Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Tree Tips

You can check the tree for freshness by running your hands from the inside of the tree to the outside, lightly gripping the branch. You will have needles dropping, but there should not be a handful. You have to keep in mind that most Christmas trees, unless purchased at a cut-your-own farm, will have been cut in the beginning to middle of November. They are then kept in cold storage until delivery time to the garden center or corner lot. Also “bounce” the tree on the ground and see how many needles fall. There will be some, because even evergreens lose their older needles which are located towards the inside of the tree. Once you have determined that the tree is fresh, you can move onto tree types.

Pines are the Christmas tree grower’s best plant; they grow rapidly, are ready for sale in a short period of time, and can grow in a wide range of climates and soil types. On the other hand, they do need heavy annual shearing for them to attain that “Christmas Tree” look. With all of this shearing, the stem can be quite thick compared to the size of the tree, so check your tree stand for diameter size before purchasing. The two common pines found at tree lots are Scotch and white pine. Most Scotch pines tend to yellow for the winter, and to compensate the growers will spray a colorant on these trees to make them look greener. Scotch pines also suffer from crooked stems, so always look at the bottom of the tree as well as the top on this type. With it being sheared, this tree is good for a “lights only” display as well as most pines. There are no real spaces for ornaments. White pine is very important to the lumber industry as well as the Christmas tree industry. It is mostly grown in the mid-Atlantic states, and buyers admire it for the soft green color and woodsy fragrance.
Firs are the most popular type of tree grown for Christmas. They have an attractive, deep green color and conical shape and have needles that are flatter and softer in texture. In general, they are the longest lasting tree in terms of needle retention and have the most fragrance. To many on the east coast, a balsam fir is the only Christmas tree. It is naturally cone-shaped with needles that are rich green on top and silvery white underneath. Douglas firs are not a true fir, but do resemble the fir family. They have a blue-green color, excellent needle retention, but be wary of split trunks. I have seen hundreds of Douglas firs that have a split trunk 1 foot from the bottom, which will only complicate the cutting for the stand. Frasier fir needles are short and hug the stem and its growth habit is denser than balsam. This is my personal favorite. Noble fir is an attractive tree which only grows in the Northwest. This fir is the best with needle retention, but the problem arises that it is a slow grower, so not only will you pay more for this tree, but the trunk will be quite large.

Spruces have stiff square needles, rough bark, strong branches which make it perfect for heavy ornaments. On the other hand, it is often too prickly for children to decorate and can drop needles quite quickly. Spruces need to be watered frequently, so get a large capacity tree stand. Blue spruces are known for its landscape use as well as a Christmas tree. White spruce is a nice tree for its green color, but again a heavy needle dropper when watering is not kept up.

There are many new varieties being grown today, and it is really up to your own personal choice. After selecting your tree, only give the tree a fresh cut just before you are going to bring it inside. Make sure you have a large enough stand for the tree. Sometimes it is better to have one too big than too small, for the larger one will hold more water and cut down your watering times. I have also heard to use aspirin, tree fresh and other assorted chemicals to help preserve the tree. The simple, most effective way to keep your tree fresh is to make sure to never let it run out of water...plain and simple. Good luck and have a safe and happy holiday season!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gardening is for the Birds

Even though November is a very busy month as we put our gardens to “sleep” for the winter, now is the time to think of our fine feathered friends who will either pass through on their way south or stay through the winter on our properties. Birds are very beneficial in controlling insects in the garden, and now is the time to encourage them to put your garden on their map.

Setting up a new bird feeding station can be done at any time during the year. Birds are found at birdfeeders virtually at all times of the year, all over the country, though fall is a perfect time to begin feeding the birds. In fall, bird populations and activities are at its peak. Some birds will be stocking up for their long migrations while other birds that will be wintering in your area will scout out for reliable food sources.

Once birds find a food source, water and shelter for the winter season, they will stay in that territory. The birds will most likely seek other food sources in nearby fields or wood areas, but they will always come back to the feeders that first attracted them. Once you set up a bird feeder, continue feeding the birds until spring when natural food sources become abundant again. Personally I fill my feeders regularly from fall to spring, then let the birds find the insects during the growing year, keeping my plants insect free.

The biggest complaint I have heard from people is that bird feeders can be messy, with excess seeds and shells littering the ground around the feeder. During the winter, place an old piece of carpet around the base of the feeder to prevent the accumulation of seed and remove it first thing in spring. If you feed during the growing season, there are many “no waste” seed blends on the market that will reduce the mess while keeping the birds happy.

Birds will eat a variety of foods during the winter including seeds. Sunflower seed is the most popular seed offered in bird feeders and are eagerly eaten by most large birds at feeders. Millet seed is the best year-round seed for smaller birds. Thistle seed is a good choice of seed for goldfinches. Try to avoid cheap mixes with fillers such as buckwheat. The higher the quality of the seed, the more likely the birds will be happy and healthy.

Grit is needed by birds to help grind up food in their gizzard. In areas of the country where winter provides a complete snow-covered landscape, natural forms of grit are hard to find. In these areas of the country, offer grit in the form of finely crushed eggshells.

In the winter, many birds depend on a high-energy diet. Beef suet is inexpensive and well liked by the birds. Suet can be offered to birds in specialized suet feeders, or on platform / table feeders. Mesh or onion bags also make a great suet feeder. Also there are many varieties of suet on the market today, including berry, peanut, corn, etc.

Kitchen scraps of breads are well liked by birds. White bread alone should not be the only food source for birds since it has no nutritional value (all parents should know this by now). Remove any uneaten bread from the ground to prevent it from spoiling or attracting unwanted animals.

There is not a better picture in the world than a cardinal standing next to a feeder when the snow is on the ground. When everything in the landscape is covered in white, having a colorful show of birds in your garden can brighten even the longest winter day.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Few Final Tasks around the Garden

November is the time of year when all gardeners get a little melancholy. Instead of looking forward to new blooms and green growth, it is time to get the gardens ready for its’ winter nap. The key is to remember that the plants in our garden are only “sleeping”, that is they are still alive and well. During the winter, water and nutrients are still running throughout the entire plant, including deciduous plants. In evergreens, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, this process continues quicker than in deciduous plants, as the leaves transpire, or give off water vapor, through the leaf's pores (stomata). The problem arises when the roots cannot supply enough moisture to compensate what is lost through the leaf’s pores. In rhododendrons, the leaves will roll up to reduce the surface area, slowing down the evaporation through the leaves. We can also help prevent moisture loss in evergreens by applying and anti-desiccant, such as “Wilt-Pruf”. One of the most common questions in spring is why are my rhododendron leaves brown at the edges? The reason is winter burn, caused by excessive transpiration in the winter. A simple application of “Wilt-Pruf” before the arrival of winter (days with a temperature higher than 50 degree) will help eliminate winter burn.

Garden cleanliness is extremely important at this time of year. Most diseases can over winter in the soil of your garden, emerging in spring with the new growth of your plants. A good example is black spot and powdery mildew. These diseases will over winter on leaves that have fallen to the ground. When the spring rains come, the raindrops will “bounce” the spores up onto the leaves, starting the cycle for yet another year. The best way to stop a fungus or disease is to prevent it. Make sure that all of your garden debris is picked up. If you have a compost pile, do not put these leaves into the compost – the disease will over winter in your compost and resurface next year. Most municipalities have a leaf collection service or a disposal site for fall refuse, and this is where diseased material should go.

Once the garden has gone dormant (usually the early part of December), now is the time I like to apply an organic fertilizer to every plant on my property. I apply bone meal for my garden beds. This organic fertilizer will not burn, nor will it create excessive new growth if we have a warm spell. What it will do is work its’ way into the soil, and be available first thing in spring to help green up your garden. The same is true for your lawn. Apply a 10-6-4 general-purpose fertilizer to your lawn once the ground freezes. If your lawn needs lime to help raise the pH, now is the time to do that as well. You may feel silly bundled up in your winter gear applying lawn fertilizer, but your lawn will have the nutrients it needs first thing in spring, greening up sooner than any one of your neighbor’s lawns, making you the King (or Queen) of your neighborhood!

Clean and oil your garden tools for winter storage. Place some sand and some oil in a large bucket, then slide your garden tools in and out of the sand. This will do an excellent job of cleaning them, as well as applying a light coat of oil to prevent rusting. This is also a good month to restock any tools that have seen better days, while the prices are lower.

Lastly, make sure that your power equipment is clean of any plant debris, and gas drained from the tank. Run the equipment after emptying the gas tank to make sure the gasoline is completely out of the carburetor and fuel lines. Clogged fuel lines or gummed up carburetors are the biggest problem when trying to start your engine in spring. Running the equipment until it runs out of gas will eliminate this problem next spring.

These easy tips will help you enjoy the flower show next spring without all of the work.