Archive for the ‘Trees and shrubs’ Category

Trees have been taking the brunt of nature’s fickle moods lately, so when humans compound the problem by treating the stately plants badly, gardeners shake their heads and mutter.  Trees are used as billboards, planted in hell strips, or moved often, like furniture; their roots are chopped, mowed, sliced, or driven over.  In short, they’re taken for granted by people who live under them.

Despite all these things, trees still grow, but there are a few things we do that make their lives miserable.  If you want to avoid harming your tree, take some tips from local Foresters, who shared their lists of the seven deadly sins of tree care.

Keith Wood, Colorado State Forester, says tree problems can start at planting, unless your pay attention to digging the right hole for the plant.  “Having the adequate size hole for the tree (wide and shallow) rather than (narrow and deep),” is the best way to get your seedling off to a good start.  A wide and shallow hole allows roots to expand quickly into our heavy clay soils.

Kathleen Alexander, Boulder City Forester, and Ralph Zentz, Fort Collins Forester, caution that the wrong tree in the wrong place is a recipe for disaster.  When ogling that cute young tree at the nursery, keep in mind that it will grow; popping it in close to the house, sidewalk, or driveway is something you might regret later.

Planting trees not suited to our area is another pitfall, so don’t believe everything that newspaper inserts advertise.  “Diversity -do your homework,” says Alexander about giving thought to the trees you choose.  Avoid planting species not adapted to Front Range, like red maples, Autumn Blaze maples, or planting ash, she said.

Ken Fisher, Forestry Assistant with the city of Boulder urges people planting new trees to be good stewards of your sapling by removing the wire basket, burlap, and string from the root ball. Provide mulch to buffer roots, but avoid mounding it up against the trunk, which offers insects, rodents, and disease a hiding spot.  And if you stake, take it off after one year to allow the tree to flex a little in the wind and grow a sturdy trunk.

Once trees are in and growing, the list of offenses to avoid takes a wild turn.  “Loving the tree to death with too much water or fertilizer, chaining a dog around the base of the tree, or using herbicides near trees (trees are broadleaf plants too),” are part of the list Fisher provided, who has seen a lot of damage to trees in public places caused by such things.  And trees aren’t vampires, so why impale them with stakes or nails to hold signs?

Chains yanked by dogs cut into the bark, causing damage similar to weed whackers or lawn mowers, which are high on the list of damaging items Zentz and Alexander have.  This type of wound, caused by string trimmers or lawn mowers, cuts into the cambium, a crucial pathway for the tree to move nutrients.  A circle of mulch helps prevent grass from growing right up to the trunk and keeps trimmers away.

On older trees, a paramount concern is improper pruning, which can include the cardinal sin of topping a tree (cutting off the main trunk), something reputable arborists won’t do.  Keep your tree in good health by hiring an experienced, International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist to prune them.  “You check credentials or insurance for electricians, plumbers, etc. ; why not trees?” said Alexander.

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The Lorax Lesson

The Lorax

Image via Wikipedia

One of the joys of parenthood is indoctrinating your child in your views, molding their impressionable minds into clones of yourself and your thinking.  Launching them upon society, a parent hopes that one day those seeds will bring forth an adult as completely entrenched in their visions as they are, which, of course, is The Only Good and Just Way. 

 If you’re a gardener it means saving the world, one seed at a time.  So it was with purpose that I read to my toddling son books and tales of controversy, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Good Night, Moon.  Deliberately, I selected material to foster in him environmental awareness, rabid tree-hugging, and rampant dirt worshipping.  It meant, of course, that I read him The Lorax.

 The Dr. Seuss classic, published in 1971 and now a major motion picture, is, according to some critics, a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy, a pinko-commie plot to indoctrinate children into being anti-industry and pro-trees.  Cue the outraged gasps. 

 What’s surprising is that anyone would assume the movie would have a different message than the book, which is a lesson in the effects of deforestation, human-centric consumptionism, and the dangers of a throw-away society.  What shouldn’t surprise others is that many gardeners will flock to see it.

 Growing up in our house, my son saw parallels between the book and real life every day, so the message doesn’t frighten him.  If you’ve read it, you know it’s a tale of a furry, mustachioed creature that “speaks for the trees,” something I do regularly by shouting at television ads and whispering warnings to shoppers in stores.  

 When the Lorax appears, he’s mistaken for a tree since he’s wearing foliage on his head.  Nothing new about that in our house, either; it’s a source of pride to see my son pluck a seed from me and joke “you’ve got hollyhocks in your hair again.”

 Saving trees is a message we get behind in our house, and I confess that the moment the Once-ler gave the boy-hero the last Truffula tree seed, encouraging him to plant it in the middle of town for all to enjoy, I nodded, because a gardener would plant over everything if given the chance.

 For me, that’s the message – go out and plant a tree, and the best time to do so is now.  Choose the site carefully for exposure and room for the tree to grow where it won’t rub against houses or power lines.

Measure the height of the root ball to determine depth of planting hole, which should be one to two- inches shorter than the root ball.  Dig a saucer-shaped planting hole, three-times the root ball width.  Straight sides limit root expansion, so slope the sides of the hole. 

Prevent sinking of the tree by firmly tamping down the bottom of the hole.  Remove the tree from container, clip any girdling roots, score the root ball, then set tree in place so that the knees of the root ball – where the ball begins curving in toward the top – are an inch higher than the soil line.

Pack soil around the lower third of the root ball, to help stabilize it, then backfill the rest of the hole, leaving soil loose.  Add water to firm the soil around the root ball, then backfill again.  Water the planting area and mulch the tree.

With car chases, a granny with attitude, and corny musical numbers, I worried that the message would be lost.  But in the closing scene, as tiny, new Truffula seedlings were tended by the contrite Once-ler, a little boy in the row in front of me said “I want some of those.”   And I thought, yes you do, and so do we all.

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Dr. Tisserat examines dead walnut in Boulder, CO. Black lesions under bark are diseased area.

  When you watch a television sitcom, you must suspend reality or risk driving yourself nuts arguing their implausible scenarios.  Lucille Ball proved this weekly, as she and Ethel managed to get into some ridiculous shenanigans, as do the ultra-geeks on Big Bang Theory today.  But when a sitcom takes an uneducated stand on a heartbreaking topic of tree catastrophe, well, any person who considers themselves a Lorax is bound to rise up in protest.

Such was the case on the show Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen on ABC.  Set in Denver, the show’s recent episode, Tree of Strife, took on the topic of Thousand Cankers Disease and the plight of the Black Walnut.

Thousand Cankers disease attacks black walnuts, and cities from Pueblo to Fort Collins are suffering losses. So far, towns to the east are spared but researchers at Colorado State University expect that it’s a matter of time before the disease spreads to Greeley and beyond. 

Last Man Standing portrayed this disease as infesting a walnut branch thrown through their window by a severe storm; that the tree was owned by the city set up the story that the City of Denver required the show’s character, Mike Baxter, to cut down a walnut in his yard.  The role of the tree branch was played by a Siberian Elm.

Intent on ridiculing city foresters, the show depicted the inspecting arborist as a smug bureaucrat with the ability to pet a branch to diagnose the disease.  In reality, plant pathologists must pry the bark up, exposing the tunnels and blackened cankers.  Holes from the twig beetle are tiny, and difficult to see.  But after one glance at the downed branch, the forester condemned a nearby walnut planted on Baxter’s property as diseased and hazardous.

Allen’s character became indignant, not over the preposterous notion that any forester would condemn a tree willy-nilly, but because of the government telling a citizen what to do with private property.  “I don’t like The Man telling me what I can or can’t do on my property,” said Allen’s character, evidently in favor of having a judge tell him he could pay damages after leaving a hazard tree up until it fell on someone else’s property and destroyed it.

The problem with leaving the diseased trees standing is the mobility of the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis) which carries the fungus, Geosmithia morbida, from tree to tree.  Boring into branch and trunk, the beetles deposit the fungus, which kills with thousands of rotting wounds, called cankers.

 “Slowly but surely, this is eliminating black walnuts here in Colorado,” said Dr. Ned Tisserat, CSU professor of plant pathology and disease discoverer. “It’s hard to know the final outcome, but the real threat is outside our state, to the billion-dollar black walnut timber industry.” Walnuts in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah are infested.  Nut-production walnuts appear resistant.

To be fair, there was a plea from the daughters and mother on the show to spare their tree’s life, evoking the emotional attachment many people feel for trees.  Recounting tire swings and first kisses under its branches, the family fought city hall in a doomed attempt to block the order.  Several cities in Colorado have requirements for removal of infested trees.

In the end, Allen’s character vows to replant his walnut, brandishing a seedling tree brought home for the purpose.  It’s a ficus, which should provide the daughters with the poignant but powerful lesson on what happens to a houseplant when planted outside in our area.  Most cities offer advice or a tree replacement program which feature trees best suited to the Colorado climate.

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 Once June turns the corner toward July, one question burns in the mind of gardeners: How much is a sweet, decadent cherry pie worth? With each day the harvest grows closer, having you — and the birds — dreaming of the first tree fruit of the season.

But it comes at a cost; we have to protect those cherries. So we try netting using the unfurl-with-a-snap approach, the two person banner toss, and the death defying fling from the ladder, all to no avail. There’s no dignified way to do this, and we’re left performing the Dance of the Seven Veils trying to get the net on the tree while the neighbors drag out the lawn chairs to applaud.

There has to be a better way, and finally, we have one.

“I started out with a full sized Montmorency cherry tree. Every year my dad, son and I would struggle to put netting on it,” said Ray Hauser, inventor of the Netbrella tree netting tool. “I tried leaving the netting on one year, but that was a bad idea; the branches grew through the netting and I had to cut it off of the tree the next year.”

Battling robins for the fruit that fills his favorite dessert made Hauser turn his inventive mind — he holds 22 patents already — toward thwarting the feathered bandits, who start pecking the fruit to test for readiness before people are aware it’s ripening. “This was first invented to hold a heavy tarp to protect the tree from frost. But that didn’t work out too well, so I tried it with the netting.”

Hauser designed a simple tool that makes placing bird netting on fruit trees fast and easy. Called Netbrella, it consists of a wheel with spokes attached to a center pole. When the bird netting is wired to the rim of the wheel, the structure resembles an umbrella, which you lift above the canopy and tie to the trunk of the tree.

Laying out the netting in the backyard of his one-acre property in north-eastBoulder, Hauser demonstrated the simplicity of setup for the tool. “It’s all in the fold. You do it right and one side will fall one way from the wheel, the other falls the other way.” Hoisting the wheel upright, Hauser walked to a dwarf Northstar cherry, centering the netted wheel above the trunk of the tree and securing it with soft rope.

Unfold the netting from the top of the Netbrella and it drapes around the branches, protecting the fruit. “Make sure you stake the netting securely to the ground every eight inches, or those robins will crawl underneath and make themselves fat on your cherries,” said the 84-year old chemical engineer.

The time to net a cherry tree is now, protecting your fruit before it begins to change color. Birds start their inquiries into cherry ripeness once the fruit blushes yellow, pecking at the unripe fruit instead of waiting until it’s fire engine red like the rest of us.

This nifty gizmo works well on dwarf fruit trees, but isn’t the solution for those of us with semi-dwarf or standards; we’ll still have to struggle through the tribulations of netting our fruit. But those who have smaller trees can get them netted in a span of a half hour, instead of an entire day.

Netbrella is sold as a modest kit that contains custom pipe fittings, rope, and twist ties used for attaching the netting to the wheel. You’ll have to purchase the PVC pipe for center pole and spokes plus flexible pipe for the rim, but Hauser includes detailed instructions for assembling. The kits come in two sizes: small for trees up to seven feet tall and wide ($12), or large for trees up to 10 feet tall and wide ($18). Netting is also available from him ($34), or purchase your own.

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Watching television is an endurance test, not for me, but for my spouse.  At any moment, the drone from the box will be split by an ear shattering “WHAT?” followed by my going on a five minute tirade whenever a commercial for a big box store comes on.  The 30-second ad gives me more of an aerobic workout than I get all day, what with my flailing arms, leaps from the sitting position, and fast march back and forth in front of the set.

The big box store, eager to cash in on gardeners’ enthusiasm for planting, has a chirpy commercial touting their expertise in plants, potting soil, and everything else to make your garden bloom.  Ahh, but the savvy gardener rises up in horror when the ad shows a tree plucked from its pot and plomped in the ground, not because the tree is planted, but how.

The three-second scene shows a man grabbing the tree by the trunk in order to lift it from its pot, which proves that the fellow doing this is an actor, not a gardener.  A gardener knows this is a no-no.  Grabbing the tree by the trunk to lift the heavy root ball from the pot puts the tree at risk of damage to the bark, which is sensitive in spring growth.

A good way to handle a containerized tree at planting is to dig your planting hole (which should be three times the width of the container, and the same depth as the root ball), then gently lay the containerized tree on its side.  Slide the tree from the container by tapping lightly on the sides of the container to get it to loosen away from the root ball.  Then set the tree upright and lift it from below the root ball to set it gently into place.  Score the sides of the root ball to cut any circling roots, then backfill the hole.

The ad doesn’t show this, so when it comes on, I lean forward, unable to look away from the flagrant foul the store commits.  Shrieking that the ad should have a “do not try this at home,” disclaimer, the diatribe begins anew.

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When you live with a gardener, it’s important to have ground rules, especially when it comes to new cars.  If you don’t establish boundaries with us, we’ll put the darndest things in that vehicle, things that are guaranteed to take away the new-car smell.

I married a car guy, one who loves heavy metal as much as I love the garden.  So when we purchased the convertible of my spouse’s dreams – a sweet Volvo C70 – he sat me down, gently took my hands, and laid down the law.  “That is a luxury vehicle,” he began, making sure we had eye contact.  “Promise me you won’t put plants in it.”  I nodded yes.

“No straw bales.  No buckets of fish for the pond.  No flats of seedlings.”  Nod, nod, nod.  “And honey,” he said, leaning slightly closer for emphasis, “no – absolutely no – manure.”

Before you get the wrong impression, let me say that my spouse normally doesn’t get heavy-handed with me.  But in this circumstance he knows me well, and knows that in the frenzy of spring, I’ll pack the car brim-full with supplies and plants, without regard for upholstery, carpeting, or vinyl. 

Because his request was reasonable and we do own a pickup, I happily agreed.  After all, I have rules, too, out in the garden.  No stepping in the raised beds.  No using weed whackers against the tree trunks.  No picking flowers unless you ask first (this is for the children in the neighborhood, but my spouse thinks it applies to him, and I let him).

In the 18 months we’ve owned the car I’ve done well with the rules, only getting away with a few seedlings in the trunk by placing them in a plastic box designed to keep the carpet dry.  But this all changed in the second spring of ownership, when fruit trees were offered for sale at a local store.

“Let’s see if they have what you want,” my spouse suggested when spring storms were keeping us from yard work.  And off we went, to discover that the store had one remaining Honeycrisp apple tree, a sturdy sapling as tall as I.  I was overjoyed.

Proudly we wheeled it from the store to our car, where we realized that, in our haste to go shopping, we forgot what we went shopping for.  My spouse glanced from car to tree, tree to car.  He opened the trunk and attempted to tuck it in.  But it wouldn’t fit, and after one look at my crestfallen face, my spouse sighed, shook his head, and put down the top of his beloved convertible. 

It turns out that seat belts are remarkably good at crossing the container and trunk of a tree, so that the sapling could ride home in safety.  Slowly we drove through town, cruising at a sedate 20 mph.  A fine spray of soil and mulch arose from the container, swirling to coat the interior as we headed home. 

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 Drivers behind us were not impressed, but when they honked I waved a hand at the tree and they seemed to realize what we were doing.  Either that or they were stunned speechless to see a tree strapped in like a toddler in our car. 

We arrived home without mishap, the honeycrisp is planted and the car has been vacuumed.  Sitting down together later that day, my spouse took my hands, looked into my eyes, and gently began “promise me you won’t put more plants in that car….”

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 When you pick up a perennial this spring, check the tag to see where it was grown.  If it came from Oregon, chances are it was watched over by Jeff Stoven, who’s keeping a watchful eye on his charges during a cold snap that has tender plants at risk of freezing their buds off.

As the Head Grower for Bailey Nurseries in Yamhill, Stoven is responsible for over 100,000 potted plants.  As temperatures plunged to 18 degrees at the end of February, he sprang into action to keep the quarter-million dollar crop protected, not with row covers or tarps.  Instead, the blanket he swaddled them in was a coating of ice.

“Because our spring was so early and warm in February, the plants started to grow,” he said, “and now we’re at a critical time because it got really cold and we have to protect the new growth.”

Using ice to protect citrus crops in Florida and Georgia is common practice, but many don’t realize that the technique is widely used in the nursery industry as well.  As water changes to ice, heat is released and protects the plant from cold.  The trick is to keep the conversion of water to ice going for as long as you have cold temperatures.

“We come in just before the freezing temperatures and turn on the sprinklers a little at a time,” Stoven said.  “We get them a little wet, and ice forms around stems and buds.  We’ll continue to the water on and off for the next few hours, but we don’t want to overdo the amount of water, because we don’t want a huge glob of ice to form.”

Other techniques for plant protection vary, including lighting fires and moving the warm air with fans, or flying a helicopter low and slow over the field to move the air, but Stoven sticks to the proven method of icing in the plants.  You’ll see the results this spring in the garden centers.

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Now that gardening season is so close we can taste it, I’ve returned to the digital screen in a series of how-to videos, produced by the Boulder Camera, a newspaper that carries my gardening column. 

The first in this year’s series is a blatant attempt by me to distract all of you green thumbs from rushing forth into the garden and, in your enthusiasm for spring, do harm.  This happens in several ways, such as tilling soil, wet from snows, which creates clumps that dry into cement-like hardness. 

Other gardeners are starting seeds, which is fine.  Except some people are starting plants like cucumbers or summer squash, which, as a warm season vegetable, don’t get planted out until mid-May.  Giving a plant like that a 10 week head start is alarming – imagine how big they are on the 1st of August, which is ten weeks from when we direct sow them into the ground!  My zucchini is easily three-feet wide by that time.

Yes, the madness must stop, at least temporarily. 

Instead, dance between the rain showers this weekend and prune your fruit trees.  Check out how to work with cherry and peach trees in this week’s video.

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When the call came in that a spruce tree was ailing in a way that baffled the local nursery, I was intrigued.  Garden center staff see a lot of strange plant things, and in order to stump them, the problem is usually a puzzler.

Any time a tree behaves badly I rush out to see it, like an ambulance chaser following a crew armed with chainsaws and chippers.  To avoid the disappointment of arriving to find the tree is normal, I’ve learned to ask for a description of the problem over the phone first.

“It defies description,” said the kind man on the other end of the line, “I honestly don’t know where to begin.”  Now, normally people have no trouble putting their plant’s distress into words, usually relying on such phrases as “bugs are eating my tree,” “weird oozing,” or the popular “I just woke up this morning and it was dead.” 

Here was a man who was speechless to describe it, and because he was referred to me by the nurseryman, I drove over.

 That nurseryman was right; one had to see this to believe it.  Under a mature spruce tree, thousands of small twigs littered the ground, falling from a tree towering more than 30-feet tall.  They were short tips of the branches, still green and succulent with life, covering the ground and lower branches.

The rain of twigs had been happening since mid-December, and to keep up with it, the couple had been sweeping up the twigs, collecting bushels full to take to the tree mulching yard.

I did the reconnaissance a tree diagnostician should do when coming upon a new patient – stood back and looked at the tree.  There were no obvious signs of stress – it looked healthy, top to bottom.  Stepping closer, the twigs scattered across the ground showed no signs of insects or disease.  But there was one, odd thing: A pattern to the cut ends.  They were all clipped at an angle. 

I’d seen this before, just not on such a large scale.  That angle was familiar, and slowly my eyes lifted to the fence line, upon which two squirrels were sitting and giving me the stink eye.  “You’ve got squirrels,” I said, “nipping your branches.”

Squirrels will do this, in winter or spring when food is hard to find.  They also do it at random times of the summer too, for no apparent reason.  Some foresters have suggested boredom.  And because the squirrels aren’t stripping the bark or eating the wood, I believe them.

There’s nothing to be done to stop the problem, but the good news it that the tree will be fine.  Although the damage seems alarming, a healthy tree can take a bit of twig loss.  If you find your tree suddenly losing its tips, check the discards closely for the tell-tale angled cut; if you find it, you’ll know it’s those squirrels, and not a disease.

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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Some states elect wrestlers, others movie stars.  But in Colorado, we’ve elected a brewer.  Ok, yes, before that he was a geologist, but for any gardener who’s toiled under the blazing sun cutting a soon-to-be garden bed, well, a skill in brewing up cold, frosty beverages is more useful than being able to say that those rocks are limestone, granite, or gneiss.  Leave that conversation for after you’ve relaxed in the shade.

As John Hickenlooper is sworn in as the 42nd Governor of the state, I hope the man who launched the Million Tree Initiative in Denver takes that philosophy across the state.  Think of it – if an area the size of greater Denver can hold a million new trees by 2025, can’t he pack a few more into the state, until we become so thickly forested that we resemble Connecticut instead of Colorado?

Sadly, the answer is no, as anyone traveling the eastern or western borders of our state can attest.  It turns out we can’t really plant wall-to-wall trees, despite what bona fide treehuggers like myself want.   We’re limited by water, something trees need to grow big and strong.  On those borders I haven’t seen anything much larger than a shrub living outside of the towns. 

But a gardener can dream about taking over the planet with big, hulking vegetation, and trees are a gateway plant to other garden treasures.  Their shade keeps us cool, their branches support our children’s swings; the only thing I have against them is that they harbor squirrels who pilfer from my garden (it could be worse – if it gets much colder in portions of Florida, they’ll have those iguanas dropping from the trees again).

True, the Governor will have his hands full with the state budget, and yes, creating jobs, shrinking government and promoting the state are all worthy of his immediate attention.  But as long as he’s appointing a cabinet, toss in a tree czar – he can appoint an Ent to the position. 

Then the tree czar can get to work encouraging people to plant this spring, which is right around the corner.  There’s plenty to do, what with the new Front Range Tree Recommendation List being unveiled at ProGreen in February, The Colorado Garden and Home Show (also February), and planting starting in March.  

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