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Tree Warden: Around the Yard
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"Around the Yard" is a monthly article written by Tree Warden Tom Chamberland
and is published in the STURBRIDGE TIMES magazine.

Selected articles are presented here for your reference with permission by the Publisher.

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1262010_31650_12.pngFebruary 2008
Are we losing our trees?

What if…….in a period of less than 100 years…..
        There was a fungus that could kill one species of tree that makes up almost 60% of our current forest trees?

        There was another fungus that would kill over 90% of our primary street shade tree?

        There was an insect that when left uncontrolled could kill off one of the three most common evergreen trees in our Southern New England Forest?

        There was another fungus that, when teamed up with another insect, would over a 3-5 year period slowly kill those trees we get our baseball bats from?

        There was still another insect that in large numbers, yet so tiny one would need a magnifying glass to see, can kill off the one tree that drives a state’s economy?

        There was a “perfect storm” of two insects that can strip a tree of its leaves, combined with the effects of a prolonged drought that would kill of up to 60% of all our deciduous trees in a single year?

Sound like science fiction? Well unfortunately it’s not, it is happening to us today, so let me explain.

The first and second scenarios have already happened, first, the American Chestnut Blight.  American Chestnut trees made up 60% of our forest canopy before this disease struck.  Currently there is research ongoing to develop a strain of chestnut trees resistant to the Fungus.  Locally the U S. Army Corps of Engineers is cooperating with the American Chestnut Foundation and has a test plot of chestnut trees that are a part of the genetic breeding to obtain a disease resistant tree.  If you would like to participate in this program or learn more visit: or 

The second is Dutch Elm disease that has killed off our American Elm Trees.  Currently through cross breeding and grafting there are now three new elm tree varieties that show some good resistance to the fungus.  However, because of the cross breeding, none of the new trees has the true form and shape of our American Elm.  For more information on American Elms visit: or   or

The third scenario is currently happening to our native Eastern Hemlock trees.  The Hemlock Woolley Adelgid, an insect so tiny you need a magnifying glass to see, and one that “came over in the boat” from China, is now slowly killing off our Eastern Hemlock trees.  This insect is winter hardy, and is now active on hemlocks.  It can be controlled by a really cold snap (-10 degrees for at least two-three nights) or by Lady Bugs and other larger insects that feed on Adelgids.  To learn more about this insect visit:

The fourth scenario is The Emerald Ash Borer insect and Ash Yellows, a fungus that is killing our native white ash trees.  Ash Yellows is currently rampant in the New England area. On Fiske Hill alone, here in Sturbridge, I have had to remove 13 white ash trees this year alone. When any tree is weakened and stressed, they are more susceptible to insect attack, and Ash trees are host to the Emerald Ash Borer, another insect brought to American from overseas containers. Currently this insect is affecting ash trees in the upper Mid-west area. Ash trees are the preferred lumber for sports equipment like base ball bats, and wooden handles for tools. For more information visit:  and

The fifth scenario is the maple/pear thrips, very tiny insects that attack the buds of the maple and pear trees.  This insect has been observed in Vermont, where there is much concern for the survival of their Sugar Maple Trees. One of the problems is we have not yet found an insecticide that will control these thrips.  For more information visit:

And finally, something that is happening right here in our state of Massachusetts in the general south east area.  Over the past several years, the gypsy Moth has been slowly defoliating areas in Plymouth County. Over the past three years a new insect the winter moth has exploded to large numbers where they are also defoliating the hardwood trees of this area, continuing to weaken the deciduous forest.  And now this past summer being hot and dry there has been a large mortality of deciduous trees in the area.  In some communities upwards to 60% of the deciduous trees had died.  In general mortality rates of 25-40% are common.  Two insects, feeding at different times and then a drought, a “perfect storm” or one-two-three punch.  The local electric utility Companies are looking to spend upwards to $350,000.00 a year just for tree removal to maintain reliable electrical service.  For more information on Gypsy Moth visit: 

So is it really that bad? Well fortunately, no, research and testing is currently ongoing on all of these diseases and insects and some of the links referenced will provide more information.   However in the meantime, we need to be observant for early signs of new insect infestation,  caring for and preserving our forests through good forest management and in our community continue good tree health management by removing dead and dying diseased trees and their leaves and planting more and new varieties of  trees that are disease resistant.  I have recently asked the Board of Selectmen to endorse a bylaw for the formation of a Tree Advisory Board to assist the Tree Warden with these and other related tree issues.  This will be voted on in the upcoming annual town meeting in April.  For more information on good community forestry visit: and the Tree Warden’s page on the Town’s web site:

1262010_31650_12.pngMarch 2008
Fruit Tree Pruning

Well the snows of this winter have receded with the plentiful rains of February.  March should now bring us our first real taste of spring which officially begins latter this month and with an earlier change of our clocks too!

If you did not put away your hand tools properly last fall, now would be a great time to clean and sharpen the blades using a hand file and course steel wool. Also steel wool or lightly sand the wooden handles to remove splinters and apply a light coat of either 3 in 1 oil, wd 50,  CRC 56 or any type of light oil and thoroughly wipe dry.  This will prolong the wooded handles of your tools, you will be less likely to work up blisters, suffer a splinter, and keep the steel blades from rusting. Remember sharp tools make clean cuts which will help your trees and shrubs heal quicker.

March is also a good time to prune fruit trees, as in all things gardening; there is a good time and a bad time to prune.  For fruit trees now is the good time. When I talk about fruit trees, I would also include flowering trees, such as crab, cherry, red bud, or similar. Pruning in the late winter provides an easy view of the branch structure of the tree, and the branches are not laden down with leaves.  Look closely at your tree, there are branches that come off of the trunk, and then there are branches that come off of those branches, and so on, until you reach the tips.  Notice that the smaller branches growing off the main branches will grow one to the left, then one to the right, or “alternate” from one side to the other.

Sun light needs to reach into all of the branches of your tree for good growth and fruiting.  The problem is a healthy tree will form too many branches, and with out pruning you will have too many branches so that when the leaves are out, they shade some of the other branches, cutting down on the number of flowers.  Whether it is a fruit tree or a flowering crab apple tree, flowers are what you want to have.

The goal is to prune to let the most amount of sun onto the most number of branches.  So let’s start with some basics, first, even if you prune something wrong, it isn’t really wrong. The tree will continue to grow and repair anything you may have done “wrong” it just may take several years to fully restore the shape.

So take a good look at the tree, remove any broken or damaged branches.  Remember to take branches off in sections, and use the “three cut” method.  First, cut up from the bottom, about 6” out from where you want to make the final (third) cut.  Second, cut away from the first cut by ½ the diameter distance, fully through the branch.  This will allow the branch to break at the first cut line.  The third cut is made at the branch collar, just slightly away from the trunk or main branch stem.  

Once you have damaged branches removed, look for branches that cross over, close enough to touch each other, one of these branches should be removed.  If you have a branch that grows to the outside of the tree, you should remove the other branch.  If you are pruning to shape the tree always cut just above a branch or bud that is on the side facing the outside of the tree. This type of pruning makes for a more open tree that allows more sunshine to reach the center of the tree.

If this is the first time you have pruned the tree it is time to stop and let the tree grow for another year.  Next winter you can do more pruning for shaping or shortening.  For more information on pruning, visit: or

Don’t be afraid to try some pruning, even if you just do a little bit, it will boost your confidence enough to try doing more.  Oh, and make sure you have sharp pruners to begin with!

And one final note about March, which we in the landscape business affectionately call New England’s fifth season: mud season. Making mud, as in greatly disturbing the soil in your yard, will do damage to your lawn, and to the roots of the plants in your yard.  Nature has, through frost, expanded the soil so it will hold more moisture and provide better oxygen exchange in the root zone, and with a deep frost, holds the water to thoroughly saturate the soil to get plants roots off to a good start as the soil warms to growing temperatures.  You should allow Mother Nature to do her part in getting your plants and lawn off to a good start.  Stay off the grass, leave the flower beds and shrub areas alone until April, after all frost has thawed in the soil, and “mud season” has ended.

1262010_31650_12.pngApril 2009
April is Arbor Day!

April is one of my favorite months, because we celebrate my favorite holiday, Arbor Day. Arbor Day is a nationally-celebrated observance that encourages tree planting and care. Founded by J. Sterling Morton in Nebraska in 1872, in Massachusetts Arbor Day is celebrated each year on the last Friday in April.  I believe in the words of J. Sterling Morton, who said of Arbor Day; “Arbor Day is the only holiday that celebrates the future, and not of events of the past.”
There probably isn’t a yard in the Town that could not use some type of tree, or shrub, so this month lets go over some basic tree planting tips.

One of the biggest problems I see when I am called in to look at trees is planting too deep.

Tree trunks have a flare at the bottom; this root flare should be positioned slightly above grade. In other words, the tree should look like a bell-bottom pants leg going into the ground, not a telephone pole. If it looks like a telephone pole, the roots may end up girdling the tree, eventually strangling the vascular system and killing it.

The planting hole should never be deeper than the root ball (in a tree that is sold as “ball-and-burlapped”), don’t be afraid to pull off some dirt and look for that root flair. Make sure the hole is two to three times as wide. If the hole you dug is the same size as the root ball going in, it’s too small and remember to remove all wire and at least the top half of the burlap. If it is a plastic container completely remove the container.

Then resist the urge to backfill the hole with soil you have amended with peat or compost. This advice often sounds counterintuitive; that is, the tendency among many tree-planters is to provide the tree with good soil around it. The problem this creates is like a “happy little zone” and they (the roots) don’t want to grow past that. Use the soil that came out of the hole, and amend it only if you had to use a jackhammer to get it out (too much clay) or the sides of the hole keep sliding in and you now have a hole the size of a swimming pool (too much sand). Also, resist the urge to stake your tree because research shows a tree needs give and take to grow strong. Sometimes a tree that is staked too rigidly is too weak to survive when the staking material is removed. If you think your tree needs staking, use flexible material (pantyhose, perhaps) so there is “give,” and don’t forget to take the staking material off after one full growing season.

Another very important item is watering — either too much or too little. Watering is critical during the first three years. But trees should not get so much moisture that the roots drown. To test, put your finger one inch down into the root ball. If it’s wet, you’re fine. If not, it’s time to water. The rule of thumb is that a tree needs one gallon of water for every inch of diameter of trunk every five to seven days, if there is less than one-half of an inch of rainfall during the week, water your tree.

And the biggest problem I see through out town is over mulching.  “Mulch volcanoes”  the piling up of mulch around tree so they look like  mound, with the tree “erupting” will soon become the #1 killer of trees in our urban landscape.  This over mulching maintains moisture and fungus around the stem of a tree that is meant to be dry.  These fungi will break down the cell wall structure leading to failure and breaking off of the stem.  The moisture will encourage the tree to send out advantageous filamentous root growth leading to stress and die back of the tree during periods of drought, and all this extra mulch cost money! Mulch should be no more that 4” thick and kept back from the tree stem several inches, exposing the root flair.  

For more tips on tree planting visit the Tree Warden’s web page at:

This year the Town will be celebrating Arbor Day by handing out tree seedlings to students at Burgess Elementary and a tree planting event on the Town common.  I am also pleased to announce that the State wide Tree City USA award ceremony will be held at Old Sturbridge Village on Friday May 8th, bringing Tree Wardens and community tree advocates from around to the state to our fine community as Sturbridge receives its 20th consecutive Tree City USA Award.

For more information on Arbor Day, tree panting and care visit the National Arbor Day website at:

1262010_31650_12.pngOctober 2009
Fall Tree Pruning

        One of the projects to consider for this time of year is tree pruning. This may not be the most glamorous DIY project, but doing it properly is critical to the health of the trees in your yard. Why is trimming a tree properly so important? The most immediate reason is that improperly trimming a tree can injure you. The long term reason is the health of the tree: if you do a poor job trimming a tree, you can open up the tree to diseases and damage from the elements. Healthy trees add value to a yard and replacing mature trees is difficult both from a cost and time standpoint.  

A tree may need pruning for a variety of reasons:
· to remove diseased or storm-damaged branches
· to thin the crown to permit new growth and better air circulation
· to reduce the height of a tree
· to remove obstructing lower branches
· to shape a tree for design purposes

        Once the decision has been made to prune, your next decision is whether or not to tackle the job yourself. In the case of a large tree where you want to remove big branches in the upper area of the crown, it may be best to hire experts. Large tree pruning, in particular, can require climbing and heavy saws or even cherry-pickers and chain saws. This is a job that should be left to trained and experienced professionals. Never compromise personal safety in pruning a tree. When contemplating trimming a large tree, consult a certified arborist, many tree company ads will state “licensed”, there is no licensure for tree workers or “insured”, yes any contractor you do business with should be insured.  If you want quality, professional work, look for “Certified Arborist” in the add. The two most common certifications are “ISA” for International Society of Arboriculture or “MAA” for Massachusetts Certified Arborist.  Companies that employ properly trained folks know tree biology and structure and how to properly and safely prune our local trees.

        Large trees aside, there are many pruning jobs that you can do on your own. In all cases, the key is to prune the unwanted branch while protecting the stem or trunk wood of the tree. Tree branches grow from stems at nodes and pruning always takes place on the branch side of a stem-branch node. Branches 1222010_14321_0.pngand stems are separated by a lip of tissue called a stem collar which grows out from the stem at the base of the branch. All pruning cuts should be made on the branch side of this stem collar. This protects the stem and the other branches that might be growing from it. It also allows the tree to heal more effectively after the prune. To prevent tearing of the bark and stem wood, particularly in the case of larger branches, use the following procedure, it’s called the three cut method:

1. Make a1222010_14449_8.png small wedge shaped cut on the underside of the branch just on the branch side of the stem collar. This will break the bark at that point and prevent a tear from running along the bark and stem tissue.

2. Somewhat farther along the branch, starting at the top of the branch cut all the way through the branch leaving a stub end.

3. Finally, make a third cut parallel to and just on the branch side of the of the stem collar to reduce the length of the stub as much as possible.

        A similar procedure is used in pruning one of two branches (or one large branch and a stem) joined together in a 'u' or 'v' crotch. This is known as a drop crotch cut. Make the first notch cut on the underside of the branch you're pruning well up from the crotch. For the second cut, cut completely through the branch from inside the crotch well up from the ridge of bark joining the two branches. Finally, to shorten the remaining stub, make the third cut just to one side of the branch bark ridge and roughly parallel to it.

        The dormant season, late fall or winter, is the best time to prune although dead branches can and should be removed at any time. Pruning during the dormant period minimizes sap loss and subsequent stress to the tree. It also minimizes the risk of fungus infection or insect infestation as both fungi and insects are likely to be in dormancy at the same time as the tree. Finally, in the case of deciduous trees, pruning when the leaves are off will give you a better idea of how your pruning will affect the shape of the tree.

1222010_14610_15.pngWhen deciding how much to prune a tree, as little as possible is often the best rule of thumb. All prunes place stress on a tree and increase its vulnerability to disease and insects. One should never prune more than 25% of the crown and ensure that living branches compose at least 2/3 of the height of the tree. Pruning more risks fatally damaging your tree. If your tree needs more than the 25% removal consider doing it in phases, a couple years apart.  In some cases, storm damage, height reductions to avoid crowding utility lines or even raising the crown to meet street and sidewalk clearances, your pruning choices are made for you. But even in these instances, prune as little as you can get away with.

        Advice regarding tools is pretty straight-forward. Buy the best tools you can afford and keep them in good condition.  Two tools that I own and find very useful are:
        tool-treehelp-pole-pruner-small.jpg                                                         tool-folding-pruner-2.jpg
A Pole saw that reaches about 14’,                A folding hand pruning saw where
made of fiberglass, and telescopes                     the blade folds into the handle
        If I can’t reach the limbs I need to prune by either standing in the ground with the pole saw, or in a properly anchored ladder using the folding saw, I call in the professional folks.

        After each tree you prune, remember to disinfect your pruning tools in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water followed by cleaning with soapy water and then drying and an application of light oil. Tree diseases are easily spread by infected tools.

        This basic pruning advice also applies to the larger woody shrubs you may have growing in your yard; however remember that for shrubs the thing to remember is the best time to prune is just after they have flowered.

        Finally, I cannot stress enough, if you're not skilled in the use of tools like chain saws or if the pruning job is more than you're capable of managing, hire an expert. Safety first.



1262010_31650_12.pngMay 2008
Victory Gardens

Many of us may have watched a PBS series “The Victory Garden.” Did you know that this initially was a Government promoted program during World War II?
The world was at war.~ Resources of all kinds were being diverted to support the war efforts.~ Our government asked their citizens to help in every way that they could.
Americans dutifully funded the war effort by purchasing bonds, conserving raw materials, many recycled, rallied behind the troops, helped their neighbors, they gave their lives, and they planted "Gardens for Victory".
Victory Gardens came in every shape and size.~ Governments and corporations promoted this call for self-reliance.~ People in all areas, rural and urban alike, worked the soil to raise food for their families, friends, and neighbors.~ Victory gardening enabled more supplies to~be shipped to our troops around the world.
These concepts may seem to be foreign to us in this global economy.~ For years we have been bombarded by marketing messages of consumerism, reliance on others, and have experienced nearly constant economic growth with a growing reliance on food grown in other lands.~ A whole generation of young people know it no other way.~ History is cyclical, the strong economy of the 1980s and 1990s has begun to weaken, and this may be a lesson to be learned from the past.~
This may now be a good time to plant your own "Victory Garden". It does not have to be large, and here are some ways to maximize yields from a small space.
The first thing to consider is an appropriate selection of crops.  The best vegetables for a small garden should have high yields per space unit, or provide a continuous crop over a long period of time. Tomatoes are a good example, a large number of fruit from a single plant with a continuous harvest from July through September.   Broccoli is another good example. After the primary head is harvested, leaving the plant in place will encourage side shoots with small heads of broccoli.
Harvesting crops frequently and not letting them get overly ripe will keep the plants productive for longer periods.  Summer squash and cucumbers are two good examples, and as a bonus, smaller fruits are usually tastier, more nutritious and have smaller seeds. The harvest season for leafy greens can be extended by continuing to cut off young leaves as they develop. Loose leaf lettuce, chard, kale spinach, endive and pac choi are all leafy greens well suited for this type of harvesting, a group that one could call “cut and come again” vegetables.
Second, consider a planting strategy, which will make more efficient use of the space. Interplanting one crop with another is such a strategy.  Planting a fast growing radish with a slow growing onion or carrot is an example.  Another way is planting lettuce between rows of tomato plants. There is plenty of room, and the lettuce will actually do better with the shade provided by the tomato plants.
Third consider succession planting, a technique where a second crop is planted is planted in the small space after another crop has been harvested. For example, an early season crop like spinach, radishes, lettuce, and peas are harvested beets, beans turnips or carrots can be planted in the same space.  The idea is to not let any space go unplanted through the growing season.
Next, look up! The use of vertical space should not be overlooked when trying to save space in the garden. Vine crops including peas, pole beans, cucumbers, winter squash and cantaloupes can be grown on a fence or trellis. Tomatoes can be grown in tall wire cages made from concrete wire or staked rather than being allowed to sprawl over the ground.
Finally, even when you think there is no space for a vegetable garden it may still be possible to grow some vegetable crops. How about selecting bush or dwarf varieties of vegetables and grow them in a container on the deck or patio? Also consider that some plants have some ornamental features that can be incorporated into the landscape.  Red leaf lettuce, herbs such as sage, chives, basil, and parsley can be used as edging plants for flower beds or planted with low growing perennials in a mixed border.
I have many memories of working with my Dad in his large garden. Today our garden is only 6’ x 20’ and we grow many of the vegetables I have listed. So while you may not want to get into a big garden I hope I have presented some ideas so size will not be a deterrent for anyone who wants to exert a little independence and create your own victory garden!
For more information on the history of Victory Gardens visit:
For more information on the PBS show: The Victory Garden visit:

1262010_31650_12.pngJune 2008
Edible Ornamental Landscaping

To those of you my age, you may remember a book from back in the 1960’s; Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons, and though you may not be into making Elderberry Sumac jelly, one of the many recipes in his book, you maybe interested in going out to your yard and picking a handful of fresh blueberries for your breakfast cereal, or how about making concord grape jelly from grape vines growing in your yard or even picking a late August fresh peach from a tree in the front lawn on your way out to the newspaper box?  While some of these may be available in the wild, they can all be grown in our yards right here in Sturbridge.  One of the more highly regarded books on this subject is The Complete Guide to Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy published in the early 1970’s which coincided with a “back to the land”  movement of that era.  “Growing your own” popular back then still remains so today.  Somewhat more slowly has come the movement to bring these plants out of the backyard and into the front yard, combining both the edible and ornamental properties of some of these plants for all to see. This month I will focus on fruiting perennials. (AKA Berries)

The edible part of an edible ornamental, is fairly self evident. Many plants produce seed bearing fruit that is edible: blueberries, apples, or grapes. Basically a plant produces fruit for distribution to contribute to the longevity of the species. The benefit to us is enjoying the fruit in both nutrition and visual attractiveness. Of interest also is that the berries incorporate another benefit in that anthocyanins, the pigments that create the color in the fruit in making it so visually noticeable and attractive are extremely healthful, containing high levels of antioxidants and other health promoting compounds. So the fruiting plant keeps us healthy, living a long time to continue eating and distributing the seeds. Good for us and good for the plant, ingenious!

Now anything that produces fruit also produces flowers, and most berries, with the exception of grapes, rely on insects to pollinate the flowers, so the flowers are generally quite showy. Finally, some of these plants have leaf and bark color or texture and branch structure that can add beauty to the home landscape. The combinations of all of these aspects result in a wide variety of possibilities for integration into either foundation plantings, container gardens, living fences, border gardens, arbors, ground covers and/or display gardens.

Here are some suggestions: High or Low bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lingonberries, also know as upland cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) both of which love our acid soil. Gooseberry (Ribes uvacrispa) or the new variety of Black Current ‘Crandall’ ( Ribes aureum) require less acid soil. A favorite small tree of mine, Service Berry (Amelanchier canadensis) might well be used as an anchor for a display garden or island.  Climbing vines like grapes or spreading ground cover like strawberries can also be considered. Raspberries, peaches, almonds, hazel nuts, the list is endless.

Edible landscaping not only adds an exciting new dimension to gardening, but also offers health benefits too.  These benefits range from “working the land” exercise and stress relief to the addition of eating healthy foods. You can also gain some satisfaction is saying “I grew this myself”.  Even if you don’t harvest the fruit for your consumption, you are providing natural food for wildlife, reducing the need for artificial feeders which can attract possibly unwanted wildlife into your yard like bears, raccoons, and the like. But most importantly, Kids may be the ones who benefit the most from landscaping and gardening with edible plants. Through the early experience of popping a handful of ripe raspberries into their mouths with juice running down the sides, many will develop a life-long love of gardening, not because it is “cost effective” or practical (usually its not), but because it feels great.  Kids can learn about pruning, honey bees and weeding, good and bad bugs, and mulching. They can see the cycles of the seasons, and the effects on the plants, as well as other interactions of nature.

So try a couple of edibles in your yard. Don’t be afraid to plant them right out front. Your neighbors won’t laugh, and even if they do, just bring them a pint of berries, and they will come around.  

For more information on edible plants visit: .

A good source for fruiting plants that can grow in our area is an organization I strongly support, the National Arbor Day Foundation. Visit their site at: and visit their “tree store.”

And remember it’s not too late to help the Town reach its planting goal of 2020 Plants this year in celebration of the 20th annual Arbor Day celebration. Let me know how you do by sending me an email at

1262010_31650_12.pngMay 2009:
Time to plant the garden

May is the month to start your vegetable garden.  A year ago, I wrote about Victory Gardens and offered some ideas on different vegetables you can grow.  I was very pleased to read last month that our First Lady Michele Obama took me up on that advice and this year started her own garden on the south lawn of the White House.  Well maybe not my advice, but good for her in starting a garden, and providing a good example for all of us and her children.

So what does it take to get a garden going?  First, a good sunny location, especially from 10 am to 5 pm.  Monitor your site and place some sticks, or rocks marking the edge of shade from any nearby trees or buildings, keep adjusting the markers in, over the next few days, until the area within the markings is always sunny, this will give you a good idea of how big you can make your garden, or heaven forbid, need to remove a tree to get more sunlight.

Next remove any grass and sod, set this aside in an area where it can compost so you can reuse the dirt next year to enhance your garden.  Next dig up the remaining soil down to 12” deep, removing rocks, and mixing together any top soil with the sub soil, after this, you will more than likely need to add some good top soil or loam.  Purchase enough to raise the area of your garden 3- 4 inches higher than the surrounding area.  Loam is sold by the cubic yard. To determine how much you will need, measure the length, times the width, times the depth in feet to get how many cubic feet and divide that number by 27, the number of cubic feet in a cubic yard.   Spread this evenly over the garden and now rent a rototiller and thoroughly mix it in.  Note: I never said this gardening would be easy!  At this point some would advise getting your soil tested,  I’ve never spent my money on that, but just added a basic 10 -10-10 fertilizer and plenty of lime.  

Now you can review last year’s month of May’s article on Victory Gardens, on line at and determine what crops you would like to try to grow.  Local hardware and farm stores as well as nurseries will have seeds or plants already started you can purchase.   After your garden is in you should now turn your attention to watering. In the August 2007 issue I wrote an article about rain barrels and how to set one up.  This will be a real benefit for your garden.  

During the summer, weeds will be a concern.  You can control weeds by pulling them, especially easy when they are small, raking them in with a hoe but be careful they have not set seed, or using mulch.  Plastic, newspaper, or heavy salt marsh straw are all good choices. For more information on mulching visit: .

Yes setting up your garden for the first time will take some effort and leave you with a pile of rocks that you need to get rid of.  Maybe that can be next month’s article, but I do believe you will get your most satisfaction from being outdoors, and getting all that exercise, and tasting that first red ripened tomato or that 6” long cucumber fresh picked from the vine after a long summer’s day, a true fruit of one’s labor!

1262010_31650_12.pngJuly 2009
Blueberries as Landscape Plants

Growing blueberries in the home garden or in our yards can be very rewarding. Fresh, ripe blueberries are delightful especially when picked straight off the bush. They are also very healthful, containing very high levels of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. Blueberry bushes also offer some year round aesthetic benefits we look for in our landscape with attractive flowers during spring bloom, showy foliage color in the fall, and during the winter the rugged twiggy branches add interest and texture, these attributes make them valuable yet frequently overlooked and underutilized in our landscape.

Blueberry plants come in several different sizes and forms. They can be large and upright like “Spartan”, moderate in height and spreading like “Bluetta”, or low and small in stature such as the low bush blueberry. Blueberries can be used individually as specimen plants or grouped for effect into larger clustered plantings. They can also be planted 3 feet apart as a hedge to form an attractive yet effective barrier. They make an excellent ground cover but it may require several years to completely fill the allotted space. The low bush blueberry and “Northsky” are the lowest, rarely reaching 18 inches in height. The half high varieties: “Friendship”, “North Country” and “Northblue” would be more appropriate as a ground cover where a height of 20 to 30 inches is desired, once established blueberries are relatively easy to maintain. There are fewer pests and diseases that attack blueberry bushes compared to some other fruit crops. If grown strictly for fruit production, it is recommended you plant several varieties for best results. Some typical local varieties are listed below.

Blueberries are relatively easy to grow, which makes them great for a low maintenance garden or yard however there are five key things that you must consider for strong, healthy, fruit producing plants:
  • Blueberries are acid-loving plants like rhododendrons and azalea and therefore require a soil pH of 4.5 to 5.2. The pH of most garden and lawn soils is too high for blueberries. Elemental sulfur is the best and easiest way to lower soil pH. Have the soil pH tested before planting. Yellowing of the area between leaf veins on young shoots is an easy way to identify high soil pH where blueberries are already growing.
  • Blueberries have fine shallow roots with no root hairs. Soil should be cool     and moist (never wet). A sandy loam that is high in organic matter is best. Generally 10 to15 quarts of peat is mixed with the soil at planting time and placed around the roots.
        Plants should be mulched with 6 to 8 inches of aged wood chips, bark or partially       rotted sawdust. This should be renewed annually. Straw or leaves can be used but are    not as good. During dry years, supplemental water may be necessary.
  • Blueberries do not grow fast and the presence of fruit nearly always stops growth of young plants. Therefore, all fruit should be removed from the plants for the first four years.
  • Once blueberries approach full size they should be pruned annually in March or
       April. Pruning is easy and requires very little time. Remove one to three of the oldest
        canes each year. This may amount to up to 25% of the whole plant. This will stimulate
        vegetative growth and keep the plant growing vigorously. Detailed and time-     consuming pruning is generally not required. Low bush blueberries are frequently        pruned every two to three years by mowing the whole plant down to ground level with     a mower before growth starts in the spring. This will stimulate vigorous new growth.    No blueberries are harvested in the year of pruning if low bush blueberries are mowed.
  • More than one variety should be planted because blueberries are considered to be partially self-incompatible. If more than one variety is planted, more fruit will set, fruit will be larger and they will ripen earlier.
As I have listed above pruning may be the most significant task involved in successful blueberry growing. Blueberry bushes that have not been pruned on an annual basis become overgrown in both height and branch density and as a result are less productive Proper pruning of blueberries is key to maintaining fruit production.

Blueberries fruit on ‘young’ wood so removing ‘old’ wood and continuously generating ‘young’ wood results in productive bushes. Secondly, you want to create good conditions for fruit production and ripening. An open growth habit for bushes allows for good air circulation and drying conditions which helps reduce the incidence of fruit rots. Also, an open growth habit allows for sunlight penetration into the fruiting zone and promotes ripening and heightens flavor. Young bushes generally require less pruning to remove undesirable growth. Mature bushes normally require more selective cuts to maintain a desired shape, plant structure, and productive fruiting wood.

The key to pruning young plants is to focus on setting up the overall plant structure that will make the bush fruitful for several years. Bushes that are seven years old and older will need to have a few mature canes removed to maintain a balance between older canes that are becoming less productive and young canes that are not quite into full production. There are several steps to consider when pruning: The first would be to remove any diseased or broken branches. Secondly, depending on the overall number, the oldest two or three canes should be removed to open up the plant structure. As with any blueberry bush, the center of the plant should be open to sunlight and air movement. The base of the bush (at the top of the root crown) should be tighter than the middle to upper portion of the bush. Third, all branches that are touching and crossing should be removed.

Sometimes, as a more final step, if your plants are over 15 years old or you are reclaiming an “abandoned” bush, the best approach may be to cut down the entire bush and allow it to re-grow from the roots. This will eliminate any fruit production for a couple of years, but results in a rejuvenated and more productive bush thereafter.

In summary the keys to remember when pruning blueberry bushes:
1) Visually size-up the blueberry bush from all sides and imagine what the plant
should look like when pruning is completed.
2) First remove all diseased and broken canes or ones growing too low to the ground.
3) Next, canes that are eight years old or older should be removed.
4) Remove all but the 2-4 most robust new canes produced the previous year.
5) Ultimately, the bush should be:
a) narrow at base,
b) open in the center, and
c) have a balance of multi-age canes throughout the bush.

Some Blueberry plants you may want to consider are:
Variety Plant            height            Plant habit              fall leaf color       Season of ripening
Berkley                        5-6 ft.              Spreading                     Orange                   Midseason
Blue crop                    4-6 ft.              Upright Fiery                Red                        Midseason
Blueray                       5-7 ft.              Upright & spreading     Yellow-orange       Midseason
Bluetta                        3-5 ft.              Compact spreading       Orange                   Very early
Collins                        4-6 ft.               Upright                          Red                        Midseason
Elliot                           5-7 ft.               Upright                         Orange-red              Very late
Friendship                  24 in.                Low                              Orange-red              Midseason
Jersey                           5-7 ft              Upright spreading        Yellow-orange        Late midseason
Northblue                  20-30 in.            Low                              Dark red                Late midseason
Patriot                         4-6 ft.               Open spreading          Orange-red              Early midseason
Spartan                      5-7 ft.                Upright open               Orange-red              Early

Consider blueberries as you think about plants that you may add to your landscape this year. They are attractive year round and if covered with netting they can provide a true New England joy of wonderful tasting fruit in July and August and if left unprotected, they will attract many different kinds of birds to your yard.  Can summer get any better than this!



1262010_31650_12.pngOctober 2007
Green tomatoes and what ever else is in your garden……

October is the time when Jack Frost will visit our area, effectively putting the growing season to an end.  So what do you do with your green tomatoes, squash, carrots, pumpkins or what have you still growing in your garden?   Here are a few suggestions for how to handle them.

Green tomatoes:  Its best to try to let them ripen on the vine, so if frost is forecast, try covering the vines with an old sheet or plastic for that night’s protection,  However as tomatoes are a subtropical plant, even temps in the 40’s will slow down their growth and ripening.  So after picking your tomatoes, examine them for blemishes, scars, remove the stems and wash them.  Sort the tomatoes by color, pink, light yellow or whitish green will most like ripen if placed on a shelf, and covered with a newspaper, they do not have to be placed in a window sill.  Check them daily for ripeness.  Tomatoes that are solidly green will not ripen those you should plan to use in your favorite recipe for green tomatoes.

Carrots: these can be left in the ground until deep winter if you heavily mulch them.   Assemble several  2” x 4” s to make a frame to place around your carrot bed, Just as the nights routinely start to turn frosty (mid-late Nov) place the frame around the rows of carrots. Over which you then placed an old canvas tarp or blanket.  Then place a straw mulch layer, 6-10” deep over this blanket.  Over the mulch layer place a plastic tarp or rain repellant cover to keep the mulch dry.  Uncover and harvest the carrots you may use in a week or so, and recover.  Leave any snow over this covering until you need to access your carrots.

Pumpkins and hard shell squash; now is the time to place a layer of straw or mulch under these to keep them off the ground to prevent worms and insects burrowing into them.  Harvest as late into the growing season you can, but before the first real killing frost. Make sure to leave at least a 3” stem on pumpkins and a 2” stem on squash.  Plants with no stem will rot faster.  Let them cure by placing in a well ventilated warm (75-80 deg.) area for 7 – 10 days. Then place them in a cool, (45-50 deg.) dry storage area, use pumpkins and softer shelled squash first, then the harder shelled squash.  Take advantage of farmer markets and stock up on hard shell squash for the winter.  

Onions, shallots and garlic: the best plants for storage are those that have fully matured, i.e. after the tops have flopped down and are brown.  Curing of onions is required to keep them from spoiling. One way is place the onions on a screen in a shaded well ventilated area, keep them dry, and let cure for two weeks. Then cut the tops back to about 1” and do not remove any of the dry flaky skin. Store the onions in a dry well ventilated area, preferably in a mesh bag (like the ones oranges and onions come in). Consider hanging bags in the garage, or attic, the closer to 32 degrees the better; however do not freeze them for long periods.

Remember to bury any old fruit (apples, pears, etc) from under your trees.  Leaving this old fruit to rot will invite diseases and fungi to live and infect next year’s crop.  Chop up old corn stalks to help get rid of European corn borer, also plow under and bury and squash and pumpkin vines to eliminate winter hiding places for squash bugs.

If you didn’t grow a garden this year, please consider doing one next year. I find gardening relaxing, and a welcome change to be outside. Make it a family project and get your kids outside too.  There is nothing better than to go pick that freshly ripened tomato for supper!  Gardens don’t have to be big, mine is only 26’ x 6’ and we had tomatoes, cukes, summer squash, radishes, and green beans.

1262010_31650_12.pngJuly 2008
Time to enjoy the fruits of our spring labor!

July is a month when many of the fruits and vegetables we have planted are reaching the harvest stage, and we can enjoy the fruits of our labor so to speak.  Knowing when to harvest is as important as knowing how to grow vegetables.  Fortunately most of our vegetables have a window of opportunity for harvesting; some however can go from tender and tasty to tough and bitter overnight.  Each vegetable does have an optimum time for picking. This is important if you want to can or freeze them.  Growth and maturity of our vegetables depends on several factors such as rainfall and watering, temperature and soil fertility. As any good gardener knows these can vary from year to year. The best way to harvest is by monitoring the characteristics of the plant, and sometimes, just good old “pick and eat” sampling of the vegetables.

My thanks to Roberta Clark of the UMass Extension Landscape Nursery and Urban Forestry Program for some common plants and suggestions on the “what and when” to look for;

Asparagus: Asparagus can be harvested only after its third year, you want the plants to establish a good root system, and the first harvest should be only for the month of May, in the following years you can harvest in May and June. Spears should be 5’ to 8’ tall, harvest by snapping them off, and bend it from the top towards the ground. Asparagus deteriorates quickly after harvest, store in refrigerator without washing.

Snap Beans: Snap beans, as the name implies, are best harvested when the pods are firm and snap readily, but before the seeds within the pod develop. Look for bean seeds in the pod to be  ¼ the normal size, this will be when the bean is the most tender, as the bean grows, the pods become more fibrous. Keep harvested beans cold and humid, and use as soon a possible.  Washing before storage help retain moisture.  Shell Beans: let them dry on the vine then shell and store in a cool dry place.

Beets: Beets are best harvested when 1 ¼” to 2” in diameter.  Beet tops can also be eaten when stalks are 4” to 6” high.  Wash and refrigerate immediately.  Harvest fall beets before the first moderate freeze or mulch heavily for winter harvest.

Broccoli: Cut broccoli when buds are compact but before they turn yellow or open into flowers.  Leave at least 6’ of stem attached so side shoots can develop and can be harvested as they enlarge.

Brussels sprouts:  Anyone still grow these?  Pick sprouts when 1” in diameter, remove from bottom of plant first, removing leaves as you harvest to increase top growth.

Cabbage:  Cut the heads when solid and before they split.  Excessive watering will cause splitting, to prevent splitting twist heads to break several roots before harvesting.  After harvesting leave the root in the ground for re-sprouting of new heads.

Carrots: Harvest at 1 – 2” thickness.  A well composted bed 6” deep will encourage a good crop.  Always pull the largest first, allowing room for smaller ones to grow.  Fall harvest before the ground freezes, or heavily mulch for winter harvest.  Remove tops as soon as possible after harvesting, wash and store in the refrigerator.

Cucumber: Harvest when fruits are bright, firm and green, before they get too large. Cucumbers are best when slightly immature, mostly of a size of 1 ½” to 2”. Pickling cucumbers will be stubbier, not as long,

Eggplant: Harvest when fruits are 6 to 8” in diameter, still firm and bright in color.  Older fruits become dull colored, soft and seedy. Store in a cool, humid place.

Garlic: Harvest when lower leaves turn brown. Remove flower stocks as they form to improve the size of the heads.  Allow heads to dry completely in a shaded dry area; remove stalks when dry. Store in a cool dry place.

Lettuce Head: Harvest entire head when head feels firm, and before bolting.  Lettuce Leaf: harvest outer leaves as they attain suitable size.  Timely picking increases length of harvest.

Onions: Harvest at ½” to 1” for table use. 1 to 1 ½” for boiling and pickling and when tops have fallen over and necks are shriveled. Pressing with fingers will not dent mature bulbs. Cure onions by placing in a single layer or mesh bag in a dry well ventilated area out of direct sunlight for 3 – 4 weeks.  Remove tops when fully dry.

Peas:  If you expect to shell the peas, harvest pods when they are shiny green and fully developed.  For edible podded varieties harvest when pods are developed, (about 3”) and before seeds and fully developed.  Peas deteriorate rapidly at high temperatures, wash and chill immediately.

Peppers, Sweet:  Harvest when fruits are firm and full size.  If red fruits are desired leave on the vine until red color develops. Peppers, Hot: Harvest as needed, young green peppers are hotter than mature colored ones. For long term storage, pull whole plants in late season and hang to dry, in a warm well ventilated place.

Potatoes:    “New” potatoes can be dug before vines die. For large potatoes wait until the vines die and the ground is dry. Use a spading fork carefully, dig deep to work from below the potatoes. Handle gently and cure in a well ventilated, cool place for 10 to 14 days.

Winter Squash:  Maturity can be roughly determined by pressure from a thumb nail on the fruit skin. Mature fruit will be hard and impervious to scratching.  Harvest before the first hard frost leaving at least 1” of stem attached.  Fruit picked with out the stem will soon decay around the stem scar. Cure in a well ventilated area for 1 week at 75-85 degrees F.

Tomato: Harvest when fruits are uniformly red (ahh the perfect tomato!)  Vine ripened tomatoes are the sweetest, but tomatoes will ripen off the vine if picked green. Green tomatoes, harvested before frost, should be wrapped in Newspaper and kept at 55- 70 degrees F.  Tomatoes stored in this manner should last 3 to 5 weeks, be sure to inspect each week for ripeness.

There are of course many more vegetables then I can cover in the space allowed.
For more information on gardening in New England consider visiting Old Sturbridge Village and take in one of their garden programs visit:  
Or for more “online” information visit:


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1262010_31650_12.pngAugust 2008
Bears, Deer, Moose and Coyotes… Oh My…..

Wildlife in “our” yards, well it is our piece of the earth, right?  Well no, we may own it but we really share it with all the other animals of our earth.  So this month I thought I would briefly discuss ways we can better co-exist with at least two of them, bears and coyotes.   Most of this month’s information comes from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and wildlife web site:

To avoid possible seasonal conflicts between people and bears MassWildlife issues a seasonal reminder that bird feeders should be taken down by mid-March and other preventive steps be taken. Bears usually leave winter dens in late March and early April. In some cases, bears do not den at all during the winter. "There is little in the way of natural foods and bears learn to seek out high-energy human foods such as bird seed," says Jim Cardoza, MassWildlife Bear Project Leader. "This may lead to conflicts that pose hazards to both bears and people." Massachusetts is home to approximately 2,000 resident bears, with the majority living west of the Connecticut River. Bears also reside as far east as Worcester County and towns in northern Middlesex County.
Bears have excellent long-term memories and remember which foods are available at different seasons, and where these foods can be found. Even if a feeder is inaccessible to bears, they will be attracted by the scent of seed and suet. Once they learn the location of these foods, bears will return. Bears are typically shy and fearful of people but deliberate feeding or indirect availability of human food, coupled with a lack of harassment can cause bears to become accustomed to people. If bears lose their fear of people and develop a taste for human foodstuffs, bears can become bolder and may cause damage that ultimately results in harm to people or to the demise of the animal.
If a bear is passing through a neighborhood without stopping, enjoy the sight. However, if the bear stops to feed on trash, bird seed or other human generated foods, remove those foods after the bear has left and advise neighbors to do the same. Due to their fear of people, bears tend to leave a yard when people step outside and make noise. Keep garbage in airtight containers, securely stored in a cellar, garage or shed. Put trash out for roadside pickup the day of trash pickup, not the previous evening. Bears can break into small sheds and barns with loose doors in search of grain or other sweet or meaty smells. Refrain from feeding pets outdoors. Do not deposit sweet or meaty items in compost piles as bears will soon find it. In residential areas where bears are known to be present, the entire neighborhood must take recommended actions or bears will move from yard to yard seeking food.

The Coyote is a very adaptable mammal often seen in rural habitats of fields and farmlands, and more recently suburban areas. They can be recognized by their thick bushy tail, long pointy nose, and pointy ears, about the size of a German Shepherd Dog but slimmer boned and half the weight. In winter, their coat grows very thick. They can be told apart from their larger cousin the wolf and domestic dogs because coyotes carry their tail low when running whereas wolves and dogs carry their tail high.
Coyotes thrive on the habitat disturbances created by humans. Coyotes can survive in urban areas as long as there is food and shelter available. In urban areas, they will eat garbage, domestic pets such as cats and small dogs, as well as other animals who can adapt to human habitats: raccoons, 'possum, and ducks.
Coyotes form loose family groups, these groups may form for short periods, and then break apart as food supply allows. They hunt alone or in pairs where one coyote may distract and chase small prey right into the waiting jaws of another coyote.
They mark their territory by urinating at certain locations and leaving their scat (poop) in plain view on main trails for other coyotes to see. This scat is easy to recognize as it looks like hairy grey dog droppings. These contain indigestible parts of the food it ate: bones, fur, feathers or even seeds from berries.
In the wild state, Coyotes are timid animals with a natural fear of humans. Usually they will run from you long before you see them. Coyotes in cities and urban areas however, become accustomed to the scent of humans and may not be so quick to run. This is often not their fault, but thanks to us who do not properly dispose of garbage or who leave food out for wild animals. If you come across a coyote that is bold or overly curious, make yourself as big as possible (stand up), pick small children up in your arms, gather children in a group, make lots of noise (shout) and wave your arms. Usually, they will leave at a run.  Coyotes can breed with domestic dogs; this makes it very important to make sure your dogs are spayed or neutered. A coyote may also kill a domestic dog, or cat for that matter, if it has the opportunity.  
Due to misconceptions and fears about coyotes, many people don't recognize the beneficial aspects that coyotes contribute to our ecosystem. Predators, such as the coyote, serve a valuable function in keeping prey species in balance with their habitat. Populations of small animals, such as rodents, could increase out of control without predators. Coyotes can reduce the number of small animals that farmers, gardeners, and home owners consider as pests, such as woodchucks and rodents. While coyotes may change ecological balances of predator and prey species, they will not eliminate other species from the environment. Many scavenger animals, such as foxes, fishers, and ravens, benefit from coyote predation on other animals through increased food availability from leftover carcasses.
Perhaps at some point in the future, we can learn to cohabitate with coyotes, bears and other common wildlife species such as dear, raccoons, skunks and foxes, other creatures that, like us, just want to find a safe place live and to raise their young, Often these animals are destroyed because of human carelessness or thoughtlessness that leads to a human encounter. Remember that a fed wild animal is a dead animal. It will take some education and acknowledgement that we all share this earth, right down to our yards.

1262010_31650_12.pngJanuary 2009
Taking care of our winter friends

Again this winter has started out to be what has the making of a good ole winter, deep snow and cold.  Our native plants and animals are adaptable to this weather, but a little help for our feathered friends could be offered.

Recent research indicates that the bird population and varieties are in decline, and in some suburban areas some species are in rapid decline and on the verge of becoming extinct. Much of this has to do with the urbanization of our communities but also the development of rural areas. There is perhaps a sense of powerlessness to prevent the consequential loss of valuable hedgerows and green spaces in the countryside, but within our suburban environments, especially in our gardens there is much we can do. During the winter months, when food sources become scarce, there are a number of things we can do to help our feathered friends survive this time of the year.

Planning Plants - yes, planning make sense; choose varieties that can provide dense cover for the smaller birds and protection for the larger species. Native plants which are also a source of food are ideal. Select shrubs which provide berries, fruit and/or hips and can hold them for a period over the winter. Popular choices include wild roses, mountain ash; holly, beriberi, ornamental pear, winter berry, red cedar and crab apple are all excellent choices for our New England area.

Providing Food - if your garden isn't quite ready or sufficiently developed to provide natural sustenance and cover, you can provide much needed daily food supplements to help the local bird population. There is an enormous range of bird feeder types and sizes as well as foodstuffs to choose from and most good garden centers, DIY stores, even the local Hardware store, will all be well stocked with product at this time of year. If buying seed please read the contents carefully, some of the cheaper seed includes seed of invasive plants and weeds to our area. So whether your preference is for feeder tables, boxes, nets or balls, be very careful in selecting the position. Avoid any areas where predators such as cats could be a hazard, best to choose open locations where smaller birds especially can access area safely and yet have good visibility of lurking predators and larger birds etc.

Regular Feeding - sometimes, one can be very enthusiastic and provide copious amounts of food, this is not a good idea. Better to provide small amounts on a regular basis, e.g. provide a daily feed, in this way, no food will be wasted or left to linger which might potentially attract rodents. During very cold spells, be sure to provide a source of water which has become frozen. Remember though to remove all feeders in the spring. Providing food for wildlife when there is plenty is only inviting them to become dependent on us and encourages bear, raccoon coyote and other unwanted wildlife into our yards.

A few simple but regular measures can make a huge difference to your local winter garden wildlife.

For more information on providing winter food by plants visit:


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1262010_31650_12.pngSeptember 2007
Low Maintenance Lawn Care That’s Good For Our Environment!

It is critical to educate the general public that the darkest green turf, which many people strive for, is not in fact the healthiest turf.  A medium green turf with moderate growth rate will have the deepest root system with less thatching, reduced disease and insect problems and increased tolerance to environmental stresses such as heat drought, cold and wear.” – Dr. James Board, Prof. Emeritus, Texas A&M University, Author of the text Turfgrass: Science and culture.

Many of us want to have at least one less mowing of our lawns during the summer; some of us have a growing concern of our environment.  Having a lush green lawn has been a trend in recent years of using more fertilizers and pesticides.  Advertising has convinced many home gardeners that 5 step fertilizer/pesticide programs are a necessary part of lawn maintenance. This month I offer some simple steps to a healthy low maintenance, and ecologically more diverse lawn, and that reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide use.
  • Starting this fall, have your lawn aerated - Aeration breaks down thatch and helps the lawn to breath. You can rent an aeration machine or have a landscaper do it for you.
  • Overseed – After core aeration overseed your lawn by broadcasting a good quality seed mixture, Many of the seed will fall into the tiny holes left behind by the aeration machine.
  • Top-dress with compost – If you have an established lawn where the soil seems too sandy and just doesn’t seem to hold water or the soil is more clay and hard, providing top dressing of good quality compost will make a world of difference.  Spread 2 yards of compost per 5 thousand square feet of lawn (approx.  30’ x 160’) raking it out as evenly as you can to a depth of about ½” . Some garden centers sell compost in bulk and some even have spreader you can rent.
  • Fertilize – Most lawns will do just fine with fertilizing just once per year, in early September.  If a second application is needed apply after the first cut in the spring.  I recommend you consider using “phosphorus free lawn fertilizer” to help keep unnecessary phosphorus out of our lakes and streams.  Phosphorus is the key trigger to lake quality degradation according to our Conservation Commission.
  • Know your soil PH – The PH of the soil (acidity level) for lawns should be close to 6.5.  Most soils in our area are too acidic.  If your lawns soil has a PH of 5.5 or less weeds will grow great but grass will not.  Further you can spend lots of money on weed and feed, etc and grass still won’t grow great.  Soil testing kits can be purchased at garden shops or you can send a sample of your soil  to the UMASS Soil testing Lab ( for order form go to:, the results for UMass will tell you what the pH is and exactly how much lime you need to adjust to a pH of 6.5.  The test will also inform you of fertilizer needs and your soil organic matter (compost).  Lime can be added at any time of the year.
  • De-thatch in the spring – Removing thatch helps your lawn breath and allows for new shoots to fill in open spaces.  Give your lawn a good raking with a flexible tooth rake in early spring, or hire a landscaper to power rake your lawn.  Save the pile of dead clippings as a nice carbon source for your compost pile.
  • Mow High – Set your mower at 2 ½ to 3 inches. Mow high and weekly to keep your lawn healthy.  Higher grass will shade out weed species.
  • Skip the water and let it go dormant – If you don’t water your lawn during the summer months it will naturally go dormant in the heat of the summer.  As rains return it will green right back up in the fall.  An added boost is that Japanese beetles will look somewhere else- to a nice, lush, over fertilized and over watered lawn – to lay their eggs.
  • Fighting weeds – By following these low maintenance lawn practices your lawn will grow healthy and naturally crowd out weeds. You can pull a few dandelions individually if they bother you without having to spray a herbicide over the entire lawn, or apply dry chemical as the 5 step programs often require, whether the weeds are present or not.  The best part of this, in following these steps to a healthy lawn you will be protecting groundwater, reducing pesticide exposure and saving money.

1262010_31650_12.pngNovember 2007
Our recent weather, and several comments on our fall season
So how about our weather? With over 2 months of near drought conditions, the unusually warm weather and now in the last weeks of October, ample rain, our weather has been typical for fall.  We may have enjoyed it but it was stressful for our plants. Over the past few weeks many have asked me what the lack of regular rainfall will do to our plants.
Trees and plants in general respond slowly to our general weather conditions.  When we have unusual weather events, like prolonged drought, or extended wet periods the long term effects of these usually take a year or more to fully pronounce themselves.  This is the case of the prolific acorns we are experiencing this fall.  In the fall of 2005 we had heavy rains (remember the flooding?), that really saturated the ground, followed by a generally wet spring (remember last summers brown leaves from fungi?)  This ample rainfall allowed the trees to produce more roots to store food reserves, which was used by the Oaks trees to produce a bounty crop of acorns this year!
So what about this year’s drought?  The dry spell we experienced from mid August through mid October has left an immediate mark on the trees of a poor fall color display. The drought stressed trees started to “shut down” prematurely to conserve water, causing our poor colors.  Unfortunately, this dry period has now stressed those same trees that just last year experienced good growth in part do to an ample supply of water.   Although rainfall appears to be returning to normal amounts, the soil is so dry that it will take several more heavy soaking rains just to rebuild adequate soil moisture for our trees and plants.  If you have not been watering your plants that have been installed in your yard over the past ten years, then you can expect to see some dieback, smaller leaves, fewer flowers, and overall weaker looking plants next year.
Plants will continue to grow new roots as long as the soil temperatures stay above 40 degrees.  Adequate watering now until the ground freezes will help your plants re-grow roots lost to this drought, and restore their energy reserves for next spring. If you have mulch around your plants you should also rake to loosen this mulch, as this will help the mulch absorb the water rather than allowing it to run-off. Hard dry mulch forms a surface tension where the rain and watering will run off rather than soak in. I would not recommend any fertilization this late in the season, wait until next spring.
Now take a look at your lawn, have you mowed it close, to about 1 ½” and picked up all the leaves?  If you are saving the grass clippings and “mowed” leaves, this makes great starter for a compost pile.  Mowing your lawn close will deter grass mold from forming when longer grass is matted down by winter snows. It’s ok to lime your lawn now.
 Do you have lawn right up to and around your trees?  This not good for your trees, as there should be at least a 3’ diameter ring of mulch. If you have not already damaged the tree trunk with either the mower deck or string trimmer, you will eventually.  Now is the time to remove this sod layer and add that to your compost pile. 
Mice and Moles; Just like us humans, mice prepare for the winter too by moving indoors too!  You can prevent this by properly sealing up utility holes, gaps, cracks, and securing doors around the house.  Mice can enter a hole as small as its head, so all it takes is something less than a ¼” opening.  Sealing up these openings will go a long way in preventing mice from entering your house.
Moles: ever notice the raised ridges in your garden or lawn? A sure sign you have moles.  Moles eat slugs and worms, so if you have a poor lawn or garden they are probably doing you some good by removing the slugs. The tunnels also help aerate the soil and allow for better water penetration. However the moles also eat flowering bulbs, and can also damage the roots of your lawn and plants.  Moles are harder to control, and the best control is actually going after their food source, grubs. Control the grubs and you will control the moles.   For more information on either Mice or Moles visit:

With all this really fine weather I hope you have had a chance to take a hike on one of the many trails on our open space lands, or maybe right out in your own back yard.  You may have noticed a tall multi trunked shrub with broad golden yellow leaves and upon a closer look noticed a yellow stringy mass in clumps along the branch.  What you see is Witch Hazel, a common native plant, in bloom this time of year. Witch Hazel? That stuff in a bottle in my mother’s medicine cabinet?  Yes, Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana,   first identified in Virginia back in the early 1700’s.  It is the plant that the rubbing compound Witch Hazel is made from, nearby in Connecticut.  The yellow stringy aromatic clumps are its flowers. 
 To learn more about Witch Hazel visit any of these web sites:

1262010_31650_12.pngOctober 2008
The First Frost: Can winter be far behind?

Fall is in the air, as we are now in the month of October.  Winter will soon be upon us so now is a good time to walk around the yard and take an inventory of the fall chores.

The first thing that will send gardeners running fast is a weather forecast of the first FROST. Cool air, clear skies and light or calm winds are necessary for frost to occur. Cool air permits the temperatures to drop low enough to freeze moisture in the air which would otherwise form dew. When skies are clear, heat from the soil is able to rise, allowing the cool air to settle close to the ground and chilling the plants as they lose heat. Calm winds allow the cool air to settle without mixing it with warm air.

Frost (the sparkling ice crystals that form on all surfaces) can occur without severely damaging plants. The critical feature is the internal temperature within plant tissues. If temperatures within these tissues are cold enough to break cell walls or disrupt cell constituents beyond repair, damage, wilting, and dying will occur in those tissues affected. This usually occurs when temperatures drop to 30 degrees or colder.  

Many of our annual plants cannot survive a frost.  Some plants are more tolerant of frost than others. Woody plants, like trees and shrubs are less affected than succulent plants. Fruits and flowers may be more sensitive than leaves. Sudden and prolonged freezing will be more damaging than gradual cooling of short duration. Plants already exposed to cool temperatures will be more resistant. Within our own properties we can find variations on different sides of the house, under trees, on south or north facing slopes, or low lying areas. Cool air settles at the bottom of slopes because it is heavier than warm air. Frost pockets will then form in valleys where cool air becomes trapped. Hilltops are also susceptible to cool temperatures but often remain frost free until a more severe, often referred to as a “killing” frost occurs, when temperatures drop well into the 20’s.

How can we protect plants from that first cold snap? The two most common methods are covering to keep the plants warm or to warm the plants by sprinkling with water. Covering is the most effective for most people. Covering plants the night before with a sheet, blanket, or tarp will trap the warmth from the soil over the plants thus preventing freezing. This type of covering will usually protect plants when temperatures drop into the upper 20's. Plastic used as a covering usually doesn't work as well as the other coverings mentioned. Sprinkling the plants with water is often used as a "morning after" solution. When water cools and crystallizes into ice, heat is released which may prevent internal damage before freezing occurs within plant cells. The time when the internal plant temperature is coldest is in the morning. If the drop in temperature is not too great (more than a few degrees), watering plants in the early morning may protect tender plants that were left uncovered. You often hear of this method used in fruit orchards in the south.  Of course it never hurts to wish for cloud cover and a good breeze on those first cool nights of autumn to help prevent damage.

If you are unable to cover your plants, or the temperatures do not drop low enough, try to pick as many of your fruits and vegetables as possible before the frost. If they are not fully ripe you can always give them a few weeks to ripen indoors.

If you have added any new plants to your garden earlier this year, now is a good time to surround them with a fresh layer of mulch. A layer of mulch can protect your garden from harsh elements. Think of it as their winter coat, to prevent colder temperatures from harming your plants.

While mulch does not necessarily warm your plants, it protects them from weather the plants are not generally used to. You should lay your mulch after the ground has become cold, below 40 degrees, and the plants have already settled in to dormancy (a plant’s way of hibernating).
Autumn is also the perfect time to relocate or remove plants you are not satisfied with in their current location. Fall is also a great time to plant spring bulbs, trees and mums. Take advantage of late-season bulb sales and nursery yard clearance sales. Be sure to plant mums at least six weeks before a heavy frost so that their roots have time to develop.

If you don’t already have a compost pile, they are an excellent way to recycle your plant refuse so that it can be added to your soil next year. But be sure not to accidentally throw in weeds or cuttings that may have diseases, as these will only cause more problems for you next year. Try not to leave your compost pile exposed to cold weather either. Spread a thick layer of dry leaves on the top to provide insulation.

As we approach November it will finally be time to rake up all of those beautiful leaves you have spent all autumn admiring. Rake your yard and plant beds as well so they still are able to receive sunlight. Failing to rake up large piles of leaves will result in bare patches throughout your yard.

The leaves you collect can be added to your compost pile. The smaller the pieces, the easier they are to break down, so many gardeners choose to shred them. This also helps make the leaves less visible when you reuse them next year. Make sure you mix the leaves in with the soil rather than leaving them on top, or the soil might get too cold. This will make your compost material easier to work with in the spring.

If you miss the color in your winter garden, take a trip to a local nursery and pick up some late-flowering plants that bloom in the fall. Some you may even be able to plant now rather than wait for spring, although they may not bloom until this time next year.  So let’s get busy, winter will be fast approaching!

1262010_31650_12.pngNovember 2008:
November:  a review of this year’s growing season weather and the fall stages of our plants around our yards.

November is a good time to take stock of has happened weather wise and plant growth wise in our yards. As seasons change, so do our plants.  As for the weather we experienced a really wet and cool spring and summer, with near normal temperatures and rainfall not occurring until late August, September and October, the typical end of our growing season.

 Many of you contacted me in August inquiring about brown leaf edges and premature leaf drop. Others inquired about black “tar spots” on their leaves.  Both of these conditions and others like a white mold on the leaves are all various forms of fungi, with common names like maple anthracnose, tar spot and sooty mold. These fungi, although they do not make our plants look nice, do no real harm, unless the plant is stressed from other conditions. Late August into September our plants are already beginning the stage of shutting down for the winter, and active leaf and twig growth has stopped.  

The best time to treat these fungi with a fungicide is in the spring, when we really don’t know we will have a problem to treat.  The best prevention is now, late fall.  Raking up and proper disposal by burying of all leaves will reduce the over wintering inoculants of fungi spores for next spring, and if our weather is more “normal” next spring the outbreak of these fungi will be reduced.

If you do want to control the seriousness of these fungi in the spring proper timing of the appropriate fungicide is critical.  Most fungi have a narrow window of susessablility to fungicide, which is very weather and temperature dependant.  Applying fungicide just two or three days too late or early, or for that part even at the wrong time of day, for the particular fungus will do no good. I would only consider a fungicide treatment after several successive years of severe leaf drop. For more information on fungi visit:

What other observations can we make of our yards? Well how about mulch?  Is the thickness of your mulch in the beds greater that 4” then you have too much mulch. Did you know there are two types of mulching, growing season mulch and winter season mulch?  Growing season mulch thickness should be no greater than 4”, 3” is better, and should never be placed so it is touching or piled high around woody stem plants, this is often referred to as “mulch volcanoes”.  These mulch volcanoes and over mulching will cause more fungi to attack your woody plant stems and can even damage the bark and cambium layer causing eventual death to the plants.  Now is a good time to thoroughly rake to loosen the mulch, pull mulch 3” – 4” away from plant stems, and pull any weeds before their seed can fall and set to germinate next spring.

Winter season mulch, such as coarse straw hay, hemlock or pine boughs, and for certain root crops and bulbs hay or ground leaves is applied after the ground has frozen to a depth of 2”.  This does not usually occur until late November, Thanksgiving time or latter.  This winter mulch is used to maintain slightly frozen soils and to stabilize the soil temperatures from the extremes of winter.  Winter mulch is best used around roses and other flowering shrubs and some trees that are at their northern most USDA growing zone. Waiting until the ground has frozen will discourage mice and moles from taking up residence near these tender plants. They will have found other nesting sites to over winter. Winter mulch should be removed in the early spring when daytime temperatures start reaching 40 degrees. For more information on mulch visit:
For more information on USDA Growing zones visit:

 Now is not a good time to prune any woody plant, fungi and mold spores abound, for these wait until we have daily high temperatures in the  30’s with nightly freezes, this sends the plants into dormancy and we can then start out pruning. However now is the correct time to prune perennial plants.  Remember though that the correct time to prune flowering shrubs is right after they have flowered. Spring flowering shrubs have already set their flower buds for next spring, pruning them now will reduce their show next spring. You should only remove broken or extremely long and out of proportion limbs. For more information on fall pruning visit:

Noticing brown needle drop from your evergreen trees and shrubs?  This is normal for this time of year.  Just as deciduous plants shed annual leaf growth, evergreen plants shed 3 year and out needle growth. This needle drop will be more interior to the plant than the most recent tip growth. For more information on needle drop visit:

Although we rejoice when we observe the spring awakening of our plants and the start of the gardening year, so too should we be observant of the fall and winter stage and needs of the plants in our yards too.

1262010_31650_12.pngJune 2009
Invasive plants; their control begins with us.

As a regular reader of this column you know I have mentioned avoiding invasive plants in our landscapes, and occasionally I have listed a few.  This month I thought I would provide some background and information on invasive plants and why we need to become active in their control as we go about taking care of our yards.

Many of us in the horticultural industry have known of plants, not native to this area, that have been introduced over the years for marketing and sales as interesting plants, or some introduced as they “solve a problem” in the landscape, like Norway Maple street trees for example.  Over the years observations of these introduced plants showed that many of these plants will “explode” in our local habitat and in some cases quickly become monocultures in a given area. To address this problem the Federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) along with all of the 50 states formed advisory committees and groups to address this issue.  In 1999 Massachusetts established an invasive plant advisory group and after several years of looking at this problem and working with the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture (who worked closely with the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association on January 1 2006 under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 128 section2 and 16-31A) began a two step ban on the importation and sale of invasive plants in the commonwealth. The ban used the Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List and the USDA Federal Noxious Weed list to start a “phase-out” program in Massachusetts.  The final stage of that phase-out occurred on January 1st of this year.  There are now some 14 species that cannot be imported, propagated or sold in the state. For a full list of Massachusetts prohibited plant list visit: . This is a great start, however the next step is to educate and start an eradication program of these invasive plants by the residents and home owners through out the state.

Some of the more common invasive plants found in the Sturbridge area are:

Acer platanoides L. (Norway maple)
Berberis thunbergii DC.  (Japanese barberry)
Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.  (Oriental bittersweet; Asian or Asiatic bittersweet)
Elaeagnus umbellata Thunb.  (Autumn olive)
Euonymus alatus (Thunb.) Sieb. (Winged euonymus; Burning bush)
Lonicera x bella Zabel [morrowii x tatarica]  (Bell’s honeysuckle)
Polygonum cuspidatum Sieb. & Zucc.  (Japanese knotweed; Japanese or Mexican Bamboo)
Robinia pseudoacacia L.  (Black locust)
Rosa multiflora Thunb.  (Multiflora rose)

For a full description and photos of these plants so you can make an easy identification on these plants in your yard visit:
There you will see we have some 147 plants listed as invasive in Massachusetts.

So you now have identified some invasive plants in your yard, what do you do?  The best way to control invasive plants is by out right removal by digging or pulling out the plant including the stump and roots of the plant. Large trees or stocky shrubs can just be cut, but you will need to continually suppress any suckering of the plant from the stump until the stored nutrients in the root system are used and the plant dies.  You will also need to carefully rake up any seed stock and leaf litter, again to prevent re-growth.  The leafy plant material, and any root stock from smaller shrubs and plants should then be bagged  and disposed of in the trash.  Composting, or chipping of the leafy plant material will result in seed stock holding over and re-establishing itself when you go to use the compost or mulch.  Larger wood pieces can be chipped or cut up and used as fire wood.  Outside burning is an option but this option is only viable during the months of January through April when state laws allow open burning of brush.  

Invasive plants are becoming an environmental issue we all can do something about.  In my walks along the trails of our open space lands I can routinely point out a variety of invasive plants.  Each time the town holds a volunteer trail day we have at least 1 crew pulling and removing invasive plants.  It is time we all learn more about this problem, and start in our yards to address it.  For complete information on Massachusetts invasive and prohibited plants and there control visit:

1262010_31650_12.pngMarch 2010
It’s the month of March, can spring be far behind?

March is a real transition month in our area: Cold below freezing nights and warm 50 degree days, 12” snow storms one day to mud 12” deep the next.  It can be garden-cleanup season, or still deep winter, or some of both. Sticks and stones picked up or raked away often are replaced with another supply from on high, or up from down deep,  as if you really needed a do-over.

March is the time of transition from indoor chores to outdoor ones. Indoor chores such as seed-sowing commence on schedule regardless of which kind of March we are having, outdoor chores sometimes have to wait until April. Be sensible and don’t muck around in too-wet soil or walk unnecessarily on sodden lawns. Respect your soil and lawn, protect it! I recommend you keep a journal, calendar or notebook ready to record planting dates, bloom times, timing of tasks, successes and failures, and valuable information from catalogs or seed packets on every thing you plant in your yard.  If your memory is like mine we will soon forget, and trying to remember will become another chore!

If it is not too wet in your yard, take a walk around and check to see if mulches are in place or heaved, or if burlap and other protectors have come loose, exposing vulnerable plants. Once soil drains, pull and dig up perennial weeds now, before they get a foothold. After some sunny, dry days, rake snow mold off lawns. Empty bird boxes of old nests, and cut down ornamental grasses before they sprout anew.

Control your urge to start vegetable seedlings too early. Small, compact seedlings are better than older, leggy ones for transplanting. Only leeks and onions should be started before mid-month. After that, the pace quickens: Sow cool-season crops such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts mid-March, to set out six weeks later. (Tomatoes and other warm-season vegetables get sown mid April be patient) to insure good seedling start, and preventing “damping off”, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, start with clean containers and sterile soilless mix. Wash previously used flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water. If you have a cold frame, sow an early crop of spinach and lettuce. In fact, you can start spinach in the open ground if snow has melted. Around St Patrick’s Day, or as soon after as soil can be worked, sow peas. Lettuce can follow shortly, along with radishes. It is too early to cultivate or till your soil. Wait until it is beginning to be crumbly, not sodden, which might even be in April. When the time arrives, turn in several inches of compost and an all-natural, organic fertilizer rated for vegetables.

For outside activities consider pruning your grape vines to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece. Cut out canes of raspberries that have borne fruit, and any that are thinner than a pencil. Shorten the remaining young canes by at least a foot. This is also prime pruning time for deciduous trees and shrubs (including fruit trees), while they are dormant. Don’t paint wounds—let them heal naturally. Always use sharp tools to make clean cuts, and be on the lookout for dead, damaged, or diseased wood and remove suckers and water sprouts, too. In November of 2007 I wrote about moles, mole patrol continues, in perpetuity: try setting out mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans in gardens where you see activity,  to rid them from beds and borders.

One of the nicer things you can do now is force branches of spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry once buds begin to swell. Cut on an angle and put indoors in water. Submerge them overnight, and then place them in a bucket of water, draped with plastic, until the buds push off their coverings. The closer to actual bloom date, the higher the success rate!

March can be a challenging month for yard work, start indoors, be patient, spring will arrive soon.


Tree Christmas picture.bmp

1262010_31650_12.pngDecember 2007
Planting a live Christmas tree and Holiday greenery harvesting

Christmas trees….
Those of us who celebrate the Christmas season and our Holidays this time of year, you may be thinking of using live trees for decorating and then planting them outside. My wife and I have done it twice in celebrating the birth of our children. Over the years we have enjoyed watching both the trees and our kids grow. Here are a few steps to follow for the tree to grow successfully:

If you are not already buying a pre dug tree, visit your local Christmas tree farm now and choose your tree, and prepare it before the frost sets too deep.  Remember the tree will be much heavier, and need a container large enough for the root ball for transportation.  Pre dig around the roots now before the ground freezes, and then cover the area with a straw or hay mulch to prevent the ground from freezing. When you harvest your tree or if your tree is from a nursery, all ready balled and burlaped, place the tree in a tub, in an unheated building like a garage or tool shed, keeping the root ball moist until you are ready to move it inside.

You now also need to pre dig a hole where you want to plant the tree after the Christmas season.  This hole should be at least 2 times as wide as and no deeper than the root ball.  Fill this hole with straw, hay or leaves and cover with a tarp to prevent this area from freezing until you plant the tree.  Also cover well or store indoors the soil you removed to prevent it from freezing too. Pick your tree planting site carefully, evergreens need full sun for good thick growth and allow at least 15’-20’ from any other tree or building in your yard. Before you dig know where your underground utilities are, call dig safe at 1-800-322-4844, and our local water and sewer department at 508-347-2513 for assistance.

Bring in and decorate your tree for the shortest time possible and try to keep the room temperature cool, a room too hot and dry will possibly “re awaken” the tree into a false spring, then the shock of winter planting will do it some harm. Keep the root ball moist but not flooded wet. Do not cut off or remove any branches more that absolutely necessary.  Your tree will need this green to recover from the transplanting stress. Do not cut or trim the central leader as this will force the tree as it grows to produce multiple leaders in the future.  Use only “mini” lights or the new LED type, if any.  Set up a room humidifier near the tree, and keep it full and running while the tree is in the house.

As soon as possible after the holiday, preferably no more than three weeks, move the tree to its new planting site, remove the burlap, and plant the tree no deeper than when it was previously planted, water in well and keep covered with 4-6 inches of mulch. Don’t forget to remove all decorations and lights! You may also want to spray on an anti- desiccant to slow down the evaporation of water from its needles.

Next spring remove the hay mulch, check soil for depressions and low spots, refill to grade, re mulch with wood or bark mulch and keep well watered for the next several years.  If it is a tree you have planted to celebrate a birth, etc, don’t forget to take a picture too!  In a few years you will be amazed of the growth of both the tree and the child.

If you are just looking for the more traditional cut tree, I again recommend you visit one of our area Christmas tree farms and cut your own. This will guarantee the freshest tree.  If you chose to purchase one from a local sales yard, remember these trees were cut in late October and early November and then “frozen” for shipment. To test for freshness, lightly pull on the needles, if they come off easily then the tree is drying out, also place your fingers in about 3-4” from the end and bend the twig around, if it kinks or breaks then the tree is not fresh, chose another one. When you get home, bounce the tree on its butt to shake out loose needles, then cut off two inches from the butt and place the tree in a bucket of water, you can make a tree preservation solution by mixing 1 gallon water with 1 table spoon bleach, 3 table spoons sugar and 6 oz of flat regular beer. Use this solution to water your tree as it will help keep the tree green longer. Remember too that no matter where you purchase your tree, Mother Nature is not “perfect” and neither will your tree. Bring a ruler and know the ceiling height of your home, remember the old carpenter adage: measure twice, cut once.

Holiday greens and berries…..
Many of us decorate with harvested greens and berries from around our woods. Princess pine Lycopodium, Mountain Laurel Kalmia latifolia, and Winter Berry Ilex verticillata, are the most common. Harvesting of plant parts from your property is ok; however you should have the permission of the property owner if it is not yours. That’s the good neighbor thing to do, and no matter where you harvest your greenery, remember to leave enough to grow for next year. Harvest responsibly!  If you do not have these plants in your yard I have included links below to learn more about them, and I recommend you consider adding them to your yard.

There are also two local plants, used for decorations this time of year, which I recommend you stay away from, and ask you to assist in their control. They are Bitter sweet Celastrus orbiculata, and Autumn Olive Elaeagnus umbellata, also known as Russian olive.  Both of these plants are aggressively invasive, and are listed on the Massachusetts prohibited plant list.  Harvesting of berries from these plants and the casual discarding of them in your yard will increase the spread of these plants.  These plants are very aggressive in their growth habits and quickly will form a monoculture with mortality of native species, and once established are difficult to control.  Bitter sweet is a climbing vine that has the bright orange and yellow berries.  Autumn Olive is a shrub with silver colored leaves and produces red berries.

For more information on all invasive plants of Massachusetts visit:

For more information on Bitter sweet visit:

For more information on Autumn Olive visit:

For more information and locations on Massachusetts Christmas tree farms visit:

For more information on Mountain Laurel visit:

For more information on Winter Berry visit:

1262010_31650_12.pngDecember 2009:
Christmas trees.

        As December rolls around many of us consider celebrating the Holidays, and decorate a Christmas tree for our homes.  If you want a refresher on using a live, dug tree, you can check the archives of the Sturbridge Times for my article on live trees in the December 2008 issue.  This month I offer up some guidance on cut trees. First let’s talk about the different types of Christmas Trees.  There are five different varieties of Christmas trees that are widely available:
Norway Spruce, Scots Pine, Concolor Fir, Colorado Blue Spruce, and Fraser Fir
        Most garden centers, growers, and Christmas tree sales yards specialize in two or three different types, but if a particular tree isn't available, try another yard.  The different species vary in density, shape and color, but also importantly in the nature of their needles. Some are prone to lose their needles, while others hold their needles fast. Also, some needles are soft and easy to handle, while others are sharp, making the tree less comfortable to decorate. Those with the sharper needles also tend to keep your pets away from the tree.

Norway Spruce Christmas Trees
        The Norway Spruce is the traditional and most widely available Christmas tree. It is also normally the least expensive.  The dark green needle-like leaves are about ½ to 1 inch long and quite sharp. It is prone to leaf-drop, but this can be minimized with good tree care, and by applying a tree spray to prevent evaporation.  Trees have a fairly open conical habit, but some growers produce a denser tree by annual pruning.

Scots Pine Christmas Trees
        The Scots Pine has long (up to 3inches) soft needles which may vary in color from light to dark green, sometimes with a bluish tinge. This is the best of all trees for needle retention. However it does “hold” its old needles inside the tree, so shake this tree well to get out the old needles.  It has a densely conical habit, with upturned tips to the branches, and an attractive fresh and slightly pungent scent.

Fraser Fir Christmas Trees
        The Fraser Fir’s dense, soft needles are a deep green color, with a citrus fragrance. This is my favorite. Needle retention is very good.  It has a dense conical habit, rather narrow for its height, making it particularly useful if space is restricted.

Concolor Fir Christmas Trees
        The Concolor Fir has beautifully fragrant light green or blue-green foliage and very good needle retention.  It has an attractive conical shape and an open habit and is sometimes pruned by growers to give a greater density. This one is not widely available in sales yards our area however many cut your own yards are growing this tree.

Colorado Blue Spruce Christmas Trees
        The Colorado Blue Spruce has sharp needles with a strong silvery-blue color and pleasant fragrance. Needle retention is good and these needles are also sharp. It has a symmetrical widely conical fairly open habit. This is a striking tree, relatively expensive, because it is a slow growing tree, and often not widely available in sale yards but check the cut your own farms for this tree.

So how do you know you are getting a fresh tree?
        The best way to ensure that your tree keeps its needles and smells wonderful all through the holidays is to buy the tree as soon as possible after it was cut. In the best-case scenario, you can expect a Christmas tree to stay green for three to four weeks from the day you bring it home. If possible, buy locally you’ll find the very freshest trees at a cut-it-yourself Christmas tree farm. You can locate local cut your own tree farms at the Massachusetts Christmas Tree growers web site:    If cutting your own tree is too much work for you, try to find an already-cut tree that was grown in our area, or at least in the same climate zone you live in. When trees are shipped long distances, the changes in temperature can cause their needles to drop off when you bring them into your warm house.  Many of the trees in the local Christmas tree sales yards you see set up have trees that come from Canada, these trees are usually cut before Thanksgiving, sometimes as early as late October, and frozen in box cars packed with snow.  
        You can test for freshness, just in case the employees at the local big box store or the local Christmas tree sales lot don’t know where the trees they’re selling originated, here are three freshness tests that will help you pick the perfect tree.
  • Take a branch between your thumb and index finger. Gently pull your fingers along the length of the branch. If the tree is fresh, only a few needles will drop off. If you produce a shower of dry needles, move on to another tree.
  • Grasp the tree by its trunk and shake it or pound its base on the ground. Even a fresh tree will shed some needles, but a dried-out tree or one that was shocked by long-distance shipping will shower the ground with needles. However make sure that these needles are just not old dead ones from the inside of the tree.
  • Bend a few of the branches or needles. They should be flexible and spring back easily. If the branches snap or the needles break, pick a different tree.
        Now let’s figure out how big of a tree do you need? Measure your space before shopping; a tree that’s 12 feet tall just isn’t going to fit in a room with an 8-foot ceiling. It’s also important to make sure your tree will fit the width and depth of your space. Jot down those measurements before you go Christmas-tree shopping. Take a tape measure with you and keep in mind that the tree stand will add a few inches to the tree’s height, and don’t forget to add in for your tree top ornament.  Now that you have checked you tree for freshness, measured for size, and made your purchase make sure you have brought some good rope to tie your tree to the roof of your car, or secure it well in the bed of the pick up.  Remember to tie your tree butt end to the front that way the “wind” of going down the road will not blow off the needles as much.
        Now that you have your tree home, here are some tips on its care.  As I have mentioned, the best trees for indoor decorations are locally grown and freshly cut. Many trees for sale dry out because harvest occurred several months beforehand or during tree dormancy. Getting a safe Christmas tree home is only the first step in Christmas tree care.
Whether a Christmas tree is freshly cut or harvested ahead of time, it is important to:
  • Make a fresh, level cut to the tree stump in harvested trees, especially if the stump looks dry. Expose fresh wood by sawing off a ½-inch to 2-inch disc from the base.
  • Place the tree in warm water as soon as possible once getting it home. It is typical for fresh-cut trees to absorb most of their water within six to eight hours in a warm location.
  • Avoid whittling sides of the trunk so the tree fits a stand. Do not remove the outer layers of wood because this is where water absorption is best.
  • Do not drill a hole in the tree base. This does not improve water uptake.
  • Temporarily store trees in a cool location. Keep freshly cut bases immersed in a bucket kept full of water.
        Before you bring your tree into the house give it a good shake to dislodge any old dead needles caught up on the branch structure. Your tree should now be placed in a water reservoir stand, the most effective way of displaying Christmas trees and promoting their decorative longevity. The stand may be as simple as a bucket or bowl with a clamp, or one of the more modern kinds available. The constant supply of water is the most important way of maintaining tree freshness and minimizing needle loss problems. A dried-out holiday tree may burst into flames in a matter of seconds. Well-cared-for trees catch fire with great difficulty. When tree needles snap in two, the tree is a fire hazard, prompt and proper removal is necessary.  Your stand should fit the tree and provide an adequate water-holding capacity for the tree. The general rule is a stand should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter.  The water level in the stand's reservoir should be checked daily and not fall below the base of the tree. Trees may absorb up to two quarts a day. In addition, evaporation and water loss from the reservoir in dry winter homes is common. It is important to maintain the water level for if it falls below the cut surface for more than four to six hours; the tree’s ability to absorb moisture is inhibited.

        Many times I have been asked should you use Christmas tree preservatives, or plain water. Plain tap water is sufficient to maintain the decorative longevity of cut Christmas trees. However as an alternative, you can consider a homemade Christmas tree preservative. Find the ingredients for this recipe at local grocery stores, garden supply centers, or home centers.
Christmas Tree Preservative
        2 cups corn syrup
        2 ounces liquid chlorine bleach
        2 pinches Epsom salts
        ½-teaspoon borax
        1 teaspoon chelated iron
        2 gallons hot water
        Mix everything together in a large bucket. Let cool. Use this solution to water Christmas trees until removed.  This recipe apparently works for the same reasons as do most floral preservatives:
        Sugar (corn syrup) provides energy for continuing chemical processes in the tree's needles and may cause the tree to absorb more water;

        Boron (borax) causes the sugar water to move through the tree quickly;
        Epsom salts and chelated iron help to keep the tree green; and,
        Bleach prevents mold and bacteria from growing in the solution.

        So once the holidays are over, now what do you do with your tree?  Well if before you put down the tree skirt, place an extra large trash bag (55 gallon size) under your stand.  After you have put away all the decorations, and pulled off all the tinsel, pull this bag up and over your tree, and haul the tree, tree stand and all, out doors, pull off the bag and take off the stand. Bagging your tree this way will reduce the amount of needle drop through your house as you carry your tree outdoors.  Your tree is now ready to carry out its second use, that of a natural bird feeder.  Stick the tree into a snow bank, or tie it to a post or larger tree in your yard.  Place a cake of suet or other bird feed, like popcorn on a string, and help feed the native birds through the winter.  You can also cut off short pieces of the needled limb tips and bring them in your house and place in a warm dry spot, this will continue that Christmas tree smell well into the new year.  Come early spring, cut up your tree into smaller pieces and use them to aerate your compost pile.  

Enjoy your Christmas tree, and have a safe and joyous holiday!



1262010_31650_12.pngAugust 2007
Watering and Rain Barrels

The Dog days of summer are here as we enter the month of August.  One of the most important things you can do for the plants in your yard and garden is to keep them well watered.  Watering should be done once a week, slow and deeply.  This saturates the ground and encourages the roots of your plants to grow down into the soil; better capturing nutrients and helping your plants survive extended dry periods that are so common during this time of year.  

To assist in watering and to reduce the cost of watering you should consider installing a rain barrel (or several) and a drip irrigation system.
 By collecting rain water in a barrel you will:
  • Direct rainwater away from foundations
  • Reduce erosion, storm water pollution and improve water quality
  • Reduce household watering needs by saving rain
  • Lower water bills, and reduce your personal energy consumption by using less treated water. A full 55 gallon water barrel has almost 7 cubic feet of water.
  • Water gardens during town imposed watering bans
  • Eater your garden naturally with untreated water
  • Recharge your local ground water
How it works:  For every ½ “ of rain that falls on a 500 square foot roof, 300 gallons of water will run off.  Rain Barrel kits and down spout diverters are available.  When you set up a rain barrel remember that a 55 gallon barrel will weight over 400 lbs when full so set them up on a firm surface.  Elevate it to have a greater flow pressure. Connect several barrels together or make sure you have provided for overfilling, and divert that water away from your foundation.

Natural rainwater will improve the health of your gardens – it does not contain minerals, salts, chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals you may find in public water or wells.    Most companies that sell rain barrels also sell simple to install drip irrigation systems.  Rain Barrel companies: Aaron’s Rain Barrels, Leominster MA, New England Rain Barrel Co. - Peabody MA, Sky Juice New England – York ME.

1262010_31650_12.pngFebruary 2009
Stick Inducted into Toy Hall of Fame

The stick - possibly the world's oldest toy - was added this past Nov. 27 to the National Toy Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Barbie, Slinky, teddy bears, Mr. Potato Head and Play-Doh.

You are probably wondering what the connection is between a toy stick to around the yard.  Those of you who know me are quite aware of my love for the outdoors, I work as a Park Ranger, have for some 35 years. I’ve been involved in the Boy Scouting program for over 40 years, and my love for trees is marked by my 25 years as the Town’s Tree Warden.  Through these years I have noticed a decline in the interaction and interest by our youth in general outdoor fun.  Yes there are the organized field sports, but how often do your children just go off exploring around your yard? Do you encourage them, do you even let them? When was the last time they played with a stick?

As a child I remember exploring our back yard, in the winters, clearing off a patch of ice on the wetland down the street for skating, even sliding down the road next to our house because the town rarely sanded it. In the spring and summers I recall building forts out in the woods with sticks and wearing my Davey Crockett coon skin hat!  Once I joined Boy Scouts the out doors really opened up with camping, learning about edible wild plants, hiking and wild animals. I credit my love of trees to Mr. Holmes, my 5th grade teacher who would take us out for walks in the “forest” in the fall behind Burgess Elementary school.  And up until last year I as Tree Warden would do the same with 4th grade classes at Burgess, but for reasons unknown, no longer happens, and yes, some of this we just can’t do today, thanks DPW for those well sanded roads!

So what are we doing to encourage our kids to enjoy and more importantly explore the outdoors and have that unregulated, free to imagine out door experience we all enjoyed in our youth?  Didn’t you play with that universal toy, the stick?

Richard Louv in 2006 authored “Last Child in the Woods, Saving our children from Nature-Deficit disorder” Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, speaks quite eloquently on this and raises some interesting areas of concern. This past November I had the opportunity to hear him speak on this topic at the National Trails symposium held in Little Rock Ark. I took something away from his talk, and in as much as I want to encourage our kids to play with sticks, I now want to also use a few to continue to build on a small flame that I am pleased to say I have seen started in Sturbridge from either a conscious knowledge of this issue or just a deep desire to replace and preserve our childhood experiences that we feel we may have lost.

The acquisition of open space lands and now the building effort of volunteers to open these lands to us with trails and access is the flame of which I speak.  Partnering with Tantasqua High school students to build bridges, conduct environmental studies and habitat improvement, there is an effort to encourage getting our kids outdoors.  Recently the Children’s Librarian  at Joshua Hyde Library, has contacted me to start a family fun reading trail to get kids and their families outdoors walking a trail and reading a book. This spring there will be a town wide volunteer day on April 18th where all are welcome to help open up and improve our open space lands and trails. On June 6th, National Trails Day, I’m hoping we can have a major announcement on the progress of the Grand Trunk Trail along with celebrating and exploring our open space trails. Soon, with help of many these sticks will become a bright fire, drawing in our children to explore the world of stick, stones, our plants, animals, and their yards.

Yes things are happening in our back yard, I want to encourage you to take a walk in your back yard this winter, set up an observation plot of 10’ square and spend some time with your kids or even by your self, sit, listen, observe what is happening. Do this one evening to take in the stars, the lights, and the evening sounds of winter, like the hardened snow under your boots.  Take that walk in woods, look for our native animal tracks of deer, rabbit, mice and moles, and maybe even see some snow fleas! Let your kids pick up a stick and have some fun fending off an unseen enemy, building that fort, or even a game of stick hockey. Encourage them to enjoy some free time outdoors.

One of the results of Richard Louv’s work is a growing national effort on reconnecting children with nature.  One of the most recent acts is of Congress passing the “no child left indoors” act. That will provide grant funds for programs designed to get our children outdoors.  If you would like to find out more how you can help this effort in getting our children outdoors here Sturbridge please send me an email. To get you started, here are some ideas: how about organizing a neighborhood scavenger hunt, or clearing a section off the beaver pond, checking the ice, and having a skating party, hot chocolate, small fire and all? Organizing a walk in woods neighborhood walk, or evening star hike?

You can also find out more on connecting children with nature by visiting this web site:

If you want to learn more on the Toy Hall of Fame and the induction of the stick visit:

Isn’t this what we really want our yards to be?

1262010_31650_12.pngSeptember 2009
The Fungi around us
Normally about this time of year I receive calls about early leaf drop, black spots, white dust on leaves and related questions “what is happening to leaves of my trees?”
Well most of these problems are various types of fungi that are now producing spores, and fruiting bodies, their “damage” to our plants.  I use damage in quotations because for the most part, trees and shrubs at this time of year have completed their growing cycle, and with the shorter days, they are starting to go into their dormancy stage, with the leaves reducing their ability to produce starches, sugars and chlorophyll the nutrients  plants need to grow,  thus allowing their true colors to show in the fall.
Fungi can show up in various forms including ¼” to 1” black spots (tar spot); tiny less than 1/16” spots (shot gun fungus), brown curly edges (usually a form of anthracnose) and a white powder looking covering (white sooty mold).
When you see these fungi on your leaves, it is usually too late to try to take effective control.  The best time to control these fungi is in the spring, with appropriate fungicide and or horticultural oil treatments.  However their timing for application is very weather dependent, and usually not worth the cost or effort unless you have a very unique or specimen tree or shrub, for as I have mentioned this leaf damage now is not really damage at all to the tree, but more of an aesthetic issue, that we just don’t like the look of it.  The best treatment now is to routinely rake up the leaves as they fall and bury them in the ground, or dispose of in the trash, thus removing the inoculants of the fungi from the area.
Fungi are all around us and a true necessity for life, in its most minute form, in what is  call mycelia, tiny shoestring like cells attach and expand on tiny root hairs, using the plants energy expanding the soil and allowing roots to grow, Recent tree technology and care now suggests treating soil around newly planted trees with appropriate myorrhizal fungi to help these trees get a good start in growth and root development. Other fungi greatly help in breaking down plant material to their basic nutrients allowing them to become more water soluble, thus able to be better taken up into our plants by their root system. The success of your compost pile is a direct result of fungi in action.
Mushrooms and tree conks are other forms of fungi.  Conks on trees are a very good indicator that wet wood and rotting conditions are occurring in the tree’s center, an indication of a potential hazard tree. As for mushrooms, well that is an article for another day.
Occasionally I get a call about tiny, "mysterious black specks" appearing on a home siding, a wooden deck, or sometimes vehicles. The spots seem impossible to completely remove. Though the specks appear to resemble insect feces, scale crawlers or possible air-borne pollutants, they are actually mature spore masses expelled from fruiting bodies of a fungus known as "shot gun" or "artillery" fungus. This fungus develops in organic mulches. It is usually a greater problem in spring and fall, under cool, moist conditions under a temperature of 50 to 70 degrees.
This very small type of mushroom fungus is a cream or orange-brown cup containing a black round mass of spores which is very difficult to see. The mushroom fungus opens up like a flower, and seeks out bright light sources to shoot the spores at. Spores can be "shot" as high as the second floor of a building (about 20 feet), and can spot downspouts, soffits, windows, cars, sun reflecting glass and other bright surfaces. According to some scientists, the fungus can generate up to 1/10,000 of a horsepower when expelling these spores.
These spores are one to two millimeters in diameter, black, sticky, and globular in appearance. If you scrape the top of the black specks off with your finger nail you will reveal a reddish or cream color. Removing them once they have dried can be difficult, usually a hot water pressure washing in needed. If you have this problem, consider switching to inorganic mulch such as stone, pea gravel, etc. Or, a yearly addition of fresh mulch, so it completely covers old mulch, which may lessen the problem, though it still may reoccur. Consider a complete removal of existing mulch prior to the application of inorganic mulch, in order to lessen the chance of reoccurrence. It is also theorized that bark mulches may reduce the problem. If possible remove the mulch or place the mulch at least 30 feet away from any surrounding bright surfaces. Also Shotgun Fungus does not grow on cedar, redwood, or cypress which is more rot resistant wood. Avoid mulches made of wood chips or ground up wood pallets. Stirring up the mulch regularly to keep it dry retards the growth of Shotgun Fungus.
How can you tell it is fungus time? The best indicator is to look for “Indian Pipe” Monotropa Uniflora, rising from the forest floor.  Indian pipe is a flower that needs both fungi and rotting plant material to grow. It grows strait up from the ground to about 4-8” is white in color, with a tulip shaped bowl on the end, as this flower matures it turns black and the bowl structure turns to its side, making the structure look like a thin clay “Indian Pipe” hence its name.  Indian pipes grow on rotting wood with fungi close to the soil layer, breaking down the wood cells.  It can’t produce Chlorophyll, hence its white color. It takes its nutrients directly from the soil fungus.  Indian pipe is a common but unique plant, however don’t try to pick it as it will turn black and die quickly.
Indian pipe
Take a moment this late summer and early fall and walk around your yards, observing these various fungi at work in your yard, cleaning them up when appropriate,  enjoying and encouraging them every place else.


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