Reproduce forest floor soil for new trees

Spring is the best time of year to plant trees. During the winter the dormant buds and roots are in a kind of holding pattern until the right growing conditions happen in the spring. Then they have the entire growing season to establish themselves before next winter.

No doubt you’re aware of the requirements for a proper sized planting hole and the need to water the young tree after planting. Proper planting depth is also very important. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important it is to remove the wrapping from the root ball, even though it can be a hassle.

I always set aside any sod and never use it to back-fill the planting. Actually, I don’t use the topsoil to back-fill either. I just use the subsoil from the hole for back-fill and save the topsoil for the very top of the hole. That way the original soil profile is maintained.

After I’ve taken great pains to get the tree into the ground, there’s one more thing I like to do to and that is to create an artificial forest floor covering.  It’s something I’ve been doing for decades and I like the results.

It’s really a way of mulching that small trees seem to respond to. I first apply a thin layer of partially decomposed wood chips around the newly planted tree, over the topsoil,  maybe a couple of inches deep. Then I cover that with a layer of chopped leaves. Chopping the leaves prevents them from matting down which can slow down rain water penetration into the soil.

The layering combination of subsoil in the hole, with topsoil over that then covered with the chips and leaves mimics the soil conditions of a forest. I don’t mix the layers, I let the soil microbes do their thing. Eventually as the mulch decomposes, humic acid and related compounds are formed providing an environment for a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes. All of that allows the tree to adapt to its new home and grow to its full potential.

The chopped leaves and wood chips here are applied about four feet in diameter.

Not everyone will want to fuss with their trees like this and some will say it’s overkill and I certainly wouldn’t expect a landscaper to do it. but it’s something I’ve found to work for me.

Bob

Community gardens for those with no place to garden

Just because you are living in an apartment or in a house with no suitable gardening space, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck.

All around Michigan groups, work to provide community gardening space for folks who couldn’t otherwise garden due to a lack of space.

There’s a wide spread on the amenities community gardens provide. The most rustic community gardens provide nothing more than a sunny place to garden. At those you’ll have to do your own tilling in the spring. Also, you’ll have to haul your own water from home. Water is critical especially during the first couple of weeks until young plants become established. After that, mulches applied around the plants will drastically reduce the amount of water required compared to bare soil.

The next tier of gardens will have water on site with one or more hose bibs from which to draw water. Sometimes hoses are allowed, sometimes not. But at the very least you won’t have haul jugs of water from home.

Some community gardens loan out tools for the gardeners to use if they don’t have their own. That usually happens in the more permanent gardens where tool sheds or other storage facilities are located right on site.

Permanent raised beds are available at some garden sites. Their configuration can be anything from slightly raised beds to growing tables raised to table top height.

A community garden plot.

The rarest of community gardens are those that provide all the previously mentioned amenities plus garden irrigation. These will often have a garden expert or manager who monitors the irrigation system and is around to help gardeners with problems and to answer questions. Some even provide people to help to those who need it.

Costs ranges from free or a token amount to hundreds of dollars per season in the most desired location. Often organizations use garden fee income to improve the garden or help fund other work. In lieu of a fee, you may be asked to contribute a number of work hours helping around the garden.

If you do decide to join a community garden, be a good member. Always be mindful of the rules. For example: don’t trudge through other people’s garden; never pick produce from other plots unless given permission, even if it appears to be in danger of becoming over-ripe; park in designated areas; keep the garden a peaceful place, don’t act out personal problems at the garden such as shouting arguments. The best policy is try to be a good neighbor.

It’s fairly easy to find garden space these days. Start by contacting city recreation departments, schools, colleges, churches and other civic organizations. Private land owners or farmers may rent out plots as well.

This time of the year, just before planting season kicks off, organizations make a big push to get people to sign up. That means sign-up for garden space is going full speed ahead so don’t wait too long because space often runs out fast in some of the more popular gardens. Before committing to a garden plot, it might be a good idea to visit first so there are no surprises.

There are several community gardens in the Monroe area including the IHM Sisters’ St. Mary Organic Farm, Monroe County Community College, City of Monroe and many others.

Bob

 

If you can, save dying trees for woodpeckers

I spend a lot of time outside and one of my favorite sounds this time of year is the drumming of woodpeckers. In our neck of the woods we have mostly hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

We live in a rural area and there are plenty of trees around to provide nesting sites for woodpeckers. If you remember, woodpeckers only nest in holes that they carve in tree branches. When looking for a likely nesting spot, they always choose dead branches first because the wood is softer due to decay making it easier for the bird to excavate a hole.

These woodpecker holes are in a branch that is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. They were probably made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

Unfortunately, people don’t always think about birds when it comes time to cut firewood or tidy up the woodlot. Often, dead or dying trees are the first ones that get cut down. That reduces the number of nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.

When there is a lack of trees, woodpeckers will look for other places to build their nests. The outside wall of a house can be tempting for them, especially if it is covered with wood siding. They can be fairly destructive if they drill into a wall to make their nest.  More dead trees left standing may draw woodpeckers away from homes and back to their preferred habitat.

It’s not only woodpeckers that benefit from standing dead trees, other species of songbirds and small mammals will move into old woodpecker nests once the woodpeckers have eventually moved on. If you decide to leave a damaged tree standing, just make sure it is in a location where it won’t cause any damage if the branches, or even the whole tree, falls.

Bob

Fixing seeding mix that won’t absorb water

We’re sowing our seeds right now for growing transplants that we’ll plant out in the garden. It takes some work, but you can save quite a bit of money growing your own transplants.

Another huge advantage that may be even more important is being able to grow the varieties you want rather than relying on what the garden center grows. They usually chooses varieties that are the easiest to grow, not necessarily the tastiest. That makes sense in their business model. People who have success with their plants are more likely to return the following season.

Starting your own seeds is not without its problems. Some of them you can plan ahead for and minimize, others pop up out of the blue.

We’ve had a great start with our seeds this spring, the cabbages and related cool weather crops are up and growing well. We were using the last of last year’s seed starting mix but ran out. The local hardware store had plenty of bags of mix in stock so we bought a small bag so we could keep working. It felt a little light and fluffy when I carried it, that should have been a warning sign but I was in a hurry.

When we got it home and started working with it, we found that it would not absorb water. Even after sitting  in water overnight, not a drop was absorbed by the mix! It was a “hydrophobic” mix; it was repelling water. That happens whenever potting soils dry out too much. Usually manufacturers make sure a minimum amount of moisture is present to keep that from happening or they include a small amount of  a”hydrophillic” ingredient in the mix to help it absorb water.

The container on the left has absorbed water normally. The one on the right is hydrophobic.

One explanation is we grabbed one of last year’s bags of soil that had completely dried out while in storage. But who knows?

To avoid this in the first place, always make note of how heavy the bags are compared to one another. Mixes are sold by volume, not weight so you don’t have to worry about wasting money on buying water. Pick the one that feels a little heavier because it is more likely to have the proper moisture ratio.

If you do happen to pick a bad one, like me, you can still fix it by applying small amount of surfactant. Even professional greenhouse have this problem from time to time. They use specially formulated surfactants that are not available to the general public but dish washing detergent will work just as well.

Here’s the recipe: dissolve one teaspoon (not tablespoon) of liquid detergent to one pint of water. Use the cheapest off-brand detergent you can find, there’s a practical reason for it. The name brands like Joy, Dawn or Palmolive make too many suds for this purpose. I have a bottle of off-brand detergent left over from several bottles I picked up many years ago when Farmer Jack went out of business. How long ago was that?

Place your solution in a spray bottle and spray it on the surface of your mix, that should give you enough surfactant to allow the water to soak in.

Sometimes the soil in a container will dry out and become hydrophobic even when a plant is growing is growing in it. When that happens, the plant will quickly die from lack of water. Your surfactant spray will fix that situation too. Just spritz a light spray on the top of the soil. It will help water penetrate but won’t harm the plant.

Bob

Making a DIY maple tap or stile from elderberry or sumac stems

We’re rapidly approaching the maple syrup season. Actually if it wasn’t for this cold snap we’d be gathering sap right now. It all depends on the weather,  cold nights with quickly warming morning stimulates sap flow.

Now that I reminded you of it, maybe you want to try making some maple syrup yourself this year. First you’ll have to collect maple sap and for that you’re going to need some equipment before you start. One very important piece of equipment is the stile, or tap. That’s the little doohickey that is used to funnel maple sap from the tree trunk to a pail or other collecting container.

Like so many other things that started out simple, a huge retail industry has developed around selling items for tapping maple trees. To hear them tell it, you can’t even get sap out of a maple tree without their products. People have been tapping trees and making maple syrup for centuries, How did they do it without access to modern day gadgets? Well, they made their own equipment using raw materials available in the environment around them.

If you hurry and ask for priority shipping, you may be able to order tree tapping stiles online and get them before the season ends. Or you can make your own.

You can easily carve a stile from an elderberry branch using tools you already have around the house. Sumac branches work just as well or perhaps even better than elderberry and may be easier to find in your neighborhood.

The hardest part of the whole process is finding the shrubs. Once you find a likely bush, take out your sharpened pruners and cut off a section of branch around a half an inch in diameter.  Freshly cut, green stems are relatively soft and very easy to work with.

Cut elderberry branches into sections three to four inch long.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.
This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

Using a screw driver, hollow out stem by removing the soft pithy part running through  the center.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.
Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.
Work the screw driver  through the pith to form a hollow tube.
Work the screw driver through the pith to form a hollow tube.
Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.
Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

For the next step, use a sharp pocket knife to whittle away one end to form a taper. This will be the end that goes into the tree.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.
A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

Finally, make a slanted cut at the far end to form a spout. And that’s all there is to it. Your first stile will probably take several minutes to make but once you’ve done it, you’ll find the next one will be easier and can be finished in less than a couple of minutes.

Make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout.
To complete your stile, make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout. Shave off the bark f you want.

I’m not going to go though all the steps necessary to tap a tree and boil down sap into syrup but if you want to learn more, click here  to find an old publication that I posted several years ago describing the process from start to finish.

After the first year, you may find you’re interested in expanding your syrup making hobby, if that’s the case then by all means go online and start collecting  more sophisticated equipment for next year.

Bob

 

Checking stored flower bulbs

Several weeks ago I blogged about how I store dahlias. Did you keep some of yours too? If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to check on them to see how they’re doing. Serious dahlia growers begin planting their tubers in mid-March, in pots and in a greenhouse of course.

I opened mine up right after the polar vortex blew through a couple of weeks ago. They were in a spot that normally stays cool but never freezes. However, this fall I rearranged boxes and stuff in the garage. Without realizing it, doing that must have changed the airflow pattern and allowed cold air to settle in the spot where I stored my dahlia tubers. I didn’t have a thermometer in that area but I knew it got cold because the storage bags were partly frozen. That’s not a good sign.

They didn’t look too bad when I opened them up to take a peek, but some looked to be partly frozen. The outside layer of damp sawdust was lightly froze. Instead of warming the tubers up to thaw, I moved them to another more temperate part of the garage to slowly warm up. Today I finally brought them out to see how they were doing.

It's very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged.
It’s very easy to tell the damaged tubers from the undamaged. The one on the left was frozen.

As suspected, most of them were damaged beyond salvaging, I’m looking at about an eighty percent loss. The ones that survived look healthy though. I’ll re-pack the good ones in fresh sawdust and compost the rest.

I also had some elephant ears tubers in storage, those I kept in the pots that they grew in last summer. They look pretty good. I gave them a small amount of water whenever the soil looked really dry — maybe once every other week or so. In the spring I’ll knock them out of the pot, divide them and replant.

You can't see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.
You can’t see much in this photo but the elephant ear roots are looking good.

Other large pots have cannas that I stored the same way as the elephant ears, right in the pots they grew. They got some water through the winter too but not as much as the elephant ears. I wanted to keep them a little on the dry side so they wouldn’t get water logged and rot. Remember, they are dormant and not growing so they don’t really need much water. On the other hand you don’t want them to dry out and shrivel up. It’s something you have to learn trough experience. I usually ere on the side of less water.

The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.
The canna bulbs are in fine shape at this point in time.

Unfortunately, we lost a large geranium to the cold. It was one that we’ve been saving and taking cutting from for years and years.  During the most recent warm-up, we set the potted plant out on the front porch and — you guessed it — forgot it was there and it froze overnight. There may be some dormant buds that survived, I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Bob

 

 

Forcing spring tree and bush branches

We’re getting an early taste of spring at our house by forcing branches into bloom. It’s something gardeners have done for centuries ever since someone figured out if you cut some branches and bring them into a warm room during the winter, they will bloom.

When I was in elementary school, forcing pussy willow branches in the classroom during the winter was a regular thing. Do they still do that?

Right now we have willow branches blooming that Judy cut a couple of weeks ago. They’re not the large-budded pussy willows but they are still attractive. They just happened to be the ones growing in our yard.

The color of our willow buds range from light pink to yellow, all on the same branch.

In addition to willows, just about any kind of spring-blooming tree or shrub will work including, forsythias, vernal witch hazel, most fruit trees and many others.

It’s fun to watch the buds slowly develop over time.

In its simplest form , all you really do is cut off some branches and stick them in some water. You can improve the odds of getting better blooms by choosing branches that have more closely spaced buds — more buds means more flowers. Branches that are thicker than the average on the plant, work best too since they contain more of the nutrients the buds need to open and grow.

Cut the branches you want to force two to three feet long for best results. Once cut, remove all buds and side twigs that would be under water in your vase or other container.

Sometimes making a slit at the bottom of the stem will help it take up water more easily. Branches from lilacs and possibly other plants benefit from being lightly crushed at the bottom, best tool for that is a hammer. Just put the end of the branch on a scrap of wood and tap it until it is crushed.

Placing the entire branch in lukewarm water will help jump-start the process. The only big enough container we have to do that is the bath tub, plus there’s plenty of warm water handy right from the spout. A couple of hours in the tub will do it.

Change the water in the vase every couple of days or so to prevent mold and algae from growing and clogging up the water-conducting parts of the branch.

When forcing branches, keep in mind that not only are the flowers fun to see but the shape of the branch itself is also part of the arrangement. Don’t be tempted to cram too many branches into the vase or you may lose the pleasing design effect the branches add.

To extend your forcing season, cut new branches every week now until spring to have a fresh set of buds opening all the time.

Bob

Sharpening my pruners

The recent ice storms caused some damage on my trees and shrubs. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be considering we had about a quarter of an inch of ice accumulation. I’ll need to do some extra pruning this spring to take out broken branches and that made me think about my pruning tools.

I got out my box of pruners and took a look at the ones I use the most for pruning outdoors. They are in pretty good shape but they do need some sharpening.

Years ago I bought a special sharpening tool designed for pruners from Corona Tools. It’s about about five inches long with a strip of carbide material brazed onto one end. The carbide is super hard so it can sharpen steel blades without ever getting worn out.

One of my Felco pruners and Corona sharpening tool.
One of my Felco pruners and Corona sharpening tool.

I use both Corona and Felco pruners as well as others. The sharpening tool works on all brands of pruners and similar cutting tools.

To use the sharpener, cradle the tool in one hand and draw the carbide toward yourself, over the length of the inside cutting edge bevel four or five times. Try to keep the angle of the tool at the angle of the original bevel. You don’t have to use much pressure.

Grasp the pruners like this to avoid contact with the blade while sharpening. This grip also gives you better control of the sharpening tool.
Grasp the pruners like this to avoid contact with the blade while sharpening. This grip also gives you better control of the sharpening tool.

Then turn the pruner over, gripping it to avoid being cut and rub once across the flat outside edge. Keep the tool flat on the blade to avoid creating a new “micro-bevel”. That’s it, you’re done.

A single pass straightens microscopic distortions on the cutting edge.
A single pass straightens microscopic distortions on the cutting edge.

I have several different small diamond files and others that I have used in the past and they work OK too, but I find the Corona tool is the easiest one to use. It is not designed to grind a new edge on damaged tools but it can be used to touch up the edges on loppers, shovels and other gardening tools. Be extra careful with loppers, their long handles make them a bit awkward to hold.

I have 14 different pruners, snips and secateurs that I use for different purposes. Now would be a good time to get them all sharpened up before the pruning season gets here.

Bob

Plants for butterflies

It’s been a long time coming, but more and gardeners are finally becoming interested in growing butterfly gardens. Eleven years ago, almost to the day,  I posted a blog trying to encourage folks grow more plants that attract and sustain butterflies. I figure it’s time to revisit that subject again.

Seed catalogs are arriving everyday in the mail now, both in my email inbox and in my outside mailbox. Almost all of them offer seeds for butterfly attracting plants.

This blog is about plants that have flowers that the adult butterflies readily come to for nectar. An even more ambitious butterfly garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.

Butterflies are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to. They also prefer small tubular flowers that are especially adapted to the butterflies’ proboscis, their specially shaped tongue that works like a straw. These tubular flowers cannot be too long or the butterfly cannot reach all the way down to the nectar which is usually at the base of the petals.

There are so many plants from to choose from that it can get frustrating. To help you get started , here’s a of list of the more common plants, in no particular order, that attract butterflies:

Thyme; Valerian; Heliotrope; Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort); PhloxAllysum;Verbena, all the different kinds of verbena are good — Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan; Thistle; Scabiosa; Columbine; Chrysanthemum; Herbs, many of them have good nectar flowers; Milkweed, attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies; Queen Anne’s Lace; Liatris, common name Gayfeather; Gaillardia; Butterfly Bush (of course); Echinacea purpurea, common name Purple Coneflower; Violets; Lilac; Yarrow; Rudbeckia hirta, common name Black Eyed Susan; Monarda, common name Bee Balm; Lupine; Marigold; Daisy; and Lavender.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.
Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your garden is: 1) have a sunny site that is sheltered from the wind, butterflies get tossed around by a breeze fairly easily 2) provide a place for them to “puddle”. Have you ever noticed butterflies hanging around mud puddles? They are slurping up much needed dissolved minerals, sort of like a food supplement, that are not found in nectar. A shallow container of water containing sand and rocks allows butteries to land and puddle. Actually, even just a simple mud puddle is fine, just replenish it as it gets dry.

Bob

 

 

Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob