Did you ever wonder why the leaves turn colors in the fall and don't simply fall off of the trees? Did you ever wonder why the process takes so long? Did you ever wonder why some leaves turn yellow while others turn red? I bet you could guess the correct answers by just observing what is happening every day during the fall. Yes, the days are getting shorter. Yes, the temperatures are getting cooler and yes, these do have something to do with the process of leaves changing color by triggering a complex series of biological reactions to get the plant ready for winter survival. These biological processes are unseen for the most part and they involve the movement and storage of nutrients from the leaves down to the roots.
The process of nutrient movement, called translocation, is confirmed and can be seen via the harvesting of maple sap to make maple syrup, a yummy by-product. The harvesting of maple sap is actually done in the spring. The literature suggests that the sap is more starchy in the fall when it is translocated down the tree trunk and sap is more sugary in the spring when it is mixed with water as it rises up the trunk of the tree. The taps can be set up between the middle of February to the middle of March and the spring sap will flow until the trees buds break in May. Fun fact: It can take 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
The first phase of the nutrient conversion involves the breakdown of the material that makes green leaves green, chlorophyll. In the absence of chlorophyll, and specifically nitrogen, the leaves start to turn yellow because the green pigment is dismantled and the yellow pigment, which is also present in leaves, is left. But as we can observe, not all leaves turn yellow in the fall, some leaves turn red, orange, purple and brown. In these plants where the leaves turn red, it is the absence of the element phosphorus that allows the the green pigment to dissolve and the red pigment to remain. Pigment for the orange color and the brown color also exist in each leaf and also show through as the green color fades.
Fall color is very specific to plant species like in trees including maples, oaks and ash's, etc. For instance, the silver maple is always a light yellow color and the Norway Maple is always a golden yellow color. Fall color is very specific for varieties within a species too. A good example is the Red Maple, called that because its FLOWERS are red, can be either yellow or red with many variations depending on the variety. It is interesting to google search “Red Maple fall color images” to see how wide ranging the colors are, the fact that there are so many color variations is very uncommon in the tree community. The White Ash is another tree to check out close up because the fall color is purple on some leaves and yellow on other leaves, which you can see by searching “White Ash Fall color images”. Another interesting pattern of purple is found on the Sweet Gum, but the two most exciting trees to observe for fall color intensity are the Sugar Maple and the Sassafras.
Another attribute to pay attention to in the fall is the sequence of color changes among tree species and tree varieties. Just as there is an order to the sequencing in flowering trees and shrubs in the spring, there is the same sequencing in the fall. Among the first trees to turn are the red maples, which are also one of the first to flower in the spring. One of the last to turn is the Callery pear, which is one of the latest to flower in the spring. Again the driving force is the light cycle of shorter days and longer nights and the lowering of day-night temperatures. Even within species, like a Red Maple, there are a lot of different varieties, like October Glory and Red Sunset, which present their own, unique color palette. That's what makes Nature so incredible, no reminders are necessary, no time clocks need to be wound; external forces converge and the process kicks off. Beautiful.
It is for this reason there is a “peak” to the fall season. The peak is a range set in the middle of the season from the time leaves first start to turn color to when they have all fallen off of the tree. The middle of the season guarantees that all of the trees in a region have started the process of turning but before the majority have dropped their leaves. The peak is a bit of a moving target because, like the cherry blossom peak in Washington DC, it can be altered by rises and drops in temperatures.
The purpose of the process is to, obviously, get trees ready for surviving the winter cold. It is commonly thought that trees are dormant, that nothing is happening during the winter but this is not really the case. While food is translocated down the trunk of the tree to the roots for storage, winter is a time when tree root systems do a lot of growing. In fact the roots of lots of plants, not just trees, grow during the winter months. There are also other plant systems that continue to function during the winter, responding to the rising and lowering of daily temperatures. Trees continue to respire through lenticels on their trunks that can open and close. The trees that lose their leaves when temperatures drop are called “deciduous”. There are other plants that keep their leaves during the winter and these trees are called “evergreen”. The leaves on evergreens are constructed in a way that protect them from freezing temperatures, which is especially significant in the far north or far south approaching the arctic and antarctic circles.
If you have any concern about oxygen levels in the winter when the photosynthesis levels are reduced due to this dormancy, as opposed to oxygen levels in the summer when these same areas are in full photosynthesis production, worry not! Literature references vary, but it is generally estimated that the majority of the world's oxygen is produced by ocean algae. Scientists estimate that between 50% to 90% of the earth's oxygen comes from this resource. Don't you just love nature!
Fall planting – What, what? Yes, there are plants that can be planted in the fall. Just when you think the season is over as the annuals start to look poorly, the leaves start to fall, and the temperatures start to drop, it is time to move the old plants over to make room for the cold season crop. Just as in crop farming, fall can be a busy time for the farmer and avid gardener. But you don't have to be an avid gardener to want to extend the season of color in your garden. The list of cold season crop plants include pansies, remember them? Also on the list are ornamental cabbage plants, chrysanthemums, and a very showy succulent called Sedum 'Autumn Joy'. These four plants can handle a few frost events as the temps drop, so throw caution to the wind and get planting.
Pansies are one flower burned into my childhood memory as a popular plant to use in the garden. These flowers were given out in the early spring by the church we went to and I was always so struck by their vibrant, velvety purple and yellow colors. Plus the flowers looked like little faces that you could never forget especially given the Walt Disney cartoon experience. At this time in my history, plants did not do well in my family's midst, but I did notice other people were able to keep them alive. But alas, I watched these church flowers die, never believing one day I might actually know why. Over the years new cultivars have been developed in both Germany and in the United States and there are now many new colors. Whether you buy plants that are already growing or try to grow them from seed yourself, find a spot that is up-close-and-personal where you like to spend your time outside or gazing out your window and load it up with your favorite colors.
Since pansies are more of a cool season flower, they have to compete with ornamental cabbages and Chrysanthemums for the preferred fall choice. They have susceptibilities to various fungi and insects, over the other two, and because they are a favorite of the deer population, it took some reinvention by the industry to help them regain their foothold. With the invention of easy-to-install deer netting they are used more widely on landscaped medians in the fall after the annuals have been pulled out and because they can tolerate over-wintering, they can be left in the ground and will re- sprout in the early spring, along with the early season spring bulbs.
Ornamental cabbages are usually a bi-color plant of pink and green or white and green. Some of the varieties have decorative feathery edged leaves. It is confusing for some when they see these cabbages because people wonder if they are edible. (Hint: they are.) They are used because they are decorative, not because they are winter-hardy—they will die out with the first hard frost or temperature drop.
Chrysanthemums, nicknamed mums, are planted in the fall and that is because that's when they normally flower. Of course, mums are seen all year round, whether in flower arrangements or in pots, at the supermarket, the garden center or florist are around for all of the holidays and every day in-between. They are a very versatile, showy flower that comes in lots of colors and several varieties and serve as a mainstay of the industry. I got married in September, so I am particularly fond of the mum and used pots of them around the venue, my Aunt and Uncle's new house. The added special treat of the mum is that there is a variety that is cold hardy. Cold hardy means they are perennial and can live through the winter. Keep in mind that the hardy mums sold in the fall have probably been pinched back once or twice during the growing season making the stems shorter and the flowers larger. “Pinching” is a growers term for actually pinching, or cutting, the top of a stem off. Pinching the top off encourages branching, so a stem with one flower may now produce two. The other reasons to pinch a top is to delay the flowering cycle and to try to produce a more compact plant. Some literature suggest the last pinch should be around the middle of July so that the flower buds are set by the fall. There is no magic day so make a mark on you own calendar and stick to it. I, on the other hand, am never that organized and have never “pinched” my mums. The stems grow as long as they do and if they flatten out, so be it. I like leaving natural things natural and see what nature makes them do. I have not had all of the colors come back from year to year but have had great success with the white and yellow varieties. They provide a contrast to the new ones I may add and I just think it is exciting to see what happens.
Another fall flowering perennial is the Sedum - Autumn Joy. They have the distinction of flowering late and the flowering process can last 4 to 8 weeks. The flowers start off looking lime green then slowly change to pink and from there turn brown, but each phase is a wonder. They are bumble bee attractors, so locate them accordingly. The stems are fleshy, not woody, so they are susceptible to laying down which can be circumvented by staking. They are a lovely contrast to the cabbages, mums and pansies and they come back every year. They are in the succulent family, which is related to the cactus. They are thorn-less but, like cacti, have flowers that exceed expectations. The kicker with this plant is it is usually found in the spring with the other perennials but occasionally there are left overs so they can be used in fall arrangements.
Fall planting can extend beyond the seasonal flowering plants and can include trees and shrubs.
While it is more common to see them planted in the spring, it is really a better to plant in the fall. There are a few limitations, the main one being availability of plant material, but if you are not wedded to something specific, make your move. Tree/shrub planting in the fall has many significant benefits because of the additional rainfall and cooler temperatures helping with usual transplanting maintenance required. Trees and shrubs planted in the fall require less watering and plant roots typically grow in the fall so they will need less watering the following year because their root system is more established. Fall is not the time to dig up root balls for transplanting certain varieties of plant material, Dogwoods being one. Limit the fall planting to those trees and shrubs that were dug in the spring or are in pots. Once planted make sure they are watered in once really well and make sure they are mulched. Then wait........Spring will hold a a host of new surprises.
Believe it or not, fall is the time for ordering and planting bulbs. Whether it is a bulb, corm, tuber, or rhizome most of them are planted in the fall to be in place for the following spring because their food storage “devices” are located underground. Bulbs and corms are attached to the stem of the plants and rhizomes and tubers are connected to the roots. An example of a bulb you have eaten is an onion. Tubers are storage roots like potatoes and carrots, while corms are swollen underground stems like water chestnuts and taro. Rhizomes are underground horizontal stems characterized like ginger root, iris and asparagus.
If you are the kind of person who has difficulty with delayed gratification then this family of plants may not be your thing but the fun in planting them is in imagining the possibilities. Then you will forget you planted them and then you will remember when you see them in all of their colorful glory! I have observed over the years that when planting bulbs it is the most effective display when they are grouped together in one mass planting of a variety rather than scattering them around the yard.
If you are a fan of iris, tulips, crocus, or peonies, then this is a project with your name on it. The challenge is to pick plants that will arrive at various stages of the season and not necessarily all at the same time. Some bulbs, et al, are “early season”, some are “mid-season” and some are “late season.” Early season means the vegetative portion of the plant can appear in March along with the rising temperatures and that there is no specific day but a range of dates based on temperatures when they will start their seasonal salute. Most of the early season plants are hardy and have fleshier skin that can withstand some temperature drops during the process so don't worry. I have seen crocus and grape hyacinth appear through the snow for a very dramatic effect.
Mid-season comes along next. This too is driven by each plants response to the temperature changes and is, therefore, not precise, since no two spring events are exactly the same. If you select a plant that will flower around your birthday every April 15th, you will be disappointed at least one of those years. Late season flowering is still going to happen in the spring but just after the other two and it is also driven by the temperatures. These are usually the tallest of the bunch and the vegetative portion takes a bit longer to fade away.
With bulbs, corms and tubers it is not all about the flowers. Once the flower petals have dropped off it is equally as important to take care of the vegetative portion of the plant to provide the corm, bulb or tuber with the highest level of photosynthesis and resultant nutrient translocation down to the bulb, corm, tuber, for the following spring. It is important to allow the vegetative portion do it's thing. It is okay to cut the top off of the flower stem to stop seed production after flowering because seed production takes a lot of food energy from the plant. So after the petals have dropped or the flower starts to fade, simply prune this part of the plant off and leave the remainder of the plant alone. Annuals can be planted in between if the tops have not faded before this time.
Tips to success with bulbs, corms and tubers:
As the fall season approaches it is time to think about taking care of the turf. Yes, I am talking about grass. It always surprises me how much people either care about their grass or see it as a burden. It is the one task of home ownership that can bring out the competitive nature in some but this does not mean the others have to work harder when it is just as effective to work smarter. Grass grows best when the season is cooler so spring and fall become the time to pay it attention. Because it can take up to three weeks for some grass seed to just germinate, seeding in advance of the start of each season means ground conditions will be favorable for the grass seed to grow at the start. So seeding in August and March is good, but by no means exclusive.
Turf is inherited with a house, whether it is existing turf, new sod, or new seed. The approach should be exactly the same with the first step being a soil test to establish the baseline. It is good to follow the rules for taking a soil test because the results will not be accurate, otherwise. There are two links provided below for taking a soil test. The one from Rutgers actually describes the physical process of taking soil samples. The second fact sheet from the University of Maryland explains about the test results. Press “control” then “left click” to get to the link page.
For the FIRST soil test, request an analysis of the soil texture and structure as well as the soil fertility and soil pH. The soil texture is a percentage of sand, silt, clay and organic material and is important to know in order to determine the types of grasses that will grow best. Soil structure analyzes the pore space and the soil's ability to hold water and to provide air circulation. If the soil texture or soil structure is poor it can be amended by aerating, spiking, or adding organic material and should be done along with reseeding. The soil test will also identify soil fertility and pH and the results will state what fertilizer and amendments are needed for maximum grass health. The test results will include recommendations for the macro-nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. It will also include ways to improve micro-nutrients and pH. It is extremely important to not over apply any of these fertilizers or amendments. You can't “undo” an “overdo” but you can “half-do” or quarter-do” and retest the soil the following year making a gradual change and not a sudden change.
Step two should take into consideration some cultural practices that are recommended in the fact sheets for improving turf and are effective to use in getting started with your lawn. Fact sheets on these are included also at the bottom of this post. Investigate the cutting height of the grass by actually measuring the length of a blade of grass after the mower passes over it. Tall fescue should measure 3 inches and Kentucky bluegrass should measure 2.5” and the only way to know which type you have is to google search images for both types and see how closely it matches or take a sample to the local cooperative extension office. Depending on which planting zone you live in, the type of turf could be Zoysia or St. Augustine. The same procedure should be followed for all of them depending on the fact sheet recommendations.
Believe it or not, it is a hard concept for the homeowner to let go of the “shorter is better” myth. The fact is that grasses do not grow well if the actual blade of grass is cut too short. It inhibits the amount of photosynthesis going on to support the plant and the grass has difficulty recovering in-between mowing events. Cutting the grass too short slows the rate of growth, which seems desirable, but by summer the weeds take over and the grass struggles through the summer heat. The fact sheets recommend that no more than one-third of the grass blade should be cut at any time to maintain optimal health and optimal photosynthesis capability.
The lawn maintenance trades typically recommend measuring the lawn mower blades from the driveway asphalt, while others say to go by the numbers on the mower itself but this stationary measurement does not consider soil compaction, tire pressure, time of year, evenness of the terrain, type of mower, all of which can affect the actual length of the blade of grass after mowing. Measuring the blade of grass is the most accurate way of preserving leaf surface for photosynthesis but the proof is in the end result. Growing grass is, after all, a science, treated scientifically by the scientists but you don't have to take their word for it. There are no “grass police” to fine you every time the grass is cut too short or too long. However, if you are not happy with the way your lawn looks and think it is ridiculous to measure a blade of grass, just change it up. Raise the wheels on the mower or raise the blades and grow it long, and see if the results are any more to your liking. These are more like guidelines than actual rules.
Recycling cut grass back into the lawn is another way of providing the turf with food. The thinking used to be that grass recycling would create a build up of thatch which would in turn create an environment for fungi, bacteria and insects to thrive. Further research has changed the thinking on this subject. A mulching mower will cut the grass into smaller bits. If clumps of grass are left behind then double cut it to cut the clumps into smaller pieces. To prevent clumps of grass, mow when the grass is drier and mow more often. Never blow grass into the street. It is not only a code enforcement violation in some areas to blow debris into the roadway it is a waste of food for the grass. Make the first few passes with the mower blowing the grass back onto the lawn and keep the cuttings out of the storm sewers and give the passing motorists a break.
Lawn weeds are inevitable and it is NOT mandatory to do anything about them. I personally love the look of dandelions in the spring. If the grass is allowed to grow higher they may not die but their appearance becomes secondary. As the grass gets taller the weeds will be crowded out and the soil will be shaded, preventing further weed seeds from germinating. Clover is actually beneficial for grass by helping it take up nitrogen from the soil. For more information on improving your lawn, links to three separate university fact sheets have been provided. Ultimately it is important to connect with the fact sheets for turf in your home state and the planting zone to determine the seed varieties that will grow best on your piece of the kingdom.
The State of Maryland has been tightening regulations on fertilizer applications because of the negative impact fertilizer runoff has on the Chesapeake Bay. There are always consequences to our actions and as good stewards of the environment that we all love to relax and play in, it is in all of our best interests to use good science to keep that impact to a minimum.
SOIL TEST FACT SHEETS
TURF IMPROVEMENT FACT SHEETS
http://www.extension.umd.edu Maryland, mowing and grasscycling
The most commonly misunderstood collection of plants are perennials. The name perennial suggests that they should appear each and every year for the remainder of time but this is not necessarily so. There are several factors that affect the survival of perennials that are important to know in making choices for your garden.
One of the first “perennials” I had contact with growing up was “Hosta funkia”. My parents added an extension to their driveway along the side of the garage so the garden in this area had to go. My father saved some of the perennials and replanted them at the end of the asphalt. Every year, they showed up with their purple flowers and even though it was years later that I learned their name, I have never forgotten their loyalty.
Hosta belongs to a group of perennials called “herbaceous” perennials. They are NOT necessarily herbs. They are called herbaceous because the above ground part is not woody and most die back to the ground each fall and sprouts out from these roots each spring. Herbaceous perennials are my MOST favorite because their roots can be dug up and divided with a shovel and spread around the yard in all of the gardens, for free.
When growing perennials there are some cultural basics to remember:
I live in the country with nature all around. My yard has rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and deer. Our plot of ground is small and it takes the wildlife no time at all to eat up all of the tender spring plants. We have replanted many times over the years believing the varmints had passed by only for them to reappear, some within minutes of finishing the installation. My husband and I are both involved in the landscaping and gardening industry and love to have gardens to tend to. We also love the wildlife that forages around our property.
It is this dilemma that directed us to look more favorably at container gardening. We happen to have a deck that wraps around the house from the southern exposure to the western exposure and to the northern exposure. The quantity of containers has grown over the years and this has afforded a lot of opportunity to vary the types of plant material from one side of the house to the other. The southern exposure gets filled with plants that can handle full sun and heat all day through the Maryland summers. The northern exposure is where the house plants go in the summer as well as annuals that do well in a shadier exposure.
The basics of container gardening suggest mixing annuals so the container has height by including a plant that grows tall, one that has width including one that is medium in height and one that is trailing so it will drape over the side of the pot and grow down. If you can find a garden center that grows “market packs”, you have a chance of fitting a variety in the pot because the plants root balls are smaller. If you can only find 4 inch pots, the container is going to get quite crowded. We save our pots from year to year but it is important to replace the soil with some kind of potting medium fresh every year. The old potting medium is going to have a bounty of fungi, insect eggs, bacteria, and loss of what few nutrients were added by the maker of the potting medium. Potting medium is typically just a moisture retentive medium that grows container plants successfully but none of the ingredients actually have nutrients. They have to be added separately.
I have added soil from my garden and mixed it with the potting medium over the years and it works with some annuals but there are more issues with weeds, insects, fungi and bacteria. Container gardens are short duration gardens and if you have the money it is worth it to completely replace the potting medium from season to season, the container plants look better for longer. They remain weed free and the occurrence of insect infestation, etc is held at bay. Because it a soil-less mix it is important to add fertilizer. If the medium has some fertilizer mixed in it will confirm this on the bag of mix. Fertilizer will then have to be added monthly for the duration of the season. Have I missed a month? Yes, I have. Oh well. You have to look pretty closely to notice the difference. The container garden season is from May through September, or whenever the first hard frost comes. I like hanging on to them until we decide to put the lawn furniture under cover for the winter but they do start to look pretty spent.
Container gardens have to be check daily for water. As they grow and their root systems develop their need for water may be every day. We do like to plant potato vines every year because they are the plant that drapes over the side of the container. They come in lots of colors and have some really pretty variegated varieties. But when the potatoes in the soil get large they need water every day. These pots are always the first to wilt. We use to be able to water the container garden with a watering can but it has expanded so that we now have a hose permanently set up to water every day.
The part everyone wants to know is how to pick flowers for these containers. There is no way to make a mistake, no matter what you pick. We do have some that we like to include every year though. The potato vines, what every varieties are available are on the list every year. I love the pink saliva because they attract hummingbirds. We always select some marigolds because I am a sucker for yellow. Dahlias are also on the list if we can find any. They do tend to get powdery mildew in the fall but their colors are striking. This year we added some Celosia because it is so weird looking and the colors are so intense. Portulaca is mandatory but not always easy to find. We added some petunias and verbena since they are trailing but they were not the strongest performers. We also need to have a geranium or two and a market pack of snapdragons. Perennials have been planted in pots then transferred to the garden in the back at the end of the season but they add something different.
I used to be more concerned with balance, color, texture, shape but I really love the cacophony of color and the natural look of randomness with the varied pot sizes and shapes. I don't worry about balancing the rectangular containers anymore. I have observed over the years that when gardens are planted with a great degree of orderliness that anomalies are more noticeable. Some plants naturally peter out over the course of a season due to weather, sun, temperature, competition between the plant roots. The more random the plantings the less noticeable their absence becomes. Save the orderliness for the botanical gardens and those landscaped areas that have the assistance of professionals to maintain. In your personal garden at home do what you want, observe what does well. Keep the plant tags to remind yourself of what you picked and what you enjoyed watching and why. I can observe the plants on my front deck from where I sit inside. They are positioned so the color is always in my view. There are moments where my gaze will fix on something I haven't noticed before and it reminds me why I like this field so much, it's so small and so personal and gives me such pleasure.
People have the most interesting relationships with the insect community. For some, the mere mention of a bee can send people into spasms waiving and flailing. The funniest part of the “bee” dance is that it is usually precipitated by a wasp. Insects can be revered, like the endangered honey bee, and reviled, like the mosquito. They can be adored, like the ladybug or firefly or swatted at in disgust, like flies or ants. Ultimately, while all insects look different they all serve a greater purpose in the food chain. So rather than vilify some and celebrate others let's gain some perspective on the importance of the feared and misunderstood.
Insects share long and storied history going way back before humans were a blip on the evolutionary radar. There would be no fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, bats, et. al. if not for those yummy little snack treats they feed on. Bees are pollinators and they produce honey. While these two attributes are enough to win the “Best Insect Ever” award they also have the ability to sting. Bumble bees are notorious for stinging with the least provocation and honey bees have the barbed stinger, so once used, the bee dies so they take a bit more provocation. For more detailed information on bees check out this website, http://pestworldforkids.org/pest-guide/bees/, good basic info and pictures.
Wasps are part of a very large family. Their food sources range from nectar to other insects to picnic leftovers. There are good guys in this family of insects who control other insect populations discretely and a few stray cats that have a more notorious reputation. These venomous wasps, nicknamed yellow jackets, set up their habitats in places where their worlds can more easily collide with humans; the lawns they mow, the bushes they prune, the furniture they like to party on. It is this proximity where the human-wasp worlds collide and percentages increase toward the end of the summer when wasps become more aggressive. But when the focus is on the good guys of the wasp family their “street cred” increases.
I was sitting on my back patio the other morning. It had rained and the container gardens were shimmering with droplets, which caught my eye. Then I noticed all of the activity swarming in and around these container gardens. The bumble bees were systematically making their way around the pink Salvia. There were wasps on the Celosia, butterflies and moths were working their ways around each blossom and around each other and there were spiders weaving their webs. It sort of took me by surprise to be sitting so close to all of this activity, no one was bothering me, and each insect was working independently of the other all systematically searching for scraps of pollen and nectar to feed their hoards and keep their communities thriving. It was the orderliness of the scene that struck me like the daily machinations of human society going about their business. Insects have a purpose and it is not always one that we see first hand. It is best if we avoid interfering with those routines outside of providing habitat for them to live off of.
Bugs are not on the attack. They are just going through the motions and if one lands on you or buzzes about your hair it is by accident as they go on their way to find food. The mosquito, being a blood sucker, is the exception but the mosquito is the example that should be followed for humans to look for ways to reduce conflict with them. There are many Fact Sheets on the mosquitoes to help homeowners locate possible breeding sites around their yard and, at least, reduce the population in their immediate area. For more information on mosquito control check out the State of Maryland the link to their Mosquito Control program, http://mda.maryland.gov and click on Mosquito. While this may not be the state you live in the fact sheet is comprehensive. Mosquito Control programs in other states may be organized a bit differently and found by Google searching.
Ultimately, we need insects more than they need us. They keep the world of the teeny-tiny under control and they both provide and make food sources in the food chain. If the teeny-tiny's world is one you would prefer to have limited contact with, then removing their food sources and water access from those areas is a beginning. Finding a fact sheet for each of the bothersome insects will help identify the food sources. Researching all of the insects you see can also be helpful in identifying if they are friendly or not. If you should see a dragon fly, know they actually eat mosquitoes, so they are good to have in the yard which makes them less annoying and in someway their presence is more comforting knowing the checks and balances are in place.
The saying with bees and wasps is when you see them, “Just turn and calmly walk away”. Unless you stick your hand right by their nest, they have no reason to consider you a threat. It is good to go looking for wasps during the season to identify any that have made their nests in your lawn, around the eaves of your house, in your shrubs or around your deck or deck furniture. I walk around with a can of wasp spray, periodically and merely tap on things to see of wasps fly out. I have used the urethane foam to fill fence rails and holes in my house to block their access and prevent them from building a nest inside. I check for wasps before moving things around outside just to make sure a nest is not hiding somewhere close. I expect them to be close so I am not surprised when they surface and I am also prepared when they do with a strategy I am comfortable with. I am not allergic to their venom but I am not immune. It is helpful to learn their habits, habitats, and food sources to know when caution is warranted.
My Random House College Dictionary, revised 1982, defines the word “mulch” as a covering, spread or left on the ground, around plants to prevent excessive evaporation or erosion, enrich the soil, etc. The definition has been expanded in the green industry to include weed control and decoration. Mulch has become the poster child for recycling and recycled products. There is currently a poupourri of mulch products that are produced locally and used regionally that are bi-products that have been re-purposed.
There are 12 types of mulch discussed below but there are many more on the market:
Mulches, historically, were agricultural by-products that were readily available, inexpensive, found in mass quantities, and could be incorporated into the soil profile once the crop was harvested. When the needs expanded in the horticulture/landscaping industry, for uniform looking products, mulches were made out of by-products of the building and tree maintenance industries and when the processing technology collided i.e. tub grinders, power screeners, windrow turners, with the recycling industry the mulch options grew exponentially. Since mulch is added after new plants have been installed shredded hardwood mulch proved to be the easiest to work with, keep in place, and at the lowest cost. Mulching around newly landscaped plants will:
These are all important in preserving new landscapes and assisting in keeping them well maintained. The goal in mulching is to afford the plants time to grow and touch together. The plants themselves take on the responsibility for weed control, etc., reducing the need to replenish the mulch year after year. The variety of mulches allows each homeowner to be creative with their strategic uses and continues to support the recycling effort to reduce the amount of material in the waste stream.
There is a running debate in the green industry about pruning; how much to prune, what time of the year to prune, is pruning good or bad for plants, should plants be pruned at all? Recommendations for pruning have changed considerably over the years. Thanks to some great research, techniques have been modified in favor of the tree and the upshot is “less is more.” There are actually standards developed by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) referred to as the “ANSI 300” that detail proper pruning practices for tree care professional, and while they are not “laws,” they provide a framework for the industry to follow.
You will poorly prune and make mistakes pruning, but not to worry, because it is how we learn and usually a poorly pruned plant will go unnoticed. In the tiny world of your yard, it is best to try to keep the pruning to a minimum by limiting it to mostly what is dead, diseased, dying, touching, or “just plain” in the way. Dead limbs are usually the ones with no leaves, so they should be pretty easy to spot. The diseased branches usually have some outward sign like fungi, plant tumors, or oozing sap. Dying branches could be broken and hanging there, cracked, or split. Touching branches can actually damage each other every time the wind blows, so remedying that situation is a positive for the plant.
There are exceptions though to this minimalist approach to pruning. Sometimes a shrub is simply too large and it requires pruning by half. There are also plants that only have leaves on the top and need a bit of rejuvenation. There can be branches that hang so low you hit your head on them every time you mow the lawn, or flowering plants that need to be “dead-headed,” or taking off the dead flowers after they're done blooming. Most plants are very forgiving of anything you can do to it, so get in there and get the job done.
There are some general rules to try to follow:
Pruning is easy to do; you can buy yourself some tools at the local garden center or hardware store and have at it. But, if you want to prune well and in accordance with the ANSI 300, you will need to get some literature and learn something about it. A good starting point is always the local agricultural cooperative extension office. There are brochures, booklets, and fact sheets developed by the local state agricultural universities that are very informative. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey has a list of publications with very helpful information as does the University of Maryland. These two are the ones I have used the most over the years, but they are not exclusive by any means so explore the publication list from the university in your home state. These same sites may offer one-day classes in pruning and pruning techniques that may be useful, the fee is usually nominal and the information can be invaluable.
Through the process of learning the art and techniques of pruning, there are some common mistakes to try to avoid. Before the first cut is made decide what the goal should be: Is the goal to uncover a window, does room need to be made for other shrubs around it to grow, is the sidewalk blocked? The goal is to remove the part of the shrub that is the obstruction and leave the shrub with a balanced shape. Sometimes, removing a branch is sufficient and sometimes more will have to be removed, but decide ahead what you want the final shape to be and set out string lines or other markers, like tying strings on the shrub, to define the final product. These are some of the most common mistakes (that I may or may not have learned from personal experience...):
These publications explain the perfect world of pruning, but it really takes some practice to do this well and make good cuts. No one does it perfectly all of the time and it is common for real world situations to present you with mission impossible. The good news is that plants are very forgiving. But, if by chance you over-prune and the next season's leaves fail to appear, oops! I won't tell anyone if you don't.
Roots and soil have quite a relationship, it's a relationship that goes beyond a place to anchor the plant or a place from which they get a drink of water. It's a complex relationship involving the elements of plant nutrition aided by fungi, bacteria, composted organic material and insects; however the subject of dirt and roots is a big yawn for most. There may come a day when you are tired of replanting the same spot in your yard where everything seems to die or you want the rose bush your family gives you every year for Mothers/Fathers Day to live for once. It could all boil down to a problem with your roots or the soil around them, so if that day is today, listen up!
The science behind soils, roots, and nutrient uptake is extensive, so this is the extremely short version for the rookie gardener. I am hoping it will be enough to start the problem solving process. Maintaining adequate soil moisture, understanding adequate air circulation, replenishing a level of soil fertility, and making sure conditions are suitable for the plant to easily use nutrients is the heart and soul of soil science. Soil is composed of sand, silt, clay and organic material and the percentages of each in the mix range from soils found in deserts to soils found in swamps, marshes, and everything in-between. Which plants grow in these various soil profiles can be limited to those considered to be “native” for the most extreme ranges, as in extremely dry or extremely wet, and will include greater variety for those in the middle ranges, like the ones in my backyard in the mid-atlantic.
I am sure you have all heard of pH balancing for skin and hair. Do you question why it matters or what it means? The pH number designation is merely a measure of acidity or alkalinity. The only way to actually identify the pH of soil and fertilizer needs is by having the soil tested. A soil test can identify levels of the macro-nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium; micro-nutrients; and pH levels as well as the soil profile percentages. Why soil pH varies is a whole other blog post, but knowing the current pH value in different parts of your yard can help with soil corrections that may be required to grow the specific plants you desire.
Dead spots in a yard can be caused by many factors. Sometimes the soil is too compacted, sometimes it is too wet, sometimes the soil is too acidic or too alkaline and these extremes can cause plant death. There can be “micro-environments” created by the dumping of a leftover bag of lime or ashes from the grill or salt from the roadway that can affect a plant's ability to grow. Soil testing can be a helpful tool in the arsenal to diagnose the problem and to provide recommendations to fix it.
Growing plants is, after all, a science and this is the part of the science that needs to be treated scientifically. Before you go squinching your nose, keep in mind plants have individual optimum ranges for soil acidity and soil alkalinity. It is pH that makes the pink hydrangea pink (alkaline) and the blue hydrangea (acidic) blue. It is always something that can't be seen that can be upsetting the balance of nature. So, okay, most homeowners ignore the pH. Most will replant and learn through trial and error. It may be attributed to the “black thumb” or the lack of “luck” with plants, but you don't need to be like most homeowners. You can send a soil sample from this location to a soil testing lab to find out what the pH is and what else may be out of balance.
The chart below, which is the go-to chart for checking nutrient availability at various soil pH's, shows how available several nutrients are at various pH's. I referred to this chart many times in my career. The element, Nitrogen, is less available at low pH of 5.5 (strongly acidic) and becomes more available up to medium alkaline, pH 8.5. This is a lovely wide range and I am very proud of Nitrogen for presenting itself over such a wide range of pH's but I am a bit disappointed in phosphorous. Phosphorous has made itself available over a much narrower range. Phosphorous is the go-to element in the making of flowers and the subsequent fruit (basically it is crucial to everything you want in a plant), so it requires a bit more attention than the Nitrogen.
Chart of the Effect of Soil pH on Nutrient Availability
I know you are struggling to keep your eyes open so I will leave you with this “pretty short” story...When I was in college, we grew vegetable seedlings as an experiment, leaving out one micro-nutrient per plant. Even those plants from which boron and molybdenum were withheld showed flaws in their cell division and grew in a very twisted and wonky way. It was evidence of the importance of each nutrient element (macro or micro) to a plant and why paying attention to the pH and nutrient levels ensures that they have the essential elements they need to grow properly. Plants are relatively simple organisms that are dramatically affected by the absence of even one nutrient element. I wonder what impact that would have on the human body with all of that cell division going on? It is a case for eating all fruits and vegetables of every color to make sure you get the full compliment.