Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
Extension Educator, Horticulture
November 20, 2009
With Thanksgiving bearing down upon us, it will soon be time for the Christmas Tree lots. For many families, the Christmas Tree is the main symbol of the holidays. Several have gone to the artificial trees for convenience, allergies, or other reasons, but many still prefer to get a cut or live tree for their symbol. Here are some helpful hints to make your purchase a cut tree and then keep your tree safely through the holiday season.
Freshness is the key to having an enduring symbol of the holidays. Freshness is directly related to the moisture content in the needles. Once the tree is cut, its life functions quit. However, it will continue to function much like a wick as it absorbs moisture through the stem if placed in water. If adequate water is not available for the tree, the moisture content of the needles (moisture is lost by transpiration in your house) drops by about 35 – 50%. Trees that drop below 85% moisture will not regain their freshness.
When identifying a fresh tree, one obvious way is to cut your own (or observe it being cut). Many families make a ritual out of selecting their own tree, and you know that it is fresh that way. If you buy from a "lot" you need to buy from a reliable dealer that can give information on how long the trees have been cut. You then need to determine freshness for yourself.
Fresh trees have needles that are needles that are relatively supple and firmly attached to the twigs. All trees will have brown needles that will fall, but the green ones are the ones that count! If the green needles tend to snap when bent between your fingers the tree is probably quite dry. If temperatures are low (around zero), then all needles will snap since they are brittle. Fresh trees will have a fragrance to them. They also will have a waxy, natural green appearance, but some trees are sprayed with a needle colorant to make them greener.
When caring for your freshly cut tree, start with trying to avoid hauling the tree over a long distance where it will be exposed to the wind. Air moving across the needles is what actually dries them out. If you purchase your tree from a sales lot, buying the tree early will help insure better freshness and selection. You can then take the tree home and give it the proper attention.
Once you get the tree home, you should make a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree, place it immediately in water, and store it in a cool place (like your garage). Avoid putting the tree on the ground since it could freeze in place and be difficult to move. The cut you make at home is important. You should make a straight cut to make it easier on you and the tree will take up just as much water as if you made an angled cut.
Water is then the rule! Make sure your stand will hold enough water for your tree. A fresh tree may use up to two quarts of water the first 24 hours, and up to a quart a day for the first week. You also have to have the water level above the cut surface of the trunk to keep your tree fresh. Live trees also have critical water needs, especially since you want to plant them after the holidays.
When you locate your tree, make sure it is not by a fireplace, furnace outlet, or other heat source as they will dry it out. Closing a heat register in the area of your tree will help keep warm drafts from drying out one side of the tree.
A properly cared for cut tree, that was fresh to start with, can safely be displayed in the home for at least two weeks. The tree is actually your best indicator. If needles start dropping, and water use stops, there could be problems developing.
Hopefully these tips will help you enjoy your holiday season. This will be the last column of the season, and hopefully you've enjoyed them. For off-season horticulture information, you can check out the "In the Backyard" blog on our website at www.extension.uiuc.edu/logan
November 10, 2009
Fall is definitely upon us, and we know the season coming next! While the weather is somewhat cooperative, it is time to take care of some of those final outside chores. At least you'll feel prepared when the weather turns cold, and the main gardening activity is watching your favorite gardening show on public television.
Leaves have been one of the main clean-up items this past week. They will continue to be an item, so here are a few options for you. Mulch them where they aren't too thick. You can mulch with a mower, blower vacuum, or a chipper. This will reduce the volume greatly. Then the mulched leaves can be used as a mulch, but they may best be used on beds away from the house. The decaying organic matter tends to increase the millipedes, pill bugs, and other nuisance pests around the house. Composting is also a great option. Composting leaves isn't tricky, it just takes a little bit of formulation. The rule of thumb is to add about one-fourth of a cup of commercial fertilizer per compressed bushel of leaves, or to use one part leaves and 2 parts of green material such as grass clippings or green material removed from the garden. Mulching before composting is a double-edged sword. The finer material will decompose quicker, but it will also compact more and reduces the oxygen need to make compost. For more information on composting, check the website at http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/homecompost/
Tender bulbs, roots, or corms should be dug, if you already haven't done so. These would include dahlia, cannas, caladium, tuberous begonia, and gladiolus. Many of these will actually have rotting problems from frost. Be careful when digging so the bulbs are not cut, as any wound usually means a rot will begin. Any bulbs that look diseased should be thrown away. Most can be dried at room temperature, but gladiolus should be dried at a higher temperature (70-80 degrees) and dusted with malathion to protect against thrips. Store all the bulbs in a cool, dry place.
Plants which are completely dormant, such as peonies can be cut back. Leave a couple inches above ground on many such as mums since they store food above ground as well as below. The couple inches will also help catch snow and leaves to help create a "self mulched area" to help them survive the winter. Clean up around fruit trees, the garden area, and flower beds. Materials may be composted as long as they are not severely diseased.
December through February are the best months to apply the plugs to pin oaks and other trees which show iron chlorosis. You are best to not do any pruning at this time. Wait at least until December for the non-evergreens, with December being the best month for oaks (due to oak wilt) and maples and other trees with a high sap flow. The December to February time period is the best for pruning most non-evergreens. Do those in late June.
Someone told me I didn't talk about knockout roses in my winter rose care column last week, and there is a reason for that. Generally knockout roses don't require special care in hardiness zone 5 or south. We are in zone 5b. If you do want to do something because of prior problems, you can much the crown area. Some go to the extreme and burlap them or put wire around them and fill with leaves, but that is entirely up to you. The basic care is a pruning, if needed, in the early spring to size or shape.
Enjoy fall while it is here. As the sign along Lake Superior says: " Enjoy the day, we are one day closer to winter."
November 3, 2009
What an unusual year! That seems to be the understatement of the year. We haven't even had a killing frost in many locations yet as of November. The hosta foliage is golden, potted annuals are still thriving, peonies are just turning brown, and roses are still blooming. Following are the basics of rose care for fall and spring, but make sure you are dealing with dormant plants. This may mean you are doing these chores in December.
Many of the roses that are classified as old garden roses are extremely tolerant of cold temperatures, while others like hybrid teas experience considerable damage. Also, budded roses stand a greater chance of injury or death due to severe cold than do own-root roses. When selecting roses, always select cultivars that are able to tolerate the coldest temperatures in your area based on USDA hardiness zone maps. One of the ways to protect roses for the winter is to be sure they go completely dormant. To accomplish this, stop fertilizing early enough so growth slows down. No fertilizer should be applied after August 15. To further encourage dormancy, stop dead-heading or cutting flowers after October 1 and allow the plant to form hips.
There are many methods to provide winter protection for roses. The whole idea of winter protection is to keep the plant uniformly cold and frozen all winter and prevent the damaging effects of alternate freezing and thawing. Whatever the method, don't begin covering plants too early. Wait until a hard killing frost has caused most of the leaves to fall, and the temperature has dropped into the teens for several nights. Prior to covering, remove any foliage or other debris that might harbor disease for the next season.
Before covering, some tall roses may need minor pruning to reduce their height, and tie canes together to prevent wind whipping. Pruning at this point should be kept to a minimum. Most pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.
The most common way to provide winter protection is to pile or "hill-up" a loose, soil and compost mix around and over the plant about 10-12 inches deep. A variety of hilling materials can be used, but the key is to be sure that the material is well drained. Wet and cold is far more damaging than dry and cold. Soil that is used to "hill-up" plants should be brought in from outside the rose garden. After the soil mound has frozen, the mound can be covered with evergreen boughs, hardwood leaves, or straw to help insulate and keep the soil frozen.
A variation of the "hilling" method is one utilizing collars. An 18-inch-high circle of hardware cloth or chicken wire is placed around the plant. The collar is filled with soil, allowed to freeze, then mulched with straw. The benefit of the collar is that it holds the soil in place all winter and prevents it from being washed or eroded away.
Another popular method of winter protection for roses is the use of styrofoam rose cones. If these are used, they need to be used properly. First, don't cover the plants too early. Follow the general timing guidelines. Second, cones need to be well ventilated by cutting holes around the top and bottom of the cones. This helps prevent heat build-up on the inside during sunny winter days. It is also advisable to mound soil around the crown of the plant before putting the cone in place. For extremely tender varieties, some rose growers cut the top off the cone and stuff it full of straw for added protection. It is also a good idea to weight the cone down with a brick or stone to keep it from blowing away.
Climbing roses offer more challenges. For marginal varieties, climbers may need to be removed from their supports and bent to the ground, then covered with six inches of soil and mulched. When laying climbers on the ground for covering, one needs to be very careful not to injure or crack the stems. As the weather gets colder their long stems are more rigid, and they are easily broken.
Another method that can be used is to physically pack straw around the canes while they are still attached to the trellis or support. The straw is held in place with twine to keep it in place over the winter.
November 2, 2009
Just when leaves were starting to look colorful, we were hit with the double whammy of wind and rain. With the weakened attachment of the leaf stems as leaf color changes, there are leaves on the ground everywhere. This brings up one of those age old questions "What do I do with all those leaves?" The simple answer is to give you three options: leave them (no pun intended), remove them, or chop them up.
If you decide to let nature take its course, letting leaves lie brings benefits and some problems. Many of the benefits are associated with your labor, or lack of it. The major non-labor benefit is when leaves collect in flower beds and around shrubs to provide a mulch for those plants. Problems generally develop where deep piles of leaves may smother grass or harbor diseases, causing large dead areas to deal with next spring. Of course if you are the only resident in a neighborhood who doesn't rake leaves, you may be talked about at many get-togethers this fall.
Removing leaves is generally done by raking or bagging with a mower attachment. This makes your lawn look neat, prevents problems for lawns, and gives you a workout if you are manually raking. The main problems are the time, labor, and disposal of the leaves when they are piled.
Chopping leaves means reducing the size. Benefits include less smothering, quicker breakdown, and less labor. The main drawback comes with deep piles that still should be removed because of trouble in shredding and smothering.
One thing to consider is the type of leaves. There is a huge difference in oak leaves and silver maple leaves. It's difficult to have smothering problems with oak leaves, while silver maple leaves may smother with a very thin layer. These green leaves will tend to smother more than the dry, rigid types will. Add to this the very wet conditions of leaves and soils, and we will have to wait for things to dry out a little bit before being able to chop effectively.
What do you do with the leaves you've accumulated? There are several possibilities. Many municipalities, Lincoln included, prohibit burning for the most part. Besides the fire risk, the respiratory issues for affected people can be life threatening. Raking leaves into the street, unless requested by the city for cleanup, usually results in clogging storm sewers. Options remaining include composting, using as a mulch, tilling into garden and bed areas, and hauling to the city landscape recycling dump. There may even be some private collection services that will take bagged or bulk leaves to a recycling center. Partial composting, and the subsequent use as a mulch, is one of the best solutions. Simply construct an enclosure at least two feet cubed, place leaves in it, and cover the top with hardware cloth or wire laid on it and weighted down. The resulting much may be used next spring on flower beds, gardens, around trees and shrubs, or spread back on gardens or lawns. More information on recycling leaves can be found online at http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0692/
One thing to consider is removing the leaves from around the foundation of the house. The decaying leaves provide a hiding place or food sources for nuisance pests such as lady bugs and millipedes. The removal from directly around the house may reduce the number of these insects making their way into your home.