I finished running cords for the Holiday Lights Show and we "fired up" the entire thing today. We had some minor although not unexpected problems. We'll be troubleshooting over the next couple of weeks and will pray for no rain during this event. Marv, Terry, Marianne and I worked on the lights all day while Larry bounced between projects as usual. Rick and Tony finished removing buckthorn and started remulching our arboretum. They'll finish up on Friday and we sure appreciate their help. Jerry worked on pruning and debris collection and Jumbo Jim brought in the RECAPPERS to help pound posts for deer protection. Other volunteers included Del, Vern, Dr. Gredler, Bill and of course the lovely Kay who continues to be our "go to gal" out in the gardens. Below is another nice sedge. The blue sedge (Carex flacca 'Blue Zinger') has a wonderful blue coloration and is listed as a nice color improvement over the straight species. I've known this species to be a moderate spreader although descriptions for this variety say "more clump forming"... I'm not sure what that means but we'll see how they fill out and grow in the future with the thought that we may have to remove them if they get too vigorous. As a side note, I wont be blogging for a couple days as my wife is having surgery and I'll be away from the gardens and computer.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Monday, November 17, 2008
Conifers are usually evergreen trees and shrubs where the leaves are in the form of needles. The larch (or tamarack) is an example of a deciduous conifer that loses its needles in fall. We are all familiar with pines, junipers, spruces and yews as they are commonly found throughout our neighborhoods and parks. Conifer means “cone bearer” and the contribution of these trees and shrubs to the winter landscape in terms of structure is quite apparent.
Conifers have been planted around the foundations of many homes as they visually “anchor” the home to the surrounding yard. However, a very narrow palette of conifers has traditionally been used for this purpose and lack of maintenance has created many overgrown situations where these plants are more of a nuisance than an asset. Understanding the growth and maintenance requirements of individual conifers as well as their mature size, will help in the selection of appropriate varieties.
Conifers are also used around the yard and when placed appropriately, can form an effective wind screen, blocking winter winds and snow from hitting the home directly (thereby reducing winter heating costs). Conifers come in all shapes and sizes and typically a different form can be found of a desirable shrub or tree. For instance, the white pine, which can attain a mammoth size, does not lend itself to the smaller home landscape. However, it can be found in varieties that include dwarf, upright, weeping, golden, etc. Interesting forms of conifers will give you four seasons of interest and can become an important visual element in the landscape. Research the availability of conifer varieties to help in your selection process. Variability, availability and affordability has all improved as the smaller home landscape is considered and conifers proportional to that landscape become more readily available. Conifers are also wonderful for wildlife habitat, providing shelter and in some cases, a reliable food source in the scarce winter months. As a general rule of thumb, native conifers are preferred by our native wildlife.
Most conifers come in shades of green, but other colors exist and when combined in the landscape, this color becomes important in the “year-round” composition of the home landscape. It is important to note that green is a wonderful winter foil for ornamental grasses and other garden elements. The dark green silhouette of a conifer in winter can be quite striking, particularly when accentuated with a dusting of snow. However, colors such as gold, yellow, blue, white, silver and maroon can all be found in the winter landscape provided by conifers. These colors will come into the forefront of the winter landscape and can also be important in the summer composition. Consider all assets of the plant prior to purchase and installation. Visualize the contribution of these conifers year-round but don’t forget their winter value with form, texture and color.
Take winter walks around the neighborhood as well as area botanic gardens to locate some wonderful evergreens that are “stealing the show” right now. Create or enhance your fourth season of interest by planning now for the addition of conifers to your landscape.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
This morning was our last work day of the year. Marianne and Janice lead a crew of about 10 volunteers out in the gardens. The task was putting lights on all the white pine trees that we cut on Monday, set up on stakes and will use as temporary decorations. The weather was brisk and windy but at least not rainy. Thanks to the ladies for their help and thanks to Luis, Terri, Kay, Maggie, Lynn, Steve, Jody, Marcus, Chris and a young fellow from UW-Whitewater. Larry also was out putting up lights and I ran more cords. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
It wont be long before holiday trees go up in our homes. The debate about the pros and cons of "real" versus "fake" will continue in perpetuity. There is another option; the use of a live tree. This involves bringing in a live tree for a couple of days and then planting it outside after the holidays. There are some tricks to accomplishing this task but there are some garden center and nurseries that will sell containerized or balled & burlapped conifers for this use. See the article I wrote below regarding this option. At the bottom is a recent picture of the blue wood sedge (Carex laxiculmis 'Bunny Blue') that while marginally hardy, has overwintered here and looks great.
This December, it is estimated that over 33 million real Christmas trees and 60 million artificial trees will be decorated in the United States. After the holidays, these trees are either boxed up or dragged to the curb line for disposal. Why not take your Christmas tree out into the yard and plant it? Your investment then goes into the landscape and the sentimental value is there for years of enjoyment.
Live Christmas trees are evergreens that are still in containers or have their roots balled and burlapped. More garden centers and nurseries are starting to offer these live trees in December although they are traditionally more expensive than cut Christmas trees at that time. Typical varieties include Scotch pine, white pine, blue spruce and Douglas fir, although many other species may be available. Brought into the home for a brief time to be decorated and enjoyed, they are then planted out in the landscape. These live trees can be successfully established in the landscape by following some simple rules of thumb.
If you are serious about utilizing a live Christmas tree and have located a nursery that offers them, get out into the yard and dig the hole now before the ground is frozen. Remember that these trees will get quite large so place them accordingly. The north side of the home is ideal for a large evergreen as it acts as a windbreak in the winter and doesn’t cast unwanted shade at that time. The size of the hole should be roughly the depth of the root ball or container and three to five times the width. Ask the nursery for rough dimensions of their root balls or containers or measure yours if you have already obtained a tree. Keep the soil that you dug out of the hole from freezing by keeping it in wheelbarrows in the garage or covering it with mulch outside. Cover the planting hole with plywood or line it with straw to avoid any accidents.
When looking for live Christmas trees, select one with a nice shape and a good-sized root ball or container. Make sure that you select a tree that you like and can visualize as a component of your present and future landscaping. Survival guarantees are typically not offered for these trees due to the intricacies of proper planting procedures at that time of year. Remember that these trees will be very heavy when you take into account the weight of the damp soil around the roots. After selecting a tree and getting it home, you must keep the tree dormant but also keep the roots from freezing. Typically an unheated garage or shed is sufficient for this acclimation period which should typically be at least two days. Keep the roots watered at this time.
There is a very narrow window for utilizing a live Christmas tree in the home as indoor temperatures will start to bring the tree out of dormancy and encourage growth. This translates into severe winter damage when planted outside. These trees must remain dormant and should only be inside for 3-5 days. Ideally, bring the tree in on Christmas Eve day, decorate it and then plant it on Christmas day after removing decorations. Never keep the tree inside for more than a week as its chance of survival when planted outside will decrease significantly. While inside, keep the root ball in a pan or tub with water. Putting ice cubes around the base of the roots will help keep the roots cool while providing water. Check water daily. Keep the tree away from heat sources such as fireplaces, vents, registers and direct sun. Try to locate the tree in the coolest part of the room. The needles can be sprayed with an antidessicant spray to help prevent premature needle loss. If you use lights on the tree, use “cool lights” as some lights will emit unwanted heat around this dormant tree.
After Christmas, remove decorations and take the tree back to an unheated garage or shed for two days of acclimation before planting. Bringing the tree directly outdoors could result in damage from severe temperature extremes. Plant the tree on a mild winter day, making sure to remove ropes, nails, containers or other material from the root area. Make sure to plant the tree an inch or two higher than grade because of settling and then backfill with the original soil. Stake the tree if necessary. Water with warm water and don’t add any fertilizer at this time. Mulch the area around the base of the roots with 12” of woodchips or other mulch to keep the soil from freezing too quickly. Keep watered until the ground is frozen. In spring, decrease mulch depth to 4” and continue to keep watered as needed.
It seems like a lot of work to locate, obtain, maintain and establish a live Christmas tree. It is. However, imagine the year 2040 when your progeny is playing around a 40 foot tall pine tree in the back yard and you can say, “Ah…that Christmas of 2008…I remember when….”
Friday, November 14, 2008
Janice and Kristine continued to work on cutting back perennials and raking leaves. Janice asked me to mention in this blog that she raked ALL DAY (although she also weeded and took extra long breaks). Marianne, Terry, Marv and I worked on the lights show although Marianne spent some time weeding the new iris beds as well. Rick and Tony worked on leveling rocks along our paths and were clearing European buckthorn from around the perimeter of our Horticulture Center. Dr. Gredler did some mowing and accomplished two milestones today; his 200th trip to the dump with debris and his 800th volunteer hour for the year. He's one of our best.
As many of our ornamental grasses go dormant and transform in to ambers and browns, our sedges (Carex sp.) will still maintain color throughout the winter (if visible). Many sedges are "semi-evergreen" and while dormant, still show color until new growth emerges in spring from the basal foliage (which overwinters). The plantain-leaf sedge (Carex plantaginea) to the right looked great today with its wide ribbon-like foliage. Found in moist woodlands from Canada to Alabama, this native (not to WI) sedge has a lot of merit in my mind. We have planted throughout our dappled shade areas. It is a hardy (to zone 4) clumping sedge and we will continue to utilize its merits and that of other clumping sedges. Avoid "running" sedges!!!
Thursday, November 13, 2008
The picture above is of produce that we grew back in 2007 at the gardens. We had an heirloom collection of tomatoes, garden peppers and eggplants. This collection was maintained by Master Gardeners and the bulk of the produce was donated to area food banks. Gardening with heirlooms and growing your own food continues to become increasingly popular each year. For next year (our 20th anniversary incidentally), we'll be displaying 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 25 varieties of heirloom bell peppers, 25 varieties of hot peppers, 25 varieties of basil and 25 varieties of heirloom beans and/or peas. We will offer most of these varieties as plants during our spring plant sale in May. This is our fourth year of growing vegetables and visitor interest continues to increase. Master Gardeners will play a major role in maintaining and promoting this collection and I'm relying heavily on Janice and Kristine this winter. The fun part will be picking the varieties as the seed catalogs arrive.
I've decided as the weather gets more sour, I wont try to keep up with daily photos (unless relevant) but will toss some nice images (see below) to carry over some color until spring. For those that read this blog, don't hesitate to make any comments or post questions. The intent of this blog is to not only catalog what is going on at the gardens but also to entice potential new visitors so pass along the link and let's get more supporters.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
It fluctuated between a light drizzle, heavy drizzle, steady rain and mist today. It never really didn't rain and it never was a downpour. For those of us that went outside (Marv, Terry, Rick, Tony and Jerry), we were all saturated pretty quickly. I managed to run cords most of the day while Marv and Terry set up displays and decorated with lights. Rick and Tony hauled debris, graveled a path and did various odds and ends. Jerry continues to prune and cut back shrubs. Larry went home sick and Marianne was the smart one and stayed inside to work on repairing lights and prepping displays. We're making lots of progress although we still have gardening to accomplish. Rick and Tony will finish next week with the remainder of the garden staff departing the week following (and returning in April 2009).
See below for one of many ways to kill a tree. I can't imagine the roots are pretty happy under all of that asphalt. Consider mulching your tree with 3-4" of woodchips or shredded bark this fall. Taper the mulch away from the base of the tree and understand you'll have to add (topdress) this mulch layer with 1" of fresh stuff every year. Studies have shown that properly mulched trees grow significantly faster than their counterparts growing directly out of turf (competition). Winter is a good time to examine your trees and shrubs for architectural pruning and shaping although know your plant as many prefer to be pruned after flowering (lilacs, etc.).
Consider the value of ornamental berries in the landscape as you examine your landscape. Ornamental berries can offer colorful interest and may also have significant wildlife value. See the article below.
As you enjoy wonderful foods during the cold holiday months of November, December and January, look out in your landscape and realize that wildlife is also looking for food; and perhaps having some difficulty. Many birds and mammals will forage for food through the coldest months of the year. The severity of the winter coupled with limited food supplies can be the difference between life and death for our neighborhood wildlife. Wildlife-friendly gardens should provide food for wildlife through the toughest winter months. While bird feeders, bird houses, nesting boxes and heated bird baths are all helpful, try planting native trees and shrubs that have persistent berries. These food sources will become vital to wildlife in our coldest months.
Landscapes that are friendly to wildlife will contain elements that provide good nesting sites, winter shelter, places to hide from predators and natural food supplies that last throughout the year. Trees and shrubs with winter fruit are those whose fruits remain attached to the plants long after they become ripe in the fall. Many of these berries are not palatable until they have frozen and thawed many times. The National Wildlife Federation has dubbed these plants the “spinach plants” for wildlife. This indicates that while they may be the last food selected by wildlife due to this “transformation of palatability”, their nutrient value at a tough time is vital. It is important to note that some birds never eat seeds and these berries become very important for many resident bird species in late winter and early spring. Small mammals will also utilize these berries as well as available nuts from trees such as oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts and hazels. Long-lasting berries can be the life saver for wildlife during tough winters.
There are many plants native to North America that will provide winter berries for our wildlife and also be ornamental throughout the year. Utilize native plants whenever possible if your goal is to attract wildlife. It is interesting to note that native plants will attract forty times more wildlife than non-native plants. Something interesting to note is that while some non-native trees and shrubs do provide berries for wildlife, they are horribly invasive as the seeds are distributed throughout our native ecosystems. Some examples include European Buckthorn, Japanese Barberry, Tatarian Honeysuckle and Russian Olive to name a few. See the accompanying chart for twenty-five great native plants for persistent winter berries. When incorporating these trees and shrubs into your landscape, strive for a variety of plant heights and plant densities. Berries should be provided at all levels and can be done so by utilizing both trees and shrubs. Diverse plantings will be more attractive to a broader range of wildlife.
As you enjoy the winter landscape, notice plants around your neighborhood and parks that are providing berries for wildlife. These fruits can also be quite ornamental and improved varieties of these native species, while still providing wildlife benefits, can easily be incorporated into both formal and informal landscapes. Contact the National Wildlife Federation (1-800-822-9919) for more information on wildlife-friendly landscaping. Including native trees and shrubs that provide essential winter berries will help wildlife through our Wisconsin winters.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The moisture didn't stop Marv & Marianne (volunteering) from helping with the lights show while Janice worked with Heidi and Barb out in the garden as we finish the last of our bulb planting and clean-up. Larry and I worked on cords while Rick and Tony cleaned up debris and helped with show set-up as well. Bill and Dr. Gredler were also around to help in the gardens. I small, damp crew but we accomplished a lot on what I thought would be a "rain/snow out"! The ground isn't frozen yet so head out and get some discounted bulbs this weekend and get them in the ground. A nice way to incorporate multiple types of bulbs in the same hole is called "bulb lasagne". This is a great way to segway color, particularly in a small space. See the article below for some ideas.
With cooler temperatures affecting our waning gardens, fall tasks will include leaf collection, mulching and ideally, bulb planting as well. October is the time to start planting spring blooming bulbs in the soil. Bulbs can be safely planted as long as you can still work the soil. Garden Centers abound right now with many bulb choices for your spring garden, whether it’s daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, ornamental onions (Allium) or some other hardy and/or rare selection.
While the results of your labor will be appreciated 5-7 months from now, why not consider a “bulb sandwiching” system that combines different types of bulbs and makes the most out of a small garden space? It’s useful and effective to plant bulbs in tandem with other bulbs and perennials to create sequential color and exciting combinations. Smaller gardens will benefit greatly from this approach.
When considering a space for bulb planting, envision your planting hole as a space to accommodate three levels of bulbs that may bloom together or have a staggered appeal. Dig wide holes 12” down and incorporate some coarse sand, compost and a sprinkle of Milorganite fertilizer in to a layer of loose soil at the bottom of this hole. Then plant larger bulbs such as daffodils, large alliums or camassia in this lower level with the bottoms of the bulbs resting at roughly 9” depth. Add loose soil until just over the tips of those bulbs, then “nestle” in bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths at 5-6” planting depth with again, the installation of another covering of loose soil. The remaining 3” of your hole can be filled with smaller bulbs such as Siberian squill, grape hyacinth, snowdrops, crocus or other smaller bulbs that can be planted 2-3” under the soil level. Fill the hole and sprinkle Milorganite on top as a light fertilizer and rodent deterrent (“anti-digging”). It is vital that the filled hole is watered well but also has excellent drainage.
This “bulb lasagne”, with all its layers, will showcase a wide range of plants in a small space. Deeper planted bulbs will find their way to the surface around the other bulbs planted around them. Depending on your bulb selection, you should see reliable spring colors as your planting hole explodes with a wide range of wonderful spring plants. Bulb layering can also be done with just two levels. Consider the bloom times of your selections and consider a staggered approach. Perhaps your planting hole shows wonderful snowdrops in April, followed by early tulips in May and a final transition to ornamental onions (Allium) in early June. Or perhaps your planting approach seeks to combine plants with the same bloom times.
A final touch to your bulb lasagne could be a perennial plant above the bulbs, installed at ground level. Overplanting the space with an appropriate perennial will allow that perennial to dominate the space (as it fills in) after you have already enjoyed color from your bulb layering approach. This space could have been wasted in terms of color if you were simply waiting until late May for the perennial to fill out. Incorporate color early and often by utilizing the wide gamut of spring blooming bulbs that are available to you as you read this article. Consider following the easy recipe for the delectable Bulb Lasagne!
Monday, November 10, 2008
Friday, November 7, 2008
The view of our November landscapes encompasses the transition from the fading blooms of late summer and vivid fall colors to a landscape of faded greens, tans and browns. While color may lack in our gardens this time of year, texture and form come to the forefront. Ornamental grasses in the garden, while contributing as role players through the growing season, become very important in anchoring our compositions, providing visual interest and perhaps helping our native wildlife as well. There are many hardy, ornamental grasses to choose from but why not consider some tried and true native grasses that will accent and improve your landscape?
Much of central North America was originally covered with tallgrass prairie. This important ecosystem fostered many important plant and animal species. However, most of the original tallgrass prairie (90%) has been lost to agriculture and other land uses. Fortunately, the prairie contains many wonderful grasses that are now making a “comeback” in our gardens. Many of these native species have had special cultivars selected and propagated for improved ornamental attributes. Keeping in mind that these native grasses are very adaptable in our climates, tolerant of our soil types and will attract 40 times more wildlife (primarily birds) than non-native ornamental grasses, perhaps they are worthy of our consideration in the back yard.
All of the grasses listed below prefer full sun conditions but will take a wide range of soils. Leave these grasses in the garden for winter interest and cut them back to 3-4” by early April before new growth resumes with the warming of the soil. Mulching around the grasses will help minimize weed competition and retain moisture. In time, these grasses may require division; a process of digging up the grass and separating out the most vigorous sections for replanting or relocation. Research these grasses prior to purchasing them and view your winter garden for gaps that can be addressed with these exciting, long-lived, native perennials.
Our big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a robust native grass that forms a sturdy 6’ tall clump and may have some reddish tint to the leaves in autumn. Look for the varieties ‘Silver Sunrise’ and ‘Pawnee’ for improved fall color. Another tall prairie native is Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). This 5-7’ tall clumping grass has a rough texture and upright, arching form. Fall color is typically a yellow or gold. The Indian grass varieties ‘Sioux Blue’, ‘Indian Steel’ and ‘Bluebird’ are noted for their metallic blue foliage and strong, bold, upright appearance.
Another medium to large native grass is switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). This grass has experienced lots of selection and breeding, particularly in Europe. Dozens of varieties exist and are being developed for size and fall color. Switchgrass can take a little shade and you may see some reseeding in damp soils. Heights can be quite variable with some varieties in the 3-4’ range and some in the 6-7’ range. Try the shorter varieties of ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ for a nice red fall color. Taller varieties such as ‘Dallas Blues’, ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Prairie Sky’ are known for their bluish leaves and airy seedheads. The popular variety ‘Northwind’ was selected by Roy Diblick of Northwind Perennial Farm near Lake Geneva, WI.
If you have a location for a smaller grass, consider the use of the wispy prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). This grass will achieve a height of 24” and is very transparent in appearance. The texture carries thru the winter as does the yellow, dormant coloration. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is another alternative with a mature height of 3-4’. This narrow, upright grass naturally has a blue green coloration and will get a reddish hue in fall. Consider the varieties ‘The Blues’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Cimmaron’ for a very blue summer color with more intense fall coloration. This upright grass can be used in masses or as single specimens along a border.
Ornamental grasses, while not new to horticulture, are becoming ever more important in our “four seasons” gardens. Hardy grasses from around the world can be used in your Wisconsin back yard to create screening, accent a view, combine with other plantings or draw the eye thru the barren winter landscape. With a wide range of physical and ornamental attributes, there may be a native option for your consideration.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Another nice day of weather with much accomplished. Janice, Kay and Barb did lots of perennial clearing and tidying up in the woodland walk garden. Larry helped with the lights show and worked on various tasks. Jerry has been working on pruning and cutting back select shrubs. Rick and Tony planted bulbs and helped with the lights show as well. Tuesday is usually a smaller crowd but we get a lot done. I did some shopping for additional lights and strung more cords. Nice shot to the right in our parking lot of maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Blondo'). This variety has beautiful "plumes" and reminds many of pampas grass (which is not hardy here). This grass looks great thru the entire winter. Nice shot today of the alpine garden. Our dwarf and miniature conifers are looking good.
Spring blooming bulbs come in a wide spectrum of sizes, colors, blooming times and of course, cost. Bulbs considered for a bulb lawn need to be very early bloomers that will emerge, bloom and start to go dormant prior to the first traditional mowing of the surrounding turf. This concept is different from establishing larger bulbs such as daffodils into meadow areas because the surrounding grass cannot be cut until July because of the persistent bulb foliage. See the accompanying chart for some great bulbs that will establish well in our lawns and provide spring after spring of enjoyment before it’s time to fire up the lawn mower.
Many of what are termed “minor bulbs” will thrive in the lawn setting and are quite small and easy to plant into an established lawn. You can plant these bulbs in patches or randomly scatter them around an area, planting them where they lie. When choosing a lawn space to establish bulbs, target areas that don’t have a lot of foot traffic during the year, primarily in spring. Soil compaction on your turf will affect the health of your bulbs. The majority of these minor bulbs will tolerate most soils provided that they are well drained (no standing water) and not heavy clay. A normal lawn fertilizing regimen will also benefit the bulbs beneath the lawn, particularly a September application.
Planting of these bulbs should be accomplished in October but can be done later if the ground is not frozen. Estimate the height of these bulbs and understand that you’ll have to plant each bulb three times the height of the bulb. For instance, a 1” tall bulb should be planted 3” deep. Use a narrow trowel or a pointed dibble that will allow you to penetrate the turf and plant the bulb at the appropriate depth. Another option is to take a plug aerator around your turf. This aerator will remove ½” wide plugs that can be 1” or more deep, thus saving all of your efforts to get thru the turf to plant bulbs. These holes are then started for you and you can widen them as needed. This aeration will also improve the health of your lawn.
As you plant bulbs in the holes throughout your lawn, sprinkle Milorganite fertilizer over all of the holes before you cover them up. This fertilizer gives the bulbs a boost but also has an odor that will deter rodents from digging up your newly planted treasures. Provide pulverized topsoil or other material to smooth over all of your holes as needed when you’re done. The tops of the bulbs lying in the holes should be covered by soil. Keep newly planted bulbs watered until the ground freezes. You should be rewarded in spring with a plethora of blooming bulbs emerging from the lawn. Leave these bulbs, and their foliage as long as possible before mowing. Most should be done prior to Mother’s Day allowing for mid to late May mowing.
The warm days of April and May bring our gardening senses alive and we all enjoy watching our lawns turn a lush green in response to warming rains. Why not “dress up” your ubiquitous lawn with drifts of color offered by fall-planted bulbs. Your lawn will be none the worse for wear and once established, a bulb lawn offers enjoyment for countless springs.