Category Archives: Mulch

What is the Value of Saving Established Perennials and Shrubs during a Home Renovation?

Wygelia and hydrangea macrophylla shrubs to be saved

Is it worth saving shrubs before your renovation begins? Wygelia and Hydrangea macrophylla shrubs will be saved at this Sharon, MA home, but how would you decide?

Imagine that when you were a child your parents loved gardening, and over time you helped your family create secret gardens and woodland paths that changed daily with new sprouts pushing up from the earth, turning into a bounty of ever-changing blooms, and you loved every petal and leaf of it all.

Now, imagine that you’re middle aged and still living in that same beloved 1950’s ranch, but you’re ready to tear it down to build your dream home, and save as many of your family’s horticulture heirlooms as possible. You’ve come to appreciate that many of the plants your family selected and nurtured are quite unique.

Sharon, MA homeowners in this situation called in Carol Lundeen, owner of Garden-911 Boston, for landscape renovation consulting and horticulture services to help them make their decisions. The excavation crew was expected to start in a couple of days, and we needed to establish priorities, make a plan, and get a move on.

How do you decide which heirloom plants to keep and which to abandon to the dumpster? Here’s how we worked together:

First, we contrasted the emotional and financial value of various plantings. The client had many childhood memories in specific areas of the property, especially around the patio, past the boxwoods (Buxus sp.) and up the path into the woodland, past the doll’s eyes plants (Actaea pachypoda). There was also the giant Wygelia whose branches arched over the front door entryway, and if it could talk it would tell more than half a century of stories.

I reminded the client that financially it costs money to remove existing plantings (and manage their debris); to lift and temporarily relocate and care for existing plantings, then replant and reestablish them; and to purchase (plant selection and delivery) and install and establish new ones (site preparation and irrigating). Existing shrubs on the property were mostly well established beauties that would be costly to replace with same-size specimens, and perennials seemed to be everywhere. This client kept her sense of humor and broad perspective of the past and future, she asked lots of questions and we figured everything out together.

While he was already on the property, we had the excavator dig a trench in well-protected areas in the front and rear of the property, and with machines he lifted and placed many of the larger shrubs into the trench. Garden-911 Boston carefully backfilled by hand, irrigated, and mulched these specimens for the best possible outcome. Perennials were dug together by hand by the client and Garden-911 Boston owner Carol Lundeen, and we placed them into a long-overgrown garden area that we first had to clear of all manner of wild invasives vines and weeds, fallen-down raised beds and tangled chicken wire as the mini-excavator went to work nearby.

Eventually, as in all renovations, comes a period of being okay with not knowing when enough is enough. But most all very important plantings are safely stashed for the fall and winter, and spring will bring a new house and new possibilities for the client’s heirloom plants to re-establish in their new places. We’ll be working on the design together over the winter.

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Why Are My Rhododendron Branches Dying?

Rhododendron, borer, Sharon, MA, insect, damage

Cross-section of a rhododendron branch with a hole in it. A Rhododendron borer has tunneled all the way through this branch, and the branch is dead.

Could it be rhododendron borers? I started spring pruning for an organic gardening client in Sharon last week, on one of those yummy sunny 60 degree March days. Near her front door are broadleaf evergreen shrub beds on either side of an elegant entry path. My goals were to prune out any dead, use selective pruning to open up dense areas and stimulate new growth for a more balanced and pleasing form of individual shrubs and their big picture impact, and scout for pests.

A dead branch on a rhododendron caught my eye. I’m always very curious about why plants and their parts fail to thrive, so I investigated a bit. I cut off a portion of the dead branch and in its cross section found a dead giveaway of a clue.

It looked like an electric drill had made a 3/16 to 1/4 inch diameter hole in the interior of the stem, parallel to the length of the stem, and I knew right away it was quite likely the work of a rhododendron borer. I kept cutting the branch closer and closer to the ground, and found that the borer hole went all the way down to where the stem met the root flare at soil level. It may be that a second year borer spent some time in the roots, then bored its way toward the tip of this branch, contributing to its demise. I’ll continue to watch carefully for signs of activity and damage, and remember that borers are just one of several flavors of rhododendron pests.

Dead branch on rhododendron, showing a borer hole in its cross-section.

This dead rhododendron branch shows a tunnel entrance created by a rhododendron borer in Sharon, MA.

How do you treat something like borers? Try the following methods, or contact me when you see damage and you need help gathering evidence and deciding how or whether to save your valued shrubs and trees.

Treatment for Rhododendron borers:

  • Look around for dead branches and cut a cross section of one. Look for other signs such as a borer’s exit hole through the branch, frass (insect poop that resembles sawdust), and the condition of the leaves and stems. Photography these signs for your records.
  • Be sure to properly identify the pest that is doing the damage. FYI there’s a separate and distinct Rhododendron stem borer
  • Cut out and destroy all affected tissue – or save a sample to send to a lab.
  • Whether there’s an effective pesticide for the two types of Rhododendron borers seems to depend on what extension service or licensed pesticide professional you ask, and in any case monitoring and prevention are the best next steps. This is an organic client who prefers organic treatments for the health of her family and the environment. An injection of nematodes into the stems may be appropriate if she has the stem borer. I’m looking into it.

Tips to help reduce borers:

  • Keep mulch at least 2-3 inches away from the base of of all plants where the stems meet the earth, including rhododendrons. Your mulch should never be more that 3 inches deep.
  • Keep shrubs well watered during dry periods. One inch of water per week is generally sufficient for established, healthy plants. More water than this is usually needed for plant establishment.
  • Avoid wounding shrubs, as wounds can make it easier for insects and pathogens to enter. If your plants have any branches that directly cross one other, they probably rub against each other when it’s windy, causing abrasion damage and creating entry points for pests and pathogens. Also, do not wound shrubs with lawn mowers and string trimmers.
  • If you don’t have an edged bed around a tree or shrub, make one large enough so that not only will your string trimmer no longer nick the trunk, but the mower won’t run over the root zone. A general guide is to edge out a bed that goes all the way to the drip line, defined as the area all the way from the trunk to the outermost circumference of the tree’s canopy . After cutting out and removing any lawn or weeds, etc. from your edged area, apply 2-3 inches of mulch to the bare soil.

Not all damage to rhododendrons is from borers. There are plenty more causes as well. So be careful, don’t jump to conclusions, get a positive ID, and get help if you’re not sure.

CONTACT ME IF YOU NEED A HAND

IF YOU’D LIKE ME TO HAVE A LOOK AT DAMAGED OR DISEASED PLANTS WITH YOU, I’LL PUT ON MY HORTICULTURIST HAT, HAVE A LOOK AND SUGGEST WHAT YOUR BEST NEXT STEPS MAY BE. CLICK HERE TO CONTACT ME

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How to Keep Your Garden Plants Alive in Winter in a Drought

MA drought map showing more than one third of the state in extreme drought condition

MA drought map updated December 13, 2016.  The area in red, about one third of the state, is in an Extreme Drought condition.

What do you do keep your drought-stressed plants alive this winter?  It’s hard to put a Band-Aid on drought-stressed plants, but here are some things you can do:

  • KEEP WATERING UNTIL THE GROUND FREEZES IN THE FALL/EARLY WINTER.  Check with your city or town to see if even now, in late December, there’s a current watering ban.  Especially with new plantings, and also with drought-stressed ones, you generally want to give them the equivalent of one inch of water per week all the way until the ground freezes.  If time or water is limited, focus on watering your most valuable plants, such as trees and shrubs.
  • IMPROVE YOUR SOIL.  On your lawn for instance, just 1/4 inch of compost every fall makes a huge difference in the resilience of your turf plants.  For your planting beds, pull back the mulch, spread 1/2 inch of compost or leaf mold,  scratch it into the soil surface, and put the mulch back in place.  This will increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture and make nutrients more available to the roots of your plants.  Think in terms of feeding your soil (the soil food web), not feeding your plants.
  • MULCH.  It’s not to late to apply 2-3 inches of mulch to all areas of exposed soil.  Do not let mulch come in contact with the trunks of your trees and shrubs, where it transitions into the root.  This area is called the root flare and should never be covered.  If you see a mulch volcano around the base of a tree, the mulch is suffocating the tree, which stresses it, makes it vulnerable to pests and pathogens, and puts the tree on a path of decline.  About the best mulch of all is fallen leaves that you’ve chopped up with your lawn mower and spread on your beds.  Speaking of chopped leaves, you can also pile them up, adding water to create a water film on most of the leaf surface area, and let them sit for a year or two.  The result, called leaf mold, is another source of organic matter that will make your plants sing.
  • PLANT NATIVES.  Many people picture native plants as being weedy and leggy.  In fact, native plants are best adapted to not only survive, but thrive in the existing environmental conditions.  Test your soil and know how much sun your planting site gets.  Then, it’s easy to select plants that should do quite well with minimum inputs, once established.

For more info about the drought status in MA, visit http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?MA

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