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

Bringing Autumn Olive Under Control

For several years now, autumn olives have been growing in the wild area of our property.  Part of that area I want to turn into an orchard so most of the autumn olives have to go.

These shrubs were introduced into Michigan a few decades ago to improve wildlife habitat.  Since then, they have invaded thousands of acres in our state.

Autumn olives produce a huge crop of berries that many species of birds eat.  Each berry contains a single seed.  Once a bird eats a berry, the seed passes through the bird’s digestive system.  It then gets deposited in the bird droppings — sometimes many miles away — starting a new stand of autumn olive.  Much of the fruit on the shrubs has ripened; that means the birds are eating them already.

Autumn olive is an attractive shrub. Its bright red berries stand out among the silvery-green leaves.

In the past, I’ve tried chopping the shrubs with an axe or spraying them with herbicide; they always seemed to come back.

This year I bought a circular brush cutting blade for my commercial-duty weed whacker.  It has only six cutting teeth that look like the teeth on a chainsaw.  The outer edge of that blade spins a lot faster than any saw chain moves so six teeth are all you really need to do some serious cutting.  Plus, there is no kickback with this blade making it very safe to use.

Once the shrubs are cut down, I brush full strength glyphosate herbicide onto the fresh stumps.  The remaining stump and roots quickly absorb the herbicide and die.

I found out the hard way that autumn olive plants have very sharp spines that can puncture normal leather gloves.  The very tips of those spines often break off deep into the flesh of your hands and fingers causing irritation lasting several days.

I’ve spent about six hours cutting and dabbing herbicide and have made a small but noticeable dent in the population.  Looks like I’ll need several more days to finish that orchard area.

Bob