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How to recycle your discarded fresh-cut Christmas tree

Coat a pinecone with peanut butter, then roll it in bird seed or nuts and hang in your discarded Christmas tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Coat a pinecone with peanut butter, then roll it in bird seed or nuts and hang in your discarded Christmas tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

 

This column originally appeared Dec. 26, 2016.

In the next few days, you’ll be hauling out your fresh-cut Christmas tree, and may wonder what to do next.

Between Monday Dec. 26 and Jan. 31, you can take your un-decorated, de-tinseled tree, free of fake snow and plastic bag, to one of nine Indy Parks. From there, it goes to GreenCycle for making mulch or other recycled, sustainable product. You can find a listing of where your can recycle or dispose of trees in other communities throughout Indiana at Pick Your Own Christmas Tree.

You can cut the tree and branches into 3-4 foot long bundles and leave for heavy trash pickup, if allowed by your municipality. Or, cut the tree and season the wood to burn in the fireplace.

Use the tree for soil erosion around lakes and ponds, or if privately owned, dump it into the water to create a fish habitat.

Move the tree to the backyard to make a seasonal feeder and shelter for birds. Decorate it with pine cones rolled in peanut butter, nuts or birdseed. Hang fresh fruit, such as oranges or apple, or strings of popcorn or dried fruit in the tree. Brace it against another tree, fence or post.

Also in the backyard, the tree can be used as a wind break for flowerbeds or tender shrubs. Cut the boughs and place them around small shrubs, perennials or other plants, especially those spending the winter in pots.

 

Winter safety for people, pets, plants

With the recent snow and icy weather, remember to use caution when applying de-icers on sidewalks, driveways, porch steps or other pavement adjacent to lawn or beds that have been planted with flowers, trees and shrubs.

Clearing the pavement of snow frequently eliminates or reduces the need for de-icers. Products containing sodium chloride, or salt, can be harmful to plants. I opt for de-icers labeled for use around plants and pets. Always apply according to label directions.

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Ice melts and other potential hazards in the landscape

One of the easiest ways to reduce the need for deicers and ice melts is to keep sidewalks and driveways clear of snow. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

As we head into winter, there are a few landscape safety tips to keep in mind.

Start with using caution with deicers or ice melts. Many of these products are salt-based, which is damaging to lawns, shrubs, perennials and trees.

Consider where you’ll be using the ice melt. Is it in an area where there’s little runoff from hard surfaces to landscaped beds? Also don’t over apply either product. Smaller amounts of ice melt generally do as good of a job as a heavy application. It just might take a bit longer.

Water from snow or ice melted with deicers can kill grass. Use caution when shoveling snow that has been treated with ice melts onto the lawn or landscape plants. (C) Photo Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Be careful where you shovel snow that has been treated with ice melt. Throwing it onto landscaped beds runs the risk of exposing plants to the chemicals. These products can burn lawns, foliage, stems, branches and roots as well as contaminate the soil. Salt-based products also can be harmful to the paws of dogs.

There are deicers with different formulations labeled safe for pets and plants. These are usually a little more expensive than the salt-based products. Non-clumping, clay kitty litter also works well, as much to provide traction as to help melt ice. Keeping sidewalks and driveway free of snow goes a long way to reduce or eliminate ice build up.

Try to avoid walking on frosted or frozen grass. Foot traffic breaks grass blades and compacts the soil. There’s not much we can do about dog paws on the lawn. In spring, consider over seeding in those trekked on places.

Protect plants that are likely to get sprayed with slush from treated roads. A snow fence or burlap screen work well for this.

We don’t usually get the snow load that our neighbors in nearby states get. But if we do, pay attention to bending or bowed branches, especially evergreens like arborvitae. If you feel you must remove snow from an evergreen, use your hand and arm in an upward sweeping motion. A broom works well, too, but use it gently. Do not try to remove ice coatings from plants.

Branches weighed down by snow for several days may be damaged. Snow load on deciduous shrubs and trees may cause limbs and branches to break. It may be necessary to work with a certified arborist. If the limb tears bark from the tree, the injury could be fatal. Branches weakened by insects or disease are especially vulnerable in all kinds of storms. This is one reason it’s a good practice to have your trees inspected periodically by a certified arborist (treesaregood.org).

To the readers: Merry Christmas. Thank you for reading the column, sending questions and comments. Please keep it up. All the best for 2018.

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Birds flock to feeders year ’round

Red-bellied woodpecker at suet feeder. (C) Photo happy2be/Pixabay

I love feeding and watching the birds. It’s one of my year-round joys.

I’m not alone. Nearly half of all U.S. households, 52.5 million, buy wild bird seed, according to a 2015 report from the research foundation of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry, a trade association. That’s up from 34.3 percent in 2013, which is quite a jump.

Other sources estimate we spend about $3 billion a year on bird seed, feeders and accessories.

My interest in birds grew out of gardening. I feed and watch birds year-round. I have 11 feeders – two for finches, two for sunflower seeds, one for safflower seeds, one for peanuts in shells, one for shelled peanuts, two for suet and one platform feeder with mixed seeds. In summer, I have five bird baths. In winter, there are two, which are heated.

When starting out feeding the birds, a lot of us buy seed that is mixed. With experience, though, we learn that isn’t the best choice. Feeders with single seeds, such as one for sunflower and one for Niger thistle, reduce waste. I do use a mix for finches because they have not been eating the straight Niger thistle.

My feeders are in places where I can see them from windows in the living room, kitchen, home office and a bedroom. Two hang in a flowering dogwood in the front yard and the rest are in trees or on poles in the back.

Jim Carpenter, founder of Wild Birds Unlimited, celebrates the Joy of Birdfeeding. Photo courtesy wbu.com

This winter, my yard has been full of white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, the latter among my favorites. I credit new feeders for shelled peanuts and suet for these visits.

Once you start feeding the birds, you’ll notice more and more of them. You’ll recognize their calls or tweets. Nuthatches sound like a squeak toy, for instance, and chickadees have a plaintive call. Red-bellied woodpeckers sound like they are scolding, robins sound alarms if you walk too close to a fledgling, and lots of birds sound alarms when hawks are on the wing.

“I feed the birds because it brings me joy,” wrote Jim Carpenter, founder of the Indianapolis-based  Wild Birds Unlimited, in his book, The Joy of Bird Feeding (2017, Scott & Nix, Inc., publisher, paperback, $28). “Watching birds at your feeders fills the spaces in your day. Every time you glance out the window, you are blessed with a little bit of nature.”

Give it a try. Wonderful discoveries await you.

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Raccoons dig grubs

A high population of Japanese beetles resulted in lots of white grubs in lawns and gardens, soon followed by hungry raccoons. Photo courtesy Karen J. Kennedy

Three readers sent me photos of their lawns with gouged soil and I observed this condition in several landscapes when on my walks this fall. Blame raccoons. They dig up the turf looking for grubs.

“If you can imagine groups of raccoons foraging for patches of grubs hidden in clumps under the turf, you can understand why they tear up turf when they find their prey. It’s kind if like a cat and mouse game,” said Cliff Sadof, an entomology professor and extension educator at Purdue University.

Raccoons searched for grubs in an irrigated lawn with a lawn service on Indianapolis’ northwest side. Submitted photo

This past summer was really good for Japanese beetles, whose numbers were higher than they had been for several years, he said.

Japanese beetles lay their eggs in lawns and sometimes in garden beds in mid summer. The eggs hatch and by August and September, grubs are wriggling through the soil, munching on roots. Areas that are irrigated regularly are ideal for this task because the soil is soft and easier to wriggle through.

“The raccoons just took advantage of the situation,” Sadof said. “I would recommend inspecting the turf in early to mid August for grubs in the same area that was torn up this year.” Besides a lawn dug up by raccoons, another symptom of a grub infestation is grass that is brown and easily pulled from the ground.

White grubs look a lot alike. From left to right: Japanese beetle, European chafer and June bug. (C) David Cappaert/Bugwood.org

Next August, lift a 12-inch square of turf in areas where you suspect a grub infestation. If you count 10 grubs or more, Sadof recommends treatment. Another way to evaluation is to pull up a plug of grass that you cut with a one-pound coffee can. If there is more than one grub in each plug, treatment may be warranted.

Purdue does not recommend preventative grub treatment, but rather treatment only if grubs are present and only to the infested area. One biological control is beneficial nematodes, which sort of look like skinny worms. These products are approved for use organic gardeners and farmers. Arbico-Organics.com, PlanetNatural.com and GardensAlive.com are three sources. Treatment is done in August and September when the grubs are moving through the soil.

Another biologic, milky spore disease (Bacillus popilliae), was considered a good option for controlling Japanese beetle grubs, but recent research has cast doubt on that. It only is effective on Japanese beetle grubs. And, a lot of grubs look alike, so if your problem is a masked chafer, another root-munching white grub, using milky spore disease is a waste of money.

For more information, download Purdue’s pamphlet Managing White Grubs in Turfgrass.

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No space or time? Natural alternatives for holiday cheer

Red-blooming kalanchoe and green and white polka dot plant in red planters will look good on a table or as a spot-color holiday decoration . (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

Sometimes, there’s no space for a Christmas tree, or no time to put one up and take one down. Or, maybe you’ll be away during the holidays and you just don’t want the bother.

What alternatives do you have to get some of those festive, traditional red and green colors in the home?

Plant marketers offer the perfect solutions: Natural holiday cheer that nearly eliminates any care requirements. Think plants for short-term decoration, just like a fresh-cut Christmas tree would be. When these plants start to look past their prime, toss them. I absolve you of any notion you have to try and keep them alive. Look for these living decorations in area garden centers and other retailers.

Frosty Fern decked out with red birds. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

A personal favorite is Frosty Fern (Selaginella kraussiana), which hails from the Azores and Africa, so let’s just say it’s not all that frost tolerant. The tips of its green leaves have a natural frosty look, which gives it its holiday name.

Although marketed as Frosty Fern, it’s commonly referred to as a moss, which better describes its look and texture. Sometimes this houseplant is sold with a red bird nested at the top. Place in indirect light and try to keep the soil slightly moist.

Tack some tiny holiday-theme ribbons or balls ‘Goldcrest’ lemon cypress gives you a contemporary holiday tree. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

‘Goldcrest’ lemon cypress (Cypressus macrocarpa) is the perfect chartreuse, conical shape to serve as a contemporary homage to a traditional green tree. This dwarf evergreen with a slight lemony fragrance is not winter hardy here, but should serve its purpose through the holidays. Give it direct light and water when the top inch of soil feels dry. Don’t over water.

For a lot of whimsy and fun, look for a small specimen of Lawson false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Ellwoodii’) fashioned into a Grinch hat, complete with a red ball ornament. Unlike these other plants, this evergreen is hardy to USDA Zone 5, so it should survive anywhere in the state. I make no promises that it will make the transition from holiday decoration to landscape shrub. You also may find dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) potted up in tabletop arrangements. This plant also is winter hardy throughout Indiana, but the same cautions apply.

Red-blooming kalanchoe in sparkly holiday-themed planters. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

For a tasteful and easy decoration, pick up a few ornament-like planters or cute pots stuffed with red-blooming kalanchoe, a succulent that just about takes care of itself. Kalanchoe also may be planted with green and white polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya), ferns or other companion plants.

Even Grinch will love these options.

 

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Garden- and nature-related gift ideas for everyone on your list

 

Gift-giving season is with us and here are some ideas for some of those on your list.

What gardener doesn’t like comfort?

You can’t beat Duluth Trading Co.’s Heirloom Gardening Pants. The pants are designed for the role, but also would be perfect for hiking, camping or just running errands.

They are made with 4.8 ounce DuluthFlex ripstop fabric, which resists stains and abrasions, and repels water, but is not waterproof. Talk about fit, comfort and function. There are pockets for everything: snips, tree saws, pencil, paper, seed packets. You name it, there’s a pocket for it. The pants have pouches for Duluth-brand knee pads, too.

The middle of the back has what Duluth calls Curvesetter Waistband, which is just a bit higher than the rest of the band, designed to keep us covered when bending over. They come in steel blue or deep olive, 29- or 31-inch length, and sell for $74.50. I love mine. Find them at Duluth Trading Co. in Noblesville, or online.

First-timers in their own abode

Of course, they will want to try a houseplant or two, but are unsure which plants to select or how to take care of them. We’ve all been there. Help them succeed.

Michigan garden writer Lisa Eldred Steinkopf provides the answers in her book, Houseplants: The Complete Guide. Known as The Houseplant Guru, Steinkopf covers everything houseplant, from planting to problem solving, in the 275-page hardcover book.

This would be a terrific book for anyone interested in houseplants. Besides being informative, it has beautiful photographs shot by Steinkopf’s daughter Chelsea. Published this fall by Cool Springs Press, the book is $30 and is available at bookstores and Amazon.

Missing from the tool box?

Just when you thought weeding tools couldn’t get any better comes CobraHead Mini Weeder and Cultivator. This is the little sister to 13-inch long CobraHead ($24.95), the original tool from the Wisconsin manufacturer.

The Mini, at 8 ¾ inches and outfitted with CobraHead’s extremely sharp Steel Fingernail, is perfect for removing weeds from cracks and crevices, such as between sidewalks, stepping stones and other tight spaces. The Mini is $21.95 at Cobrahead and Amazon.

Another fine tool is Sneeboer’s Precision Weeder. It looks like a small harpoon and works well under shrubs or around perennials without destroying roots. Made by the Dutch company Sneeboer Manufacturing, the weeder is $48 at White Flower Farm.

These are just a sampler of gifts for gardeners and others, but ones that will be appreciated.

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Trial tomatoes provide tasty treats from the garden

‘Gladiator’ tomato is a large, meaty, Roma-type that was very prolific. Photo courtesy burpee.com

I only grew trial tomato plants this year and the results were fantastic. This was probably one of the best tomato years I’ve had.

By far, the top performer was Gladiator, a large, meaty, paste tomato that makes a lot of other Roma types look wimpy. This oval fruit, which weighs about 8 ounces and easily fills the hand, is delicious in soups, salsas, sauces or sliced onto homemade pizza.

The prolific Gladiator started producing in midsummer and kept on into October. I had so many that I had to give them away. I’d already frozen all that my freezer would hold. Look for Gladiator seedlings next spring at garden centers and through Burpee, which also has seeds.

In late June, Red Racer tomatoes were sent to trial along with the promise that I’d have tomatoes by Labor Day. Indeed there were, juicy red fruits right on time. Red Racer has been named a 2018 All-America Selections winner, so seeds and plants should be available next spring. Seeds can be found at High Mowing Seeds.

‘Red Racer’ was late to arrive for its trial in the garden this summer, but it produced quite well. Photo courtesy All-AmericaSelections.org

Called a cocktail tomato, Red Racer’s fruit measures about 1½ inch diameter and weighs 2-ounces, making it larger than a grape or cherry tomato. Stuff it with cheese or other filling for cocktail treats.

With an average of 68 tomatoes per plant, Red Racer is a prolific producer, and at only 3 feet tall, does not require staking, making it a good candidate for growing in a pot on the patio, balcony or deck. Or, use as an edible-ornamental in a flowerbed. It had a low acid, sweet flavor.

Little Bing cherry tomato produced all aummer. Photo courtesy burpee.com

In the cherry tomato category, Little Bing was the earliest to give me a tomato, and it continued producing all summer. It was sweet and a nice size for snacking with ½ to 1-ounce size fruits. At only 2 feet tall, Little Bing also is perfect for a pot. Seeds are available at Totally Tomatoes.

Don’t be afraid to try new things in the garden, even tomatoes. You might just find some new tasty treats.

 

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Indy’s All-America Selections Display Garden wins 1st place

The Purdue Extension Marion County All-America Selections Display Garden won first place in its category in 2017. Photo courtesy Steve Mayer

Since 2013, Marion County Master Gardeners and other volunteers have designed, planted, tended and harvested the All-America Selections Display Garden on the grounds of the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Last year alone, they contributed nearly 2,000 hours working in the garden or interacting with visitors.

Their hard work has paid off. The garden garnered AAS’ first place award in the Foodscaping Landscape Design Challenge in the 10,000 to 100,000 visitors per year category for 2017.

Dozens of All-America Selections award-winning flowers, vegetables and herbs are grown in the garden. The garden also demonstrates various techniques, such as tomato supports, vertical gardening methods, cover crops, types of raised beds and ways to keep insects off of plants. It’s the perfect place to see and appreciate beauty and learn about plants and practices we can use in our gardens.

This year’s garden featured 110 AAS winners, about 30 more than previous years, primarily because there were more early, cool-season plants. Photo courtesy Steve Mayer

This year’s theme illustrated the foodscaping trend of mixing ornamental and edible plants in garden beds. Master Gardeners volunteered 1,058 hours in the garden in 2016. This year’s hours are still being counted.

The 2017 design featured edibles used in landscape beds and flowers with vegetables in raised beds, said Steve Mayer, Purdue Extension-Marion County horticulture educator and coordinator of the AAS Display Garden.

Among the judges’ comments: “Fantastic job for a new garden entry. Flower and veg integration were great. Good use of incorporating edibles into a landscape. Real life application for the end user.”

Among the ornamental-edible plants featured were Candle Fire okra and Hot Sunset pepper. Three pumpkin vines did double-duty as a ground cover under a newly planted tree. All the plants are labeled. One tip: Whenever you visit a garden, take a photo of the plant and its label with the camera on your phone for future reference.

Nearly 13,000 people visited the All-America Selections Display Garden during the Indiana State Fair. Photo courtesy Catherine Corbin

“Foodscaping is not a topic we often address,” Mayer said. “However, the All-America Selections theme this year allowed us to show people that gardens can be both beautiful and edible.”

The food grown in the AAS Display Garden doesn’t go to waste. In 2016, 604 pounds of food was donated to area food banks. This year’s donation is still being tallied, Mayer said.

The garden is on the north side of the fairgrounds, near the Department of Natural Resources building. It is open to the public during the growing season. Access to the garden is usually free, except during the fair. Tell the gatekeepers that you are visiting the Marion County Demonstration Garden and they should let you pass. During this year’s fair, 12,980 people visited the garden.

 

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Hardy cyclamen and a tough Bidens brighten the landscape

 

 

Cyclamen hederifolium. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

 

You know how forgetful we can be. Forget what we planted and when, for instance. Mother Nature pulls through for us, though.

A few weeks ago while weeding, I glimpses a patch of small pink flowers barely visible under the White Dome hydrangea.

It took me several minutes to remember the flowers were hardy cyclamen (C. hederifolium). I planted the corms a year ago for late summer and fall blooming perennials that thrive in shade. This plant is hardy to USDA Zone 5, which includes northern Indiana to Indianapolis’ northern suburbs.

The foliage of a hardy Cyclamen hederifolium is attractive in its own right. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

We’re already familiar with the florist cyclamen (C. persicum), usually found in garden centers and florists around holidays, such as Christmas and Easter. It is sold primarily as a gift plant or short-lived, but long-blooming houseplant. These houseplants have large, showy flowers, but are not winter hardy and they are a challenge to get to rebloom. Some gardeners plant these outdoors in spring and summer to edge a flower bed or they tuck them into containers.

Another cyclamen (C. coum) also is considered winter hardy to USDA Zone 6, which includes central and southern Indiana. This one blooms early to midwinter.

Look for hardy cyclamen in bulb catalogs.

Tough-as-nail annual

Bidens used to be a don’t-bother-to-plant annual, because it was such a weak grower, spindly and just unhappy.

In the last few years, plant breeders have bolstered bidens, improving the flower power and overall toughness.

The annual ‘Blazing Glory’ bidens has blazed right through summer in a touch spot without fail. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The best example this year is ‘Blazing Glory’ bidens, which has bloomed orange-yellow flowers all summer with only periodic attention from the hose. It sits in a newly planted area, a gravel garden of sorts, designed by Wendy Ford of Landscape Fancies for low-water plants and soil retention.

‘Blazing Glory’ has been holding its own at the tough corner of this bed where it meets the asphalt driveway in blazing hot sun. The trash can has been thrown at it at least twice this summer. ‘Blazing Glory’ has been a trouper and I look forward to growing it again next summer. Other fine varieties to consider: ‘Campfire Fireburst’ and Beedance series.

Give bidens a chance. Experiment with different varieties and I’m sure you’ll find one suited for your landscape or pot.

Osage orange fruits can be fun…and hazardous

Osage orange fruits demand creativity. (C) Azazello/Fotolia.com

Poison isn’t the only way plants can kill you.

Take the legendary osage orange, aka hedge apple (Maclura pomifera). Orange, apple and pomifera make it sound all fruity doesn’t it? But the 5-inch diameter chartreuse fruit easily weighs a pound, and you don’t want to get beaned by one. Or you don’t want one to fall on your car. Or run over one with your bike.

Used by Native Americans, osage orange’s native range is Oklahoma and Texas, but the species has spread throughout much of the Midwest and New England due to cultivation. The wood of this 50-foot tall tree is prized by archers for arrows – one of its common names is bow wood. Rot resistant, it was used to make wheel rims and mining supports. Like hollies, a male and female plant is needed for fruit production. The fruits are dropping from trees now.

Osage orange “was early introduced into Indiana for use as a fence in the prairie areas,” the state’s first forester Charles C. Deam wrote in 1909 in Trees of Indiana. He found the tree scattered throughout the state, but primarily in southern and central Indiana. The name hedge apple comes from its use as a hedge, in part to define property lines. Inch-long spines along the branches reduced human and animal interference.

Folklore ascribes spider-fighting powers to these chartreuse fruits, prompting some people to put them in their garage or attic to ward off eight- and six-legged critters. The seeds are the only parts edible for humans, but they are mess to get to, fingers in slime and all that. Squirrels, deer, cattle and horses are fond of the fruits.

Although we think of osage orange trees as rural or roadside species, they do show up in urban areas. For instance, there’s one along the edge of a parking lot at the Chase Legacy Building on Indianapolis’ east side, near Tech High School. Remember that part about not wanting an osage orange to hit the car? Of course, I moved mine.

You can sometimes find osage orange fruits at farmers markets or roadside stands. There are a few online sources that sell the tree: coldstreamfarm.net in Michigan and naturehillsnursery.com in Nebraska. The latter says the tree is out of stock.

Or, you might be able to gather one in the wild and plant it to see what happens.

 

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