Archive for December, 2009

We should all take a moment to reflect on the bounty the past series of storms have brought, and give thanks to those who truly deserve it:  the manufacturers of pain relievers, soothing salves, and those stick-on heating pads. 

 But while people can find relief from the aches of shoveling snow via potions or warmth, our furry or foliaged companions are not so lucky.  Deicer salt, when it gets into the pads of paws cracked and raw from ice, stings like the dickens, making wintry strolls a torment.  In the garden, those salts are lethal to plant cells, and if they run off into the storm drains they add to pollution of our water.

Fortunately several non-salt alternatives are available for removing ice without menacing our lawns, pets and waterways.  Look for pet-friendly products at local pet stores that are not comprised of chlorides, or check out local garden centers for organic products containing potassium acetate. 

But be careful – none of these products is fool-proof and the label should be read, and its instructions followed, for safe use.  Over applications of any product or use of it in an unsafe manner will cause problems, regardless of whether it is labeled organic or pet-friendly.

All the research on eco-friendly deicers I read included the message that, to be effective, deicing material must be used in addition to an aggressive physical snow removal regimen.  Translation:  shoveling. 

One to two hours before snow is predicted to begin, lightly apply deicer to the walkway or drive.  Be aware that potassium acetate can be slippery, so don’t over-apply.  On top of this material, spread a thin layer of kitty litter or sand to provide traction during the storm.

 Wait until after the snowfall has ended, then shovel as much from the walks as possible, and apply a light amount of deicer to soften the remaining ice.  The point is to soften the ice for removal, not completely melt it.  Over applying deicer in order to entirely melt snow means too much of the material is put down, and adds to runoff in the waste stream.

Toss fresh snow up onto the lawn or garden, but if it has deicer in it, leave it in an area that has good drainage but no plants – salt tossed over and over into the same spot builds up in the soil and stays there, burning roots during the growing season.  Leaching salt from the ground can be difficult to do and takes a lot of water we may not have.

Many landscape plants are sensitive to having salt flung up onto their foliage or pooling in the soil.  Shrubs such as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), winged euonymous (Euonymus alatus), boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), and viburnums are salt-sensitive, as well as many popular trees, including Colorado spruce (Picea pungens), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and lindens (Tilia spp.).

Salt in contact with plants will cause bud death and twig dieback.  Evergreens can show damage to their needles (with flecking of yellow or brown) as early as February.

Once snow and ice have been removed, apply another layer of kitty litter or sand to help with traction on ice melt.  Don’t forget to stretch before shoveling that snow, and take it easy while lifting; snow can be heavy and it’s easy to overdo it.  Just ask me – I’ll be at the drugstore in line ahead of you, buying up all the pain relievers.

Read Full Post »

If your family and friends decided the best thing to give you was a plant this season, don’t sigh in resignation of having to care for another fussy houseguest.  Most of the plants given at this time of year aren’t picky; they just need a little understanding.

If you need a refresher on caring for your festive foliage, here’s a quick primer on how to have healthy, thriving plants well after the holidays are past.

When the tag says “place in bright indirect light”, what this means:  closely in front of – but not touching – east or west facing windows will give the plant the right light, or one foot away from a south facing window.  For direct light, place it closer to the south window.

 For longest bloom, keep in a cool room, with nighttime temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees; during the day, set the thermostat between 65 to 68.  These cooler temps will keep your plant’s blooms lasting longer.

 Feed with a balanced fertilizer.  Most houseplant food is 20-20-20, but many winter bloomers need a half-strength solution until later in spring, when robust growth starts up again.  Check the tag for feeding instructions before dosing the plant with too much fertilizer.

 Keep your plants healthy with these quick tips:  

What:  Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii), a succulent, can be told apart from its cousin, the Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata), by its rounded “teeth” on the leaves (Thanksgiving cacti have pointed teeth). 

How:  During bloom, keep in bright, indirect light in a cool room and let dry slightly between watering.  If the leaves wrinkle and flowers fall, the plant is too dry or too warm. 

Feed:  Once bloom is finished, fertilize once per month from April through October. 

What:  Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria heterophylla), the small evergreen with soft foliage.  

How:  These little trees, native to the South Pacific, will not survive our Colorado weather so keep them indoors in bright light and out of direct afternoon sun.  Take care not to let it dry out in our low-humidity homes.  Water when the top inch of soil feels dry, discarding water that collects in the catch pan. 

Feed:  From April through June, use half-strength fertilizer twice per month.  Feed monthly for the rest of the year. 

Tip:  For healthy, bright foliage, mist with water twice per week for healthy, bright foliage.

What:  Christmas pepper (Capsicum spp.).

How:  Moist soil and full sun keeps the foliage lasting, but for fruit that’s glossy and plump, place this plant in a room with cool temperatures.  This annual is a one-season wonder, finished when all the fruit drops off, so compost it when the display is over.

Feed:  None needed.

Tip:  If the oils from handling get into eyes or on skin, this pepper can be irritating.  Choose a visible but out of the way area for this plant to keep kids and pets safe from its sting.

 What:  Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana), the succulent with stems of small, brightly colored flowers held above the leaves.

How:  Place in full sun for the remainder of winter, but when our sun becomes intense in late spring, pull it out of direct sun to a bright location to prevent leaf burning.  Lightly damp to slightly dry soil is preferred by Kalanchoe; take care not to over-water or let it dry completely out.

Feed:  After bloom, fertilize once per month.

What:  Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.).

How:  Choose a spot with bright, indirect light and keep the soil moist but not soggy.  Deadhead spent flowers soon after they fade, and continue to care for the bulb after blooming is finished – Amaryllis will rebloom year after year.

Feed:  After the shoot appears from the bulb, feed twice per month.

This post previously appeared in the Boulder Camera, Longmont Times-Call, and Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Read Full Post »

This close to so many holiday celebrations, a gardener can’t help but notice how many plants are part of our traditions.  Evergreens seem particular favorites; their roots in decking the halls go far back to very ancient times.

History credits Martin Luther in the early 1500’s with the first Christmas tree.  Walking through the frosty forest one Christmas eve, Luther marveled at the starlight glittering off the snow covering the boughs of an evergreen.  Inspiration struck, and he chopped down the tree, took it home to share the beauty with his family and festooned it with candles.

Each year we, too, cut trees off from their roots and cart them home to celebrate the season.  But we do this with safety in mind; keeping the tree in water to prevent needle drying and lighting it with Underwriters Laboratory-approved lights instead of flaming candles. 

 Mistletoe, too, is an evergreen closely tied to the season.  According to Scandinavian myth, this narrow-leafed plant was used in an arrow that killed Balder, son of Frigga, the Norse goddess of love.  In the complex way of myths Balder was resurrected, and in her joy, Frigga decreed that mistletoe should no longer be used to kill; instead, it would be tied to doorways or ceiling fixtures to encourage love.  Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe must be kissed (a fate some no doubt wish they could trade for getting shot by an arrow, depending on the kisser).

Though it symbolizes love, mistletoe is a parasite, gently enfolding the branch in a deadly embrace, slowly draining the life out of the tree.  This was important to Druids, who considered the mistletoe sacred, able to ensure fertility and bountiful reproduction.  Here in Colorado, Dwarf Mistletoe takes care of ensuring it’s own reproduction by ejecting it’s seeds explosively, hurling them at roughly 60 mph to stick to nearby trees. 

Several legends surround holly, with its bright berries and prickly, glossy leaves.  Celts considered it one of two sides of the Greenman, a horned deity of the forest.  Sharing rule through the year with its alter-ego, the sun-loving oak tree, holly presided over the waning days of fall and winter due to its evergreen nature.

Because holly is prickly and densely branched, it also was considered good protection for the home from evil spirits.  Placed near doorways and windows, the thorny leaves were thought to ensnare eldritch creatures before they could enter the house.  Though a symbol of strength, holly is tricky to grow here in Colorado, thriving only in sheltered locations. 

Deck your halls with this and other evergreens of the season, or follow your own traditions of bringing plants and people together. 

Today’s post first appeared in the Longmont Ledger.

Read Full Post »

Thinking of jazzing up your home for the holidays?  If you’ve got something special planned, take it from ordinary to extraordinary with a quick visit to your florist.

“Any time you want to make an impression, it’s best to use a designer,” says Arthur Williams, “the everyday stuff anyone can do, like putting tulips in a vase or using just one type of flower.”  But if the event is important, you need an artist who knows the secrets of long-lasting displays so beautiful they’re show stoppers.

Three members of the Floral Association of the Rockies share their tips for making your home a place you love to be.   

Florist:  Arthur Williams, Babylon Floral Design, Inc. 1223 East 17th Ave., Denver.

Details:  Williams, a Certified Professional Florist, has always had a talent for design.  “He was born with it,” says his mom, Rose Mary Williams, who lends a hand doing accounting, “it’s in his head and in his hands.”  Because he’s independent – not affiliated with national wire florists – every design he does is a custom work, never the same arrangement twice.

What’s hot:  Most people ask for traditional colors but want unique displays, so Williams mixes tropicals with holiday greens to update old-fashioned designs.  Blending celosia and protea into a centerpiece of holly and juniper, Williams spoke of the trend for matching flowers to home décor. 

 “People bring in their own vases and say ‘here are the colors of the room, can you match that?’  I shop material every day so if there’s a type of flower I need I can get it quickly.”

 Florists:  Teresa Henry and Jerrica Park, co-owners of Boulder Blooms, 2935 Baseline Rd., Suite 103, Boulder.

 Details:  At this 2009 EcoCycle Zero Waste Award winning shop, there’s more to being green than their flowers.  Recycling packing materials, composting clippings, and encouraging customers to bring back vases for reuse are ways in which they’re eco-friendly.

 Park’s contemporary flair and Henry’s Euro-influences compliment each other, resulting in creations that run from natural to cutting edge styles, perfect for eclectic University of Colorado clientele.  Younger customers put their own stamp on sending flowers, said Park, preferring them for occasions with personal meaning instead of major events.  “They’re more apt to send ‘I’m sorry you got in a car accident,’ or ‘I’m sorry you broke up with your boyfriend,’ things,” (“I’m sorry I stuck my gum to the back of your neck when I kissed you,” was the staff favorite). 

What’s hot:  Filling containers with fresh-cut greens and other plants, such as seeded eucalyptus, roses, or mums.  Any container will do, but because a green block of foam keeps the display fresh, clear glass isn’t as appealing.

Florist:  Sandi Yoshihara Sniff, Lafayette Florist, 600 S. Public Rd., Louisville.

The details:  The third generation florist is proud to work in the shop where she grew up.  “I mostly learned from my mom,” says Sniff, “now my daughter, Leilani, works here in sales.  She does some design too.”  

 Working with clients to make them happy is what Sniff enjoys most about her job, adjusting her arrangements to fit each personality like a glove.  Custom pieces are the shop’s specialty, from small, basic designs to larger, dramatic displays.

 What’s hot:  Bringing the outdoors in is very popular, so Sniff works to create a natural feel with evergreens, driftwood, pods, and pine cones.  The materials are given stunning elegance with the addition of orchids, lilies, and poinsettia cuttings, a challenge few florists work with. 

Because florists get their material almost daily, the bouquets you buy last a long time.  “It’s an art,” says Sniff, “we all study it as artists – color, line, texture and form.”  Hiring them is like hiring a chef to prepare your meals:  you could do it yourself but they make it spectacular.

Read Full Post »

Today’s post is provided by guest writer Nicolle Sloane:

So, you’re out in the yard lolling around kicking at the pine cones littering your front yard beneath that massive Scotch pine you had promised yourself you’d prune back this year – but didn’t. Or maybe you took your kids up to the mountains for a late autumn hike and along the way decided to collect a bunch of pine cones to do some sort of craft with once you got back home – but those pine cones are still confined to the bags that you dumped in the mudroom and haven’t bothered with since.

 Do you want to do something with those pretty little bits of nature? Something cute? Something festive? Something just perfect for this holiday season? Well, with a glue gun, a Styrofoam wreath, some brown spray paint, a ribbon and a couple of spare hours you can create this pretty pine cone wreath (last I looked, wreaths of a very similar nature were going for $50-$100+ in some of the Christmas decorating catalogs). 

 So, let’s get on with this thing. Here are your instructions.

 1.     Collect the pine cones, if you have not done so already. I filled about three paper lunch bags full of Scotch pine cones (found in my front yard). I also purchased a couple of bags of cinnamon-scented pine cones for 99 cents each at Michael’s stores. I mixed and matched from there.

2.     You’ll need a mid-sized bare bones Styrofoam wreath, which you can purchase from your favorite craft store.

3.     You’ll need a small can of brown spray paint. You will spray the Styrofoam wreath with it. You don’t need to coat the wreath, but just get it lightly browned so the stark white doesn’t show through after you’re finished gluing on all of your pine cones. The newly spray painted brownish wreath will need to dry for a few hours so you’re not inhaling nasty spray paint fumes as you glue your pine cones onto the wreath. I spray painted mine and then just let it sit outside overnight.

4.     Sit down in a comfortable chair at your kitchen table, turn on your trusty glue gun, and start gluing. Try to really pack the pine cones together, one tightly glued next to the other and then some on top of each other so you end up with a heavy, beefy pine cone wreath. You may even need to glue in between some of the pine cones, but just try not to use so much glue that you can see a bunch of shiny, gluey blobs all over your pine cones when you’re finished.

This whole process will take a couple of hours. You’ll start finding the project tedious, boring even. Just keep looking at the photo of the one I finished and know that when you’ve finally glued that last damn pine cone to the damn brownish Styrofoam wreath you will have something quite lovely to hang up for your holiday enjoyment that costs pennies in comparison to a similar one purchased from Pottery Barn or the like; you will have done it all with your own two hands (and maybe a few choice words directed at the glue gun, the pine cones, or me); and you will have it for years and years to come.

 5.     When the last pine cone has been glued and you have oooh’d and ahhh’d yourself to pieces and you’ve shown your husband and your kids this pretty little thing you made all by your lonesome, you can tie a ribbon or some fabric around it and hang it up in a favorite indoor location of your home.

I wish you well in this endeavor, and hope you’ll share this little crafty project with your friends.

Read Full Post »

Ask an expert on holiday decor, and they’ll probably tell you there are three types of do-it-yourselfers:  those who start early in November, those who pace themselves after Thanksgiving, and those who do nothing at all.  But there’s a fourth type of celebrant – Those Who Wait Until The Last Minute.

 You’ve seen us.  We’re those who slap up decorations, evergreens, and lights on December 24th, then wonder why our house looks like a holiday hairball instead of a designer’s showcase.  Our light strands sag, the wreath is pathetic; the door to the corner gas station is more welcoming than the “2012” disaster theme on our front porch. 

 Without spending hours channeling Martha Stewart, turn catastrophe into triumph with these simple steps.

The wreath:  We know it’s store-bought, but it doesn’t have to look it.  Personalize that wreath with adornments.  

–  Glean the garden for homey accents, such as Catalpa pods, seed heads, pine cones or grass plumes. 

–  Fresh berries, holly, or other floral touches are available at your local florist.  Ask the florist how often they get shipments, then pick up your material the day it arrives.

–  When adding accents, try to have four main points of interest as you move around the wreath. 

–  Wire on material for best results or use hot glue.  Don’t scrimp on the glue, use enough to secure the pieces in place.

Tip:  Keep your wreath fresh by spraying once with an anti-dessicant, such as Wilt-Pruf or Wilt-Stop, available at florist shops.  Hang the wreath out of direct sun or away from heaters.  Mist with water each day, but if hanging outside, avoid misting in freezing temperatures.

 That porch:  Welcome guests with a door display that’s simple and elegant, by converting summer planters into dazzling evergreen containers. 

– Pull out dead annuals, leaving the soil in the pot.  Push branches of pine, fir, spruce and juniper into the soil.  Add a few branches of red twig dogwood or corkscrew willow, ribbon, and colorful ornaments or floral sticks.  Water the pot weekly to keep the greens fresh.

Tip:  Alter the height of the branches, leaving some evergreens cascading over the rim.  Go easy on the ornaments; they should accent not overpower.

 Those lights:  Pick a warm day and have a plan if you want your house tastefully lit.

– Start simple by outlining the roof and one or two trees.  Larger trees light better than small saplings, whose branches don’t support many strands. 

– Light shrubs in a spiral, or toss net lights over them.

– Stick to one size bulb for a smooth, finished look.  Mixing small and large bulbs often confuses the eye, making your display look haphazard.

Safety tips: Use outdoor-rated lights with fuses in their plugs, checking each set and discarding those with cracked sockets or frayed wire.  Avoid connecting too many strands to one outlet.  Read the package instructions for number of strands you can string together.  Be sure your extension cord is certified for outdoor use and can take the load.

This blog post appeared in the Longmont Ledger December 6.

Read Full Post »

Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

That magical time of the year is upon us, when we huddle in our homes hoping we don’t have to venture out in the cold.   To make ourselves feel better, we cut down and bring a tree in to help us feel connected to the earth.  As the scent of pine warms our hearts, the soft feel of pine needles under our feet tells us that another year draws to a close. 

For those who love holiday trees – over 28 million were sold in the U.S. last year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association   – careful selection and care can make the difference between enjoying your tree or tolerating it.

Decorators wanting light tones should look for White fir trees to grace the room.   The one to one-and-a-half inch long, light blue-green needles are small, narrow and soft to the touch. Along the upper branches, needles curve upward in a pronounced fashion, giving the tree an upswept appeal. 

Noble fir, with its striking color and form, is one of the prettiest trees on the lot.  The one-inch long needles are deep green, but look silver due to two white lines on the upper and lower surfaces.  As a bonus, the needles twist upward, exposing their flashy undersides to view.  Their stout branches are ideal for holding ornaments aloft.  They stay fresh for a while after cutting, letting you enjoy your tree well into January if you water it. 

With its dark green color, Norway spruce appeals to those who want their tree to have presence in the room.  But though it looks stout and sturdy, appearances can be deceiving:  Norways often drop needles more rapidly than other holiday trees, which could explain its droopy, forlorn-looking branches.

If you want beauty and longevity, Balsam fir is the perennial favorite.  Dark green, one to one-and-a-half inch needles are silvered underneath, curving upward and covering the twigs. The aromatic foliage lasts throughout the holiday season, perfuming your home with a fresh pine scent.

Longer, four to five-inch needles of White pine soften the look of the holiday tree, adding a cloud of silver green to the decor. Though it has little aroma, White pine might be a better tree for those who suffer allergies, according to NCTA.

Scotch pine is the most commonly used tree in the United States.  Medium length needles – up to three-inches – can vary in color from bright to bluish green.   But what seasonal celebrants love is the Scotch pine’s persistence in preserving its foliage:  it holds onto the needles even if allowed to get dry. 

Holiday trees need to have water in their stand to remain healthy.  However, pines respond to harvesting by sealing off the cells at the cut end of the trunk with resin.  This means the tree can’t take up water from the stand, drying needles and shedding all over the Persian carpet. 

To keep your tree fresh, make a new cut one-inch from the end of the trunk, then plunge the end immediately into warm water to prevent the cells from sealing.  This happens very quickly, so it’s best to have helpers poised with the water bucket as you’re cutting.  From this point on, keep the tree from drying out or a fresh cut will have to be made. 

Place your tree in a sturdy stand large enough to hold the tree upright and level on the floor.  It needs to hold at least one gallon of water, or, if you have a huge tree, one quart of water for every inch of trunk diameter.  There’s no need for sugar, aspirin, or other concoctions in the tree water.

 Enjoy your tree this season by keeping watered and warm, but remember, holiday trees do best when placed away from hot air ducts, wood stoves, fireplaces and other fire hazards.

Read Full Post »

Getting back on the court after a few years off can make you wonder if you’ve still got game.  When your show draws everyone’s attention, there’s a bit of pressure to make your return season your best.  Toss in invitations for the glitterati of growing to come and assess your work, and even hardened veterans might worry. 

 Cue the inspiring comeback music.  After a five-year hiatus, Colorado State University poinsettia trails are back – big, bold, and in your face with color.  With 80 cultivars packing the 3,200 square-foot greenhouse, the hallmark of the holidays are wall to wall with beauty that takes your breath away.   

 And the time has come to rate those plants in the CSU Poinsettia Trails, Monday, December 7, when the public is invited to check out the crop and rank their favorites. 

 “This year, 30 percent of the varieties here have never been seen by the public,” said Dr. Steven Newman, Professor of Floriculture and Greenhouse Crops Extension Specialist for CSU.  “But some of others are old, old, old.  We raise them together to give growers a chance to do baseline comparisons on how the new plants perform next to the tried and true.”

 A week before the public is invited to evaluate the poinsettias, growers, plant breeders, brokers, florists, and other industry members gather to assess the plants, often choosing those they’ll grow next season.  “They’re looking at which poinsettias grow well here in Colorado,” Newman said, “some that do well here don’t do well elsewhere because the light quality is different or they have a lot of cloudy days.”

 Poinsettias, the number one holiday plant sold in America, is a $9.2 million dollar wholesale industry in Colorado, Newman says.  Local growers provide retailers with thousands of the cheerful plants from Halloween through the end of the year.  

 Treating plants with the same care in unbiased trials lets growers see how different varieties thrive under standard industry practices.  “This isn’t a show where they’re going from booth to booth, seeing only those plants that are perfect,” he said.  Growers need to know how that poinsettia will grow for them, if it’s finicky to raise, and when it will be in its prime.

 Though the trial isn’t paid for by plant breeders, the big poinsettia companies, like Ecke, Dummen, or Syngenta, send two-inch rooted plant cuttings to CSU in July for entry into the trial.  Planted into 6-inch pots, the cuttings are cared for by Newman, Research Associate John Ray, and Floriculture graduate students. Costs are recouped from the sale of poinsettias during the public evaluation. 

 As days begin shortening September 19th, the greenhouse crew covers windows at night to block out the glow of street lamps.  This darkness stimulates the poinsettias to color up.  The earliest plants are in full blush in five weeks; these jumpstart sales for the season.  Later varieties are in full color by black Friday, the biggest single day for poinsettia sales. 

 In the greenhouse, bench after bench blazes with the result of months of care.  “All of these colors are interesting to see, but I always like the novelties,” says Ray, who oversees the daily operation.  “The brokers and growers invariably pick the standards, but the students and public love the novelties too – they go ape over them.”

 In plum, buff or seashell pink, there’s a poinsettia for you.  For holiday haute décor, try speckles, crinkles, or rose-like doubles; even Broncos fans are in luck, with Orange Spice.  Head on out to the trials early; the plants sell out fast.

 If you go:

 What:  Poinsettia trials at Colorado State University

 When:  Monday, December 7, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Free admission.

 Where:  W.D. Holley Plant Environmental Research Center, 630 W. Lake St., Fort Collins.

Read Full Post »