Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Top-Notch Trees: Maples

Sugar Maple.
Trees add dimension to a scene with their strong vertical forms and provide ornamental character with their seasonal details. They are a useful design tool, anchoring a planting scheme. More importantly, they serve as liaisons or connector points between more large-scale items like buildings or bigger, more mature trees and shrubs or lower-growing perennials.

Because trees are not all that easy to move once established, and because they come with a moderately expensive price tag, placing them in the landscape should not be taken lightly. Do your homework and find a specimen that is suited to your conditions and exhibits characteristics that will enhance your garden. The following tried-and true Maple options are small in stature as far as trees go, but big on impact, making them great choices for restricted spaces.

Acer species and cultivars, zones 3 to 9
Spring to fall (foliage), winter (bark, stems)

Full sun to part shade; moist, well-drained, average soil

The Famous Japanese Maple.
No doubt, Acer is one of the most recognized tree genera in the northern hemisphere. It is often the first tree leaf we learn and collect in grade school. Know for their magnificent foliage, especially in fall, maples are a fairly diverse group, ranging in size, form, and leaf characteristics. While the large shade-tree varieties like red maple (A. rubrunm, and cultivars, zones 3 to 9) provide impact in expansive landscape settings, they are a little big for mixed beds and foundation plantings. Luckily, lots of smaller options offer extended seasonal interest.

Paperbark maple (A. griseum and cultivars, zones 4 to 8) and three-flower maple (A. triflorum, zones 4 to 7) lead charge for small plants with attractive exfoliating bark and striking red fall color. Both grow 20 -30 feet tall and usually about half as wide with an upright, roundish habit, sporting the typical trifoliate maple leaves. They make excellent specimen trees in mixed plantings, as does trident maple (A. buergerianum and cultivars, zones 5 to 9), which reaches about the same size with multiple stems and features gold and red fall color. Amur maple (A. tactaricum and cultivars, zones 3 to 7) is another mutlistemmed option that rarely exceeds 20 feet (and is one of my favorites!).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rubbing Elbows with Nature

Butterfly on Lavender Colored Butterfly Bush.
People are not the only ones who appreciate mixed borders... they are a hit with wildlife too. We sometimes take animals and insects for granted, but when they are absent, we sure take notice! By taking on the "If you build it, they will come" motto, and begin to diversify your garden, you will quickly notice more birds, butterflies and toads to be found in your space.

One gardener, for example, shared that when she changed her garden from being mainly evergreens to a mix of greens, annuals and perennials, she noticed big differences. Within the first year, twelve different butterfly species became regular visitors. Today, everything from dragonflies to frogs, turkeys, and foxes can be found taking respite in her garden.

Without wildlife and all living creatures, we would be in big trouble. Everybody, even the tiniest soil microbe, has a role in the earth's ecological system and ultimately impacts the health of the air and water. Everyone is dependent on one another for sustenance and to keep the "ecological engine" moving. If a few members of the team are taken out of the game, it can have a negative impact on the entire team. With natural habitat disappearing at an alarming rate, wildlife is running out of places to go. It is more important than ever for us to do what we can provide wildlife with alternative places to live, such as mixed borders and landscapes. This enriches not only our environmental and physical health but also our minds and well-being, allowing people, young and old, to learn about and connect with nature's wonders. The live show is still far more meaningful than the shows found on tv or youtube.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Establishing Climbers and Vines

Clematis Climbing a Wood Fence.
Although vines fill a small garden niche in the nonstop, ever-growing garden, they are fun and handy plants to have around. Winding through garden structures like trellises, tuteurs, or fences, climbers are the perfect choice for softening and accenting the hard edges of fixed materials.

Flowers are a highly coveted feature for vines, as they are for most garden plants. Climbers bloom anywhere from late spring to early autumn and in a wide range of colors. Most are fairly vigorous growers, so they are not for the faint of heart. Give them their preferred conditions, adequate support, and some guidance, however, and they will enliven the otherwise drab nooks and crannies that most plants cannot reach.

Provide Good Placement

Once you have chosen a structure, you need to be sure that your vine starts off with a good orientation to it. Plant the vine 12 to 18 inches from the base of the structure. Tender climbers can be on the closer side, while hardy vines should be farther away to allow space for their robust woody stems and bases to mature.

Encourage a Sturdy Framework

Plan to establish a strong framework of three to five main stems, depending on the size and shape of the structure. The framework can be arranged to cover the support vertically, horizontally, and every direction in between... whichever way works best for your situation. Some vines, like clematis, will find their way up a structure on their own, using tendrils or other self-fastening plant parts-- you will only need to aim them in the right direction! Others, like roses, require more help and need to be periodically trained and tied to their structure.

Feed Plants Regularly

Most vines appreciate an annual feeding of compost and dose of fertilizer. They like fairly consistent moisture and should be given regular supplemental water during periods of heat and drought. Putting down a 2- inch layer of mulch at the plant's base will help to maintain moisture. Any pruning that needs to be done should take place according to when the vine flowers. In general, vines that flower once, and early, bloom on old wood and should be cut back just after flowering. Those that flower late, or throughout the season, bloom on new growth and can be pruned in late winter or early spring.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Little Houskeeping Goes a Long Way

Deadheading a Hydrangea Shrub with Pruners.
Everyone, including plants, needs a little spiffing up from time to time. In addition to basic light, water, and nutrition, a few snips of the pruners is all it takes to keep annuals and tropicals attractive and productive. Removing spent flowers, severely blemished leaves, and damaged shoots will instantly give plants a healthier appearance. Because it is a plant's mission in life to set seed and reproduce, deadheading most plants will also encourage mor blooms. With true annuals, deadheading is imperative. If you let the set seed, they are done for. The good news: many of the plants we call annuals are not true annuals. They are tropicals that can not survice cold winters, and they keep right on trucking for the summer whether you remove the spent flowers or not.

Although it is not necessary, pinching plants with branching habits like coleus, lantana, castor bean or tomatoes will encourage bushier, fuller growth. When you remove a tip of a stem it triggers side shoots to start sprouting. This technique will reduce the plant's overall size, keeping it more compact, but with the payoff of a lush appearance. Many times pinching can be handy when you are trying to keep enthusiastic growers from overpowering a planting and its bedfellows. Once you get the hang of it, you will be amazed at how easy it is to manipulate a plant's growth and keep it in scale with smaller or slower-growing neighbors. All it takers is a simple snip of the stem.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Edibles, Offering More than Food

Chives in Bloom.
Ornamental vegetables and herbs are the ultimate multifunctional plants, offering food and beauty. Even though many of these gems have been historically grown in crop rows or individual plots, they are right at home in the mixed border, rubbing elbows with your favorite annuals, perennials, bulbs, trees and shrubs.

While some ornamental edibles are perennial, many are not hardy and are grown as annuals. The key to success is to pair them with other plants that have similar light, water, and soil requirements. Many of these veggies and herbs also make great container plants. Placing them right up on your deck or patio, where they are easy to harvest.

Caution: Brushing up against these plants or handling their leaves might make your stomach grumble. Many aromatic edibles are the herbs we enjoy in our favorite dishes. They are useful beyond taste, however, providing striking foliage and flowers. Species with gray-green or purple tinted foliage are especially useful when creating captivating combinations. These tones provide a pleasing backdrop for more colorful plants and can be used as a common thread to visually sew plantings together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Annuals and Tropicals, Worth Their Weight in Gold

Although they only last one season, annuals and tropicals are worth their weight in gold in the garden. They rarely take a breather from the time you set them out until the first hard autumn frost zaps them. Their fabulous foliage and abundant blooms seamlessly thread plantings together with rich colors and textures. Because most annuals and tropicals are fast growers and flowering machines, they need good, fertile soil (or regular feedings) and occasional pinching and deadheading--a small prices to pay for such big rewards.

Once you get the hang of it, choosing the right tender gems for your garden is easy. Begin by selecting flower and leaf colors that echo those already present in your woody plants and perennials. As you become more comfortable and adventurous, experiment with bold, contrasting color combinations. Likewise, pick plants that will provide a mix of distinct coarse, medium , and fine textures.

As with the term perennial, the word annual defines a plant's life cycle. True annuals sprout, grow, form flowers, produce seed, and die all in one year. Over time, plants that are not cold hardy to an area (and must be planted every year to be enjoyed) have been lumped into this category-even though they are truly perennial in their native habitat. As a result, exotic plants that just do not like the cold are sometimes called tropicals and tender perennials as well as annuals. If it dies in the winter in your area, go ahead and call it an annual.

Large tropicals are the ultimate botanical eye candy. Their exaggerated features get lots of head turns, making them the perfect seasonal specimen plants. Most of the big guns want full sun, regular moisture, and of course plenty of nutrients. If you are planting these beauties directly in the ground, start them out in good loam that has been fortified with compost and perhaps a slow-release fertilizer. If you are growing them in containers, start them with a granular slow-release fertilizer and give them a light feeding of diluted water-soluble fertilizer every few weeks during the growing season. Most soil-less container mixes contain very few nutrients. Growing these plants in containers is often the preferred method. In pots, they can be easily moved around, slipped into borders and brought inside to overwinter.    

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Battling Bugs

Lady Bug: A Gardener's Best Friend
Unless we count those made-of-plastic, no plants live insect free. Creepy-crawly bugs are an important part of gardening. They are key members of our gardening crew: building soil; pollinating flowers and wiping out bad guys. If you see one you do not like, don't be like my children and run away screaming or attempt to squash it. Figure out which insect you have and its role in the garden (and beyond) before you go hosing everything down with pesticide. Even if it is causing damage, you could be annihilating the larvae or a precious butterfly or predatory benefices like praying mantis and lady bugs. Also weigh whether the damage the insect is doing really warrants action. Is it life threatening to the plant's health or just making the plant look bad for awhile? Is it worth the risk of exposing toxins to you, your family, your pets or beneficial insects? Learning to tolerate some damage is good for the health of your garden and the environment. If you are not sure what you have, your local Cooperative Extension office can help you figure it out.

If you do decide to take action, consider using more environmentally friendly methods instead of reaching for toxic chemicals like those containing carbaryl (brand name: Sevin). With each passing year, more and more earth-friendly options are available at garden centers, and entire online stores are devoted to low-impact pest management. You can purchase and release predatory beneficial insects, too! Many biologically based products are available, which are less hazardous to humans and wildlife. Neem oil, for example, is derived from neem tree seed. The active ingredients azadirachtin and clarified hydrophobic extract effectively control a number of insect pests and help with the management of some fungal diseases, respectively. Likewise, insecticidal soap puts fatty acid salts into action to control insects like aphids and mealy bugs. Before using any pest control product, always read the label to make sure your target is appropriate and that you understand how to safely apply it.

Of course, taking steps to prevent damaging insect infestations is always the most earth-friendly tactic. Plants are most susceptible when under stress. Be sure they are receiving optimum light, water, and nutrients as well as adequate drainage. Choosing pest-resistant varieties minimizes occurrences. You can also experiments with companion planting. Some research has found that aromatic plants like chives, basil, lemon thyme and nasturtium repel insects. Similarly, strategically placing a mix of flowering and native plants will attract beneficial insects and give them a reason to stick around after they have reduced the number of bad guys.