Neighborly Garden News
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Let’s talk about understory trees
Too many of our gardens have abrupt transitions, particularly at the boundaries: tall trees underplanted with lawn or another low ground cover, with no understory element in between. Mother Nature typically favors layers of plants, and in nature you will find a host of smaller statured trees to fill in this area.
Understory trees by definition tend to grow beneath or adjacent to their taller cousins. They naturally prefer shady or partially shady areas of the garden. Mature heights can often be less than half of the taller growing native trees in our region; 15-25 ft tall, versus 40-80 ft tall of a mature Sugar Maple or Red Oak.
Acer pensylvanicum, the Striped Maple, is a great small tree for any shady spot. The first time you come across this maple tree it may not look much like a maple, it has oversized leaves compared to its compact size. Striped Maple grows at the forest’s edge, or in gaps within the forest. As the tree matures, their white-striped green bark ages to reddish-brown with dark lines; very showy for visual interest during the fall and winter months.
Striped Maple bark
Sassafras albidium has many desirable traits, including fall color that rivals that of our native sugar maples. Its foliage, either mitten-shaped or with three lobes, ranges from yellow and orange into red and purple in autumn. Separate male and female trees produce flowers at their branch tips. The female trees produce blue-black, bird-friendly fruit in September, each nestled in a gleaming red cup held on a red stem. The crushed twigs produce fragrant, root-beer scented oil often used in brewing and confections. Sassafras is also the host plant for the Tiger and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies.
Sassafras leaves in early fall
Two terrific native trees that can be planted for use as an informal hedge are the Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and the Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). The Pagoda dogwood produces lacey clusters of white flowers in early summer; followed by bluish-purple fruit, much loved by birds. The branches have a very distinctive horizontal and tiered pattern of branching, which would integrate into a hedge very nicely. Pussy Willow flowers have the distinction of being one of the first to bloom each spring; providing pollen and nectar to any early awakening insects; it’s also the host plant for the Mourning Cloak butterfly. Willows grow especially well if you have a moist area to plant, but it is not necessarily a requirement for the Pussy Willow.
Pagoda Dogwood in bloom
Pussy Willows blooming in early spring
Ostrya virginiana, or American Hophornbeam, has distinctive clusters of puffy seedpods from summer into fall, resembling those of hops. American Hophornbeam trees develop catkin flowers in the fall and these remain through winter; along with the tree’s vertical strips of curling, shaggy bark and handsome branching structure makes it an appealing year-round specimen. A relative, Carpinus caroliniana is best known as American Hornbeam, and is commonly called Blue Beech or musclewood (because of its smooth, muscular fluting along the branches). The European Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, is often used to create a formal clipped hedge, and our native tree could probably be pruned in that fashion also.
American Hophornbeam leaves and fruit
Does your yard have a void where a small tree might thrive? Now that the leaves have dropped, you may find some open areas just begging for a new native tree. These suggestions are just a few of the many species of native trees just perfect to fill in a small space.
December’s ‘to-do’ list
Our cold weather came on so quickly after an unusually mild early fall. The temperatures in the low 20’s signaled the end of our growing season, and the death of all tender foliage and flowers. Surprisingly there are annuals that are still blooming: Sweet alyssum, Calibrachoa or ‘million bells’, and ‘Homestead’ verbena. The sweet alyssum came up all throughout my garden as self-sown plants this spring, truly a bonus to have its’ honeyed, fragrant blooms with us right until winter. As we come to the completion of another gardening year, I’m thankful for the many ‘bonuses’ I have in my life, and for being able to share some of my gardening experiences with you. From everyone at Countryside Landscape & Design, we wish you Happy Holidays, and a peaceful and healthy New Year.
Visiting family for the holidays? Countryside can provide ‘home security’ services while you are away. Our detailed security checklist allows us to track the operating system of your house; that the furnace is working, all entry points are locked, no leaks have occurred, sump pumps working, lights are not burnt out; all the essentials that keep your home comfortable and safe. Please contact our office for more information. 413.458.5586
I noticed signs of chewing on a few plants I had brought indoors for the winter; sure enough I found some very chunky caterpillars hiding under the leaves. Check indoor houseplants after you’ve brought them in, for signs of insects that may have hatched out. A good ‘shower’ in your tub or sink will wash off anything crawling around. Stationary insects like mealy bugs or scale insects, will require more effort to get rid of them. Alcohol on a cotton swab is a low tech method, but you can also use Safer’s brand insecticidal soap, or a systemic type insecticide. Repeat applications according to the label directions for the pest.
Potted Rosemary is not hardy to our New England winters, but will happily live indoors if you can duplicate its native wintertime conditions. They prefer a cool, (just above freezing) sunny exposure; like an unheated sun porch, or breezeway. During the winter months, Rosemary plants like their soil to dry out between watering. I like to water them in the kitchen sink, and allow the excess to drain away. Having fresh herbs at your fingertips, is worth the extra care a living Rosemary plant may require.
There is still time to apply deer repellent spray or erect deer fencing to protect your vulnerable plants. Deer are nocturnal feeders; we usually only see the aftermath of their browsing behavior the following morning. Browsing from deer escalates during the winter when natural food becomes unavailable, repellent sprays can offer you 24/7 protection. We offer this service—please contact us if you wish to protect your plants from deer over the winter.
If you haven’t already inserted stakes along the edges of your driveway to mark the areas to be plowed, don’t forget to do this before the ground freezes. This helps the person clearing your snow do their best job, minimizing damage to your lawn, and garden beds.
Is your garden ‘put to bed’ for the winter? Certain perennials do better with a little extra care before winter takes hold. Protect lavender plants under an ‘umbrella’ of evergreen boughs. This helps keep crushing ice and snow off their vulnerable crowns. They prefer to be on the dry side, and covering them with a layer of cut evergreens (Arborvitae, Spruce, Pine, or Hemlock) helps Lavender overwinter successfully. Have you finished mowing your leaves? Chopped up leaves are great for insulating tender perennials, and will break down faster if you choose to compost them instead. If you’ve completed your final mow of the season, now is a good time to service your mower, so it will be ready to go next spring.
We haven’t had any measurable snow yet in the valley, but that could change any day. I have photos from the recent past, showing snow on the ground during October and November. Hungry rodents and rabbits are just waiting for snow cover to begin snacking on your trees and shrubs. Protect trees from gnawing by using hardware cloth or steel mesh with 0.5” diameter holes, to protect the trunk. The barriers should be 48” tall, and have about 1’ buried to prevent burrowing.
Need help getting ready for winter? Give our office a call today. 413.458.5586
Minimize your garden’s carbon footprint; every little action helps!
Regardless of where you stand in the debate over climate change, 2021 has proven to be destructive and very costly. The past year produced some of the most violent extremes in weather, breaking new records for damage, death, and destruction. Carbon footprint is a measure of the total amount of greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere as a result of an individual’s, organizations’, or nation’s actions. It’s usually measured in tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). Greenhouse gasses (GHG) are any type of gas in the atmosphere that blocks heat from escaping. In relation to your carbon footprint and climate change, the main ones to mention are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. The greenhouse effect is the process through which GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere trap heat from the sun. Although this is a natural phenomenon that keeps the planet habitable, our GHG emissions are causing the Earth to warm up at an unnatural rate. 1.5 degrees C is the temperature threshold we are striving to keep below; limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. We can achieve this if we ALL PITCH IN!
Steps to minimize your carbon footprint:
Reduce or replace use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer uses vast amounts of energy to manufacture and distribute. Synthetic nitrogen will emit 4-6 tons of CO2 gas for each ton of nitrogen fertilizer produced.
Replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizer with compost or manure, or a certified organic brand of fertilizer. Countryside offers a complete organic lawn program; please contact us (email@example.com) for pricing. Incorporate leguminous plants in your beds and lawn, which will naturally add nitrogen to your soil. Peas and beans have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria (Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are prokaryotic microorganisms that are capable of transforming nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into “fixed nitrogen” compounds, such as ammonia, that are usable by plants) that live on their roots. Adding clover seed (a type of legume) to your turf mix will naturally aid in fertility of your lawn.
Rethink your idea of what a lawn should be. Traditional lawns require weekly mowing, and watering, a more sustainable approach could be replacing part of the lawn with a rain-garden, or rock garden, or native plant retreat. Replacing traditional turf with low mow type grass species can save time and energy. Fine Fescue grass grows very slowly, and matures at only 8-12” tall. It will thrive in dry, infertile soils. Use a grass/clover seed mix in low traffic areas, for a tough self sustaining lawn.
Create a ‘carbon vault’ in your yard. When plants die and decompose, their carbon becomes part of the soil. The carbon stays in the soil, instead of being released into the atmosphere as CO2. Gardeners can increase this sequestering of carbon in the soil by tilling less. The process of tilling can over aerate the soil, causing a rapid breakdown of organic matter; releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Leaving the soil undisturbed will also allow beneficial earthworms to thrive. Their passive activity can move 20 tons of soil a year per acre, without promoting any CO2 loss.
Trees and shrubs take up more CO2 than herbaceous plants; make a planting strategy to maximize their benefits. Plant a living fence for an energy saving windbreak. Create more shade with deciduous trees to maximize cooling in the summer, less dependency on air conditioners.
Recycle, and re-use; strive to use less fossil fuel. Repurpose items for garden projects, Seek new items constructed of recycled materials. Every small action taken adds to the larger good of OUR planet.
New flower varieties are introduced every year; growers will often test these in growing trials. These flowers were selected for attributes of habit, flowering vigor, flower presentation and color stability. Their intense color saturation, brightness and luminosity make them stand outs in the trial gardens; they will be eye catchers in your garden too!
Dianthus ‘Jolt Purple’ This Dianthus variety series consists of Pink Magic, Cherry, Pink and the new Purple. This is a heat-tolerant, durable and long-flowering cultivar. The foliage is dark green, and what stands out immediately is the upright and well-branched growth habit. The plants mature at 16-20 inches tall, and the color is described as ‘electrifying’.
Dianthus ‘Jolt Purple’
Coleus ‘Spitfire’ There are many varieties of coleus available at retail garden centers. The new ‘Spitfire’ is unlike anything else you may have seen before. It is a distinctive standalone variety with narrow lance-shaped cascading bicolor green and pink leaves. ‘Spitfire’ is well branched, adaptable to sun or shade, and will not ‘brown-out’ in the sun like other types of Coleus.
Salvia farinacea‘Sallyfun Pure White’ This was one of the most floriferous plants in the trial — with long, velvety white flower stalks rising above the foliage canopy. I have planted other colors in the ‘Sallyfun’ family, but this new white form looks stunning! It makes a great addition to mixed container plantings, or a s a border plant. It is very attractive to pollinators.
Salvia farinacea‘Sallyfun Pure White’
Petunia ‘Headliner Banana Cherry’ When is a petunia not an ordinary petunia? Banana Cherry is an extraordinary new variety, with vibrant multicolored flowers. The color is described as zesty yellow with burgundy and maroon markings, and a white throat. It’s gently mounded habit is easily worked into hanging baskets, and patio containers; the flowers are held well above the foliage.
Petunia ‘Headliner Banana Cherry’
Lantana ‘Shamrock Rose’ One of my favorites for containers and window boxes is the humble Lantana. It will bloom non-stop for months, through heat and rain and wind. The multi-color blooms are a favorite with hummingbirds and other pollinators. The flowers will typically show several colors blooming at the same time. ‘Shamrock Rose’ blooms a bit early than most, and has outstanding vigor, and deep green clean looking leaves.
Lantana ‘Shamrock Rose’