Friday, November 28, 2008

The Contorted Filbert

As I search for different plants to try out in my yard, I'm always on the lookout for something unusual to add interest. my first summer in this house, some of that interest came in the form of a contorted filbert. This member of the hazel family qualifies as a bush or shrub because it puts out several stems from ground level instead of shooting out a single trunk. It grows easily to five or six feet and about as wide, though in some areas it has been known to grow up to fifteen feet tall. It responds well to pruning, so don't be afraid to get in there and trim it back if you need to.

I admit, I paid more for this one shrub than I normally would have considered, but it was exactly the thing for that triangular bed in my front yard. The contorted filbert, also knows as Harry Lauder's walkingstick or corkscrew hazel, has twisted gnarled stems, and even the leaves are twisted--at first I thought an aphid had gotten to the plant, but that's the way they always grow. It fills out with leaves really nicely through the summer, then when they fall off, the stems are exposed to add interest to the landscape through the winter. It also puts out 'blooms' in the spring, consisting of worm-like yellow or bronze/brown flowers that appear before the first leaves. However, the plants must be grafted, the flowers are either sterile or will not reproduce a true copy of the parent stock.

A lover of full sun, this filbert prefers zones 4-9. The plant prefers slightly acidic ground, though my dirt is quite alkali, and my plant is doing well. It can also be grown indoors.

Most plants you can buy have been grafted onto a normal filbert root, and the roots tend to send up shoots, which means you have to watch and keep it trimmed back if you don't want the straight stems to take over. You can see this in the picture below. A basic pair of pruners will keep the suckers under control.

It's important to make sure you water this shrub deeply and often, as with any shrubs and trees, but especially during the first year until it gets properly established.

One caveat: the contorted filbert is susceptable to Eastern Filbert Blight, which is a rampant fungus in many of the northeastern states, but has been spreading to other regions. You should contact your local extension office for particulars if you are concerned about EFB. If yor plant has flagging branches in the summer or winter cancker, the affected branches should be pruned off at least two feet below the signs of cancker and then burned or chipped as any moisture left in the stems will allow the fungus to continue growing. Affected plants can also be treated with a fungicide to new shoots in the spring.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Look around for next summer's planting

Have you taken a look around your neighborhood lately? If you have neighbors like me who don't pull their annuals or cut back the perennials until winter has put them to bed, you're bound to find some flowers still in bloom.

In my yard is a large mum that I planted out last summer after the blooms all died off. The pot held three plants in yellow, pink and red, and though most of my plants are long dead, it still brightens an intersection of my pathways.

My Autumn Joy Sedum has finally stopped blooming, but it put out bunches of red color for weeks after the rest had died down. Also, the yarrow I planted around the front yard is still blooming.

And because I placed them on the south side of the house, my pansies are still full of blooms, creeping across the ground like a blanket. This has been an unusually mild fall, which I suppose may make up for the colder than average winter expected, so the weeds are still growing (to the delight of all my birds), but it means extra work for me--and extra time to get those outdoor projects done before snow gets here in a couple of days.

I better pull out the Christmas lights and get them up before this next cold front hits. There's nothing as miserable as putting up lights when the eves are dripping with icicles.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Winter Sowing: Part 2 and Giveaway

Last time I talked about what you would need to start Winter Sowing, today, I'll show you how to set up your containers. I use mostly milk jugs since we go through a lot of milk. When I've happened to stumble across those plastic trays that you buy prepared veggies or sandwiches in, I've used them. First the milk jugs, and a zipper bag. You can use the larger sizes, it depends on how mnay seeds you want to sow.

Then I cut the jugs just below where the handle starts. This gives me several inches for dirt. Whatever container you use, make sure there is at least two inches of dirt, and a couple of inches of headroom for the growing plant. You don't want it to press up against the top of the container when it starts growing.



Clean out your container, if it had something in it before and make sure to cut drainage holes in the bottom. In the spring you'll have to start adding water periodically, and you won't want to drown your seedlings. Then add whatever growing medium you've chosen to the container and plant the seeds.

With larger seeds, you can plant them separately through the bottom of your container, with smaller ones, you may find it easier to broadcast many across the surface and cover them with a light layer of dirt. The general rule of thumb is twice as much dirt as the size of the seed, so if it is really tiny, barely covering it is sufficient. If your dirt, compost or whatever else you choose to use is dry, make sure to let it soak up some water before you add it to your container. Potting soil is notorious for being difficult to make wet once it has thoroughly dried, and it's best for your seedlings if the medium is damp.

When your seeds are planted, seal the container sides with tape, and make sure you have the lid screwed onto the milk jug. In the spring once the seedling start to sprout, you'll want to be able to add water through the top and to remove it on warm days so you don't bake your new babies.

Then find an area of your yard that gets six or more hours of sunlight every day and set them out. You may want to put it somewhere that your neighbors won't see it if you're concerned about odd questions. There's nothing else to do until spring when the seeds start to sprout.

Almost any container can be used for this. When I've had sandwich trays--the big kind you get for parties--I've used newspaper cups in them, which is great for the new plants since it doesn't disturb their roots. Simply cut newspaper into five- or six-inch strips, and roll it around a cup. fold the bottom in so it will form a cup, and I like to place a piece of tape on it to hold it closed. Fill with soil and continue on like any other container. Before I plant these, I pull the tape off the bottom and loosen the newspaper from the bottom to allow the roots to grow out. Most newspapers are using vegetable inks for all of their printing, even the color pages. If you aren't sure, only use the black ink pages, or call your local paper and find out what kind of inks they are using. The old colored inks had heavy metals in there and you don't want to put those in your garden. Also, only use regular newsprint, never use glossy pages as they don't decompose well and can cause problems. A newspaper cup is a great, eco-friendly, and free replacement for peat cups or pellets.

Now, anyone who posts a comment on this thread will be entered to win free seeds to start their own winter sowing. I guarantee at least a 20% chance of winning, which means that if I get more than five comments, two people will get seeds, and eleven or more comments and I'll send out three.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Winter sowing: Part 1

Some weeks ago I promised I would explain the principle behind winter sowing. I can hear you all now, "Winter sowing, what's that all about?" It's a great, super inexpensive way to start lots of healthy seedlings OUTSIDE. There's no need to have an expensive light setup, no need to clear out the food storage to make room for flats of seedlings (which wouldn't make sense, anyway), and you don't have to put your warring teenagers back intoa room together to give you space.

The idea behind this is that plants reseed themselves all the time and come back int he spring without any trouble. I have lots of flowers that I started with only a couple of plants and the next year I got sprouts form seeds--the same thing can happen with those that are winter sown. In fact, many seeds require some chilling, or even a freeze/thaw cycle before they will start to grow. Trumpet vine is one of these, the shell on the seed is so hard if it doesn't get a lot of freezing and thawing, the plant can't burst through it in search of light. Any seed that says: needs stratification, colorize, self sows, sow in autumn, or any other term indicating it can handle or needs cool weather to develop. Many seeds that don't say things like that will still winter sow successfully.

To winter sow, all you need is a container with a clear or semi-transparent lid--snack trays, milk jugs, plastic zipper bags, even Styrofoam cups with plastic wrap on top--and dirt. It's best if you use growing medium, or any bagged potting soil. If you simply don't have the money, or you live in an area where you can't get bagged soil at this time of year, you can use regular garden dirt, or better yet, homemade compost.

It's best if you spread your own dirt or compost on a cookie sheet and bake it for ten minutes or so to kill the seeds and any diseases that may cause the seeds to fail. Another option is to fill a five gallon bucket (or other available container) half full of dirt or compost and place on the back porch. Boil water in a teapot or pan on the stove. Pour the boiling water on the dirt and cover the container as tightly as possible. The next day the seeds will be dead and you can go ahead and start planting.

I moved into my house in mid December, and spent months glued to gardening and landscaping sites trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my yard. I have nearly a full acre and didn't want to grass the whole thing--I didn't even want to grass half of it, actually, and gave the back half to my birds, but I couldn't live without flowers. Being on a tight budget, and wanting to be able to get as much done as possible without breaking the bank, I gave winter sowing a try.

First I found several kind people willing to send me FREE seed through seed swapping--since I was just starting out, I sent them a padded envelope with postage, and they sent me the seeds back. It was great. I planted...dozens of containers that winter, and placed them out in the sunny back yard. If you do an Internet search for seed swapping, you can probably find oodles of people willing to swap or send you seeds. You can also check nurseries, or other places that still have seeds lift over from last year, and get them for deep discount at this time of year.

Later this week, I'll finish explaining the process of winter sowing--and I'll be giving away free seeds to start your own planting with. Take a look around and see what you've got that you can sow in, what seeds you'd like to use and what else you can get your hands on.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Prepare your roses for winter

As we're putting up Christmas lights before the snows come back and pulling out dead annuals, don't forget your rose bushes.

Sometime between now and when the leaf buds begin to develop in the spring, cut rose canes back by at least a third. In addition, any dead or diseased canes should be cut back to healthy wood. Healthy wood will be green like an apple. Any canes thinner than the thickness of a pencil should also be trimmed off because they will produce poor blooms.

When you are pruning, look at the rose bush and cut out any canes that lead toward the center of the plant, or any that rub against others on the plant.

Some plants may require mulching in the fall after several days of temperatures below 27 degrees. Despite the perception that mulch is applied to keep the plant warmer, it is actually there to keep the plant colder. The main point of mulching is to stop the freeze/thaw cycle that can damage roots and kill plants. It is better for the bushes to stay frozen through the winter, than to keep defrosting.

When you buy roses at most garden centers (and most other kind of started plants, actually), they come with a tag that states how big they grow, what their cold hardiness is, etc. I've seen my zip code listed as anywhere from a zone 5 to a zone 7, though most seem to think we're a 6 or 7 (which means my coldest temperature is negative ten degrees in winter), but I remember years where we got down to negative 20, so I generally figure my plants need to go to make it to zone 5 or below. There are lots of places where you can find out what your zone is, you can click here.

Some nurseries or garden centers sell roses that are grown in a warmer zone and won't winter over as well, so it's important to note what zone your plants are in when you purchase them. There are many, many varieties out there that are fine down to -20 or even -40 degrees, so yours may be included in this bunch. Plants purchased for the correct zone will not need any mulch or winter protection.

One last caveat--some plant growers will stretch the cold hardiness a bit to get more people to buy it, so it's always a good idea to purchase plants that will survive winters at least one zone colder than yours.

If this is your first winter with your roses, it never hurts to err on the side of caution and mulch your roots at least four inches deep with shredded leaves (you can run your lawn mower over them if needed), pine needles, bark--either shredded or chunks-- or straw.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Prepare your pond for winter

This weekend I pulled my fish out of the pond for the winter. They could have wintered over with a little extra care (like a pond heater to keep a spot open in the ice, or a bubbler for the same purpose, this allows an oxygen exchange for the fish), but I opted to bring them in instead. If your pond is at least a foot and a half deep, you can winter the fish over. Some people in my area don't bother to use a bubbler or anything, figuring they'll just restock the pond in the spring if they have too many die off.

If you choose to winter the fish over in the pond, or your area isn't cold enough for it to freeze very hard, cut back on feeding to a couple of times a week once the water dips down to 65 degrees, and once the pond starts to dip below 50 degrees, most fish go inactive and don't need feeding at all--we're well past that point here. In fact, continuing to feed will contribute to toxic water and algae growth.

Remove any annual plants (water hyacinths, lily's, and water lettuce are examples of plants that are annuals in my area). If they have already been exposed to frost, throw them on your compost pile. If there is still some green areas, cut off any dead growth and bring them inside if you like. I had planned to do so, but the frost got the drop on me and they're dead. There are other perennial plants that will return, and they are beginning to go into hibernation for the winter. Simply dead and yellowing leaves off and submerge the plant in the deepest end to protect it from extreme temperatures.

If you live in a mild climate that doesn't experience freezing temperatures like Florida--do NOT dispose of water lettuce or water hyacinths in any manner that may allow them to get into your local waterways. They become noxious plants that clog rivers. Allowing them to spread is illegal in many areas of the South.

While you're out there, make sure to clean out any leaves that are cluttering the pond, and cut back any vegetation that might fall into it from around the edges of the pond. If you live in a warmer climate where you winter is short and mild, now is a good time to do a light cleaning of your filter.

Some experts also suggest adding beneficial bacteria in the fall and spring to keep the water healthy. Another option if you live in a mild climate is to add barley straw extract to keep algae growth under control.

Me, I nearly emptied the pond chasing that last fish, but they're installed in their inside tank and swimming happily. I'm sure their fish dreams are filled with their spring return to the pond.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Spring blooms on great deals now

It's still a great time to buy spring bulbs. Though the place I usually buy mine has already run out, if you poke around, you might find great deals on bulbs, both online or in a store near you. Spring-blooming bulbs can be planted well into early winter if necessary. I knew a woman who was out planting her daffodils Thanksgiving weekend in the snow, but the ground hadn't frozen yet.

A scan over internet plant sources, and through local garden centers show most places with great discounts as they try to clear out the summer's inventory. I've seen some deals for as much as 66% off. Though I haven't had great luck with mailed live plants, I've had good luck with getting healthy bulbs through reputable online and mail-order nurseries. While you're check out one of the many great businesses, which can easily be found with a quick Internet search for 'online nurseries,' make sure you request some of their catalogs. When winter gets too depressing, a few minutes of flipping through the colorful pictures makes me look forward to spring with excitement.

Also, if you're planning a new bed or two, now is a great time to build it before the snow flies. If you're interested in lasagna gardening, this is the perfect time to put those beds together with the end of the summer compost and falling leaves. Click here for directions on how to build a lasagna bed. Even if you're planning a more traditional addition to your yard, now might be the right time to get it ready for spring planting.

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Add some fall color for the future

November is here and fall is racing toward winter with every-increasing speed. My few tiny trees are hanging onto their leaves, but the neighborhood is awash in red and golds as the last of the leaves are changing color. If your yard is looking a little humdrum, this is the perfect time to look around and see where you might add a bush with showy fall leaves, or even a tree that will add interest. Spring is the best time of year to plant trees, but don't count fall out. Not only can you get great prices on the end of the nursery stock, but if you water the trees in good before the ground freezes and mulch them in, your new trees have a great opportunity to establish root systems before the summer heat hits.

Now that Halloween is past, many of us have jack-o-lanterns that are turning mushy. If you have a compost pile, break the pumpkins up and bury them into your last bunch of grass clippings or pile of fall leaves.

And speaking of fall leaves--don't forget what great mulch they can make on sleeping flower beds or garden beds. Another great option for mulching is any pine needles piling up beneath trees in your area. Many homeowners would love it if you volunteered to clear away their pine tree's leavings.


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