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.


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.


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.


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.


Lemon tree recovering from frosty fall temperature

Sometimes gardeners are given plants that others can’t use or take care of but they just can’t bare to throw out. That happened to me this past summer when someone gave me a four foot tall lemon tree. It was in mediocre condition, a little weak and run down and needed some extra attention.

I re-potted it and applied slow release fertilizer pellets. Once or twice a week it also got a dose of manure tea solution.  It took me the rest of the summer to nurse it back to reasonable health.  And it actually looked pretty good going into the fall.

I always like to keep my citrus trees out as long as possible in the fall. It seems like a bit of a chill tends to make them a little more hardy. I don’t worry about the trees if it gets down below freezing. They seem to do well even when it briefly dips into the upper twenties at night.

One evening this fall I got caught stretching the season out too much. The overnight temperatures were predicted to be around 28°F so I moved the trees to a sheltered area near the garage, tossed a light frost cloth over the top of them and let them stay out that night.

The actual temperatures were almost ten degrees colder than predicted. The oranges looked a little droopy from the cold but I was pretty sure they would pull through. I’ve seen them handle some pretty cold temperatures after a power outage. The new lemon tree however, lost nearly all of its leaves. A large percentage had already fallen off of the tree and were laying on the frosted ground — it did not look good at all.

That day I moved them all into a semi-heated area in my garage for storage. The temperature stays in the upper 40’s and the trees get a few hours of winter sunlight from south facing windows.


These buds started out as just tiny green bumps. Here they are about a quart of an inch long.
The new buds grow from the node where the old leaves used to be.

A couple of days after Christmas I noticed some tiny green pointed buds here and there on the lemon tree — it was still alive and wanting to grow leaves! A few days later, buds were emerging from branches all over the tree.

This week, the buds are still growing and developing into new leaves and twigs.

Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.
Right now the largest new lemon twigs are about one and a half inches long.

I’m fairly optimistic that the lemon tree will completely recover but it’s not out of the woods yet, we still have plenty of winter left before spring arrives.




Protect fruit trees from mice damage

Now that the fruit trees are all dormant, disease and insect pests have also gone dormant and won’t be bothering the trees until spring. That doesn’t mean the orchard is completely safe from pests.

There’s another kind of pest active out in the orchard during winter; meadow mice, or more accurately, meadow voles.

Voles look very much like mice and are about the same size. They act much like mice too, especially in the way they gnaw on things.

During the winter when the ground is snow covered, voles build tunnels under the snow. The tunnels are built to help hide them from predators and to help keep them warm while they search for food. They travel through those tunnels over and over through the winter.

So far, our mild beginning to winter means that voles haven’t had to worry much about finding food, but that could change as winter drags on.

Meadow voles eat a wide variety of grasses, seeds and other kinds of plant material. Unfortunately, they sometimes develop a taste for the tender bark of young fruit trees, especially if the vole population is large and their other food sources become scarce.

I’ve lost a few fruit trees from voles through the years. One way to keep voles from damaging vulnerable trees is to install a physical barrier around the trees.

Installing a cylinder of wire mesh — hardware cloth — around each fruit tree, keeps voles from gnawing on the tender bark. It’s like having a miniature fence around each tree.

I use 18 inch wide hardware cloth and form it into thin cylinders about six to eight inches in diameter around each tree trunk. This gives the trees plenty of protection in case there is a lot of snow cover. The mesh size has to be one-half inch, less is even better, otherwise voles will crawl right through to get to the bark.

Hardware cloth
Full service hardware stores will cut hardware cloth to any length you need. Other stores sell it in pre-packaged lengths.

There’s a plastic tree-wrap rodent barrier on the market. It’s easier to install at first but needs to be removed each spring and re-installed each fall. Even though it’s designed to expand, if left on, the plastic material will keep the bark from developing properly.

A hardware cloth cylinder can be left in place for a few years until the tree matures and has developed coarse bark that is less appetizing to vole.


Paw paw tree from seed

I’ve heard experts, farmers and others say for decades that paw paw is on the verge of becoming the next “in vogue” fruit. They may be finally right.

Since current paw paw varieties are so difficult to handle and are impossible to ship because of the soft fruit, only local paw paws are ever available.That makes them well positioned to become popular with locavores and other foodies.

Five years ago I planted eight seeds from a paw paw fruit and ended up with a half dozen seedlings happily growing in pots. Unfortunately, they were lost during a move and I never pursued starting any more. Since it takes five to seven years for a paw paw tree to begin producing,  by now, I probably would have had a small crop to pick this year.

A few weeks ago, I was given a paw paw fruit. I was inspired once again to save the seeds and start all over again with my future paw paw orchard.

Like most trees native to this area, paw paw seeds must be stratified before they will germinate. Stratification involves exposing seeds to cold temperature and adequate moisture.

I case you've never seen one, this is a paw paw.
In case you’ve never seen one, this is a paw paw. It contains about a dozen seeds.

In this case, paw paw seeds require 90 to 120 days at 32°F to 40°F while being kept moist. The vegetable crisper of a refrigerator is just the thing to meet those conditions. Just rinse off the seeds, and place them in some moist peat moss in a zip-lock storage bag. Toss the bag in the crisper and forget about it until spring. Don’t let them dry out or freeze, either one will kill the tiny paw paw tree embryo inside the seed.

Next spring plant the seeds into pots of good potting mix. If all goes well, the seeds will sprout in about two and a half to three weeks. Then re-pot as needed in order to give the new seedlings plenty of room to grow.

The most difficult part of the whole process may be finding a paw paw fruit in the first place.




Watch out for poison ivy when collecting leaves

The fall color season is nearing its peak. It’s a beautiful time of the year to be outside watching the leaves turn a little bit each day.

Collecting those leaves is a lot of fun too whether you use them for decorating or for helping your kids make that time honored school project, a leaf collection.

Many people use leaves they’ve collected from fall color tours or from their own backyard to decorate their homes.

Once you collect leaves and bring them indoors, they’ll easily hold their vibrant colors until Thanksgiving.

Be careful though not to bring a health risk into your home.  Poison ivy could be lurking among your hand-collected decorating materials.

Poison ivy vines are often found growing up tree trunks and even on sides of buildings. In the fall, it produces one of our most brilliantly colored leaves. It’s bright-red autumn leaves are very attractive and would make wonderful indoor decorations except for one thing — they are still poisonous!

This poison ivy is just starting to turn color.
This poison ivy is just starting to turn color.

Every year I hear of someone “catching poison ivy” in the late fall even though they claim they have never been anywhere near the stuff. Many times their poor dog or cat is blamed for coming into contact with poison ivy and bringing it in on their fur when, in fact, it is the owner’s leaf decorations that are to blame.

To avoid bringing in poison ivy, learn how to identify it. The old saying “leaflets three, let it be” holds true even in the fall. Before picking up an unidentified leaf, take a few seconds to look for nearby vines climbing up trees or walls.

Virginia creeper, on the other hand, looks similar to poison ivy but it has five leaflets instead of three. Virginia creeper is harmless.

Be wary if that bright red leaf is not something you can easily identify before you add it to your table’s centerpiece.


Gypsy moth eggs hatch

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember a post from last fall. It was about a gypsy moth caught in the act of laying eggs. I decided not to destroy that eggs mass.

Last week, the eggs hatched. In the photo you can see how small and seemingly helpless they are at this stage of their life. They are less than one-sixteenth of an inch long. A single rain drop could probably crush a baby caterpillar if it landed right on it. Or, at the very least, wash it from the tree branch.


Over one hundred gypsy moth caterpillars hatched from this egg mass.


So how do these small caterpillars survive our spring rain storms?

Looking at the egg mass, I think I figured it out. The mama gypsy moth lays her eggs on the underside of a branch where the baby caterpillars are well protected from direct rainfall. I’m sure many get washed away but many survive to live another day.

This is also the stage at which they are most vulnerable to insecticides. You can imagine it wouldn’t take much spray to kill these pests now compared to later in the season  when they have grown into full-sized caterpillars.


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.