No Way You’re Gonna Straighten That!

IMG_3240.JPGIt is hysterical that folks think they can straighten trees this way–simply not possible! Those t-posts are too weak and that tree would need massive 4 x 4 posts planted at least 2 ft into the ground. Heavy gauge wires would be required, too. Save yourself the trouble. Save yourself from looking like an idiot!

It drives me nuts at how many new landscape plantings have leaning or crooked trees, but I know why it’s happening, for two reasons.  First, in commercial plantings, where big landscape installers do the planting, they use heavy equipment with huge augers, and the root ball has “way too much room” in that hole. Then their workers backfill the holes without tamping/firming the soil around the root ball. Thus, the tree is free to flop around in the wind. It is especially bad with evergreens because they present considerably greater wind resistance than deciduous trees.

Now you’re thinking, “OK, Jeff, what should I do if my tree is leaning?” Well, first of all, when you plant a new deciduous tree or evergreen, DO NOT use “great soil” to backfill the hole. Use your native soil, or amend it just slightly to improve it; avoid using that fabulous “bagged dirt” with peat, compost, vermiculite, etc. That stuff won’t compact and your tree will flop in the wind. If you have nothing but rocky soil, just use plain ‘ole bagged topsoil as backfill but use as many of the clay crumbs as you can.

Reason 2 for crooked trees, for the average Joe. What I will say next is sure to piss off the PROS, like the university extension folks, the master gardeners at MoBot, and the published authors–DO NOT make your hole “twice as wide” as the root ball. This will give you a floppy tree for sure. Dig the hole about 1 to 2 inches more shallow than the root ball because you do not want the crown of the plant to be lower than grade (potential rotting issues). Dig the hole only 6 to 8 inches wider than the root ball, just wide enough to use your foot on all sides to tamp the soil back into the bottom third to half of the root ball. As you backfill the hole, continually insure that your tree is straight on ALL views. Make sure the more critical spouse is present during planting, so that the new tree is perfectly straight. I’ve planted hundreds of trees this way and seldom had a crooked tree! If your tree does lean, you’ll need to fix it ASAP. Don’t just push on the tree trunk, though, and for goodness sakes, DON’T STAKE like this photo.  For example, if the tree is leaning 10 degrees due north, you’ll have to dig up some soil on the outside of the root ball on the north and the south sides. For this example, use a spade on the north side to pry the root ball sufficiently so as to level the tree trunk. Then tamp the soil EXTRA firm with your foot. Digging on the opposite side (south in this example) facilitates repositioning the root ball. Tamp the soil back in on the opposite side, too.

SIDEBAR: don’t remove the burlap from the root ball, or the wire basket (if present). Cut the twine off of the tree trunk, to avoid girdling the trunk. Make sure that burlap is not exposed, because it will wick water from the root ball. I recommend cutting the top of the burlap off AFTER the tree is planted.

And oh, by the way…cut that ugly tree down!

 

 

Kiss Your Buds Goodbye!

Unseasonably Warm Weather

St. Louis and much of the Transition Zone has “benefited” from unseasonably warm weather in November, after some good, cold weather in October. This weather pattern has totally confused our landscape ornamentals, especially beautiful flowering shrubs that bloom on old wood–such as the Bigleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars). Plants in our region are programmed to go dormant, based upon either short days and/or cold temperatures. Think about this. To survive our cold winters, plants need to hibernate. Each species has a different chilling requirement (hours of cool/cold weather at a certain base temperature) and those plants that are adapted over a wide geography (such as the showy bigleaf hydrangeas) tend to require too few hours of chilling. As such, they are prone to making mistakes. A good example of how this works is the apple tree. At the risk of oversimplification, an apple tree needs 600 hours below 45 F. This is why Georgia grows peaches and very few apples!

The featured image shows an actual flower bud on the popular ‘Nikko Blue’ selection, taken just a few days ago. The buds emerged in mid November, only to be killed by one of our frosts. These buds should have opened next May! Those of you with these plants know how disappointing they have been these past few years. They were so gorgeous at the nursery! I did some research on the various reasons for flowering failure in this species. Breeders of these cultivars are working on improving heat tolerance, because prolonged hot weather decreases flower bud set. Another obvious need is better cold tolerance. For maximum success here in St. Louis, try to locate your bigleaf hydrangeas on an east or southeast exposure with good protection from winter winds. Shade after 1:00 PM or 2:00 PM is perfect. If you’ve got a brick or stone house, that will enhance your flowering success, because the stone will radiate heat during winter nights, increasing flower bud survival.

A good friend of mine grows nursery stock and I queried him for advice, too. He recommended caging the plants and filling it with straw mulch (or any loose mulch…not leaves…not hardwood bark) by early December to protect the tender buds. That would not have helped this year, but I may try it in the future.

 

 

 

Lawn Scalpers Are Bad for Business

Imagine being an LCO (Lawn Care Operator) and doing your best to give a customer (let’s call him Geoffrey) a great lawn. He pays for a seven-step program, aerates and over seeds every few years. He irrigates, too, but Geoffrey’s lawn is stuck in the mediocre category. How could this be? Because he’s a lawn scalper!

“What’s a lawn scalper?” you ponder. It’s exactly how it sounds.

Geoffrey mows his lawn too dang short. He’s a bozo. He has no idea that mowing too short undoes all the good things he and his LCO are doing. He mistakenly believes mowing short buys him a few extra days in case he can’t mow on a seven-day schedule.

Before going any further with this blog, let’s be clear that we’re only talking about cool season turf species, such as Kentucky bluegrass, turf type fescue and perennial ryegrass. And we’re also talking about turf in full sun all dang day. Shady turf is a whole-nother subject! Warm season turf (zoysiagrass and bermudagrass) should be mowed as short as possible (yet another topic). Many of the little mowers are maxed out with a 3-inch height setting. Newer mowers, especially quality brands like Honda and Toro, can be set higher; professional mowers can be set up to at least 4 inches.

Here’s why cool season turf should be mowed as high as possible in the heat of summer. Cool season turf prefers to go dormant in hot and dry weather, but we push it with fertilizer and water, so we can keep it green and growing to enjoy its beauty. The growing point (crown) of cool season turf species is right at the surface of the soil. As such, mowing at LEAST 3 inches high provides a lot of shade at the soil surface, thus keeping the crown reasonably cool. Scalping is defined as anything below 3 inches, and mowing at 2.5 inches should be a felony! Scalped lawns let too much sunshine hit the soil surface, and the heat adversely affects the crown. When the crown of cool surface gets hot, it simply starts to peter out, preferring to go dormant.

In addition to a weak lawn there are a few weeds that always expose the scalpers, prostrate spurge and crabgrass. The weeds germinate because the turf is too weak. The photos below show this well.

There you have it! Cool season turf in full sun should be mowed at 3.5 inches when it’s above 85F. If your mowing service can’t give you 3.5 inches, fire them. If you mow yourself and your old beater mower can’t be raised to 3.5 inches–time for a new one!

Photos below: classic weeds in scalped turf, crabgrass and prostrate spurge. Note dormant turf, too.

 

NOW is Prime Time to Plant a Flowering Crabapple

For those of you wanting a nice flowering tree for full sun exposure, the flowering crabapple is hard to beat, but ONLY if you pick out the best cultivars. There are hundreds of varieties and cultivars of the crabapple, and most of them are actually quite crappy. You read that right–crappy! The inferior selections suffer from three bad foliar diseases (rust, scab and mildew) and some are susceptible to a virtually uncontrollable bacterial disease (fireblight). Too many of them have fruit that is too large for birds to consume, resulting in nasty messes and rotten fruits all over the sidewalk, driveway and patios. Those rotten fruits draw them dang yellow jackets, too. Horrible!

Too many homeowners abuse redbuds and dogwoods by planting them in a hot, sunny location (southwest, west and northwest exposures). Dogwoods abhor hot afternoon sun (3 to 7 PM) while redbuds can handle a bit more, but they won’t thrive with intense PM sun. Instead of planting these “woodland understory” species, plant a crabapple! Some crabs stay nice and small, while others can reach 30 ft tall and wide.

Here’s what you need to do. Visit the nurseries NOW. First, look for trees that still have leaves on them. If the leaves aren’t present, assume they suffered from disease and have dropped off. The owner of the nursery may try to tell you that simple water stress/drought is the reason for a lack of leaves, but don’t buy that line of B-S. Next, look for small fruits—about the size of a pea or just slightly larger. Marble-sized fruits are too big for most songbirds to consume. Finally, inspect the base of the tree for an absence of root suckers. It’s ok to have a sucker or two on the main truck, but NOT from the roots on the top of the root ball. If necessary, try to peel back the burlap on the top of the root ball to ensure that the existing suckers were not pruned of. You can easily feel the woody stubs. Heh now, keep your mind out of the gutter! Rootstock suckers are a symptom of either graft incompatibility or an aggressive rootstock, or both. They will develop all spring and summer long, and thus, make the tree ugly and result in a lot of maintenance headaches for you.

 

This Summer Illustrates the Need for Two Applications of Preemergent

Let’s face it folks, this has really been a sucky summer. June was like July, July was like August, and August has been as horrible as usual. This tropical weather has placed turf under massive stresses from diseases and weeds. Cool season turf species (fescue, bluegrass, ryegrass) would rather take a prolonged siesta, but we water and fertilize it to keep it actively growing. Stressed turf simply can’t grow aggressively enough to combat these invaders. In contrast, weeds like crabgrass and yellow nutsedge love this crap! Both these weeds are evolutionarily-advanced “C4” species, meaning that they can thrive when temperatures get above 95F.

A quote often attributed to the great Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi, is appropriate at this point, who said, “The best defense is a good offense.” You’re thinking, what the hell does a legendary football coach know about turf? Well duh! Healthy, thick turf prevents weed seedlings from germinating. On the other hand, weak turf allows sunshine to hit the soil surface, stimulating weed seed germination. Lush turf, especially those swards mowed appropriately high in the summer, casts too much shade upon the soil surface, thus inhibiting weed germination.

These photos illustrate numerous issues, the first of which is dreadful application! Notice the very clean line of demarcation, which proves the effectiveness of the preemergent herbicide. The applicator (supposedly a PRO!) either ran short of product, or simply forgot to apply the herbicide on both sides of the sidewalk. The very uniform lines of control suggest an advanced spreading device. The homeowner needs to fire their asses! Find an LCO (Lawn Care Operator) that uses Dimension™ herbicide! But what if this was DIY? If this is the case, numerous explanations are offered. Probably the best guess is that the homeowner did not heed our advice to make a “double pass” application. He/she set the spreader setting too “heavy”, resulting in him not having enough product for the last 2 or 3 spreader swaths. Boo, hiss! Set your spreader on a “low setting” that allows you to make a double-pass application of every product. But wait! There’s another problem here. START every application along the edges of your concrete and asphalt surfaces, and in the street median. Make those passes first. Then start your double pass application. Pass 1 goes down at a certain direction and Pass 2 goes out at 45 to 90 degrees different. Turf growing along hard paved surfaces suffer from the highest weed pressure. So hitting these areas first ensures at least 2 passes with the spreader, and hopefully even 3 passes. The radiant heat load from paved surfaces increases the soil temperature in the adjacent soil. As a result, crabgrass germinates a full 10 to 14 days ahead of the rest of the lawn. In these areas the crabgrass seedlings grow sufficiently large that even Dimension herbicide can’t control them. These weeds simply germinated ahead of the preemergent application. The double whammy comes from the heat stress this turf suffers from in this area (reread the prior paragraph).

Another best practice is to make TWO applications of a preemergent herbicide, “just-in-case!” This was a “just-in-case” year! Heavy rainfall and high temperatures contributed to high microbial activity. Soil microbes actually “eat” pesticides—and they were quite hungry this year. Most LCO’s only make a single application and hope for the best. Many of them wait for the homeowner to call and bitch about crabgrass escapes. Care to guess what percentage of customers don’t even bother to complain?

Astute turf tenders wonder why the crabgrass in this image is chlorotic (yellowish) compared to the normal green color. It’s obvious that either the LCO or the homeowner has attempted to rectify the problem with a postemergent herbicide. Based upon the degree of chlorotic and bleached tissue, the herbicide applied was probably Tenacity® (mesotrione). This is a very new tool (3rd year of sale) for weed control in turf. It controls key broadleaf weeds and problem grassy weeds in cool season turf. It will damage bermudagrass and zoysiagrass and repeated use can actually control bermudagrass, if tank-mixed with Turflon® (triclopyr) herbicide. The best thing about Tenacity is that it doesn’t interfere with reseeding so it can be used now.

 

 

It’s a Great Time to Divide Hostas and Other Perennials

Mid-August is a great time of year to divide hostas and perennials because proper nighttime temperatures encourage rapid root development. Cut off all brown leaves when you replant new divisions. For hostas, it is actually safe to cut off all leaves, leaving “celery stalks,” especially if the leaves are severely bleached or bedraggled.