Balsam vs. Fraser Fir? How to choose.

Fa la la la! It’s the most wonderful time of the year–and our favorite part of the season! It’s time to head out with your family and wander amongst all the beautiful types of trees, looking for just the right one. As you’re searching, do the fresh test! Run your fingers along the needles, grab the branches and bounce the tree a little. If many needles fall off, the tree was cut long ago and has not gotten enough water, so find another! Also, the hunt for the perfect tree will go much smoother if you already know the type of tree you want.

Picking out a perfect tree isn’t all about looks—the tree’s scent, strength of branches, and needle retention all matter, too. So before you head to the tree farm or lot to select yours, lets compare the two most popular Christmas trees.

Balsam Fir –  3/4″ to 1 and 1/2″ short, flat, long lasting needles that are rounded at the tip; nice, dark green color with silvery cast and fragrant. These needles are 3/4 – 1 and 1/2 in. in length and last a very long time. This is the traditional Christmas tree that most Americans grew up with. This tree has a dark-green appearance and retains its pleasing fragrance throughout the Christmas season.

Fraser Fir – The Fraser fir may be the perfect holiday tree. Its attractive 1-inch needles are silvery-green and soft to the touch. Because there is space between the branches, the Fraser is easier to decorate than some trees. The firm branches hold heavier ornaments. The trees grow to almost perfect shapes, and as long as the cut tree is kept properly watered, the Frasier fir has excellent needle retention.

Everyone has their favorite. We hope you have fun selecting this year’s perfect tree!

Houseplant of the Month – Croton

The croton is an easy-to-grow houseplant known for its variegated foliage covered in green, scarlet, orange, and yellow splotches. Here’s how to care for a croton in your home or garden.
Croton, also called “garden croton,” are native to the tropical forests of southeast Asia and Oceania. In the wild, they grow as large shrubs, reaching up to 10 feet tall (in the home or garden, they stay a lot smaller).
Note: All parts of this plant are poisonous—especially the seeds—so it is not recommended for use in homes with curious pets or children. When damaged, croton produce a milky sap that can be irritating to the skin, too.
•When choosing a container for your croton, keep in mind that the plant will grow upright, which eventually may cause it to become top heavy. Pick a container that won’t easily tip over when the croton gets larger.
•Use a well-draining potting mix. Croton like to be kept moist, but not wet.
•In areas with warm, humid summers, croton can be grown outdoors as a unique and colorful landscape plant. They work well in tropical-themed containers or alongside annuals in the ground. When temperatures drop to around 50°F (10° C), croton will need to be taken indoors.
•Place croton in a sunny location such as an eastern, southern, or western window. If a croton is getting too little light, its newer leaves will be less colorful.
•Keep the soil evenly moist, but let it dry out between waterings.
•If humidity is low in your home, mist around the leaves with water once a week or keep a tray of wet gravel near the plant.
•Croton leaves are dust magnets. Gently wipe the leaves with a moist cloth twice a month to keep them clean and dust-free.
•Fertilize the plant in spring and summer.
•New croton plants can be started with 4 to 6 inch long stem cuttings. Remove the bottom leaves and place the cutting in a glass of water. After roots have formed, plant in a small pot.
•Repot the plant in the spring if it has grown too large for its current pot.
Croton are usually pest and disease free, though they are susceptible to common houseplant pests such as mealybugs, spider mites, and scale insects.

Beautiful Bulbs…Easily!

Part of the allure of gardening is the anticipation. There is nothing more intoxicating than the thought of spring jonquils while enduring the heat of the summer. Properly planted, a gardener can create a blooming wonder that stretches from March till the end of June! Bulbs rarely need dividing so you can enjoy years of carefree color. Fall bulb planting is perhaps the most enjoyable gardening. Here are some points to remember when planning out a bloom pattern with spring flowering bulbs.

Drifts or vase?: Strange question-Are you planting your front foundation or naturalizing a semi-wild spot on the border of your property? For naturalizing an area use daffodils, tulips, scillas, crocus, or muscari to create a drift. A drift is usually viewed from a distance and therefore you should use more bulbs for impact. Plant in multiples of 25,50, 100 or 200. Scatter bulbs casually without regard for a formal pattern to achieve a look created by nature itself. These bulbs are inexpensive and are a great value in that they will spread and naturalize an area within a couple of years! A vase style is great for a more traditional planting as might be needed in the front of the house. Plant your tulips, daffodils & hyacinths in multiples of 3,5,7 and 9’s. Combining bulbs can create the effect of a flower arrangement effect-just as you might find in…A vase! Within your drift or vase you can create a planting that can provide lively color for weeks and months! If you are after a more formal look, then perhaps a border is what you have in mind. A formal border can be any geometric shape-square, rectangle, triangle or circle. To achieve a deep, full border of color, plant and space bulbs according to type. Generally, the proper planting depth is three times the bulb’s height from tip to base. Space bulbs equal to depth planted. Avoid planting bulbs any deeper than 8 inches in our area. This can stunt flower production. Finally, use a fertilizer high in phosphorous to encourage root development, either scratch it in as a top-dressing or put in the prepared bed. Water in well. The bulbs need this period to root in well. Planting can occur well into November or until the ground is too frozen to work. Once the ground is frozen, apply a mulch to keep shallow bulbs from heaving during thaws. You’ll have plenty of blooms to enjoy all spring!

Mum Basics

Chrysanthemums (mums) are one of the most popular fall flowers for the garden. Most varieties are easy to grow with their basic needs being full sun, rich soil, good drainage, and good air circulation. There are hundreds of varieties available that can provide blooms from late summer through fall.
Zones: 5-9 (some varieties to zone 4).
Height/Spread: Varieties 1-3 feet/1-2 feet
Flower Color: Chrysanthemum flowers bloom in shades of white, yellow, orange, lavender, purple, or red.
Exposure: Mums prefer full sunlight during the growing season, and not enough sunlight will result in a weaker plant that will produce fewer flower heads. However, blooms will last longer if they are moved to a shadier spot after flower buds develop.
Soil: Mums prefer rich, well-drained soil. A good rule of thumb is if the soil is good for vegetables, it’s good for mums.
Bloom Time: September to frost. Mums are known as short-day plants, meaning flowering is triggered by the shorter days in late summer and early fall. Flowering can also be forced in a light-controlled greenhouse.
When to plant: For use as a perennial, plant mums in early spring or at least 6 weeks before a killing frost in fall. Spring-planted mums will have the best chance of surviving the following winter. If you are using them as an annual pop of fall color, plant them when blooming in late summer or early fall.
Water: Chrysanthemums require more frequent watering due to their shallow roots, especially in high heat or little rainfall. A layer of mulch in summer will help conserve water and keep the soil moist and cool.
Pruning: Pinch approximately 1 inch from the branch tips two to three times during the growing season to encourage branching and a sturdier plant. Early bloomers that bloom in mid-September, should be pinched no later than mid-June. October bloomers can be pinched up until mid-July, with the rule of thumb being not to pinch any closer than 3 months to bloom time.
Propagation: When mums are grown as perennials, they can be divided every two to three years in the spring. Dig up the plant when new growth begins to appear, discard the dying center and re-plant the new shoots on the outside of the plant. Mums can also be grown from cuttings taken in the spring. Cut just below a leaf node and root in sterile potting soil. The new plants should be watered daily and kept in a sunny windowsill until established.
Fertilizer: Mums are not big feeders, so it is best to apply a dilute fertilizer several times before bud set. A 5-10-5 fertilizer formulation will have the greatest effect on flower production and overall growth.
Diseases and Pests: Some diseases that can affect mums are leaf spot, powdery mildew, and viral diseases such as mosaic or stunt. Avoid overcrowding and overly shady locations that cause moisture to remain on the leaves and provide a habitat for diseases. Pests can include aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, leafminers, plant bugs, and spider mites.
Chrysanthemums are great for growing directly in the garden or in containers, here are some ideas:
•Perfect for containers and baskets because of their shallow-rooting habit.
•Use as an annual in the fall to fill in and replace summer-blooming annuals.
•With the many color varieties available, mums can provide coordinating or contrasting color accents to both indoor and outdoor spaces.
•Mums are relatively inexpensive, making them a great choice for large groupings or repeated throughout an area.
The difference between garden and florist mums comes down to their hardiness. Garden mums are typically the varieties you would plant outdoors in your garden and are hardy in their specific zones. Florist mums are used solely for indoor potted plants and are not suited for transplanting outside. Make sure you are buying the correct type for your intended use and location.
Are chrysanthemums annuals or perennials?
Although the most widely available mums are grown as fall annuals, there are varieties that can also be grown as perennials in some regions with a little care to over-winter them. In colder zones, leave the top growth in place and add loose mulch such as straw or evergreen branches around them for protection, waiting to cut back in spring after new growth emerges. In warmer winter climates, they can be cut back to 6” tall after flowering. Check your local garden center to see what varieties work best in your area.
What about the potted mums sold at supermarkets and big box stores?
These affordable plants show up in stores during the fall and have a tidy mound of small flowers. Sometimes called garden mums or Belgian mums, these plants are typically grown as annuals. They are popular for use as part of an autumn container display. Most gardeners report that they aren’t as hardy as the mums featured above and rarely winter over.
Are mums poisonous to cats, dogs or other animals?
Mums do contain substances that are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses if ingested, so be sure to keep this in mind when choosing a location that might be explored by curious pets. See more Common Poisonous Plants for Dogs and Cats.
Are mums deer and rabbit resistant?
Deer and rabbits tend to avoid plants with fragrant leaves and fuzzy texture, both of which are attributes of mums, making them fairly resistant.

Lawn Care Tips for the Dog Days of Summer

As your lawn endures the trials of Job this summer-drought, pestilence and disease-you must hold to the hope that there is a lush, green turf on the other side of this summer. Has your spring turf been reduced to an arid, brown toasty color? If not, you might want to submit your water bills for federal disaster relief. Dry, scorching heat-an absence of consistent rainfall-this is the perfect scenario for crabgrass to flourish and bluegrass to perish. What’s needed, of course, is a good, deep penetrating rain. At the time this newsletter was going to press we are down about 8+ inches in the rainfall table.

The large Japanese beetle population will mean a heavier than normal population of grubs. Knowledge is of course your best defense. Here are a couple of suggestion for coaxing your sod through the trials of summer…

Feeding: Your lawn’s nitrogen needs are at their highest in late summer. Avoid fertilizing when temps are about 85 degrees. Supplement this late summer feed (high in nitrogen) with a fall fertilizer that will concentrate on developing the root system. This will build a turf more resistant to drought and pest damage. This might be your most beneficial feeding. You can supply a fall food right into November in most areas.

Pest Control: In late summer and early fall the grub cycle begins as the larvae pupate into the common white lawn grub. At this stage of their development, these grubs are the most vulnerable. Treat infested areas with either a liquid dose or a granular treatment.

Watering: A good rule of thumb is to water in the early morning hours. Try to provide at least 1 to 1.5 inches of water through rainfall or irrigation. A deep watering once a week is more beneficial than a series of shallow watering.

Seeding: To repair damage caused by drought, pests and disease, plan on a fall seeding program. Match the grass seed varieties to the conditions. For example, if you have a rocky, sandy soil that doesn’t hold moisture well, use a drought resistant lawn mixture featuring turf-type tall fescues (TTTF). Unlike ryegrass that spread by shallow rhizomes. TTTF have long individual tap roots. They are tough, durable and make a long wearing attractive turf. Heavy clay soils might do better with a bluegrass and ryegrass mixture. Fall is an optimum time for seeding. The warm weather speeds germination while the autumn night temps start to drop. Remember to keep the seed moist until established. That might require 2-3 mistings during our “Indian Summers”. The attention you pay to your lawn now will pay big dividends in the fall, the following spring and for years to come.

Featured Houseplant: Aloe Vera

The aloe vera plant is an easy, attractive succulent that makes for a great indoor companion. Aloe vera plants are useful, too, as the juice from their leaves can be used to relieve pain from scrapes and burns when applied topically. Here’s how to grow and care for aloe vera plants in your home!

Aloe vera is a succulent plant species of the genus Aloe. The plant is stemless or very short-stemmed with thick, greenish, fleshy leaves that fan out from the plant’s central stem. The margin of the leaf is serrated with small teeth.
Before you buy an aloe, note that you’ll need a location that offers bright, indirect sunlight (or, artificial sunlight). However, the plant doesn’t appreciate sustained direct sunlight, as this tends to dry out the plant too much and turn its leaves yellow.
Keep the aloe vera plant in a pot near a kitchen window for periodic use but avoid having the sun’s rays hit it directly.
Please note: The gel from aloe vera leaves can be used topically, but should not be ingested by people or pets. It can cause unpleasant symptoms such as nausea or indigestion and may even be toxic in larger quantities.

• It’s important to chose the right type of planter. A pot made from terra-cotta or a similarly porous material is recommended, as it will allow the soil to dry thoroughly between waterings and will also be heavy enough to keep the plant from tipping over. A plastic or glazed pot may also be used, though these will hold more moisture.
• When choosing a container, be sure to pick one that has at least one drainage hole in the bottom. This is key, as the hole will allow excess water to drain out.
• Select a container that’s about as wide as it is deep. If your aloe plant has a stem, choose a container that is deep enough for you to plant the entire stem under the soil.
• Aloe vera plants are succulents, so use a well-draining potting mix, such as those made for cacti and succulents. Do not use soil. A good mix should contain perlite, lava rock, coarse sand, or all three. Aloe vera plants are hardy, but a lack of proper drainage can cause rot and wilting, which is easily the most common cause of death for this plant.
• A layer of gravel, clay balls, or any other “drainage” material in the bottom of the pot is not necessary. This only takes up space that the roots could otherwise be using. A drainage hole is drainage enough!
• (Optional) To encourage your aloe to put out new roots after planting, dust the stem of the plant with a rooting hormone powder. Rooting hormone can be found at a local garden center or hardware store, or online.

• Place in bright, indirect sunlight or artificial light. A western or southern window is ideal. Aloe that are kept in low light often grow leggy.
• Aloe vera do best in temperatures between 55 and 80°F (13 and 27°C). The temperatures of most homes and apartment are ideal.
From May to September, you can bring your plant outdoors without any problems, but do bring it back inside in the evening if nights are cold.
• Water aloe vera plants deeply, but infrequently. To discourage rot, allow the soil to dry at least 1 to 2 inches deep between waterings. Don’t let your plant sit in water.
• Water about every 3 weeks and even more sparingly during the winter. Use your finger to test dryness before watering. If the potting mix stays wet, the plants’ roots can begin to rot.
• Fertilize sparingly (no more than once a month), and only in the spring and summer with a balanced houseplant formula mixed at ½ strength.

Fighting the Blues

St. John the Baptist, the New Testament healer, lends his name to St. John’s wort, which blooms during summer near the time of the feast of St. John. This short, yellow-flowering herb, botanically known as Hypericum, has been used since ancient times to treat all nerve-related problems, including depression, a disorder of the central nervous system. The species Hypericum perforatum is said to have the greatest amount of active ingredient for medicinal purposes, but many of the perennial species have at least some.

The aboveground portions of the plant contain the essential oils from which the medicinal qualities of St. John’s wort are derived. Ground-up flowers of St. John’s wort suspended in vegetable oil are used to relieve pain from neurological disorders like tennis elbow and sciatica. When made into a tea, St. John’s wort has been known to relieve symptoms of ulcers, gout, and arthritis. But St. John’s wort is best-known for its effectiveness in the battle against depression, and because there are no recorded side effects from using St. John’s wort, it is fast becoming an alternative to prescription antidepressants.

St. John’s wort is easy to grow and is well suited for a healing or wildflower garden. Its mid-green to blue-green foliage provides an attractive backdrop for the bright yellow flowers with their prominent yellow stamens. Choose a sunny spot in the garden with moist but well-drained soil, and expect your plants to reach two to three feet in height with a spread of at least two feet. With this sunny-yellow healer gracing the garden, you’ll find it hard to keep singing the Blues!

BUG OFF! Nature’s Way

Not all insects are harmful to your garden; in fact, many are beneficial and are an important part of the ecosystem. Chemicals used to eliminate insects do not discriminate between the good bugs and the bad ones, so you can limit the damage done to beneficial insects and, at the same time, keep harmful chemicals out of the environment by practicing organic pest control.

Here are a few simple and effective ways to eliminate bugs and other pests naturally:

Handpicking: Insects can be handpicked from plants, and pests like potato bugs can easily be shaken from plants into a box. Use a butterfly net to capture white cabbageworm butterflies before they lay their eggs on your crucifers.

Traps: Slugs love to slurp beer from cans strategically placed in the garden, but don’t open the tops all the way lest the openings become two-way streets. Sticky traps hung in apple trees attract and trap apple maggot flies. Brush-on insect trap coating can be applied to small boards on stakes and used throughout the garden. Painting the boards a bright color will make them even more effective. Pheromone traps draw insects like Japanese beetles to their own hormonal scents and safely capture them in boxes away from prized roses and peonies.

Covers: Using lightweight floating covers on crops such as blueberries keeps those pesky birds, rabbits, and deer from eating you out of house and home. Of course, don’t install them until after pollination so that bees can do their job first.

Biological Pest Control: Releasing beneficial bugs into your garden to feed on bad bugs is a fine way of eliminating pests. Ladybugs love aphids, and certain wasps lay eggs on the eggs of other insects, such as cutworms and cornborers; when the wasp eggs hatch, they feed on the pest eggs. The bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is found in spray form and is used to control cabbageworms and their cousins.

Botanical Pest Control: Natural insecticides made from plants like the pyrethrum daisy (Tanacetum coccineum) are used very effectively and are a major force in the bad bug patrol. Pyrethrum, rotenone, and sabadilla are a few of these botanicals, which disperse quickly and do not leave residues.