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Monday, April 25, 2011

What happened to my rhododendrons? Evergreens and winter burn.

If you went outside in the past few weeks and looked at your rhododendrons, mountain laurel, boxwood, or any other broad leaf evergreen (wide flat leaves as opposed to needles) and woundered why they looked "burned" you are not alone.
Cape Cod South Shore Winter Burn Damage

What happened?- Broadleaf evergreens that are planted on a site that is exposed to excessive winter winds or are facing the south or west are the ones most likely damaged.  In their natural habitat these plants would be found growing in the filtered shade of a decidious tree and rarely on a site exposed to the winds.  In the winter when the ground is frozen solid and the wind starts to blow or the sun shines brightly the plant and its leaves start to respire.  This process of respiration ends up desicatting the plants leaves because the plant can not replace the lost water with uptake by its roots because the ground is frozen.  This is why you are more likely to see this winter burn on the top of the plant because this is the area that is exposed to the sun and drying winds the most.
What to do?- Nothing at first.  It is many peoples first instict to chop the plant back or worse add a lot of chemical fertilizer.  Paitence is required at this point since vegetative buds may still be alive and new growth will occur later in the spring.  Often what will happen is by late spring those crispy leaves will fall off as new leaves come to take their place.  Sometimes you will have twig dieback and the top 6-24" of the bush may be dead.  In this case new growth will happen below the dead branches indicating where to cut off the deadwood.  But again wait until new growth happens.  You can speed up this process a bit by giving you plant water if it is a dry spring.
How to prevent?-  There are a few things you can do to reduce the chance this can happen again.  First to prevent the ground from freezing to solid you should always have 3 inches of mulch (NOT AGAINST THE TRUNK PLEASE!) under the canopy of the shrub.  This will also help the plant conserve moisture during times of drought.  And a thirsty plant is a stressed plant and a stressed plant is one that is more susceptable to diseases, insects and general weather extremes.  Shade is also a big factor.  If your plants are say... in the planting islands in the parking lot at Wendys your ability to give them shade is unlikley.  But if they are in a residental landscape and they can have a tree planted on the side facing the sun or winds they will greatly appreacaiated it.  Or if they are small and can be moved to a more protected site they will be better off.  Lastley do not juice them up with chemical fertilizer.  This causes execessive vegative growth which is more sustible to diseses, insects & (yes you guessed it) general weather extremes.  Although a little organic fertilizer for acid loving plants is ok and may help speed up the refoliating process.
Some people reccommend wrapping your plants up in burlap or spraying them with an anti-transpirant.  But my feeling is if a plant needs a sweater and a cocktail to survive the winter than that is a plant that is to finicky for me.

Jim McSweeney owns and operates Hilltown Tree and Garden, landscape design,installation and tree care for Northampton and Western Mass. You can also find (and please "Like" us) on Facebook.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Watering your new landscape, perennial garden, or tree.

Watering - The Most Important Plant and Garden Care Task:

Now that your landscape or garden design project is complete, its success or failure is now dependent on whether or not you meet your plants' water needs. Research has shown that a plant's growth rate is affected for years by the way they were treated after transplanting. Failure to adequately water the first season will have short- and long-term repercussions on your landscape.
Here is an Echinacea plant thriving in a beautiful organic gardening landscape.
When: April - October: Mornings are best, but anytime of day is ok. November - March: No need to water.
How Much: 1.5" of rainfall per week or if done manually with a hose: 5 minute per tree, 1 minute per shrub and 10 seconds per perennial.
How Often: 1 time per week in normal temperatures. 2 times in hot weather. The soil in the root zone should not become dried out. Do this for at least the first growing season and preferably the second.
How to Apply: Using a hose, apply water over the root area, not the leaves.

Two essential gadgets:

1. Watering Wand - This is a 2.5 ft rigid extension that screws onto the end of the hose. It allows you to water without bending over and it distributes the water in a gentle shower that will not wash the mulch or soil off the root zone. It is available at most garden centers or hardware stores for $10 - $15.
2. Rain Gauge - This is a simple device that sticks into the ground and measures rainfall. If it reads less than 1.5 in of rain per week, you'll know that the plants need more water. Until you pick one of these up, a coffee mug will suffice. Approximate cost is $5.
Do not use a sprinkler to water. Fifty percent of the water is lost through evaporation and the other 50% can lead to excessively high moisture levels on the foliage, resulting in water-born fungi. Sprinklers were meant for lawns.

Jim McSweeney owns and operates Hilltown Tree and Garden LLC, landscape design for Northampton and Western Mass. You can also find (and please "Like" us) on Facebook.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Springtime vole damage to trees and lawns

While I am not a turf expert I am inevitably asked during many spring landscape consultations, "what has killed my lawn?"  The short answer is "nothing."  The longer answer as to what cause this short lived damage is, "voles."
What are they?  Voles are rodents that are very common in our New England landscape.  According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society optimal vole habitat can support up to 300 voles per acre!  Voles are often confused with moles, but in reality they are very different.  The easiest way to remember the difference is that moles are meat eaters while voles are vegetarians.  Moles are feeding on grubs and insects underground.  While voles are feeding on tree bark, grass shoots and crowns.
Signs- You know you have voles in your landscape if you see runways or grooves in your lawn once the snow disappears.  Or if you see bark chewed off of young or newly planted trees.  Snow is great cover for voles in the wintertime.  So any winter when we have months of snow cover will likely lead to lots of winter time vole activity.
Damage- When it comes to lawns the damage is short lived.  Moles while feeding on crowns and shoots rarely eat the vital roots.  The best thing a homeowner can do at this point is to simply rake the spot of vole activity then give the grass time to regenerate.  If you are really concerned you can over seed the area with grass seed and put down a very light application of turf fertilizer.  But in most cases this is unwarranted.  Damage to trees is another story.  Voles will often girdle (chew a ring around) the trunk of young smooth barked trees often killing the trees.  This can be overcome by putting up a simple inexpensive rodent guard that wraps around the base of the young trees preventing the voles from chewing the bark.
Control-  While there is a myriad of chemicals, mini-guillotine, etc... available on the market few of these controls work.  While many of them catch and kill not targeted animals.
Solution-  Live and let live.  Voles do little long term damage to lawns and young trees can be protected by a simple rodent guard.  While chemicals rarely work nor do we need more chemicals in the landscape.
Happy spring!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Let me introduce myself...

Jim McSweeney is a certified arborist, certified horticulturist, licensed pesticide applicator and professional landscape designer with over 15 years experience.
Here you will find timely gardening tips, from a pro in the field, that can be easily used by both avid and novice gardeners. The tips will attempt to be clear, concise and usable without a lot of "fluff". While I live and work in Zone 5 (Western Massachusetts), many of the basic horticultural principles covered are useful in almost any zone/climate.


The dirt on dirt

"How to Make Compost" is a title that is often seen in the "gardening information" world.  Some people even write whole books on how to make dirt!  This can lead to 300+ pages on one of the most simplest processes on earth.  Let me try to simplify it for you in 5 steps...

1) Take all household food scraps (no meat or bones please...unless you want a catamount in your back yard) from your counter top compost bin and throw them into some obscure unused corner of your yard.  Whether you put these scraps in a $200 designer compost bin, $20 worth of scrap wood shaped into a square, or directly on the ground is largely irrelevant.

2) Throughout the gardening season, save your weeds, leaves, lawn clippings, and garden thinnings/waste -- whatever you have that is from nature -- and add them to this pile.

3) Turn the pile over a half dozen or so times during the warm months, and within 6-12 months you will have compost!!!

4) Then, take a wheelbarrow or two of compost (stuff at the bottom of your pile is usually better), and add it to your gardens. Any un-composted materials can be picked out and just put back in the compost pile. Then you just keep piling stuff on top..

5)  You can facilitate this "breaking down" process by doing two things: 1) water the pile if it hasn't rained in a while, and 2) sprinkle a couple cups of lime over the pile once a year.

But remember, were not baking a cake. It's really hard to go wrong when you only MAKING DIRT.

Not rocket science was it? When I give paid talks for New England Wild Flower Society, which are normally 2-3 hours in duration, I always start by saying, "I could sum up this talk to the important essentials in 15 minutes but since they pay me by the hour were here for 2 1/2."  But in this blog no one is paying me so i have gotten right to the point.

If you are located in Western Massachusetts and are looking for some top quality compost check out my friends of Bear Path Farm.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Thanks for visiting the new Western Massachusetts Landscape Design blog of Hilltown Tree and Garden! We're now also on Facebook - stop by, give us a like, and check out some beautiful pictures of our work.
 For example:

Clematis in bloom in the Hilltown perennial beds

Formal gardens in Worthington, MA
This blog will be updated regularly with gardening and arboriculture news, tips, and more. Thanks for reading!