Home Gardener Headlines - Winter 2012
Dear Home Gardener,
We've seen the first harbingers of spring--the seed catalogs! And isn't it amazing that just one month beyond the winter solstice, the days are noticeably longer and brighter? Winter surely isn't finished with Berks County yet, but here at Penn State Extension, spring has already been declared.
On this website (under Events), you can find information on requesting brochures for our Home Gardeners School on March 10 at the Penn State Berks Campus. This is a fun day, offering multiple garden classes, a book sale, garden fair, and camaraderie with fellow gardeners. Do register early. Home Gardeners School usually fills to capacity.
You can also request a registration brochure for our Winter Gardening Series, open to the public and taught by Master Gardeners and by landscaper Rich Hawk. If your lawn, trees, and shrubs took a beating in last season's storms, these classes will help you make repairs and promote healthy growth for the coming year. If your fancy runs to vegetables and flowers, we have a class ffor indulging those interests as well.
We welcome your calls and the opportunity to help you bring your garden and landscape plans to life.
Master Gardener Coordinator
Winter Lawn Topics
Winter is a good time to service and tune up your lawn mower so it's ready to go next spring. Did you winterize your mower? The mower manufacturers provide good directions for winterizing their particular mowers, and most can be found on a company website or internet search. The bottom line is, gasoline left in an unused engine will grade over time and cause problems when you try to run the mower next spring. You can store the mower with gas in it if you treat it with gas stabilizer, or empty the tank before storing (highly suggested if you store it in the basement or a connected garage). And it's not just the gas, but also the oil and air filters that should be changed.
This is also a great time to take the blades off and send them out for sharpening. Dull mower blades tear and shred grass, making your lawn mower susceptible to disease and drying out. Mowing with dull blades requires more gasoline as your mower grinds through the lawn. You should sharpen your blades often during the mowing season, as soon as you notice shredded grass tips! If you didn't get around to it earlier, now is a good time.
Winter can also be a good time to patch bare spots in your lawn. Consider seeding before the frost comes out of the ground. This is defined as "dormant seeding" because the seed will be dormant until the soil temperatures warm to the right temperature for germination in April or May. Dormant seeding can be done from early December until March. It's best to apply the seed to ground that has no snow cover, and especially effective if snowfall follows the seeding. As the soil heaves and cracks during the winter, crevices are created which helps work the seed into the soil.
Written by Nancy Bosold, Extension Educator (Turfgrass Management), Penn State Extension in Berks County
Critters That Tunnel in Lawns
One of the most frequent lawn questions that comes to our office is prompted by the arrival of warm temperatures and a homeowner's first foray outdoors in the lawn. Instead of a verdant green carpet, he is met by a corduroy-like ripple of ridges and valleys. What's going on?
Fortunately, this is usually a passing phenomenon and may not need serious attention. Over the winter months, especially if there is snow cover, meadow mice and moles and voles move into suburban landscapes. Moles burrow there, searching for insects and creating warrens of underground passages that let them navigate undetected. Voles, which eat vegetation, make shallow furrows on the surface of the soil. If snow cover persists, they too can be hidden while they travel about our lawns.
With the arrival of spring, the loss of cover, and the return of human activity, the critters usually retreat to marginal areas--woods and fields--where they can hide under brushy undergrowth, leaving their bumpy tunnels behind. In most cases, thawing, spring rains, and increased earthworm activity will soften and settle the tunnels and by the time the mowers come out, the surface will be fairly level again.
If damage is extreme or if the infestation of these furry creatures persists, it may be necessary to employ traps to manage their numbers. for more information on managing these critters, call the extension office (610-378-1327) to request Wildlife Damage Control publications on Moles and/or Voles--or see http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uh084.pdf (Moles) and http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uh094.pdf (Voles).
Written by Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator
Gardening With Children
Did you ever notice that most gardeners can tell you a childhood memory of gardening with their mothers, perhaps a grandfather, an aunt, or a neighbor? Gardening gets into the blood early, and stays there! This is not to say that all of those garden memories are golden ones. Some adults report that they labored under duress, or suffered bites, sun, and blisters. Nonetheless, gardening takes hold, and more often than not, resurfaces as an adult's love of gardening.
How can you start a cherished child or grandchild down the garden path? You can start during the dull days of winter with one or more of these projects:
See how water travels up plants by putting a cut flower in a vase of water with food coloring. White flowers such as carnations and daisies and even colored flowers will show new color in their petals the next day. In plants with relatively transluscent (see-through) stems such as impatiens and celery, you will be able to see the color going up the stem.
To see how plants react to different types of light, fill three pots with the same type of soil and plant three identical seeds. Put one pot in total darkness, perhaps in a box or a cupboard. Put another in a place where it gets all-around light, and the third where it gets light from only one side. A cardboard box with one open end turned to the side will do. The plant grown in total darkness will become tall and straggly, the one grown in an all-around light will grow normally and evenly, while the one with one-sided light will grow towards the light.
You can make a "Potato Porcupine" by scooping out the inside of a potato with a knife, leaving plenty of potato on the sides and bottom. fill the hole with potting soil and sprinkle with chive seeds. You can name your creature and make a face on it with other vegetable pieces and toothpicks and even give it "haircuts" when the chives sprout. The trimmings you cut can be used to flavor scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and salads.
You can watch a bean seed sprout by starting a bean in a jar. Soak a dried bean overnight in water. The next day, stuff a jar with a paper towel. Moisten it, then put the bean in the jar so the paper towel holds it against the side of the jar and up off the bottom. Place the jar in a cool, dark place and allow a little water to sit on the bottom of the jar. Within a few days, roots will sprout down toward the water. Soon the upper shoots will appear. Now you can transplant the bean sprout into a pot of soil or outside into your summer garden.
An avocado pit you would throw away can be saved and grown as a houseplant. Wash the pit and peel off the thin skin around it, then stick three toothpicks into the pit spaced out around its middle. Set th epit into a jar or glass of water, with the flat side down and touching the water. Be sure to keep adding water so that th ebottom of the pit is always in water. In a week or two, the pit will split open, roots will grow down, and a stem will sprout up. (If nothing happens after a month, try again with a new pit). When the roots are a few inches long, you can plant the growing pit into a pot filled with soil. When the plant gets to be about six inches tall, snip off the top half-inch. This will cause the plant to become bushy.
Adapted from "Ten Plant Projects for Children," Public Programs Office of the U.S. Botanical Garden, August 1990 (Rev. 1993).
Cleaning Up Damaged Trees
Properties all across Berks County suffered huge damage this year, first from drought and heat, then from flood, and finally from a freak October snow-and-ice storm. Surely an early sign of spring this year will be the roar of chainsaws! But before you begin your clean-up of trees and shrubs, be sure you can identify what's dead wood and what's still alive, what's beyond saving, and what's only temporary damage. some damaged tree branches are so high up that we can't reasonably do anything about them, regardless of need. Here are some general pruning guidelines:
- Use sharp, clean cutting tools. If you are removing diseased material, make up a solution of 9:1 water:bleach or alcohol and dip your pruners after each cut, or clean the blades with an alcohol wipe.
- Always cut back to a bud or juncture. Do not leave a bare stub of wood, as the plant can neither heal it nor create new growth from it.
- When removing large limbs, use the triple cut method. This technique and othe valuable tree information are found in the Tree Owner's Manual, available online at http://na.fs.fed.us/urban/treeownersmanual/ or at the extension office.
- Be safe, not sorry! It's tempting to try to save money and do large jobs yourself, but tree limbs are heavier than they look and will not be manageable when gravity takes over. If in doubt, call a professional arborist with the skills and equipment to do the job safely.
For further guidance on assessing and addressing storm damage in trees and shrubs, attend Rich Hawk's workshop on February 13th on How to Care for Trees and Shrubs. Rich will address storm damage as well as routine care.
Written by Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator
Melt Ice Horticulturally
Unrefined Rock Salt
As our towns are hit with more ice and snow this winter, we will all work very hard to keep our sidewalks and driveways clear and safe. Afte the snow and ice are shoveled and plowed, most homeowners apply materials to melt the ice beneath. The most common material used to melt ice is unrefined rock salt. rock salt is about 98.5% sodium chloride. This chemical is the same compound as table salt and is also an ingredient in water softeners.
How Salt Affects Plants
All plants have different levels of tolerance, but many are very sensitive to salts. Salt toxicity can injure plants and damage soil in the following ways:
- Large amounts of salt or sodium can block the nutrients needed by plants.
- Salt also absorbs significant quantities of water, causing a drought-like situation.
- Intake of high levels of salt can also cause the leaf margins an dthe tips of new shoots to turn brown. Just splashing a plant with salty water can damage buds, twigs, and new leaves.
- Sodium also damages the soil structure by compacting it to the point where it inhibits root growth.
Moderate Application Recommended:
For the reasons mentioned above, it is wise to apply rock salt in moderation if you are applying it near shrubs, groundcover, turf or other plantings. It should be taken into consideration that salt can still cause damage in water runoff. The U.S. Department of the Interior Park Maintenance Division considers maximum safe application to be a half pound per square yard per season.
Alternatives to Rock Salt
Although rock salt is the most effective material for melting ice, there are some other alternatives that will keep plants healthier. Fertilizer is quite beneficial to plants, of course, and does have some chemical compounds with the ability to melt ice. Potash or KCI as well as pure nitrogen also has the ability to melt ice. Pure nitrogen melts ice at temperatures as low as 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Pure nitrogen should be applied at a rate of 10 pounds per 100 square feet. If you have a small area to cover, three pounds of nitrogen and 100 pounds of sand works well in a mix. Be careful--too much fertilizer can harm plants too, so always apply at the recommended rates.
Combining Rock Salt With Other Materials
The use of rock salt in conjunction with other materials is another option that reduces the amount of rock salt used. Many materials can provide good traction while a lesser amount of rock salt will still melt the ice. some good traction materials are sand, gravel, cat litter, and cinders. Mixing rock salt with sawdust also helps with traction and absorbs a large portion of the salt water runoff. The wet sawdust can then be disposed of.
Watchful Winter Eye
Perhaps this winter will not require much shoveling and ice melting--but just in case, remember to do it carefully and horticulturally. A watchful eye this winter will help ensure a beautiful and healthy spring for you and your landscape.
Written by Laura McNutt, Extension Educator, February 2001
The 2011 Master Gardener Trial Garden of annuals featured Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan) with a smattering of grasses. Tended and evaluated by Penn State Master Gardeners, all plants were started by Reidel's Garden Patch.
Mixed results were exhibited by the 11 varieties of Rudbeckia. The short (under 12 inches in height) early blooming, floriferous specimens were early favorites. Toto, bearing more than 25 classic black-eyed Susan blooms per plant, was very effective by the end of June. Falling in the ratings by mid-August, it nevertheless remained moderately showy into September.
Becky, with clear yellow flowers, and Spotlight, with chocolate at the center of hte ptals, stopped developing by mid-July and thus were effective for only a few weeks of early summer.
Varieties of medium height (12-24 inches) fared slightly better though it took the cooler temperatures and rains of August to revitalize them. Prairie Sun, which has a green cone, fell victim to a resident rabbit and could not be fairly judged. Sputnik eventually met the same fate, but in early July its gold-to-mahogany flowers were attractive. Cherry Brandy, which is supposed to be red on robust plants, was a big disappointment. Its color was muddy and its growth sparse and irregular until September when it suddenly became beautiful. The suspicion is that this is a plant for cooler climes.
Clearly the best performers of the medium-height plants were Tiger Eye and Chim Chiminee. With a full, spider-type bloom of over four inches in mixed colors, Chim Chiminee did not resemble a black-eyed Susan. Most effective in July and August, it withstood the weather conditions fairly well. Tiger Eye was a classic beauty, covered with over 25 blooms per plant. It ranked high in effectiveness from the end of June into September.
The other consistently high-ranking varieties were all tall (over 24 inches). The flower type determined which one observers preferred. Cherokee Sunset had mostly double flowers of 3-4 inches in the many colors of a sunset. Goldilocks had 4-5 inch double flowers, and Indian Summer had single blooms up to 6 inches wide. Although their peak blooming periods began later than those of the shorter varieties, all remained effective into late September.
Of the three grasses in the trial, all proved to be indifferent to weather conditions. The annual Purple Fountain Grass was the largest, becoming slightly more than 4 feet by 4 feet with many inflorescences. Juncus 'Blue Mohawk' was a more reserved grower. It remained stiff with narrow blue leaves and no blooms. Although it seemed lost in this garden, it would be very useful in a container or in a formal setting.
The star of the grasses (and maybe the garden) was Jade Princess millet. Looking like a baby corn plant when young, it matured into a 36-inch high plant of at least equal width. The wide yellow-green leaves were topped by full brush-like blooms that started red then turned brown.
Jade Princess was also the outstanding cut flower. It lasted for more than two weeks in water and can be dried easily for lasting use. Of the Rudbeckias, Indian Summer lasted the longest when cut, followed closely by Cherokee Sunset and Cherry Brandy. All varieties lasted at least one week.
This trial reveals only what happened in the summer of 2011. The extreme heat and dry conditions of July certainly had an influence. After the initial planting, the garden was watered three times. Results are limited by not having other years for comparison. Full details are available in the Master Gardener office.
Written by Peg Huffert, Berks County Master Gardener