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Forcing Flowering Branches

There are just over 50 days of winter left before spring starts, and many of us are just dying to see a little spring color in our homes. One of the best ways to do this in late winter is to force flowering branches. The term forcing refers to cutting a piece off of spring flowering trees and shrubs and bringing the branches indoors. Once indoors they are put into warm water so they can force into bloom. While their natural bloom time may not be for a month or two, the tree or shrub you cut for forcing will bring an early spring within days or weeks, depending on how close they are to their natural bloom time. 

In order to force flowering branches you’ll need it to be late winter. There should have been at least 6 weeks of cold or they won’t bloom indoors. Once you choose your branches for forcing (pussy willow, forsythia, apple, and flowering cherry are great choices), grab a clean set of pruners (using alcohol or hydrogen peroxide is a good idea for cleaning to ensure that you don’t spread disease to the tree) and cut branches to the desired length. Keep the shape of your arrangement in mind when choosing flowering branches. Proper pruning techniques require that your cuts are clean and smooth. Do not leave stubs of branches without leaf buds and do not tear the branches. Remember, you want these trees to thrive all spring and summer, so don’t set them up for failure by damaging them or introducing disease. 

Once you have cut the branches you desire, trim and discard any parts you don’t want to keep in your arrangement. After you’ve shaped your branches, cut the ends at an angle and smash them with a hammer a few times to spread the wood. This will improve water uptake and help the branches to bloom. You may add floral preservatives to the warm water if you like to help them last longer. 

Ever few days you’ll want to cut and hit the branch ends with the hammer again to keep the flowers lasting as long as possible. 

Forcing flowering can be a great alternative to cut flowers in late winter and can really bring an early taste of spring to your home. Put your branches in narrow necked bottles to be sure they stay upright and you’ll have a breathtaking display that can last weeks with proper care.

Preparing Trees for Storms

Winter is here and while we’ve already had a good dose of the cold; soon we’ll also be getting winter storms, which can damage trees. Whether it’s a strong wind or the weight of wet snow, the trees on your property need a certain amount of care to get through the season undamaged. 

The first thing you want to do to prepare your trees and to keep trees healthy is to prune your trees BEFORE the storm hits. You can eyeball this but the best bet is to have your trees evaluated by a certified arborist. If any trees are extremely damaged you may want to contact tree services for tree removal. Trees go dormant in winter making it an ideal time to prune. 

Tree care such as this should be done before the winter storm season as well as before hurricane season. 

For delicate trees and shrubs, wrapping them in burlap that extends to the ground may be helpful to prevent breakage. Mulching around the base will help to retain moisture as well as warmth. Moist soil will absorb more solar radiation than dry soil and will re-radiate heat during the night.

Young trees may need extra help during their first years with snow. After a snowfall gently knock the buildup off with a broom, being careful not to break any weak branches. In the case of ice, just leave it alone; the chances of breakage are too high. 

Trees with a shallow root system such as willows, maple trees, oak trees, and ash trees are all at special risk of becoming uprooted during storms, so special attention should be paid to them. If you see any signs of root rot or lifting call an arborist immediately so you don’t have to deal with a fallen tree during the winter. 

Should You Leave Fall Leaves?

Autumn is here and that means leaves are likely falling all over your yard. You are probably thinking about breaking out the rake and buying some leaf bags, but before you spend money and put in the time, consider this: you don’t actually have to rake all of the leaves on your lawn. 

It’s true! When people rake their fallen leaves they generally end up in a landfill. According to the EPA, yard trimmings—including those leaves you were thinking about raking up—created about 34.7 million tons of waste in 2015. While in landfills, leaves can break down with other organic matter to create methane—a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change—and no one wants that. 

On the other hand, if you don’t spend the whole day raking leaves, what options do you have? Turns out, plenty. 

Mulching leaves with a mulching mower should be your first step if you decide not to rake all of your leaf drop. A mulching mower chops up leaves into smaller pieces, called leaf litter so that they can break down and return nitrogen to the soil, feeding your grass. This layer of natural mulch can also suppress weeds, keeping weed seeds from germinating. Mulching by mowing can be done when there are wet or dry leaves, but raking should only be done with dry leaves. The same can be done with grass clippings. Leaving them behind when you mow is a great natural fertilizer that won’t pollute waterways and acts as natural lawn care.

Have a thick layer of leaves? Rake some of them over to your garden bed before mowing. Flower beds will appreciate the natural layer of mulch and weed prevention. Don’t make TOO thick of a layer though, you still want the airflow to prevent fungus from growing. 

Another thing you can do with leaves instead of sending them to the landfill is to create a compost pile in your yard. You can put vegetable food waste, grass clippings, and leaves in the pile and help create nutrient-rich compost to aid in gardening next spring. 

Finally, according to the National Wildlife Federation, leaving the leaves also helps birds, butterflies, and moths. Birds raid the litter for food for babies, and moths and butterflies pupate in leaf litter. 

Fall Tick Activity

Pumpkins are everywhere and people are picking out their costumes. Fall is in full swing but there’s one part of summer that’s still hanging on: ticks. 

Our warm autumn weather means that ticks like the American Dog Tick, Deer Ticks, Black Legged Ticks, and the Lone Star Tick are still active and even breeding. Tick bites can spread tick-borne diseases at any time of year, but right now—when we’re out enjoying the last warm days hiking and playing outside—they have a better-than-average chance of latching on. 

When a tick uses its mouthparts to feed it can transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme, as well as several types of parasites and viruses, so it’s important to remove a tick as soon as you see it on you. Generally speaking, a tick must be attached for 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease so it’s important to remove them as soon as you see them. If you find a tick, use tweezers to grasp the head as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. 

Ticks love wooded areas and the female tick lays her eggs in leaf litter. So while it may be tempting to jump in that big pile of leaves you’ve just raked up, consider that there could be hundreds, or thousands, of tick nymphs living inside. 

To keep the tick population at bay keep your grass trimmed, clear fallen leaves as soon as possible, and keep a 3-foot barrier of wood chips or gravel between your lawn and wooded areas. Without these barriers, adult ticks have no problem traveling to all corners of your yard. 

When outdoors, if possible, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to keep ticks off of your skin. For extra protection, you can treat your clothing with Permethrin or use a spray with DEET to help repel ticks and other biting insects. 

When you get back inside be sure to do a full-body check especially:

  • Under the arms
  • In and around the ears
  • Inside the belly button
  • Back of the knees
  • In and around the hair
  • Between the legs
  • Around the waist

By following these steps you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding tick bites and having a safer and happier fall!

Planting Roses in the Fall

Fall may seem like the end of the planting season but for container-packaged roses, it can be a great time of year to start planting. Early spring is better for planting if you have bare root rose bushes, but there is enough time for planting a potted rose in fall to ensure that your newly planted roses will create a solid root system before they go dormant in winter. So if you’ve just got to get some roses in the ground, skip the bare root roses and go for those already in pots. 

There are many different rose varieties to choose from when planting so your first decision will be what kind of rose you want to grow. In addition to growth habits, such as bush form or climbing, there are also different varieties such as hybrid tea roses, floribunda, grandifloras, miniature, tree, and climbers. When you grow roses the choices and colors are almost endless so spend some time doing the research before you get started planting. 

There are a few things you have to keep in mind if you decide that fall will be your growing season for your roses. Number one, you should not fertilize. Fertilizing roses can actually weaken them leaving them more susceptible to diseases like powdery mildew and black spot. Leave fertilizing to spring planting.

Roses need full sun so location is important when planting. They also need good drainage so you may want to check your soil before popping them into the ground. 

Mulch is vital for healthy roses. Use organic matter to cover the roots of your roses. This will keep them warmer longer and will give them that extra little bit of cushion they will need in winter. 

Go for dormant plants. Plants with new growth won’t be as happy going into the ground in the fall. If you just love the idea of watching new growth instantly, you might want to wait till spring to plant those bushes. For long-term success, planting dormant bushes in the fall is the best idea. 

Finally, don’t prune. Tempting as it may be to shape your roses, they don’t need the additional stress of open wounds. This can also make them susceptible to disease and pests and they don’t need that before going into a long cold winter. 

So take some time and consider if fall rose planting is what you’re looking for and if it is, get out that shovel, gather some mulch, and get planting!

Seeding a Lawn in September

With summer coming to an end, and the temperatures dropping, it’s time to think about reseeding your lawn. Mid-August through September is the best time to re-seed an existing lawn and fill in those bare spots and small areas of dead grass. 

For cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass, early to mid-September is the sweet spot, while warm-season grasses like Bermuda grass and Zoysia may prefer a mid-August to early September planting. As their names suggest, cool-season grass grows primarily in spring and fall while warm-season grasses thrive in the warmer temperatures of summer. 

The warm soils of  September, combined with soil moisture and cooler nights, will let the seed germinate as efficiently as possible. It will also give cool-season lawns a month or two to establish themselves before the first frost. 

Starting the task now will give you time to seed before the cold of late fall and early winter when new growth may be stunted by the cold. 

There are many different seeds to choose from when overseeding your lawn; the most popular include Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass, Tall Fescue, Fine Fescue, and Bermuda grasses. Mixes of Kentucky Bluegrass and Perennial Ryegrass are good seed choices for our area. Lawn care for both species is similar and they have a good tolerance for our climate. 

Before you plant grass seed, be sure to prepare the soil. Remember that seed must come into contact with the ground in order to germinate, so if you are overseeding an existing lawn a thorough raking to de-thatch is recommended. For bare areas loosen the top layer of soil and test the pH. Most lawns grow best with soil that is slightly acidic to neutral (pH 6.2–7.0).  Your local garden center will have the additives you need to achieve this pH reading. 

After preparing your soil and spreading the seed, be sure to keep the top level of the soil damp at all times to give all of your seed an equal opportunity to grow. It is also recommended to use a seed starter fertilizer to help give the new grass shoots a jump start before the first frost sets in. 

After you have growth that has reached 2 inches you can now give it a trim. Don’t let new grass grow too long or it won’t develop a strong crown. 

Finally, don’t forget that while you can leave clippings on the lawn as an added fertilizer, you shouldn’t let fallen leaves lie in place as they will suffocate new growth!

How to Divide Bearded Irises

About every three years or so iris plants need to be divided, otherwise, they risk overcrowding and disease. The blooms will also suffer if they are not divided enough. The best time to divide bearded irises is from July through September, at least 6 weeks before the first frost.

Iris plants grow not from bulbs but from something called rhizomes. These form clumps with roots on the bottoms and leaves coming out the top. When these clumps get too big, they need to be divided and each new division will form a new plant.

So what do you do when it’s time to divide your bearded iris rhizomes? Using a garden fork, dig up your iris rhizomes and shake off the soil, then rinse them in water. You’ll want to look over each one for signs of iris borers (holes in the rhizomes) and soft rot. As you divide the rhizomes you’ll want to discard these sections and only plant the young, healthy rhizomes back into the ground. Using a sharp, sterilized knife, separate the rhizomes, making sure there are leaf fans on each section. Without the fan of leaves, the rhizomes are unlikely to grow. 

Once you have separated the iris rhizomes and discarded all of the infested or diseased irises, you will want to begin digging a shallow hole big enough for three to five iris plants in an area that receives at least 6 hours of full sun a day. You will want less than an inch of soil above the top of the rhizomes, so the hole doesn’t need to be deep. Cut the fan leaves about 4–6 inches long before planting. Plant bearded iris groupings about 24 inches apart to allow room for growth. Cover the roots, but allow the planted rhizomes to remain visible at the soil surface. 

Water newly planted iris rhizomes well, but do not continue to water unless it has been several weeks since the last rain. Keeping them moist will encourage rot. 

Once your new irises are established, apply a low-nitrogen fertilizer twice a year—in early spring—and just after the bloom to keep them healthy and happy.

Controlling Powdery Mildew on Vegetables

Every summer it seems to appear; white, powdery spots all over the leaves and stems of your vegetables. While it is rarely fatal, it can weaken susceptible plants and reduce vegetable and flower production. So what is that stuff exactly? 

Powdery mildew is one of the most widespread fungal diseases of plants, and also one of the easiest to identify. It appears as white or grey spots covering most or all of the surfaces of leaves. In the advanced stages, leaves can turn yellow, curl up, and drop off. This leads to stressed plants and reduced flower production. 

While it’s ideal to avoid an infestation by growing resistant varieties of plants, making sure your plants are in full sun, and preventing over-fertilization and crowding, there are things you can do to control powdery mildew that is already present. 

There are many commercial options for controlling mildew growth on plants. In particular neem oil is one of the many horticultural oils labeled for the control of powdery mildew as well as a number of other diseases. 

If you’re more of a DIY gardener, baking soda combined with dormant oil and liquid soap is also known to be helpful in the early stages of an infestation and will inhibit mildew growth.

In the very early stages, plain water will knock fungal spores off the plant before they can embed. Just be careful because wet plants can become the victims of a whole other host of diseases. When you water plants for this purpose, do so early in the morning so that the sun can burn off the water throughout the day. 

Potassium bicarbonate, which is similar to baking soda, is a contact fungicide that will kill powdery mildew spores on contact. 

Mouthwash mixed with water (in a one-to-three ratio) can eliminate mildew growth. Just be careful as it can burn new plant growth. 

Two to three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar mixed with a gallon of water can also be an effective anti-fungal treatment. 

These are just a few of the treatments available for powdery mildew. When treating an affected plant be sure to spray the entirety of the affected leaves including the underside of leaves. 

After treatment, you may want to trim off some of the most infected leaves so that the plant can put energy into new growth rather than into old damaged leaves. If you do go that route, you can take the plant debris and throw it away. You don’t want to put powdery mildew and its spores in your compost, as they can overwinter and spread to your plants next season. 

Should I Repot My Plants?

As you move your tropical plants outside for the summer, you may find yourself wondering if it’s time to repot a few of them.

There are several reasons to repot your plants. Sometimes, you just want to switch up your decor and put it in a new pot, and sometimes you may be concerned that the plant has outgrown its pot and has become root-bound. You may even have a plant that still fits in its pot, but has pulled all of the nutrients from the soil. In that case, you’ll want to “repot” by switching out the old soil for fresh potting soil. 

Generally speaking, you should repot indoor plants every 12 –18 months. Repotting is a good time to check on the health of your plant’s roots. Part of plant care is ensuring that your plants have a healthy root system and the only way to check on that is to repot your plant. 

When you’ve removed your plant from its pot, check the color of the roots. Look for any root rot (black, shriveled roots) and cut those pieces out. Gently shake the dirt off of the root ball and remove all of the old potting mix. Tease apart existing roots so that they can spread out in the new pot. If you have root-bound plants (a solid ball of root with little or no soil left) be careful when shaking out the root ball and spend extra time teasing the roots apart. A root-bound pot generally needs a larger pot; however, there are a few plants that like to be root bound. 

Peace Lily, Spider Plant, African Violets, Aloe, Umbrella Tree, Ficus, Agapanthus, Asparagus Fern, Spider Lily, Christmas Cactus, Jade Plant, Snake Plant, and Boston Fern all prefer to be root bound, so don’t repot them too often. 

When choosing a new pot make sure to look for a drainage hole. Ideally, when you water your plant you’ll do so thoroughly until the water runs through the bottom of the pot to keep salts and other minerals from building up in the soil. If your pot doesn’t have a drainage hole you may need to repot your plant more often. Remember that if you have a plastic pot or a sealed ceramic pot you’ll water your plant less often than if it’s in a terra cotta pot. 

After choosing your pot, make sure you have the right type of potting mix for your plant. If you have a cactus or succulent you’ll want a different type of soil than if you have a tropical foliage plant. Put a little bit of potting mix in the pot before carefully placing your plant in and filling in around it with new potting mix. Don’t compress the soil too much when repotting and water thoroughly. 

The whole process shouldn’t take you too long, and you’ll have happier plants when you’re done! So grab a plant, a new pot, and some potting soil and get re-potting! 

Brood X Cicadas Are Here, or Are They?

This May, all across the Eastern United States, a very special event will occur. Brood X periodical cicadas—a 17-year species of cicadas—will emerge. These insects have now spent 17 years underground feeding on tree roots and waiting for the soil to warm to just the right temperature. Historically, the emergence of these insects has been in decline, so this year will be an important marker to determine the health of the brood overall. 

Cicadas are harmless insects and provide food for all sorts of animals, but birds in particular. Their habit of emerging in force of numbers seems to have evolved as an evolutionary survival strategy.

Brook cicadas have one of the longest insect lifespans. The 13 or 17 years life cycle of these red-eyed insects is typically marked by their emergence from the soil. The cicada nymphs will head for tree branches to molt one final time, emerging as adults. This is when they begin singing their (extremely loud) songs. The song—which sounds like a very loud buzzing or screaming sound—can be heard until the very last of the adults has died and fallen to the forest floor. These songs bring the cicadas together to breed. The cicada life cycle has three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Once the adults have joined to breed, the female cicadas will cut holes into tree branches and lay eggs inside. The eggs will remain there for six-to-ten weeks depending on the species of cicadas. Then tiny nymphs, about the size of a grain of rice, emerge and work their way down to the ground where they burrow for the next 13 or 17 years. 

Not all cicadas have such a long life cycle. 13-year cicadas and 17-year cicadas are called “periodic cicadas” or “brood cicadas” and have a long lifecycle while annual cicadas, as their name implies, only live for one year. 

There are 15 different broods of cicadas, which means that nearly every year some of these cicadas will hatch out and sing their summery song. While no one knows for sure when the annual cicada emergence will happen, the American Museum of Natural History lists May 13th as a likely start date for cicada season. So keep your eyes and ears open and if we’re all lucky, we’ll have a strong cicada season this year! If you see cicadas and want to help out scientists studying them, you can report periodical cicadas using the Cicada Safari App, available on the Google Play Store or the Apple Store.