Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to Read Plant Labels - Guidelines for Planting

Every industry has words that pertain to that field - 'missing' means something specific to an auto mechanic;  'temp' to a health care professional means something quite different than 'temp' means to employment agency.
I have tried to get into the texting world with my grand kids.  I frequently get 'lots of love' (lol)  from them - I think I've got this texting down!(?)

 While showing a novice gardener a plant, I asked her "What kind of exposure will this get?"
"Oh, lots", she replied.  "It will be right out front by the mailbox!"  That disconnect between areas of interest caused me to have this conversation at a garden center where I was working. My reference to 'exposure' was quite different from  what this young lady thought I meant.

  I think these gaps  in understanding could be lessened. So I'd like to start with the plant label.  Growers take the time to print labels, and attached labels, but frequently folks don't understand what they are being told. 

Let's look at this label

Mandarin Lights Azalea -  the common name that you and I would use.  The second line, however, is Azalea X 'Mandarin Lights'.  The botanical name is used by growers and other professionals in the green industry to distinguish this 'specific' azalea, "Mandarin Lights'. The specific name is the cultivar - or the cultivated variety.  The grower has developed this by crossing (X) different azaleas to get the size or color blended from each. 

The Northern Lights Series is a group of azaleas that have similar breeding, but may have different features - very much like siblings have in any family.

The bloom time for this azalea is spring, and the color 'bright orange red' is a description of the bloom.  Foliage, or leaves, are dark green.  (These description are on the label so even if  the plant is not in bloom or the leaves haven't emerged for the season, the buyer has a reference of what to expect).

Planting guide for this azalea says the plant does best in well drained soil. 

Obviously, this is not a good choice for planting this azalea.

The label also recommends 'acid' soil. 

pH is the measure of available hydrogen (H) in solution in the soil.  Some plants like an acid soil, (below 7) on this scale.  Some plants needs are for alkaline (above 7) conditions.  A soil test can determine what your soil pH is. Local extension offices or garden centers can assist you in this process. If you have acid soil, you are good to go with this azalea.  However, if your test indicates you have a pH above 7, alkaline, then I would suggest you consider a different plant.

 We can amend (supplement) soils with minerals.  And your soil test will tell you what your soil is missing and how much to apply. However, changing the pH of your soil is difficult.  The soil will always revert to its natural state.  We can add lime to make a garden more alkaline; sulphur to make soil more acid.  These steps will have to be repeated over and over again as your soil reverts to its natural pH.  This calculates into a huge amount of time and money. 

The next part of our plant label indicates this plant does best in 'part shade'. 

Here is how this light requirement is best defined.
Full Sun - minimum of six (6) hours of direct sun. 
Part Sun - or Part Shade are 4 - 6 hours of sun
Full Shade - maximum  2 hours of sun

Some growers will draw a picture - as above - this tells me that this plant can take full shade as shown by the full dark circle.  And this plant will tolerate a little amount of sun   Most plants do need some sun or bright light to bloom well.

The last feature of this plant label I wish to address is the reference to Zone 5.  The US (the whole world, actually) is divided into Hardiness Zones.  The coldest zone that a plant can survive is indicated on these labels.  The Zone 5 is the coldest this azalea will survive.  If  this Zone 5 azalea were planted in Zone 4, a more northern region, it would probably not live. 

Some gardeners like to 'push the envelope' when they plant less hardy plant material in their gardens.  If you
replace too many plants too often, I think that novelty would wear off. 

The plant labels are helpful if we plant according to the recommendation.  I, for one, have put many plants to an early trip to the compost pile by putting it in the wrong spot in my garden.  
The right plant in the right spot. 

Read the label.  

Have you ever challenged a plant to survive in a zone that was too cold?  What plant? And what did you need to do? 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Winter Plant Care - Prepare for the Cold

Cold, Wind, Snow....Winter's Harsh Realities

Very cold, sub-freezing temperatures are forecast  for my Zone 6 garden in southwest Ohio.  I'm inclined to wrap up on the couch with a quilt and a plate of munchies nearby.  As my poor, darling plants are out there facing the elements, I know I need to take some steps to protect some of the more delicate ones from the winter cold.

Mulching is probably the easiest method to insulate roses.  I pile the chopped leaves up around the canes to 15" - 18".  The root and stem joint, or bud union, should be covered.  Certainly the canes may have winter die-back, but they can be pruned in the early spring.  Hybrid Teas are probably the most tender of the roses; shrub roses tend to be more hardy. 

These two pictures show different types of winter damage - the evergreen in the container got its roots too cold.  The pathway on the left shows winter damage of wind burn and salt damage.

Plants in containers are very susceptible to drying out and frozen roots.  Watering during the winter should be continued. Water acts as an insulator in the soil.  Frozen water is 32 degrees F.  Dry soil with open air pockets can allow the air spaces to match the sub-zero wind chills of the outside temperatures. 

I generally do not burlap my containers.  I have said before, I'm a lazy gardener, so I tend to take a less time consuming approach.  I gather my containers - some need the aid of a 2-wheel dolly - and I group them up near the west side of the house. I mound leaves around the pots to protect the roots from being exposed to cold winds.  Some would tell you to use the north side walls, out of the sun, but I haven't had any losses (yet).  The overhang is 3' wide, so again, watering manually is needed. 
A garden club friend, Marian, has 20-30 bonsai plants in some pretty, yet shallow containers.  Most are trees and evergreens that typically go dormant.  She has a trench near the house foundation in which she buries her pots. 
The bubble wrap can be purchased to wrap containers and add another layer of insulation. 

This simple burlap wind screen can protect your plants during winter from windburn, salt damage, and sun scald. 

Sun, wind, and cold affect broadleaf evergreens like rhododendron, azaleas, and holly.  Moisture can be reduced in the leaves during the winter.  Frozen ground reduces the uptake of water through the roots.  Screening these evergreens with burlap can help reduce wind damage, and offer shade from winter sun. 

Anti dessicants like Wilt Pruf offer a film on the leaves to reduce moisture loss to our winter evergreens.       ( Spray on your Christmas tree too, to have the holiday decorations a little longer.) Two products are Wilt Pruf or Wilt Stop.  Both can be found at the Amazon Store, garden centers, or hardware store.

Mulch gardens only after the ground is frozen.  Mulching too early may cause the ground to not freeze and plants will not go completely dormant.  Consequently, this semi-dormant condition, call deacclimation, can allow roots to be damaged by the cold even if this plant is labeled hardy to your zone.

Mulching at the right time can keep plants from 'heaving' (plant rises out of ground exposing more shallow roots). My heuchera - coral bells - are known for this.

Tying these arborvitae can protect the splitting of leader trunks - a common result of heavy snow.

Deciduous tree trunks are also susceptible to sun scald.

Thin barked trees like maples, young crab apples, or flowering fruit trees, and newly planted young trees may need additional protection.

In very cold weather the tree trunk can severely crack. The lack of water uptake is one reason. The sun itself, can allow the south facing trunk to be 60 degree while the back side, can be 32 degrees. This cracking can open your tree to insects and diseases.

Trunk wraps are also beneficial for protecting bark damage from animals.  Rabbits, voles, and deer can get hungry, and our plants are fair game! 

Voles, a small field mouse-like critter that loves to eat roots.  I've had hostas come up (not) missing in spring thanks to the friendly neighborhood vole.  Surface trails in the grass or snow give us a clue to the culprit.

Mulch and debris make a good cover for voles.  Clean areas around plants can minimize vole activity.  A 1/4" screen opening, extending 3-4 " below the surface around a susceptible bed can also lessen vole damage.  

Rabbits will  strip bark from trees and shrubs.

Barriers and repellants are useful deterrants. A 1 inch wire mesh around plants, at least 15" to 18" will work well.

Deer barriers need to be built around the tree so that the deer cannot reach into it to eat. Spray deer repellents like Liquid Fence work IF you are determined - respray after a rain. This urine based solution will wash away.

I know winter seems like a long cold season, but winter plant care will ensure spring will be its own reward.

What steps do you take to give plants winter protection?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Plants for Winter Brightness - Still Time to Plant

Winter Color is More Than Black and White

Even though we have had measurable snow, the ground temperatures are still suitable for planting.  If you can dig, the dormant shrub or evergreen will settle in just fine for the winter.

This is a holly I did not know, 'Orange Flame' a Ragon Grape Holly from Monrovia.  Beautiful burgundy and red leaves caught my eye at a local garden center.

Nandina - spectacular

Hardy to Zone 6, this disease resistant variety, Firepower is a beauty. 
I saw this at a local city park with ornamental grasses behind it.  The tan behind the red was striking.

Viburnum is probably my favorite shrub, with many varieties that have quite different features among them.
Viburnum Brandywine has mauve berries.  There are at least 83 varieties and cultivars of Viburnum in the nurseries.  The American Cranberry Bush and Doublefile Viburnum both have red berries.  Arrowwoods grows to 15' and has blue fruit.  Leatherleaf Viburnum  has black fruit .

Doublefile Viburnum plicatum tomentosum grows to about 9'. 

These red berries appear in the fall on the Serviceberry, AmelanchierLike Viburnum's,  the Serviceberry, 'Autumn Brilliance', has a nice spring bloom.  Four seasons of interest in this shrub that grows to 15' to 25' in Zone 4-9.

Ilex verticillata, Winterberry is a holly that is hardy in Zone 3-8.  This plant is dioecious, which means it has either male or female plant parts on each plant.  Therefore, you will need both male and female varieties to cross pollinate this plant in order to get blooms and fruit.. A dwarf variety, "Red Sprite" grows to 3'-4'. 

Aronia , known as chokeberry  has reliable bright autumn color. Hardy to Zone 4-9, this plant has two varieties;  one variety Black Chokeberry (A. melanocarpa), has black fruit, and another Aronia, Red Chokeberry (A. arbutifolia),  has red fruit.

These shrubs are just a few that I have put on my list.  Winter may not be sooooo loong(!) if I had a these to greet me on a cold, gray day. 

Winter is a time to plan for spring, another way to endure the winter doldrums.  A gardener associate of mine has a website you may enjoy, Mike's Backyard Nursery.  Hubby has watched Mike grow and sell plants right out of his garden for several years.  Quite a story.  Enjoy.