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

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

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

 

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

Burning tree leaves

A couple of weeks ago I was running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. The early snow we had back then didn’t help either.

One weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Burning destroys valuable soil builders.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

Use warm temperatures during January thaw to control insects with water

 

During many winters we have a January thaw. We had a very welcomed warm spell last week and it looks like there will be another warm-up this week too, even though it may not be quite as warm this time around.

I always like to take advantage of those warm mid-winter days to freshen up my house plants and others that I have growing  inside.

Three of my citrus trees, which are about six feet tall including the pot, share space in a southern window in my woodworking area. That means their leaves are often covered in fine sawdust depending on the project I’m working on. I recently finished a project that required quite a bit of sanding which developed a lot of sawdust that settled on the citrus tree leaves.

Last week’s thaw gave me the opportunity to haul out my two wheel hand-truck and wheel out the heavy potted trees out to the driveway. I didn’t need to hose off the plants because of the drenching rain that came later in the day. That rain was all that was needed to get them clean. Since then however, I’ve generated more saw dust and they’re all dusty again.

The good news is that temperatures are predicted to be near 50 degrees F during the next couple of days. That’ll be the the perfect time to wheel them back out and rinse them off again, only this time I’ll have to drag out the hose. Some of my larger house plants are going to get a good outdoor rinsing too.

I rinse my citrus trees every year we have a January thaw. My trees are 17 years old.

This mid-winter rinsing not only washes off dust but even more importantly, it removes many of the small insect and other pests found on indoor plants such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale. The population of  those types of pests can build up to a damaging level inside a warm, dry winter environment like we have in many Michigan homes this time of year. Rinsing with water knocks back the insect population to a tolerable level.

Mature citrus tree leaves are tough and can handle strong streams of water. Other plants though have more tender leaves which can be bruised by a too vigorous spray from an exuberant gardener — I know, I’ve done it.

If you plan to do a mid-winter rinsing, I suggest you start with a fine spray and increase the pressure if needed.  You’ll have to use your best judgement as you go along. I use a three-hole nozzle that puts out a very fine, yet strong stream of water that knocks off just about everything without damaging leaves. Be sure to spray the under-side of the leaves. That’s where the biggest concentration of pests will be hiding.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Damage caused by twine left on balled and burlapped tree

The balled and burlapped method of planting trees is very popular because it allows nurseries to dig, move and sell larger specimens than if the trees were bare-root or potted. It also makes it easier for homeowners and landscapers to plant. In landscaping, like in any other business, time is money which is why it can be tempting for some to cut corners when planting trees.

The most common of these cost-cutting items is dropping a balled and burlappped tree into a hole, replacing the soil, then mulching the new tree. From the outside everything looks wonderful but not taking care of the burlap or twine can prove to be devastating to a tree.

Wire, burlap and twine does not decompose in the soil as readily as some landscapers would like you to believe. To keep roots growing to their full potential, wire must be cut and removed from the root ball. It will not “rust right away” as we are often told.

I had an experience many years ago when someone asked me to move a tree for them that was planted five or more years earlier. It was going to be a big job. When I uncovered the top layer of soil I discovered that the landscaper had left the wire basket on the rootball. It was a simple matter for me to hook a chain onto the wire basket and just lift the entire tree out of the hole with a front end loader on my tractor and carry it to its new location. The tree looked like it just came from the nursery. The wire was still sturdy and the burlap was sound with no roots growing through.

Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.
Severe damage to a tree trunk by twine.

The twine tree growers use to tie the top of the burlap does not deteriorate very fast either and will eventually cause major damage to or even kill a tree if it is not removed. As the tree grows in diameter, the twine stays in place and acts as tourniquet strangling the tree. It may take many years for symptoms to show.

A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.
A callus formed around the twine as the tree tried to minimize the damage.

Finally, the burlap cloth itself should at least be slashed to allow roots a place to grow into the surrounding soil — removing it completely would be even better.

Even the roots were damaged from the twine.
Even the roots were damaged from the twine.

If you landscaper tries to tell you that that leaving twine and burlap on the trees is standard practice, don’t believe it and insist they do it right.

Bob

Conservation Service spring tree sale underway

Every year, for as long as I can remember, the Monroe County Soil Conservation District has hosted a spring tree sale. Nowadays the soil part of their name is gone and are now known as the Conservation District because they are involved in so much more than controlling soil erosion.

Order soon, some things sell out early.
Order soon, some things sell out early.

Nearly every county in Michigan has its own Conservation District and just about every district holds some kind of plant sale. The plant selections may vary slightly from district to district but they all offer plants used for conserving soil, protecting waterways and encouraging wildlife.

You don’t have to be a local resident to make a purchase so if the county district is sold out of something, a neighboring county may have it in stock.

At these sales you can order conifers like spruce, pine and fir. Common deciduous trees like oaks, maples and cherry are available as well as the lesser known hackberry, persimmon and others.

Each district decides for itself which plants to sell but often  you’ll find shrubs such as American plum, elderberry, cranberry, currents, hazelnuts and other varieties.

Native grasses and perennials are offered by some districts. At those sales you can buy big or little bluestem, indian grass, switchgrass and milkweeds.

Tree sales are a major source of funds that go toward conservation projects in the local districts. To find any Conservation District in Michigan, click on this link. Do it soon because plants often sell out early.

Bob

Rare opportunity to see blooming satsuki bonsai azalea

I think just about everyone enjoys looking at bonsai, the Japanese art of growing miniature trees in containers, Even those who are not particularly interested in plants will stop and take a second look at bonsai.

The University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens near Ann Arbor, is offering a rare treat this month, Magnificent Miniatures a showing of satsuki bonsai azaleas in full bloom.

satsuki bonsai

The plants are on loan from Dr. Melvyn Goldstein a renowned bonsai collector from Ohio.

satsuki bonsai

The bonsai are flowering right now. And like other flowering plants, the flowers only last for a short period of time.

satsuki azalea bonsai

The show is free and runs from June 6 through June 14, 10 am – 8 pm daily. It’s an easy drive to the Gardens from anywhere in southeastern Michigan. The address is 1800 N. Dixboro Road, Ann Arbor.

It might not be a bad idea to call ahead to make sure the bonsai are still blooming 734-647-7600.

Bob

Never pruned apple trees before? Here’s five fool-proof cuts you can make

Although you can prune apple trees just about any time of the year, most apple growers agree spring is the best time to do it. You may have seen professional orchardists out pruning trees as early as February but that is only because they have so many trees that they need the extra time to get them all pruned before the growing season starts.

Pruning and shaping apples trees takes some knowledge and experience to get it right but there are a few cuts you can be sure of even if you’ve never pruned an apple tree before.

Before pruning remember to make the cuts near the junction of the twig or branch and the main branch or trunk. Don’t leave a long stub. Conversely, don’t cut into the trunk or main branch, that makes it difficult for the tree to heal. Try to leave just a small “collar” to allow for proper healing.

You’ll need two basic tools:

1) Use a sharp pair of pruning shears for twigs and small branches.

2) Loppers resemble over-sized pruning shears. They are much more sturdy than shears, have longer handles and are used for for cutting larger branches.

 

Anvil pruners (left) are OK but, to make the cleanest cuts use the by-pass type (right).
Anvil pruners (left) are OK but, to make the cleanest cuts use the by-pass type (right).

Here’s five basic cuts to make when pruning apple trees:

1) Cut off all dead twigs and branches. The spot where they attach to the tree provides a entry point for disease and other pests. Once a branch dies, the tree will try to heal around the dead branch. Unless the branch is cut off or falls off naturally, healing will never be complete.

2) Prune away “suckers”. They are those thin shoots that grow up around the base of the tree. They don’t contribute anything to the tree and make their growth at the expense of the rest of the tree.

3) Help increase light penetration and improve air circulation through the tree by removing all “water-sprouts”. Those are thin shoots that grow straight up from the main branches. They don’t produce fruit and will grow larger each year eventually distorting the tree.

4) If two branches are rubbing against one another, remove the weakest one. Rubbing damages bark leaving a wound for disease organisms to enter the tree.

5) This one will take a little more thought. Prune away weak branches that are shaded by more vigorous branches. Even though they may produce fruit, it won’t be the quality and volume produced by stronger branches. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited a mature apple that has been properly pruned through the years, it’s easier to tell which are the weaker branches.

There is much more to proper apple tree pruning but these five cuts will go a long way to improving the health of your tree and building your confidence for more sophisticated pruning.

Bob