Dead head lilacs for better flowers next year

Many of the lilacs I’ve seen have put on a nice show of flowers this spring. Some could have been even better if their owners had removed the spent flowers last spring.

Not many people are aware that deadheading lilacs is the best thing you can do for them to stimulate better flowers next year.

I don’t fault those who didn’t get around to doing that last year. If you remember, we had a wet spring last year and in the rush to get things planted, lilac deadheading was pushed far down on the list of gardening priorities.

Several years ago I was responsible for a dozen or more lilacs. My helpers and I always took the time to take off those spent blossoms and it really paid off. It’s another one of those delayed gratification things that gardeners always seem to be dealing with.

The ideal time to dead head lilacs is right after they’re done blooming.

Deadheading is very easy work if you have a sharp pair of pruners. Just snip off the expired flower right at its base and let it fall. It can be time consuming on a large bush but after a bit you fall into a rhythm. To me it’s a satisfying job because you can see the old flowers accumulate on the ground as you work at it.  Plus you are aware that next year’s flowers will will be even showier.

Old lilac flowers never fall off. Instead their panicles turn brown as seeds begin to form making the shrub look messy. So taking off the old flowers also keeps your shrub looking nice and neat. To do the most good, deadhead before the seeds set. I like to do it just as the last of the flower color is left.

Don’t worry too much if can’t get around to snipping off the flowers, your lilac will still do fine without any attention. In addition to its reliable flowering habit, low maintenance is another reason why lilacs have remained popular since colonial times.

Lastly, a light application of fertilizer after deadheading will give your lilac the nutrients it needs to regrow its flowers buds.

Bob

Epsom salts for colorful rose blooms

In order to grow and flourish all plants, including roses, require basically the same nutrients. One is carbon which is supplied to the plant by carbon dioxide in the air. Another, even though we may not think of it as a nutrient, is water.

In the soil, there are three primary nutrients that plants use in large quantities: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Together the primary nutrients are known as NPK. Good garden soil usually contains much of the required NPK . But sometimes soil is low in one or more of the primary nutrients so we supplement it with either organic or conventional fertilizers.

Secondary nutrients are need but in far less concentrations. They include calcium, magnesium and sulfur.

A long time ago rose growers noticed, even though roses were growing in very fertile soil, sometimes their blossoms still weren’t as nice as roses in other gardens. After much trial and error they found by adding Epsom salts, roses blooms would be noticeably improved. The missing ingredient was magnesium supplied by magnesium sulfate, more commonly known as Epsom salts.

The same Epsom salts you use in your bathwater can be used for your roses.

There are other sources of magnesium but some of them like dolomitic limestone can raise the soil pH. That would cause problems if your soil pH was already on the high side.

Add Epsom salts at the beginning of the growing season. For each mature rose bush apply a half cup of Epsom salts to the soil around the bush. You can do this either in dry form and water it in or dissolve it in water and apply as a solution. Do this every year to replace any magnesium used by the plant or leached out of the soil.

Bob

Bradford pear trees may become invasive

Ornamental Bradford pear trees were in full flower last week. They must be everyone’s favorite tree, or you would think so because everywhere there’s a housing development there’s at least one Bradford pear tree planted in front of every house. Even municipalities and businesses are planting them.

They do have a certain charm and they’re quite eye-catching when they’re in full bloom. But there’s so many of them now that they’re beginning to just become part of the background visual-noise instead of  being an accent in the landscape.

Landscapers plant Bradfords because of their flowers, shape and moderate size, and even though they are an introduced species, they are believed to be non-invasive by many. That has been the case in Michigan until recently. There’s evidence that these trees have become tired of being well-behaved and have decided to cut loose from their suburban lawns. This was pointed out to me a couple of years ago by a local, well-respected naturalist. To drive home her point she said all you had to do was look at the number of wild Bradford pears growing all along the highways.

Well, I drove the entire length of I -275 this week and was surprised how many out of place Bradford pears there were. They weren’t overcrowding any one area but there were plenty of single trees and small clusters of them. When you’re looking for them you begin to see them everywhere.

These more boisterous, escaped trees are claiming some area for themselves and have the potential to push out the native plants. The conventional wisdom that they are sterile and unable to reproduce may be true but something is going on. It brings to mind what Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Life uh, finds a way”.

This Bradford pear is in full bloom but no bees are there. They seem to prefer other kinds of flowers.

In some other states Bradford pears are already a big enough problem that they have been place on those states invasive species list and are no longer recommended for planting.

To be fair, Bradford pears may never become a problem for us. I remember early in my career when, for a short time, some people worried smoke trees might escape and become invasive. Some trees did take root out of place here and there but the smoke tree invasion never materialized.

Maybe it’s time to think about developing a replacement for the Bradford pear if for no other reason than to add more variety to the suburban landscape.

Bob

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

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

Remember to collect Christmas wreath materials in season next year

It’s a lot of fun seeing all of the different kinds of Christmas decoration folks have put together out of natural materials.  Wreaths have evolved way past just a simple circle of evergreen boughs with a red ribbon tied to it, although you still see plenty of those.

As gardeners we have the opportunity to grow or gather together the raw materials for unique Christmas decorations. For example around here at pruning time, we save our grapevine trimmings and roll them up into circles, that’s a common one many people do. But other materials can be used as well. Many flowers, shrubs , stalks even weeds have interesting features that can be quite decorative. Who remembers making Christmas items in elementary school out of milkweed seedpods?

Some materials, such as hydrangea stems,are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.
Some materials, such as hydrangea stems, are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.

You only have to use your imagination a little to come up with something that is really neat and one-of-a-kind. If you’re not the creative type, you can always glean ideas from Pinterest.

Right now, while you’re thinking of it, make a note in your phone’s calendar app to remind yourself next spring and summer to look for raw materials for your 2018 Christmas. Maybe you’ll even come up with something cool enough to post on Pinterst yourself.

Bob

Native witch hazel shrubs bloom in the fall

By the time mid-November in Michigan rolls around you’d think that we’ve seen the last of blooming plants until spring, that’s what I though anyway. Once again, I forgot all about our witch hazel bush that started blooming a week or so before Thanksgiving.

Witch hazel is a native plant in our area. Back when I was a kid I used to see them along the edge of the woods near our house and wonder; are those spidery-looking yellow things on that bush really flowers?

Like many other plants, witch hazel flowers are pollinated by insects, despite the fact that November is not the biggest month for insects in Michigan. With this warm November we’ve been having, there has to be a lot more insects around to pollinate the flowers. Maybe that will result in a larger than average crop of witch hazel seeds.

They're not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.
They’re not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.

Although pollination happens this time of the year, the seeds don’t start to grow until spring. They are produced in easy-to-see, green, capsule-like structures that form where the flowers were. Later in the summer as the capsules turn brown and ripen, the seeds are explosively ejected up to 30 feet away. I’ve never had a chance to see this in person but might one of these days since our shrub is right next to the deck.

Witch hazels grow very slowly, the one in our yard is about eight feet tall and has been there for almost 15 years. That can be an advantage in smaller yards since they rarely get too big for a space and  out-grow their welcome.  They can get up to 20 feet tall but I’ve never seen one taller than around 12 feet in our neck of the woods.

Plant nurseries and garden centers sell potted witch hazel. But be aware that they often offer the imported Japanese witch hazel or Chinese witch hazel, both of which bloom in late winter rather than in the fall.

Bob

 

Downton Abbey roses for your garden

I was a late comer to Downton Abbey, it wasn’t until season four that I started watching the series. That’s when my wife insisted I watch a a couple of episodes — I was hooked from that point on.

Of course after that, we watched a marathon of all the past shows so I could get up to date on everything and my wife could watch a couple of episodes she missed.

Now that we know that there is nothing but blue skies ahead for all of the characters, what’s next?

The producers of Downton Abby have teamed up with a highly respected California rose grower, Weeks Roses, to develop a line of roses based on the television series. The roses have names that will immediately invoke an image: Anna’s Promise, Pretty Lady Rose, Edith’s Darling, Violet’s Pride.

Week’s Roses is a grower and wholesaler, that means they don’t sell directly to to public. The good news is that the roses are readily available from local garden centers and online sellers.

How about that Edith? She’s a marchioness now!

Silky dogwood

One of my earliest childhood memories in the garden is discovering a shrub  tucked away in a out of the way corner of my grandmother’s  garden. The shrub had the most striking metallic-blue berries I had ever seen. Years later I found out it was a silky dogwood.

Now decades later, I found another silky dogwood growing on our property which, by the way, is only a mile or so away from my grandparents old farm. It is a wild plant that came up in the area that we use for the chicken exercise area. It was carved out of a part of our yard that we left as a natural area to attract wildlife.

The memories came flooding back to me when I saw the familiar cool-blue berries. This is not the blue of a ripe blue berry or wild grape. It’s more like the blue paint job of of a customized Gran Torino from the 1970’s. It really looks out of place in in the natural habitat.

The berries are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter.
The berries are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter.

 

Silky dogwood prefers low lying areas along streams or ponds. However, ours is growing in one of the higher spots in the yard, which is why I chose that area for the chicken run, so that the hens would have a high and dry area to roam. I know we have a fairly high water table here, and that is probably why the bush is growing so well.

The dogwood has a beautiful natural shape and bright shiny leaves that make it a very attractive plant. I don’t see many of these around anymore. In some states, like Indiana, where it was once common is now considered a locally endangered species.

In some parts of the country it grows to a maximum height of around five feet while in others, it can get 10 feet high. Mine is at least eight feet tall. My guess is that it all depends on its location or local population genetics.

The berries contain high amounts of fat, compared to other berries, and that makes it a favorite for migratory birds that need fat to sustain them during their migration. Flocks of cedar waxwings have found our wild area and are eating the wild cherries. So far they haven’t touched the silky dogwood berries. Maybe they’re not quite ripe enough for them yet.

I’ve never been tempted to try to eat these berries, even as a young child. Something about that blue just didn’t look right to me. I don’t ever plan to eat them so I’m not going to tell you whether or not they are edible, you’ll have to do your own research. Let me know in the comments section what you find.

I recall that some groups of native Americans used the the bark as part of their tobacco mixture called kinnikinnick. I’m not sure if it was used as a flavoring ingredient or if it has some sort of medical or other value.

Even if you don’t to smoke it or eat the berries, silky dogwood is an attractive shrub to use in your landscape especially if you have a damp problem area where other shrubs fail to thrive.

Seeds, seeding and plants are available online and at nurseries.

Bob

This is a Good Time of Year to Decide Where to Plant Evergreens

This week I’ve been helping a friend decide where to plant some evergreens in his yard.

Now is the perfect time to make those decisions because the leaves are gone from the trees and bushes.  Since evergreens keep their leaves or needles, their deep green color will stand out from the rest of the vegetation during the winter. So, it’s important to place them in the right spot.

We’re trying to  get a better idea how an evergreen will look in the yard space next winter and the following winters.

The other reason we’re doing the planning now is because we won’t be distracted by all of the spring time foliage of the other trees and shrubs. It’s too easy to get fooled into picking the wrong spot for your evergreen and regret the choice next winter.

We’re going to visually survey his yard and try to imagine how the evergreens will look in a different places around the property. Also, I keep reminding him that we need to keep in mind how big the trees or shrubs will get as they grow through the years.

Once we make the final decision, we’ll drive a stake in each spot to remind us of the planting spots. The actual planting will take place next spring.

This is not a fool-proof method but it gives us more information to help us make the best planting decision.

Bob