Category Archives: Growth habits

Composting Made Simple

It’s no secret that compost is highly revered among gardeners. We know some who have requested a truckload as a Birthday present!  Love for compost is understandable since the benefits of this nutrient-rich substance include improved soil quality,  reduced need for watering, and healthy plant growth. But the benefits extend beyond being an invaluable resource for gardeners; composting is one of the simplest things we can do to make a positive impact on the environment. According to the EPA, Americans discard about 73 billion pounds of food each year. All of that unnecessary waste takes up a lot of room in our already crowded landfills, in turn, creating a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. With that in mind, it makes sense that more of us should be in the routine of composting, whether we maintain a garden or not.

Oftentimes, people don’t take up composting because they believe it is too complicated, while others may have the impression that it’s too messy or smelly. There is, of course, something else that may prevent someone from taking the plunge into the composting world: limited space. Lack of space is an issue that many of us in the Boston area know quite well. While it’s true that larger kitchens and yards can be helpful for creating compost areas, deciding to compost need not be a big endeavor. There are several easily manageable ways to begin the practice of composting, regardless of space constraints.

One popular method of composting is known as “stealth composting” and this is ideal for those with limited space as it allows for composting on a smaller scale. Stealth composters can be kept indoors or out and it’s not difficult to make your own, which means the size can be customized to suit your needs. With this process, it’s not uncommon to designate a countertop or the space under your kitchen sink as your compost area. If this appeals to you, here’s a great tutorial to get you started.

 

 

Vermicomposting (or “worm composting”) is another popular option for indoor composting. This option is particularly suitable for basements, and as an added bonus, children are likely to want to be involved with this system. Vermicomposting is unique in that is specifically relies on using worms to assist in the decomposition process. As with stealth composting, setting up your own vermicompost bin is not complicated, nor is it difficult to maintain. Here are some good guidelines should you decide to take up vermicomposting.

If you are fortunate enough to have enough space to compost on a larger scale, there are endless choices when it comes to creating an outdoor compost area. Compost bins can be made from wood pallets, trash bins, large storage containers, wire fencing, and pretty much anything imaginable.  However, living in an urban area can make for unique challenges when it comes to composting. You will definitely want to take measures to ensure your compost does not attract rodents and other critters, and it’s also important to keep your neighbors in mind when you consider the location of your bin. Purchasing a compost bin is not a requirement, but manufactured bins may be the best way to ensure your food waste is securely covered. (If you are a Boston resident you can purchase  your bins at a reduced rate from Boston Building Resources.)

 

Those of us in Boston are lucky to have a few more options to make composting as simple in possible. Recently, the city began a pilot program called “Project Oscar,” which allows residents to drop off their food waste for composting at designated areas through the city. (Read this to learn more about Project Oscar.) An even easier option is to sign up for service with Bootstrap Compost. For a fee, Bootstrap Compost provides members with buckets in which to store food scraps, then it is collected weekly or bi-weekly, depending on your needs. In return, you are given five pounds of compost a few times a year (or you can choose to donate it). 

Perhaps you like the idea of composting but you just aren’t sure what to do with the stuff once you’ve got it. This is where we can help! Our experts at Christie Dustman and Company can work with you to show you how to use compost to get the most from your plants and garden. If you don’t personally have a use for it, check with the gardeners in your life as they will probably happily take it. You can also contact your nearest community garden and see if they accept donations.

With so many composting techniques available, there really is no excuse not to do it.  Find the method that suits your needs best and you’ll be in the habit of helping your garden and our planet in no time.

 

Water in the Winter and Antidesiccants

11-18-14 browned shrubsIf you’ve ever participated in winter sports, you know how easy it is to forget to drink water with snow around, yet once you do, you realize how thirsty you are! It is easy to get dehydrated if you’ve been outside for a while in the winter sun. Plants are no different.

When it is super cold outside, the humidity in the air drops significantly. That is what makes the air feel clean and crisp. And why you need a humidifier indoors. This dry air can cause serious damage to plants especially when combined with wind and sun. Even though it is cold outside, it can be warm inside the plant’s leaf – and water evaporates. When a plant loses more water than it can replenish through its roots, the natural process of transpiration (water loss through plant respiration) causes plant desiccation. Desiccation is when the plant cells collapse and die after drying out, causing discolored/ brown/dry areas of tissue. We call this winter burn.

Most important: we can’t prevent the soil around the roots from freezing – but we can give our plants a leg up prior to the ground freezing. Watering your trees and shrubs well into the fall, right up until the ground freezes, can help plants fully hydrate. We recommend watering through Thanksgiving. This is especially important if rain has been scarce during the growing season like this summer.

For some evergreens and bro11-18-14 dessicated rhodo leavesadleaf evergreens like Rhododendrons and Hollies, antidesiccant sprays can help. The anti-transpirant spray coats the leaves and diminishes the loss of moisture through the leaf’s pores, much like an oil based lotion on your legs. These sprays should be used in late December (temps @ 40°), only after the evergreen is fully dormant. Otherwise water can get trapped in the leaf and freeze, causing cellular damage. Our sources indicate that antidesiccants are not reliably effective and can actually harm some plants like Chamaecyparis and Blue Spruce. Read the label and follow directions carefully if you want to try it.

You may recall seeing shrubs all bundled up in burlap in the winter. This can be effective, particularly when the plant is subject to sun and wind or salt. But the cold still gets inside the burlap. We only recommend burlapping shrubs if they are in a very vulnerable location. Often these “winter tasks” are more for our comfort as the gardener looking at our plants rather than for the plant’s benefit. This is true too for salt marsh hay. We don’t use salt marsh hay for a variety of reasons – we leave a layer of leaves on perennial beds. The best “blanket” is actually snow itself, which keeps the temperature around the leaves consistent and blocks the sun.

With winters, we face the vagaries of nature and have to admit that we can only do so much to help our friends the plants.

 

CONIFERS CAUSE PANIC!

10-15-14 conifer fall after (2)

Conifer with normal yellow inner needles

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Conifer after plant grooming

We delight in fall’s multicolored leaves and perennials that color like chameleons. Northeastern states are famous for their fall foliage … on deciduous plants. But we gardeners are not so happy about all plant coloring. Yes, there is that ominous side of Autumn: alarming yellow inner needles on conifers.

Take a walk in the woods this fall and you will be treading on a carpet of pine needles. But few of us realize that this natural shedding of inner needles is normal and to be expected on our garden conifers too. This is what happens: we walk outside and see bright yellow cloaking the interior of our favorite Pine or Hinoki Cypress and we lose our minds. Panic sets in and we start to water copiously, thinking it is a drought consequence. We forget to make the connection between walking in the woods and our garden conifers.

Evergreens have a fall season too. They shed their older inner needles annually, keeping the newer outer needles. The key differential diagnosis here is whether the plant is turning yellow in its interior- normal– or at the tip of the branch- a problem.

THE SOLUTION: The solution is plant grooming using your finger tips. Starting at the top of the plant, lightly brush the yellow foliage out of the plant, working your way down to the ground. Needles will fall easily and the fronds on a Hinoki Cypress may take a bit more direct jiggling. You can then remove the yellow foliage or leave it as mulch.

Christie Dustman & Company – here to help demystify the antics of plants.

10-15-14 pine needles on lawn

Garden with fallen pine needles

Falling into Spring!

fall into spring pix 2Autumn leaves are falling and covering your garden like a patchwork quilt. Yellows, oranges, reds and all kinds of browns create the soothing color palette of fall. Ornamental grasses have hit their stride and perennial Asters, Chrysanthemums, Sedums and Goldenrod all give a final burst of visual delight. It is very easy to get lulled into a state of sedated calm. Your mind tells you that you have worked so very hard this spring and summer taking care of the garden. Now is the time to relax and enjoy nature’s waning gifts.   OK, naptime is over! Finish your warm cider because there is necessary work to be done to put the garden “to bed” for the winter.

Get started by removing the debris of any remaining summer annuals. For perennials you should consider whether you will really want to get out in early spring to cut them back or is your springtime better spent with other tasks…remember how busy and pressured you felt back in March?   Clean up as much of the perennials as possible now while still leaving some for winter display (i.e. Sedums and ornamental grasses are beautiful in snow) and food for birds (i.e. Coneflower seeds). This is also a great time to do a final weeding. Many weeds make a last effort to go to seed in the fall and completing this task will save you hours of work next season.

Lastly take a critical look at your garden. Are there large gaps? Plants that are failing? Plants that need dividing? Fall is the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs, and perennials. The weather is cooler, rain is usually more plentiful and the soil still warm. New additions to the garden or transplants will have a chance to put out great root growth and get established for next season.

Need help putting your garden to bed? Let us know, we’re ready and able!

Fall into Spring pix 1

A Downside to Sunny Skies?

Dogwood Drought_Stress1921We love this lovely sunny weather –blue skies and crisp air. However, for each day it is sunny, your plants go another day without water. The Boston area hasn’t had more than an inch or two of appreciable rainfall in the past two and a half months, when we usually get 6 – 8 inches. We’re in a dry spell which can spell disaster for your plants going into the winter. Even those of you with irrigation systems will have plants that are in distress since irrigation systems rarely offer enough water volume to the larger plants in your landscape.

ROOT DEVELOPMENT: Fall is the time when perennials, shrubs and trees hunker down and stop growing above the ground: leaves fall off, stems dry, needles shed. All seems quiet and dormant. But if we could look under the ground, we would see an active bevy of root development happening. Soil temperatures are still warm, and plants produce more new roots in the fall than in the spring until the ground truly freezes. This is why planting in the fall is so successful: we take advantage of a plant’s natural inclination to develop new roots. A strong root system helps plants be ready to start growing right away in the spring.

HYDRATION: Even though plants stop producing growth above ground, their leaves continue to transpire water. Picture your rhododendrons and boxwoods that keep their evergreen leaves into the winter. They are still losing water molecules from their leaves each day without being able to bring in new water from the soil. This leads to leaf desiccation over the fall and winter. The leaves turn yellow and dry up. In addition, water stress can prematurely cause fall coloration.

GARDEN INSPECTION: Our advice is to go out and look at your plants – do you see any drooping leaves, yellowing, brown curled edges, or wilting? These are signs that your plant is stressed with the lack of water. I encourage you to also look at your larger shrubs and trees.

DEEP WATERING: We recommend deep watering to get moisture down into the top 18” of soil where the majority of water-absorbing roots are found. The ideal method is the slow-soak method – put your hose at the base of the plant and turn on a low trickle from your hose for 1 hour per plant. Keep track with a kitchen timer so you don’t forget and leave the hose running. If you are fortunate enough to have a sprinkler system, use it! An adequate amount of water would be 1-2” of water every 4-7 days, if we continue to have little or no rainfall.

Prioritize your newer plants since they are still establishing deep root systems and depend on surface water for survival. But with this drought, also deep water any tree with a trunk 2-5” wide and larger, older shrubs.

Deepwater tree - hoseYour plants are counting on you! Give them that long, satisfying drink of water frequently and they’ll more than repay you with beauty and vigor in the Spring.

Hydrangea No-Show 2014 – Why Aren’t My Hydrangeas Blooming?

Hydrangea_macrophylla_Blauer_Prinz_1After a very long and VERY cold winter, the traditional Mophead Hydrangea is a truly cherished and anticipated symbol of summer in New England gardens.

In many of our Fine Gardening client’s gardens this season our crew has encountered Hydrangea macrophylla or the Mophead Hydrangea without blooms.  Throughout the spring, we were grimly greeted with a mass of dead stems with no signs of leaves and no flower buds.  Eventually new growth emerged from the base of the plant surrounding the dead stems.  This particular variety of Hydrangea are ones that bloom on “old wood” only (meaning last season’s stems).  When in past seasons you could easily lose count of the number of blossoms, this season we saw some plants with only one lonely bloom!

We cut the dead stems out but, although the plant looked green and lush, the main reason we plant and love these Hydrangeas was sadly lacking.  The cause of this was a spring freeze that killed the developing bloom buds and all the emerging leaves as well.  As a result, most of the new growth for this season came from the roots.  Since the flower buds develop on the old stems, once these stems are killed in a freeze new flowers will not appear until the following year and only then if it is a milder spring.

The good news is that there are many exceptional Hydrangeas that will bloom despite this kind of damage.   ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangea arborescens, Hydrangea paniculata or Pee Gee Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia or Oakleaf Hydrangea are usually reliable seasonal blooming options.  Weather cooperating, our beloved Mophead Hydrangeas will be back in full glory next year!

WHAT’S IN A…TAG? THOSE PLANT TAGS CAN HELP YOU GARDEN BETTER

Plant-Tag both sidesDo you wish your yard looked like some of your neighbors?  Do you feel like they got the GARDEN HANDBOOK and you were absent that day?  Well, take it from a long time gardener:  getting the right plant for the right place isn’t so easy.  There are so many factors to consider and impulsivity often rules.

So where can you get meaningful plant information?  Google, etc. but more recently I have been looking at the PLANT TAGS on the plants at the nursery.  They actually contain important pieces of information about the plant; and just like a dating website, you want to match the plant’s attributes with your site’s attributes.  Check out these 3 most important data collection points:

HARDINESS ZONE   To start:  Do you know what plant hardiness zone you are in?  Hardiness refers to a plant’s ability to withstand a predicted cold temperature and survive.  The entire USA is divided into Zones based on the lowest temperature typical to that area.  Here in Boston we generally fall into zone 6 which means temperatures can go to -5 or -10 degrees F.  Plants hardy to Zone 6 can reliably survive these temperatures.  To find your zone check out this page on the USDA website: http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

When you look at the PLANT TAG find the zone recommendation, which is usually a range, like 5 to 7.  If your zone is included in this range, great.  If not, your plant may succumb in winter since it can’t typically withstand such cold temperatures.  As you might imagine, there are gardeners that push the Zone limits and are happily rewarded with a live plant or sad with a dead plant.

SUN/SHADE EXPOSURE  Sun/Shade exposure or Light requirements is also a very important factor to assess in your garden. Study your yard at different times of the day and identify the areas getting the most sun or shade. PLANT TAGS will specify:

  • Shade  (no direct sunlight)
  • Shade to Part Sun or Sun to Part Shade (3 to 6 hours of sunlight)
  • Full Sun (at least 6 hours of direct sunlight)

Keep in mind that optimal conditions will produce the best results.  For example, a plant that is labeled Sun to Part Shade may survive in a lot of shade but it may not flower as robustly as if it were in a sunnier spot.  Or it may disappear one winter and never return.

ULTIMATE SIZE  A common mistake people make is not fully appreciating the ultimate mature size of plants.  This is more likely to happen when you are buying that cute little plant that is small because it is young.   By checking the plant tag for Spacing recommendations as well as Size, you will have a better sense if that beautiful Ginkgo biloba (which can reach a height of 50 to 75 feet high) will fit in your small side yard.

Great gardens take planning – page 1 of the GARDEN HANDBOOK!  We are always here to help too.

Help…when do I prune spring flowering shrubs and trees?

5-15-14 blog new shoots on Lilac

The show is over…spring blooming shrubs and trees have put on their much appreciated display.  With blossoms just passing by, your plant is already planning for spring 2015.  It is hard for us humans to remember that this is the right time to prune those same plants.  Timing your pruning correctly will positively manage the shape and health of the plant as well as promote their bloom performance in the years to come.  As a general rule of thumb: don’t prune spring blooming shrubs and trees more than a month or so after they finish blooming unless you are willing to sacrifice some bloom. Plants like Forsythia will now start developing their 2015 flower buds so waiting too long to prune will eliminate some of next year’s display.

Spring bloomers like Forsythia and Lilacs renew themselves by sending up new stems at or near ground level each year. As plants age, older stems begin to crowd each other and the plant will flower less than desired.  Cutting away some old stems will make room for new vigorous ones to take their place and gives the new shoots time to grow and bud up this year for flowers next year.  Making selective pruning cuts to older stems promotes the overall good health and vigor of the plant.  This is also a good pruning approach for Red Twig Dogwood and other multiple stem shrubs like Spirea. Do this type of thinning now.

For more bushy shrubs with side branches off of a main trunk, like Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Pieris, and Kalmias, they can use some shaping after they bloom too.  Consider their current shape and make some cuts inside the plant to increase air circulation and sunlight penetration.  All too often, these shrubby plants get too dense and the flowering decreases.  Shrubs that have been pruned incorrectly in the past or outgrow their location may require more radical considerations.  This is often called rejuvenation or renovation pruning.  Some mature or neglected shrubs may need several seasons of renovation pruning to bring them back into scale with the landscape and restore their full beauty.

To do any of this pruning, sometimes you need courage, sometimes you need coaching and sometimes you need a professional to take charge.  We’re available if you need help.

Shear madness

bad landscapes 7-09 006 (1) 4-24-2014 post

Gum drops, meatballs and blobs:  believe it or not, these are typical shrub shapes commonly found in many suburban neighborhoods. Well-intentioned homeowners and professionals alike regularly shear off each year’s new growth, forcing bushes into visions of symmetrical greenery never found in nature.  And then we all wonder – why do my shrubs just keep getting bigger and flower less?

To answer this conundrum, we must learn a little about plants and their growth patterns.  When we cut a stem of a plant, it sends a signal to the plant to grow MORE shoots further down on the branch and produce two “bunny ear” shoots at the cut tip.  So one cut ultimately encourages a burst of even more growth.  This starts a maddening cycle of shearing, profusion of growth, more shearing and more growth.  Soon your forsythia only has a few yellow blossoms on the outside of the shrub and your front hedge look like a chaotic pile of twigs all winter long.  The indiscriminate cutting of all branches, or shearing, has an unanticipated effect:  more vigorous and uncontrolled growth.

And we compound the problem by inadvertently shearing off flower buds, removing the aesthetic beauty, fragrance and natural form of the plant.

Pruning, by contrast, is the process of strategically cutting select branches to meet the plant’s short-term and long-term health and aesthetic goals.  Pruning takes into consideration maintaining optimal plant health, controlling growth, encouraging flowering and fruit production, and ensuring property safety.  Suffice it to say, electric hedge trimmers can’t be used exclusively for a more thoughtful approach to plant pruning.  Aesthetic pruning considers all of these factors, then adds the goal of maximizing the plant’s beautiful shape given its type and function in the landscape, and how it relates to surrounding plants.  Aesthetic pruning brings in an artistic element to the landscape and the shaping of plants.

Using an overgrown Forsythia as an example, aesthetic pruning requires considerably more thought and planning than simply shearing off new growth.  Carefully consider the following before picking up clippers:

  • Time of the year: What is the optimal time of year to prune your plants and shrubs?
  • Plant location:  Should it be trimmed back from the window or the front walkway, or allowed to develop a lovely fountain-like shape in the lawn area?  Should the plant be moved to a more suitable location?
  • Age of the plant:  Is this an older plant with inner stems that should be removed to encourage new growth and more abundant flowering?  Is this a young plant that requires a stronger root system and more density in its branches?
  • Type of tool:  Should I use hand pruners to make a few more significant cuts to the plant that will meet my goals?  Will a hedge trimmer start that maddening growth process?

Defining your goals for any plant pruning will lead to the best results and minimize unintended consequence.  Late winter and early spring is prime pruning season, especially for spring flowering shrubs and plant which need to be pruned after they flower.  If your goal is a beautiful and healthy home landscape, the benefits of aesthetic pruning may be right for your garden. Pruning with a vision for your entire landscape scene will increase the enjoyment of your garden plants today and for many years to come.