Chickadees and other birds enjoy the holiday spirit. Photo courtesy Wild Birds Unlimited
On Facebook the last few days, local birders have been crowing about spotting two female harlequin ducks, described as “a rare inland record for Indiana.” They were observed on a pond in a heavily developed retail and residential area of the city.
Most of us don’t trek to lakes or ponds to view birds. Rather, we’re content to watch them from the comforts of our cozy indoors or on the occasional walk outdoors.
Christmas Bird Count
Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 marks the 115th Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society. Following a strict methodology, groups of amateur and expert birders gather at Eagle Creek Park, Goose Pond and other defined areas to identify and count birds.
This citizen science project provides ornithologists and other scientists with detailed information about which birds are where. Consider it a snapshot of what’s going on in nature.
Great Backyard Bird Count
I haven’t been involved in this project, but the last two years, I have participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This citizen science project, Feb. 13-16, 2015, is a partnership of Audubon, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is easy because you can do it standing at your kitchen window. If you are more ambitious, the project presents a great opportunity to teach children about their environment. If you have a bird feeder, pick a time of day and identify and count the number of birds at the feeder during a 15-minute period.
This count is done all over the world. In 2014, U.S. participants filed at least 36,000 checklists and identified 591 species of birds.
Water key to attracting birds
One of the ways to attract birds to your yard is to supply a source of water. A couple of years ago, my son gave me a birdbath heater, which works great at keeping the water from freezing.
Bird seed, suet, mealy worms and peanuts feed the winter birds as do the seed heads of perennials we left standing and the fruits on hollies, viburnums and crabapples.
Rain chains from rainchainsdirect.com are solid copper. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
It’s high season for gift giving and here are some suggestions for the gardeners on your list.
A wonderful holiday gift for gardeners or wannabes in the millennial group is The 20-30 Something Garden Guide by Dee Nash (St. Lynn’s Press, hardback, $17.95). Naturally, there’s a glossary, recommended tools and lots of encouragement to tell the millennials to just try it.
Nash details design ideas for three garden settings: balcony, deck and small yard. She deciphers seed packs and suggests what’s best sown directly in the soil and what’s best planted as a seedling. It’s pretty much everything a millennial needs to succeed. A third-generation Oklahoma gal, Nash blogs at reddirtramblings.com, which won a gold award this year from Garden Writers Association for best electronic writing.
Coffee for Roses by C.L. Fornari (St. Lynn’s Press, hardback, $17.95) busts 70 myths embraced by gardeners, such as hummingbirds only visit red flowers, marigolds keep bugs out of the vegetable garden and roses should be planted with coffee grounds. An avid researcher, Fornari (coffeeforroses.com) delves into the history of some common practices, explains why they don’t work and offers suggestions that do.
There’s something romantically alluring about David Austin roses. Breeding techniques have developed roses that retain their old world beauty and fragrance without old world disease problems. David Austin (800-328-8893) gift certificates make perfect stocking stuffers. With the certificate, the recipient can select his or her rose, which will be shipped at the appropriate planting time.
One of the best tools for an avid gardener is the transplant spade. The long, narrow blade is perfect for getting below the root ball to lift perennials and small shrubs for transplant. I’ve had my Fiskars Steel D-handle Transplanting Spade for years and it’s my go-to tool when planting or dividing perennials. It costs about $30 and can be found at garden centers or online.
At the luxury end ($80) is a copper rain chain. I’ve wanted this for years and when Rain Chains Direct (855-843-7246) invited several garden writers to try one, of course, I said yes. The beautiful 8 ½-foot long, solid copper chain can replace a downspout to slow rain coming off a roof. The chain also can be used where there is no spout, such as from a garage, to slow rain pouring from the roof.
Keep poinsettia in a cool, bright area away from hot and cold drafts. (C) serezniy/123RF
Tis the season of poinsettia, holly, mistletoe, snow and ice.
First up, poinsettia was introduced by John Poinsett, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who had seen it growing along the roadsides during his post there. He sent a few plants to his buddy, John Bartram in Philadelphia, an early American horticulturist, who cultivated them and offered them for sale.
The most popular query about poinsettia is how to keep it all year and get it to color up for next year’s holiday. Trust me when I tell you it’s not easy, but Purdue University’s The Poinsettia guides you through the process, which requires a strict schedule of light and dark for weeks.
Plant Care Indoors
For now, remember that the poinsettia is easily damaged by cold temperature. Ask the retailer to put a paper or plastic sleeve over the plant, which will protect it from the store to the car and the car to your house.
Holly berries are toxic. (C) Andersphoto/dollarphotoclub.com
Once home, place poinsettias in a cool, bright place away from cold and hot drafts, such as the front door, a heat register or the television. There’s not need to fertilizer the plant. The soil should be evenly moist, but not wet.
When the plant starts to drop its leaves and looks bad, compost it. And despite what people may think, eating poinsettia is not going to harm you unless you devour more than 500 leaves to reach a toxic level. The sap of poinsettia may cause a mild irritation to the pets’ mouths. Holly berries also are toxic. Eating 20 berries can be a killer to pets and kids.
Mistletoe is poisonous to pets and humans. (C) PicturePartners/iStockphoto.com
All parts of mistletoe is toxic to pets and humans, so be sure to contact your veterinarian, physician or poison control center if you suspect your cat, dog or child may have eaten the plant. Vomiting, diarrhea, breathing difficulty are among the symptoms. Death to pets can occur within hours of ingesting mistletoe.
Plant Care Outdoors No one likes to walk on icy pavement, so we grab a deicer to make pathways passable. Deicers are most effective once the snow has been removed. Select a product that is rated safe for plants and pets.
Select a deicer that will not harm pets or plants. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Many deicers contain various forms of salt and chemicals, which damage or kill perennials, trees, shrubs and the lawn. The salts also can burn or blister paws. And, when dogs clean their feet, they may ingest the product’s chemicals. Be sure to wipe the dog’s feet after walking on treated surfaces.
Live trees serve as living memories of holidays past. (C) iStockphoto.com
A live Christmas tree landscapes the yard with an earth friendly reminder of the holiday. But celebrating the season with a live Christmas tree takes planning and, in this case, muscle.
Living Christmas trees are grown in containers or they are dug and the root ball is wrapped in burlap, called balled-and-burlapped. The larger the container or the root ball, the heavier the tree and the more awkward to move.
- Select a tree suited for its landscape spot, such as sun or shade. Ask the grower or retailer about the mature size of the tree and make sure that it has room to grow in the landscape. Avoid handling the specimen by its trunk so that you don’t loosen the tree from the root ball.
At home, prepare the planting hole before the ground freezes. Dig a hole no deeper than the tree was growing in its container or in the ground before being dug, but at least twice as wide as the root ball. It’s best to plant a little high rather than too deep.
- Keep the soil you dug from freezing. Pile the dirt on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow and stow it in protected area, such as an unheated garage. Or, you can place leaves or straw bales on top of the soil to keep it from freezing.
- Protect the hole from freezing. Fill the hole with leaves or straw and cover it with a piece of wood or straw bale. The cover ensures someone won’t accidentally trip or fall in the hole.
- If you don’t want to dig now, keep the spot from freezing by heavily mulching the area with leaves, shredded bark or bales of straw. Remove the mulch and dig the hole when ready to plant.
- At home, gradually acclimate the tree by keeping it in an unheated garage or enclosed porch for three days before moving it indoors. Place the tree in a leak proof container. The root ball should stay moist but not wet. Keep the tree in the coolest indoor spot you’ve got and away from a heat source.
- Don’t keep the tree indoors for more than three to five days because the warm temperatures will encourage it to break dormancy. Once that happens, the tree will be susceptible to winter damage when transplanted outdoors. When moving the tree outdoors, you will need to acclimate it again as you did before.
- When planting, remove the container or the burlap and any string or metal from the root ball. Don’t amend the soil when planting the tree. Backfill with the soil dug from the hole. It’s best not to water if the ground surrounding the planting hole is frozen. If the soil is not frozen, water the newly planted tree. Do not fertilize.
- Mulch the planted area with a couple of inches of shredded bark, wood chips, compost or leaves. To keep the tree from drying out indoors and at planting time, many experts recommend an application of an anti-desiccant spray, such as Wilt-Pruf. Always read and follow the label directions.
Purdue University’s Living Christmas Trees for the Holiday and Beyond
Iowa State University’s Live Christmas Trees
Tips for First-time Buyers of Real Christmas Trees
Originally published at this site Nov. 1. 2009
The holidays are upon us and beginning this weekend, many of us start the season with a fresh-cut Christmas tree. A couple of years ago, on Fox 59’s Morning News, the Hoosier Gardener offered tips for selecting and caring for our trees.
Scotch pine, white pine and fraser fir are among the most popular selections for fresh cut trees. Scotch pine has stiff branches with good needle retention. White pine has long, soft needles, but weak branches for holding heavy ornaments. Fraser fir has stiff branches and short needles that are very fragrant.
- Measure the space in your home where the tree will go. That way you’ll know what height and width to shop for.
- Ask the retailer when the trees arrived. Do they arrive all at once or are there several shipments throughout the holiday season?
- Test for freshness by bending a few green needles backwards. Gently bend a branch. If the needles fall off or the branch breaks, the tree is not fresh.
- Other signs of an older, cut tree are excessive needle loss, discolored foliage, musty odor, needle pliability, and wrinkled bark. If in doubt, go to another tree lot.
- Ask the retailer to make fresh cut at the base of the trunk. You’ll have about six hours to get the tree in water before the cut seals up. At home, sit the tree in a bucket of water until you are ready to place it in the stand.
- If that’s not possible, take off ½ to 1-inch of the trunk with a fresh cut, then place in the stand. Make the cut straight across and not at an angle. A straight cut provides the greatest surface for the tree to take up water.
- The temperature of the water is not critical and there’s not need to add amendments to the water.
- Once in the stand, check the water level frequently to make sure it is high enough to cover the base of the tree.
- Make sure the tree is not near a heat source, such as a register or vent, heater or fireplace.
- Check your tree lights to make sure no wires are frayed. Always turn off the lights when going to bed or leaving home.
Keep an eye on the tree’s freshness. If it looks and feels dry, remove it and take it to the recycling center. In Indianapolis and many other communities, there are several tree drop off sites. There, the trees are ground up for mulch for parks, along trails and other areas.
Or, move the tree outdoors and lean it against a fence or shade tree. It should hold its needles throughout winter and provide a resting space and seasonal shelter for birds.
- Cut tree — grown and harvested for the holiday season. Purchased at tree lots, garden centers or at tree farms. Recycle after the holidays.
- Balled-and-burlapped — a live tree with the root ball intact, wrapped in burlap. Transplant to the landscape after the holidays.
- Containerized — a live tree grown in plastic container. Transplant to the landscape after the holidays.
More tree tidbits:
- Thirty-five percent of us will buy a fresh cut or live tree this year. Eighty percent of those will buy pre-cut trees; 9 percent will buy live trees for replanting in the landscape after the holidays.
- Live trees are grown in containers or as balled-and-burlapped specimens. Prepare the hole for planting in fall. Plant as soon as possible after the holiday. Photo courtesy Colorado State University.
When opting for a live tree, prepare the planting hole in fall or early winter before the ground freezes. After planting, make sure to water the transplant well. The best choices are Norway and other spruces (Picea), Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and white fir (Abies concolor).For other tips, read Purdue University’s Living Christmas Trees for the Holidays and Beyond.
- In the United States, we will purchase about 28.1 million trees and spend about $1.03 billion. We will spend an average of $40 to $50 for our tree.
- The most common Christmas tree species: balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine.
Get your tree from a farm
- Christmas tree farm. Photo courtesy Washington State University.
You also can visit tree farms to hand pick your tree, which is cut on the spot and loaded on your vehicle. This is the way to make sure your tree is a fresh as possible.
Most tree farms keep their fields very well groomed, but there are some things that are beyond the farmer’s control. Be careful of tree stumps, brambles, vines, uneven ground and sharp saws.
Go to the farm prepared for a day in the country. Wear comfortable shoes and old clothes. Bring rain gear if the weather is threatening. The “cutter downers” and the “loader uppers” should also have gloves.
Saws are usually provided by the farm operator. Check ahead of time.
Some farms measure and price their trees individually, others sell them by the foot. Ask about the pricing policy before heading out in the field. Here are some more tips:
- Head out to the field and select the tree that fits your predetermined needs.
- Check the trunk to be sure that it is sufficiently straight. Keep in mind that pines will usually have, at least, some crook in their trunks.
- Check that the tree has a sufficiently long handle to accommodate your stand.
- In fall, all conifers drop or shed a certain portion of their oldest needles. This is a normal part of the life cycle of the tree. This phenomena occurs because the tree is preparing itself for winter. Most farms provide shaking, or blowing, services so that you will depart with a perfectly clean tree.
- Cutting the tree is easiest as a two person project. The “cutter downer” usually lies on the ground. While the helper holds the bottom limbs up.
- While the cut is being made, the helper should tug on the tree lightly to ensure that the saw kerf remains open and the saw does not bind. The tugging force should be applied to the side of the tree opposite the cut.
- Take the tree to the processing area where it will be cleaned and netted. Netting makes transporting and handling the tree substantially easier.
- Now you’re ready to load up and head home to decorate your real Christmas tree.
Source: National Christmas Tree Association
Resources — To learn about the different species of holiday trees and their care, please visit the National Christmas Tree Association’s Web site.
Find a tree farm near you:
These giant bulbs from Longfield Gardens yield beautiful amaryllis. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Over night, winter arrived in Indiana.
Despite my efforts and an assist from a nephew, not everything got planted before the deep freeze. Tulips, daffodils, alliums and about two dozen perennials await their fate.
What to do.
I heeled in some perennials and covered them with finely chopped leaves, appropriated from a neighbor. Other pots of perennials got moved to the unheated garage.
I left several inches of leaves in one bed where most of the 100 alliums will be planted, so I’m hoping the soil has not frozen there. I did get the 100 blue crocus planted in the lawn, so at least I don’t have to worry about that.
In a few other areas where leaves are still on the beds, I’m going to plant some of the tulips and daffodils. I can always move them after they bloom next year, but I know I probably won’t.
Some of these bulbs will also be planted in a couple of big, all-weather pots that held summer annuals. I will plant the tulips and daffodils about 6 inches deep. That way, I can arrange winter greenery in the pots without stabbing the bulbs.
If you plan a winter arrangement for your containers, move them to a garage to keep them from freezing until ready to do the job. Last year, winter came on fast, too, and I had to drag six pots home from my clients’ porches to thaw in my kitchen before I could pot them up with winter greenery.
(C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll plant up some amaryllis (Hippeastrum) from Longfield Gardens. The amaryllis will be potted in a soilless potting mix. Keep amaryllis bulbs moist, but not sopping wet. They can go a bit on the dry side. The long-blooming amaryllis flowers last even longer when cut and put in a vase.
Next, I’ll put the first of two batches of paper white Narcissus from an area garden center in a vase with an inch-deep bed of pebbles covered in water. Last year, once the paper white roots started to develop and growth emerged about 2 inches from the bulb, I replaced the water with a solution of one part alcohol, such as vodka or gin, and seven-parts water. The mix really worked to stunt the growth of paper whites, which can get too tall and fall over.
Keep the bulbs in a bright, cool place for the longest show. No need to fertilizer.
In cold zones, many gardeners force paperwhites to bloom for the holidays and early spring. Photo courtesy Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center
The blooms of these tender bulbs over the holidays and into the New Year warm the spirit on cold winter days.
Sunset Candy blanket flower. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/Plant Haven
The elections are over, so now it’s time to celebrate the winners in the plants- of-the-year categories. Here’s the run down:
The National Garden Bureau has declared 2015 the year of the blanket flower (Gaillardia), one of the longest blooming perennials in the garden. NGB is a trade and education group of seed and plant producers.
The native blanket flower gets its name from the colors found in North American Indian blankets with reds and yellows. It does best in full sun and well-drained soil. Blanket flower is a short-lived perennial, so divide it every two or three years. Remove spent flowers, called deadheading, to encourage more blooms from late spring into fall. Gaillardia can be an annual or a perennial and is easy to grow from seed. Plants can be found in garden centers. Many newer perennial cultivars are propagated by tissue culture.
Alligator Tears coleus holds off blooms until very late in the season. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
The NGB also declares 2015 as the year of coleus in the annual category. Indeed, coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) is one of the most versatile plants in the garden. It’s great for containers or in the ground, in sun or shade and everything in-between. Prized for its spectacular foliage color and patterns, many gardeners also appreciate the tall spikes of blue flowers from this plant, while others cut them off. Newer cultivars, such as ColorBlaze Alligator Tears, are bred to delay blooming until late in the season.
Sweet peppers get the 2015 vegetable of the year moniker from NGB. Peppers, in general, are very popular among vegetable gardens and foodies, right now. Grow peppers in full sun. Water and fertilize regularly. There are many new tasty peppers on the market to try. Grow from seed or buy transplants. Don’t plant peppers outdoors until mid-May. They like the air and soil to be quite warm.
Tasty Colorbell Mix sweet pepper. Photo courtesy National Garden Bureau/Grimes Horticulture
The International Herb Society has named savory the 2015 Herb of the Year. There are two types: summer savory (Satureja hortensis), an annual, and winter savory (S. montana), which is perennial. Grow in full sun. Winter and summer savory have very fine foliage and are showiest with more than one plant grown clumped together.
Winter savory imparts a bit of spicy flavor to vegetables, meats and other dishes. © Iluzia/dollarphotoclub.com
Savory wards off bean beetles and is a worthy companion plant with beans to improve their growth and production. Sow seeds of summer savory directly in the soil in mid May, or start indoors in April. Sow seeds for winter savory indoors in April. It also can be grown from cuttings. Usually summer savory can be found in the herb section of garden centers.
Crocus is a great plant to naturalize in the lawn. (C) Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
We’re closing in on the end of the planting season for spring-blooming bulbs.
As I write this, there are eight bags of bulbs that need to be planted, including 100 blue crocus; about 30 perennials to get heeled in and the raised bed built for my blueberries, but I digress.
Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, snowdrops, crocus and others should already be snug underground or will be in the next couple of weeks. The bulbs need about six weeks to develop roots before the ground freezes.
Probably the most important follow up to planting the bulbs is watering them well. Remember the bulbs are 4-6 inches or more deep. If you’re like me, and planting the bulbs late, apply a layer of shredded mulch or chopped leaves over the planting area to slow the soil-freezing process and help retain moisture.
One trend is naturalizing the lawn with what are called minor or special spring bulbs. This is what’s planned for the 100 blue Crocus. As much as I like yellow crocuses, when planted in the lawn, they look more like dandelions. I like blue the best, and have also naturalized with squill (Scilla siberica) and glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae).
There are several ways to plant these special bulbs in the lawn.
- Lay out the bulbs in the pattern you want, or toss them and plant them where they land.
- Dig or drill with an auger individual holes about 4 inches deep. Drop in the bulb and fill the hole with soil and tamp down.
- Plunge a garden knife, trowel or tool called a rockery about 4-inches deep into the lawn and push it forward, but leave it in the soil. Drop in a bulb behind the tool. Pull out the tool and tamp down the soil.
- Use a shovel to dig up a section of the lawn about 3-4 inches deep. Place the bulbs on the bare soil and replace the section of turf. Gently tamp it down.
These tiny bulbs bloom early enough that their foliage ripens before we have to mow the lawn. When deciding where to plant the bulbs, place them fairly close together for a showier display. One friend, Carol Michel at maydreamsgardens.com on Indianapolis’ south side, has planted thousands of these minor bulbs in her lawn over the last few years. So, phase in the plantings rather than feeling compelled to do it all at once. However, you’ll love the result so much that you might want to plant by the thousands, too.
White fringe tree. Photo courtesy Monrovia.com
A researcher at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has found evidence of emerald ash borer on the native white fringe tree in at least four locations in the Buckeye state.
White fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a small, fragrant, understory tree in the southeast and Midwest United States and is used as a late-spring blooming ornamental in landscapes.
Emerald ash borer. Photo courtesy Purdue University
The thin, metallic, emerald ash borer, which has no natural control, already is responsible for killing at least 50 million ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), including thousands in Indiana. The Asian insect, first detected in the Detroit area in 2002, is predicted to kill the continent’s nearly 9 billion ash trees, causing an estimated $10 billion in damage by 2019.
Frequently called EAB, it “may have a wider host range than we ever thought in the first place, or it is adapting to utilize new hosts,” said Don Cipollini, a biology professor who has been researching this bug for nearly 10 years. “This biological invasion (of EAB) is really something to worry about. It’s having drastic ecological and economic consequences, and you can’t always predict what’s going to happen.”
Although different species, ash and fringe trees are in the Oleacaeae family, which also includes olive, lilac, forsythia and privet.
The detections on fringe trees were in areas with high density of emerald ash borers, said Cliff Sadof, a professor of entomology and EAB expert at Purdue University. Sadof heard Cipollini’s report at the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conference in Wooster, Ohio.
High populations of EAB are where more than 50 percent of untreated ash trees are dying. “This includes most of the Indianapolis area,” he said. “I don’t think we need to panic at this point. It is real, but we don’t know if it reproduces on this (fringe) tree.”
A federal working group will be discussing this issue to determine implications of this new information to the regulatory and detection aspects of the EAB program, Sadof said.
Emerald ash borer exit hole. Photo courtesy Purdue University.
Meantime, he recommends keeping an eye open for sickly looking native fringe trees where emerald ash borer activity is high. One distinctive sign is the tiny D exit hole, which may be easier to spot on smaller trees and shrubs than on large ash trees. Report findings to 866-NOEXOTIC (866-663-9684). Here’s more info on EAB.
Yellow Improved Zahara zinnia fronts Marquee Red Carpet (left) and Marquee Blonde Bombshell coleus. Glitz euphorbia airs out the planting.© Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
I just can’t say enough about how really nice the Zahara series of zinnias is. These annuals have no disease issues and just bloom their heads off.
I’ve been happy with all of the zinnias in the Zahara series and this year, I trialed a fairly new one, Yellow Improved, from Burpee. My favorite is Zahara Starlight Rose, a 2010 All-America Selection. Other colors include pink, orange, white and cherry. These are readily available at garden centers and seed merchants.
Great for the in the ground, pots or window boxes, the bright yellow, daisy-like flowers get about 18 inches tall, which is just enough to cut for small bouquets. The Zahara series is drought tolerant, so it can be planted where it’s hard to water.
Two coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) from Burpee played really nicely together in a pot. The colors and leaf forms of Marquee Red Carpet and Marquee Blonde Bombshell complimented each other and easily filled the 18-inch wide container.
Plant breeders are working to delay the blooms on coleus and these fall into that late-flowering category. In fact, Blonde Bombshell never formed flower stalks.
Proven Winners’ verbena Superbena Royale Cherryburst was lovely planted with petunia Supertunia Black Cherry. The dark, richly colored petunia perfectly paired with the burst of the white and cherry verbena.
Mixed in a couple of pots was Glitz, a new Euphorbia from Burpee. I really could not tell much difference between Glitz and some of the other euphorbias on the market, including Diamond Frost.
American Garden Award Winner
Illumination Flame garnered top honors in the 2014 American Garden Award program.
Photo courtesy Peace Tree Farm
A new species of foxglove garnered the top spot in the 2014 American Garden Award program. The Garfield Park Arts Center is one of about 30 gardens participating in North America, where visitors can vote for their favorite plants.
Illumination Flame Digiplexis was the grand winner. This tender perennial is not winter hardy here, but earns its keep with season-long blooms. Look for more Digiplexis on the market next spring. Shop early, though, because they will be popular.
Second place was Sanguna Radiant Blue petunia, which was my personal favorite. The flower is edged in crisp blue with a white center. Third was Celosia Arrabona Red, which I trialed last year and loved for its stunningly showy flowers.