The monthly Garden Musings were written by George and Becky Lohmiller. Early recordings in the series were read by Almanac group publisher John Pierce, as well as Almanac copy editor Jack Burnett. Almanac editor, Heidi Stonehill became the narrator in 2012.
Trees in Season
It’s easy to grow a few Christmas trees for your family use at the edge of a lawn or field. Some advance planning is required because it takes 8 to 10 years to produce an average-size tree. You may want to plant all of one type of tree or have variety from year to year. Among the best varieties are balsam and Fraser fir, white spruce, and Scotch pine, the latter two being the most adaptable to climate extremes and soil conditions. Christmas trees are often available through county extension service offices or through nurseries specializing in seedlings.
A well-drained site is essential, as is full sunlight. Unless you plan to supply many friends and neighbors with trees, just install four or five the first year, and add one or two each year thereafter. Plant the trees at least 4 feet apart. During the time that the trees are growing, they are of course part of your landscape and can also serve as a windbreak or privacy hedge. If you decide to let some of the trees remain permanently, bear in mind that they will grow up to be “real” trees.
Plant the seedlings early in the spring so that roots can become well established. Once set in, your trees will need surprisingly little care. An annual feeding of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) will nourish them adequately. If seedlings should heave out over the winter (a result of inadequate drainage and/or a snowless winter), try setting them back in, packing the soil firmly. Keep young trees pruned to one leader; otherwise, don’t prune until the trees are 3 to 4 inches high. A tree left to its own (and nature’s) devices may turn out fine, but plantation quality can be ensured by removing the bottom whorl of branches (which also facilitates mowing around them) and by pruning each year to the desired shape. This shearing will also provide for denser foliage.
Your own homegrown Christmas trees will be shapelier than trees in the wild, while saving you the considerable expense of buying commercially raised trees, thus making the season even jollier.
Saving Energy, Naturally
A walk down a country lane can demonstrate what a difference trees and natural features can make to one’s comfort. The cool shade of overhanging maples is a welcome relief from the midday sun of July, yet on a bright winter’s day, sunshine streaming through the bare branches warms the body and soul. Similarly, the sheltering effects of pines and hemlocks is quickly realized when one steps from their protection and strolls out into an open field on a windy winter’s day.
A well-designed homesite will incorporate these features in landscape design. An energy-efficient landscape has been proven to cut home heating and cooling costs by up to 30 percent. A house nestled against a hillside or next to a stand of pines is often spared the brunt of chilly winter winds, and trees that were spared the bulldozer blade during construction can reduce or eliminate the need for air-conditioning in the summer.
If your home doesn’t have a natural windbreak, many evergreens are suitable for installation. White pine, Canadian hemlock, and Norway spruce are often used for this purpose. Plant them 4 to 6 feet apart in a staggered row. Generally speaking, wind velocity will be reduced from a distance up to five times the height of the plant. Topping each tree every year will keep the height right and will also force it to stay bushy. Another row of evergreens established along a walk or driveway will stop drifting snow and eliminate some plowing or shoveling.
The strategic use of shade trees in a landscape may increase a property’s value by up to 20 percent and also provide energy savings. Planted in front of a porch or patio area on the south side of a house, they provide a pleasant place for outdoor activities. In the summer, the dense canopies of trees like maples and oaks keep these places cool, yet when leafless in the spring, winter, and fall, they allow sunshine to stream in. A pergola or trellis covered with grapes or a flowering vine can give attractive shade to windows or glass patio doors in summer, yet allow light to shine through when the sun is lower in the sky during the winter.
A Good Eye, Deer
Though an occasional nuisance to gardeners, deer are generally admired for their beauty and grace. The current deer population in the United States, estimated at over 12 million, is much larger than when this land was first settled by Europeans. The primary reason for the increase is land clearing.
Through habitat development, even on a small scale, rural landowners can provide for deer population. Deer love the edge between woods and open land. Even a small opening in the woods or a thinning from logging will encourage deer. Deer will enjoy the shelter of evergreens and will also eat the lower branches of black cherry, red and striped maple, red oak, yellow birch, sumac, and their favorite—white cedar. They also will eat the bark of hemlock, fir, apple, cherry, and striped maple in March or April, when other food sources have been depleted. Selective thinning of the woods offers the advantage of letting in more sunlight to promote undergrowth and sucker growth from stumps, which the deer will enjoy. This also encourages top growth of the remaining trees. Clearing around old apple trees “lost” in the woods will enhance their fruit bearing — it may not be fruit you’d ever put in a pie, but the deer will love it.
Although deer are adaptable in their eating habits, abrupt changes in diet can cause digestive problems. In the fall deer eat a lot of nuts and fruit to get the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to gain strength not just for winter but also for mating. During the mating season, which peaks in November, bucks may expend so much of their caloric reserves that they risk starvation during the winter. Antlers, used to battle competing bucks, start dropping in December. They will grow anew in the spring. The number of tines on antlers are determined by genetic factors combined with health and diet. If a deer has been injured, the antlers on the side opposite the injury are often stunted or deformed.
Deer are most active at dawn and dusk. And yes, deer have good eyesight. They are conditioned to detect the slightest movement, but will sometimes overlook stationary objects. Fortunately (for them) they have excellent hearing and smelling senses as well.
Be a Host to Hosta
Over the years, the hosta has remained a favorite perennial with many gardeners. Also known as heart lily, plantain lily, and funkia, this easy-care plant, grown primarily for its colorful rippled foliage, is an ideal choice for shaded gardens. Some varieties such as plantaginea (‘Old August Lily’) will even grow in full sun.
We associate hostas with Victorian gardens and public parks. Nineteenth-century gardeners appreciated how hostas thrived under difficult growing conditions, including beneath the canopies of shade trees and along well-traveled walkways. Home gardeners and designers are still using hostas for attractive solutions to landscaping problems. They will survive in areas too shady or competitive for other plants. They can be left in place for a dozen years or more without dividing and will even tolerate clay or compacted soils. Available in sizes ranging from 3- to 40-inches high and with leaf colors of blues, yellows, greens, and variegated, hostas will fit almost any planting situation.
As a border or edging plant, the hosta is unsurpassed. Varieties such as ‘August Moon’ (fine yellow color with a crinkled leaf) and ‘Francee’ (green heart-shaped leaves with bright white margins) will shimmer under moonlight or lamp light, making them ideal for paths and entrances. In a wooded lot with various degrees of shade and sun, the hosta’s mottled leaves and small fragrant flowers bring light, color, and aroma to the area.
Hostas are easily divided in spring or fall. If only one spare plant is needed, simply dig it from the edge of an existing clump. To make several divisions, lift the entire clump and try pulling apart the rhizomes by hand, making sure that a large bud or two remains with each division.
Flowers That Make Good Sense
Many herbs are just as at home in the flower garden as they are growing by the kitchen door. Chives, for instance, can be nestled among rock garden plants or used in the perennial border. The spiky, light green chive foliage has an attractive grasslike appearance, and the pink-lavender flowers add early garden color.
Lungwort, another early-flowering herb, was once used to treat whooping cough and other ailments of the chest. Its white-spotted green foliage adds variety to the garden, as do its bright pink flowers, which mature to a true blue. Often both pink and blue flowers can be seen growing on this herb at the same time.
Yarrow, which flowers at mid-season, is aromatic, and its long-lasting rose, white, or yellow flower heads can be used in fresh or dried arrangements. Years ago yarrow tea was commonly used to treat colds and fevers, and the fernlike gray-green leaves added zest to summer salads.
Herbs that add an entire season of bloom to the flower bed are hyssop (blossoms of purple, pink, or white), bedstraw (yellow), flax (blue), and the scented geraniums (pink, blue, purple).
Many herbs are effective in plantings for the color and texture of their foliage. The artemisias, including ‘Silver King’, which grows to three feet, and ‘Silver Mound’, often used as a neat accent in the front border, have eye-catching gray-green leaves and stems.
Several herbs make great ground covers. Creeping thyme can quickly cover a barren slope with sparkling silver foliage and bright pink or white flowers. When planted in the cracks between stones or bricks in a garden path, they perfume the air with every step.
Lamium is an extremely attractive ground cover that thrives in shade or dappled sunlight. Its silver-green leaves are quite showy, as are its pink, white, or purple blooms. Also known as dead nettle, it is a close cousin of the bothersome weed stinging nettle but without any of the disadvantages.
Chamomile is a low-growing ground cover with small daisylike, yellow-centered white blossoms. This tough, drought-resistant herb can be substituted for lawn grass and will even stand up to mowing. And if you’re at a loss as to what to do with the clippings, they can be brewed into a fine cup of tea.
Petunias are a common sight in almost any garden or landscape and with good reason: They are easy to maintain, come in a wide variety of colors and sizes, and can be bought just about anywhere. Their popularity, however, should not encourage you to take them for granted.
Petunia cultivars tend to fall under two main types, the larger-flowered grandifloras and the smaller multifloras. The largest flowers can be up to 7 inches; the smallest, around 2 inches. Single-flower varieties generally produce bell-shaped flowers. The double-flowered varieties resemble carnations, with densely clustered petals forming fluffy balls. Colors include a range of pastels, plus deep red, blue, white, and several shades of yellow, and they can be solid, striped, or splotched with white. The petal edges may be wavy, ruffled, or fringed. Petunias provide constant color between the different blooming periods of perennials. They can also be used effectively in window boxes, patio containers, or hanging baskets, and there are several cascading varieties that work well in these locations. Though usually considered annuals, petunias are actually delicate perennials and may survive year-round in mild locations.
All petunias thrive in full sunlight. Shade tends to discourage flowering and will also cause the plants to become leggy as they reach for more light. Even in full sun petunias can become spindly. The best way to control this is to pinch back the tips when the plants are still young to encourage bushier growth. Additional pinching and removal of spent flowers should be done throughout the growing season.
The single-flowered varieties are more tolerant of poor soil — their main requirement is good drainage. All varieties are drought-resistant despite their delicate appearance. Of course, they will appreciate watering during a dry period—just be sure to spray manually underneath the flowers, lest they become water spotted. After a summer storm petunia flowers will look fairly ragged, but removing the most damaged flowers encourages a hasty rejuvenation. Fertilize petunias about once a month.
In the evening your petunias will bring additional life to your landscape, for they attract beautiful moths, and the brilliant white-flowered varieties appear to glow in the moonlight.