormalities such as excessive leafiness, shorten the lifespan of cut flowers, and inhibit development of flower buds. 

Place the pots in the area you selected for chilling. Ideally, temperatures should be 35-48 degrees Fahrenheit. If necessary, set boxes, pots or black garbage bags over your potted bulbs to keep them dark during the cooling period. Turning the pots every day or so keeps the flower stems straight and strong. In a week or two, the stems will elongate and the buds will become plump. 

When the stems are about 2 inches, tall, move the pot to a warm sunny spot to stimulate bloom. Move the pots to a bright, sunny window in the house, where temperatures are near 65 degrees once the foliage and buds are well developed. 

As the flowers begin to open, take the plants out of direct sunlight to prolong the bloom. During flowering, keep the plants in as cool an area as possible to encourage longer blooming. Keep the soil evenly moist and keep out of direct heat or drafts. 

After flowering, cut off the flower stems and place the pots in direct sunlight, keeping the foliage growing until it begins to die back. Hardy bulbs such as hyacinths and tulips cannot be forced again and should be discarded. You can try to plant them outdoors but it may take them a year or two to rebloom. 

Hyacinth, crocus and paperwhite narcissus, can be forced in water. You will have to anchor these bulbs to the bottom with small stones or use special forcing glasses. The glass is short and somewhat hourglass shaped. Keep the vase cool and dark for 3 to 6 weeks or until their roots have developed and the shoots appear. Bring the vase to a bright area where the bulb will flower as with conventional forcing methods. Bulbs that have been forced in water should be discarded after flowering. 

Forced bulbs can bring a little of Spring into your home even during the darkest Winter months. With very little work you can brighten up your home. Containers of forced bulbs also make welcome gifts, particularly during the holiday season.

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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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The Christmas Tree

Icon Written by Geoff on December 1, 2000 – 8:03 pm

Selecting the family Christmas Tree is a long standing tradition in the Martin household. The selection process often takes most of the day and involves the whole family. We have had firs, pines, spruces and even a hemlock. My wife’s favorite is the Douglas Fir while the Fraser Fir is my favorite. No matter what variety, our Christmas Trees had to be big and full. Some of our fondest memories are of going out on a cold clear winter’s day selecting a tree. 

Some people promote artificial trees as a way of protecting the environment. Since a fake tree is a petroleum based product, consuming vast amounts of non-renewable natural resources to produce, this reason has little merit. Plastic trees also have only a life span of six years in the home but will last for centuries in the landfill. For those people that consider living trees messy there are varieties such as the Leyland Cypress that do not shed their needles. Real Christmas trees today are grown on large plantations as a cash crop. Here they provide homes, food, and shelter for wildlife. How many birds nests do you see in artificial trees? For our family, the only choice is between a living cut tree or potted living tree. 

A word of caution for those choosing a potted tree, they require careful planning and a lot more work. According to the National Christmas Tree council, to use a living tree successfully, you need to observe the following points:

  1. The adaptability of the species to your yard should be considered. Many species are shipped outside their natural area and may not be adaptable to other areas.
  2. The tree should be stored in an unheated, sheltered area such as a garage.
  3. The tree will need adequate water. The root ball or soil should be kept lightly damp but not flooded. Wrap the root ball of a balled tree in plastic or place in a tub while it is in the house.
  4. Once inside, the tree should be placed in a cool area out of direct light. Please remember though, that since this is a living plant, it still needs some light to survive.
  5. Live trees may be decorated, but with care. If lights are used, they must not give off any heat.
  6. Do not remove the tree directly from a warm house out into freezing temperatures. Instead, move to a sheltered area first for several days.
  7. If the ground is unfrozen, the tree may be replanted. The spot to be dug may be mulched to prevent freezing. Plant when possible.
  8. Do not remove the burlap and strapping (unless it is plastic) this keeps the root ball solid and secure.
  9. Do not attempt to remove soil from the root system. Earth removed from the original hole should be backfilled around the root ball.
  10. Mulch heavily over the top of the planted root ball to prevent it from freezing. Water only as needed: a flooded tree may not survive.
  11. Stake the trees to prevent wind tipping or damage during the first growing season.

We prefer cut living trees that are recyclable. In our area in Zone 5 in Southwestern Lower Michigan, we have seen too many trees that did not survive the harsh Winters. With care and proper selection, a living cut tree can last a very long time. The type of tree you select has an important bearing on how long it will last. Some trees are much more prone to dropping their needles than others. Some trees are even painted to help them hold their needles and color. You can avoid this by buying locally cut trees or better yet, cutting your own. The poem The Last Christmas Tree by Howard D. Fencl is a cute tale of a father and son Christmas Tree hunting. 

Whether you select an artificial tree, real cut tree, or a living tree, try to make selecting the tree a family event. Take your time, and enjoy the experience.

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Bonsai for The Winter Months

Icon Written by Geoff on November 1, 2000 – 6:34 pm

Bonsai is the art of growing trees in a confined space, usually a pot or a tray. Bonsai does not refer to a type of plant, but describes a method of pruning and shaping to create an illusion of a very old tree in miniature. In Bonsai we try to simulate certain environmental conditions such as great age, extreme weathering, and twisted or contorted forms. Bonsai is modeled on, and often takes inspiration from nature. A bonsai can be created from any plant that has a woody trunk and tolerates pruning well. Bonsai can be loosely divided into tropical plants, deciduous shrubs and evergreens. The idea of bonsai is to recreate some of nature’s most stunning and beautiful effects on trees reduced in scale. 

All bonsai practioners will agree on, is the idea that bonsai should simulate age to produce the appearance of maturity in your tree. Although the tree may only be ten or fifteen years old, you can make it look as if it has been growing for decades or even centuries. The trunks of bonsai should be very wide at the base and taper smoothly to the top of the tree. 

We like our trees to look as natural as possible, this means a couple of different things. Let the tree itself suggest possibilities to you. Make that a feature of your bonsai. There are always possibilities in every tree, the trick is in finding them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are several classifications, such as formal upright, informal upright, cascade and windswept but, what really matters, is what looks right to you. There is no right or wrong way to measure beauty. 

Many tools used in bonsai are readily available, you could have some already for houseplant or garden use. The most important tool is a pair of shears to cut thin branches and roots. A small pair of scissors will be useful for fine pruning. Wire cutters are not only good for cutting wire but also for cutting branches close to the trunk. You will need pliers for wiring, the size again depends on the size of the plant and wire. Copper wire is traditionally used, because it is flexible yet strong. A root rake, which looks like a fork with the tines bent down at right angle. A turntable is really handy. A soil sieve is used to remove the fine particles from your soil mix. They are available from garden centers or catalogues. A watering can is essential. Twist-ties are good to pull down a branch and tie it to another or down to the rim of a pot. 

Pruning establishes the basic shape of the bonsai. By removing unnecessary branches, and thus enhancing others, you establish the style the tree will be. This is usually done only once, after which small shoots are pruned or removed, new growth is pinched back, and branches are wired to change or modify their position. There are two basic rules for removing branches, no branch should grow toward the front nor should branches cross each other. All other pruning is your choice, as you create in this little plant a vision of what you perceive this tree to represent.

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The Sugar Bush

Icon Written by Geoff on April 1, 2000 – 7:17 pm

This time of year, in the North Country, sunshine is just starting to warm the forest floor, teasing us with our first taste of Spring. This is the time of warming days and cold freezing nights. In the times before the white settlers the Native Americans would be packing up and moving to their selected area of the Sugar Bush. Often the location of these areas were closely guarded and passed down from generation to generation. Wars were fought to keep the location of these sacred spots a secret. 

What is the Sugar Bush that the Native American so closely guarded? The Sugar Bush is the term the early settlers applied to those stands of trees tapped for sugaring. In the spring when the daytime temperature reach above freezing and the nighttime temperatures plummet below is the time when the sap starts to flow. The sugaring season is often short, the first run being the best. Spring rains delete the flavor and once the buds swell the sap develops a bad taste. 

Any trees that produce free flowing sap can be used to make syrup although most produce little sugar or taste very bad. The trees most often tapped in the North Country are the hickory walnut cherry birch , and maple . Some of my fondest memories of my youth are of the early morning breakfasts at our cabin on Little Traverse Lake eating flapjacks smothered in “hickory syrup”, watching the sun slowly rise over Sugar Loaf Mountain. As youngsters we use to save our pennys for the “maple sugar candy” found at Radar’s Totem Shop. What truly sweet memories those were. 

The tree most often associated with sugar making is the maple. While there are over 160 species of maple the Sugar Maple is the one most usually tapped for syrup. It takes about 40 gallons of Sugar Maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup, compared to 190 gallons from the Japanese Cutleaf Maple specimen tree in your rock garden. 

Native Americans and early settlers simply gashed the tree with an ax to obtain the sap, a little hard on the trees but effective. Today we use aluminum tubes or spiles to tap the tree. Holes are drilled 2-3 1/2 inches into the south side of the tree about 3 feet off the ground and spiles inserted. One spile may produce 1 gallon of sap a day or 12 gallons a season. No more than 3-4 spiles are placed in a tree and never in one less than 10 inches in diameter. Unlike using an ax, this does not harm the tree. 

Our forefathers used birch bark containers, wooden buckets, and eventually tin pails to collect the sap. Today, with sugar making being a big business, miles of plastic tubing is used to collect the sap and pump it to the sugar house. Little sugar is made today, most sap is made into syrup. To produce syrup, sap is boiled to 218 degrees Fahrenheit before it is put into containers. Today this is done in large stainless steel boilers and cooling tanks. Long gone are the days of open wood fires, large copper kettles, and little kids waiting for the “sugar to be ready”. 

Also gone are the days when every county in the “Sugar Bush” had two or three “sugar camps”. These were small family run operations. Everyone pitched in from cutting and splitting wood, tapping the trees, driving the sled to gather sap, and; of course, the long hours of boiling the sap into syrup. While hard work, it was a family time, like barn raising, haying, quilting bees, and cookie making. Unfortunately, most of the “Sugar Shacks” have disappeared along with much of the “Sugar Bush” from the North Country. Gone are the Bufkas and the Novotnys, of the far North, and their long traditions of fine sugar making. 

Why not take time this Spring with your family to make a little syrup or even sugar. All it takes is a little time, a couple of plastic pails, 4-5 spiles, and a few maple trees, maybe throw in a few birch trees if you are daring. The Michigan Maple Syrup Association is a good place to start at Who knows you may start a new family tradition!

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