When Life Gives You Lemons

80131thumbWhen life gives you lemons, it is likely this time of year. Although, the most popular garden varieties of lemon, like ‘Meyer’ and ‘Eureka’, continue to produce at least a few more fruits sporadically through the year. ‘Lisbon’ lemon that is still used in orchard production, and is the ancestor of the household ‘Eureka’ lemon, produces almost all of its fruit in winter, and blooms shortly afterward.

Ripe citrus in the middle of winter impresses those in climates where winter is too cold for much to happen in the garden. They could not grow a citrus tree if they wanted to. Even here, frost can damage some of the more sensitive citrus varieties, like ‘Mexican’ lime. Unlike the fruits of summer, citrus fruits ripen slowly and are not so perishable, so do not need to be harvested right away.

This means that if it is raining, cold or just to wintery to go outside, citrus fruits can be left on the tree until the weather improves. Most of us prefer to pick them in small batches anyway. Ideally, fruit should get picked as it is consumed. Lemons and limes typically get picked individually as needed, until there are so many that some need to be bagged and shared with friends and neighbors.

Mandarin oranges are the most perishable of the citrus. Because their skins are so loosely attached to the pulp, the pulp can oxidize, lose flavor and eventually get dry and pithy. Incidentally, a ‘tangerine’ is merely a Mandarin orange that was developed in North or South America. A surprisingly sour (unknown) Mandarin orange might really be a ‘Rangpur lime’, which is not a lime at all.

Unlike most fruit that continues to ripen after harvest, or pears that actually delay ripening until after harvest, citrus fruits stop developing flavor once picked. It is best to taste them for confirmation of ripe flavor prior to harvest. Some Mandarin oranges may have slightly greenish blotches on them even when completely ripe. The best ‘Valencia’ oranges can look rather yellowish. Grapefruits might mellow if left in their trees past ripeness, but can also inhibit bloom.

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Berries Are For The Birds

51125It is probably no coincidence that certain berries and small fruits are so colorful through winter while colorful flowers are relatively scarce. Like flowers, they want to get others to do something for them. Flowers use color, aroma, flavor and sometimes even texture to attract and reward pollinators. Colorful berries and fruits do the same to attract birds and animals who disperse their seeds.

There are not many colorful flowers blooming in winter to distract anyone from colorful berries and fruit. Those who want them are pretty intent on finding them anyway. There is not much else for overwintering birds to eat. Squirrels probably have plenty of acorns and nuts stored, but might enjoy a few berries too. No matter how abundant they are, there is serious competition for berries.

Most types of berries and small fruits that are so colorful through winter contain tiny seeds that get eaten along with the fruit. In this manner, the seeds get taken away from their origin as easily as birds fly away. They then get dispersed as birds do what birds do (that can be so annoying on a freshly washed car). Digestion only scarifies these seeds, which might not germinate otherwise.

This all might be much more information than necessary for home gardening. All we really need to know is that there are several plants that can produce colorful berries through winter while other color is limited. Although, it might be useful to be aware that these colorful berries are likely to eventually be depleted by the birds and any other wildlife that they are intended to be appealing to.

Then again, winter berries are popularly grown specifically to attract birds and wildlife to the garden. Either way, if berries are grown for their color or to attract birds, they have the potential to be messy. Those that do not get eaten eventually fall onto whatever is below them. Those that do get eaten fall (in ‘another form’) all over the neighborhood, and of course, onto freshly washed cars.

Coincidentally, most plants that produce colorful winter berries are related. They are of the ‘rose’ family, ‘Rosaceae’, and produce similar ‘pomme’ fruits that look like minute apples. Firethorn (pyracantha) is the most colorful and prolific. The various cotoneasters, including some low growing ground-covers, are similar, but not so prolific. Toyon is a colorful native that works nicely in unrefined landscapes. English hawthorn is a small deciduous tree.

Proper Bare Root Planting Technique

80124thumbBare root plants are less expensive, easier to handle, and easier to prune into a desired form than canned (potted) plants are. Also, they get established into the garden easier. Yes, even with less roots, they disperse their new roots directly into the surrounding soil more efficiently than secondary roots escaping from crowded roots that had been confined to cans of media (potting soil).

Bare root plants have no incentive to stay confined. They get planted while dormant, and wake up surrounded only by their new soil, with nothing else to get in the way. Canned plants might have been circling their roots within a limited volume of media for a while, trying to find a way out. Once they get in the ground, they may not like what they find there, and try to stay close to the familiar.

Bare root plants should not get too much of a good thing. The need only minimal soil amendment. They might like a bit of organic matter to retain moisture and to keep the soil loose while they get oriented to their new home. A bit of fertilizer would be nice too. Yet, new bare root plants should not get so much amendment that they do not want to disperse their roots beyond the planting hole.

Planting holes do not need to be very big at all. They should be wider than the roots can be spread, but not deeper. Loosing the soil and adding amendments below will cause new plants to sink. Graft unions of grafted plants must remain above grade. Plants with big roots, like fruit trees and roses, prefer their roots to be spread out over a cone of soil in the center of their planting hole.

Most bare root fruit trees are sold with more branches than they need, so should be pruned after planting. Some might get pruned by half. The superfluous stems are there both to cushion the trees in transport, and also to allow more choices for pruning. Some of us want to prune down to lower branches, while others want to prune up to slightly higher branches. Berry canes need very small planting holes, and get pruned back to only two or three buds above ground.P80115

Big Trees Really Need Arborists

41203thumbStormy winter weather always reminds some of us that our trees need some attention. Wind can break limbs. If the weather gets really nasty, trees can be destabilized by strong wind, particularly if the soil is moistened by rain. However, the truth is that arboriculture, which is the horticulture of trees, is important throughout the year. We just become more aware of it when weather threatens.

Not only is arboriculture important throughout the year, but it is also the most important aspect of horticulture in most gardens that are outfitted with trees. After all, trees are the most significant features of such landscapes. Their shade affects the homes and garden spaces around them. If they drop limbs or fall, they can cause significant damage. Many get far too big for us to maintain.

This is why we need arborists, the horticulturists who specialize in trees. Arborists can evaluate the health, stability and structural integrity of trees, and prescribe any necessary arboricultural procedures. In order to issue a permit to remove a tree, most municipalities require an inspection and report from an arborist who is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, or ISA.

ISA Certified Arborists have passed an examination of their arboricultural expertise, and maintain their certification by continued involvement with ISA educational seminars, workshops and classes. The ISA is the standardizing resource for the promotion of the most important arboricultural technology, and maintains discriminating standards. ISA certification is quite a commitment.

www.isa-arbor.com, the website of the ISA, is an excellent resource for anyone in need of the services of a certified arborist. The registry of arborists can identify and find an arborist directly by name, or regionally by city or ZIP code. The site is also useful for information about proper arboriculture and trees, for those of us who maintain our own small trees, or want to select new trees.

Trusting the wrong professional to maintain trees can be very risky. Even gardeners who are proficient at mowing lawns and shearing hedges may not be adequately knowledgeable about proper arboriculture. Instead of correcting problems, improper pruning can disfigure trees and limbs, and actually compromise their structural integrity. Sadly, it is not uncommon for otherwise healthy, stable and well structured trees to be ruined by those hired to care for them.

Flame Vine

80117This is no timid vine! Flame vine, Pyrostegia venusta, is related to the lavender trumpet vine and blood red trumpet vine, and is just as vigorous. Although it can not be recommended for tight spaces or small refined gardens, it excels at obscuring concrete walls. It only needs wires or stakes to be convinced to climb. If it gets too big, it can be cut back after bloom to regenerate quickly.

Unlike the related trumpet vines that only bloom less but otherwise grow well in partial shade, flame vine really wants plenty of sunlight and nice warm exposure. Fertilizer can accelerate growth for new plants, but too much can inhibit bloom of mature plants. Occasional watering is all flame vine wants. Regular pruning may be needed to keep tendrils away from plants and painted surfaces.

Flashy drooping clusters of bright orange flowers bloom in autumn and winter, much to the delight of overwintering hummingbirds. Each floral cluster contains more than a dozen narrowly tubular flowers that are almost three inches long. The evergreen triofoliate leaves (divided into three leaflets) are quite lush through most of the year, but look a bit tired and sparse as they molt in spring.

Bare Root Stock Is Here

80117thumbChristmas tree lots at nurseries come and go at a good time. Cut and live Christmas trees become marketable just as retail sales of other items is declining. Although autumn is the best season to plant many things, not many of us want to be out in the garden as the weather gets cooler. As Christmas trees get sold and relinquish their space, bare root nursery stock becomes available.

Smaller bare root plants might be available first, because they can be brought in before leftover Christmas trees get recycled after Christmas. These include grapevines, currants, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and perennials like rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries. Roses might be included too, but because they are so numerous, they often arrive with fruit trees.

Deciduous fruit trees are the majority of bare root stock. They include stone fruits, pomme fruits, figs, pomegranates, persimmons, walnuts and almonds. Stone fruits are of the genus Prunus, including apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine and almond. Pomme fruits are apple, pear and quince (pictured above). The flowering counterparts to some of these fruit trees may be available as well.

The flowering counterparts are those that are grown for colorful bloom rather than fruit production. Flowering stone fruit trees, such as the famous flowering cherries, produce no fruit. Flowering crabapples produce small and potentially messy fruits. Flowering quinces are actually a different genus than the fruiting types. Most are fruitless. Flowering pears are not often available bare root.

While dormant in late autumn, bare root plants are dug and deprived of the soil that they grew in. They get planted into their new homes before they wake up in spring. Some are packaged in damp sawdust. Others get heeled into damp sand. The advantages of bare root stock relative to canned (potted) stock are that bare root stock is less disfigured, lacks disfigured and circling roots, gets established in a new environment more efficiently, is easier to transport, and is significantly less expensive.

Most Pruning Happens In Winter

30206thumbWithout specialized pruning while they are bare and dormant in winter, many deciduous fruit trees would be overburdened by their own fruit next summer. The production of excess fruit can waste resources. The weight can disfigure and break limbs. The trees certainly do not want to get so overworked; but they have been unnaturally bred to produce bigger, better and more abundant fruit.

Proper pruning of dormant fruit trees improves the structural integrity of the limbs, and limits the weight of fruit that will develop on the remaining stems. This might seem to be counterproductive, but it is the only way to keep limbs from breaking or growing so high that the fruit is out of reach. It also concentrates resources into fewer but superior fruit, instead of more fruit of inferior quality.

Dormant fruit tree pruning can not be adequately described in only a few paragraphs. Yet, it is so important and so specialized that anyone wanting to grow fruit trees should learn about it. Each type of tree requires a particular style of pruning. Something they have in common is that the ‘four Ds’, which are ‘Dead, Dying, Diseased and Damaged’ stems, obviously need to be pruned out.

The various stone fruit trees (which are of the genus Prunus) need various degrees of a similar style of pruning. Heavy fruit, like peach and nectarine, necessitate more aggressive pruning than does lighter fruit, like plum and prune. Lighter fruit is easier to support. Some cherry and almond trees may not need to be pruned every year. (Almonds are ‘stones’, and their hulls are the ‘fruit’.)

Flowers of next spring and fruit of next summer will develop on stems that grew last year. These stems need to be pruned short enough to support the fruit that can potentially develop on them. If too long, they will sag from the weight of the fruit. If too short, they will not produce enough fruit. Stems that grow beyond reach can be pruned even more aggressively to stimulate lower growth.

Apple and pear trees also produce on the stems that grew during the previous year, but produce more on short and gnarled spur stems that continue to produce for many years without elongating much. Therefore, the tall vigorous stems that reach upward, particularly from upper limbs, can be cut back very aggressively if necessary. Aggressive but specialized pruning keeps trees sturdy and contained, and also improves the quality of fruit production.40101thumb

Collecting Seeds For Next Year

80110thumbWhere winters are cooler, the deteriorating stems of flowers that bloomed last year either got pruned away already or got knocked down by the weather, and are now rotting on the ground. Around here, where the weather is milder, and some flowers only recently finished blooming, used up flower stalks still stand in stasis. Most but not necessarily all should get pruned out and raked away.

Dahlias succumb to frost as soon as it arrives. If not already cut back, they fall to the ground like steamed spinach, and should get raked up and put into greenwaste. There is nothing to salvage. Sunflowers are related to dahlias, but do not collapse so easily. Even if they are not pretty, those that produce seed can be left for whatever birds like to eat them, and then recycled when empty.

Of course, not all of the seed must be left to the birds. Some or all can be saved for next year. The flowers only need to be allowed to dry so that the seed matures. If the birds start to eat them first, old flowers can be cut and stored in open bags or boxes in a shed or garage, out of reach of birds. Stems should be cut longer if they are still green. Seeds should fall from the flowers as they dry.

Seed can also be collected from lily-of-the-Nile and African iris, although these perennials are so easy to propagate by division that growing them from seed might be more trouble than it is worth. Their seed capsules must be allowed to dry, just like sunflower seed. Belladonna lily makes a few weirdly succulent seed that are worth collecting. Some primitive cannas make weirdly hard seed.

It might be worth researching flowers that happen to be in the garden to determine if they produce viable seed worth collecting. It is also important to know what seed requires scarification or stratification. Seed that needs stratification must be exposed to cold temperatures to be convinced that it is time to germinate in spring. Canna seeds need to be scarified by filing through the hard shells before they germinate. Other seeds need other types of scarification or stratification.

Bare Root Stock Has Advantages

31225thumbAnyone who has had undergone surgery knows the advantages of unconsciousness. Any frat boy who woke up after a night of overly indulgent inebriation, with his face adorned with objectionable graffiti, knows the disadvantages. A lot can happen while one is unaware that it is happening. This is exactly why so many bare root plants become available while they are dormant through winter.

Bare root plants get dug and deprived of the soil that their roots grew in, leaving the roots bare. Some get their roots packaged into bags of damp sawdust. Others get their roots heeled into bins of damp sand in retail nurseries. Roots are only bagged or heeled in to stay fresh. They get pulled from their sand or separated from their bag of sawdust when ultimately planted into the garden.

It might seem violent, but it all happens while the plants are dormant and unaware of what is happening. They go to sleep happily rooted into the ground wherever they grew, and then wake up in a home garden somewhere else. It only takes a short while to get reoriented before they develop new foliage and new roots as if nothing ever happened. The whole process is surprisingly efficient.

Canned (potted) plants are actually less efficient in some ways. They are bulkier and therefore more difficult to bring home from the nursery. Their confined roots are more likely to be disfigured or binding. (Roots that wrap around the inside of a can will constrict on themselves as they grow.) The media (potting soil) could contain disease. Worst of all, canned stock is much more expensive.

Bare root plants are remarkably easy to plant. Their planting holes only need to be big enough to contain the roots. Soil amendment should be minimal. If too much amendment is added, or holes are too deep, new plants are likely to sink. Graft unions (the distinctive ‘kinks’ just above the roots) of grafted trees must remain above grade. Roots should be spread out laterally and downward.

Smaller bare root plants like cane berries, grapevines, gooseberry and currant are already moving into nurseries where Christmas trees are relinquishing their space. Fruit trees like apricot, cherry, plum, prune, peach, nectarine, almond, apple, pear, quince, fig, pomegranate and persimmon will arrive next, followed by blueberry and roses. Poplar, flowering cherry, flowering crabapple, forsythia, lilac, wisteria, rhubarb, strawberry and asparagus might also be available.

Potted Plants For Christmas Color

80103thumbAfter all the Christmas decorations get put away for next year, and the Christmas tree eventually gets undressed from all its ornaments, and retired to the compost pile or greenwaste, all the pretty seasonal potted plants remain. Some will bloom, or at least maintain their current bloom, for months. Some might eventually get planted out in the garden. Others might stay potted in the home.

Poinsettias are the epitome of seasonal potted plants for Christmas. Their flashy red bracts last a very long time, even after the tiny yellow flowers are gone. Some are pink, white, pale yellow, peachy, marbled or spotted. They can be grown as foliar houseplants, but will not likely bloom next Christmas. If protected from frost in the garden, they get tall and lanky, and bloom in January.

Christmas cactus is an excellent potted plant either indoors or out where protected from frost. The pendulous growth cascades nicely from a hanging pot. It blooms in phases, but does not stick to a tight schedule. Amaryllis should also stay potted only because it does not do well in the garden over winter. Foliage that develops after bloom will die back next autumn before bloom next winter.

Holly and azalea can be planted directly into the garden where appropriate. Azalea will probably look shabby until it gets new growth. Cyclamen is a perennial in the garden, but dies back over summer. It just might come back with a surprise in autumn. Paperwhite narcissus is perennial too, but exhausts its resources on bloom, so takes a year or more to recover before blooming again.

Small living Christmas trees are more variable than they seem. Rosemary can either be kept potted and shorn, or planted into the garden and allowed to grow wild or into another form. Dwarf Alberta spruce can likewise stay potted or get planted into the garden, but needs no shearing. Both rosemary and dwarf Alberta spruce will want larger pots as they grow. Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine grow into large shady trees, so should only be planted into spacious landscapes that can accommodate them.