Friday, May 24, 2013

Pollen Season Is Upon Us (cough, cough, sneeze)

Lots of male pollen catkins developing on a mature
Pinus sylvestris (Scotch Pine) ©2013 BDG
With all of the beautiful trees and shrubs that flower each spring comes the inevitable blanket of pollen. And right now in New England we are enduring some very high levels of tree pollen.  Maples, Oaks, Ash and Lindens are some of the common contributors recently, and they are the most allergenic pollens.  Coming shortly is Birch pollen and that can cause some significant reactions.  If you have noticed some congestion, a sore throat or been feeling lousy and lethargic it is probably the result of this early season pollen.

When we think of pollen we think about honey or bumble bees floating around our ornamental gardens and visiting our flowering shrubs and perennials, but in fact it is the bigger trees, early in the season, that provide most of the pollen that causes our allergies.  Maples tend to flower just as their leaf buds are breaking, and several weeks ago you may remember the chartreuse color on the Norway Maples before their leaves broke.  All trees flower, though we often don't see them since they can be inconspicuous.  It is all part of the process of procreating.

Some plants can self-pollinate, others need to be pollinated by a neighboring plant and some need a different sex plant to pollinate.  More on this later.

Close-up of the Scotch Pine. ©2013 BDG
Just as most of the allergenic trees are finishing flowering, the most prolific spreader of pollen emerges:  The Pine family.  Usually in early June here in New England, the Pine trees develop their male catkins that disperse pollen that covers everything and everyone in clouds of yellow pollen.  This is what we think of when we talk pollen and everyone closes their windows as it can travel in visible clouds on the wind.  Interestingly, Pine pollen is not as allergenic as the other tree pollens, but it appears in such quantities that it often can lead to sneezing and hard breathing because of the concentrated level of particles.
Pinus strobus (White Pine) just developing. ©2013 BDG

Check out this pollen forecast site if you want to know what is happening with tree pollen in your area.  It also covers grass, weed and mold.  The last couple of weeks have been bad, I have felt a little lethargic, had some mild headaches and breathing was just a little heavier.  With the mild weather and no rain, the pollen has been prolific and a little breeze helps to carry the pollen in the air.  The last couple of days, as the weather has been wet, pollen levels have dissipated, but the forecast shows pollen counts coming back late in the weekend as the weather clears.

What is pollen?  

Pollen is released from male flowers or the male part of a flower and it is used to fertilize female flowers or cones.  

Many plants are monoecious, meaning they have male and female parts on the same tree, while others are dioecious, meaning plants are either male or female.  

Betula populifolia (Gray Birch) single male catkins at
the end of the branch.  Pollen coming soon. ©2013 BDG
The best, and very common, example of a dioecious plant is Holly.  In order to bear fruit on female hollies, it is important to have a male holly within site to provide pollen to fertilize the female flower, which will turn into the berries that we love.  If you have Hollies that don't berry, it is often because there is not a pollinator nearby, or it is a male plant.  Gingko is another dioecious plant, and you want to make sure that you do not get a female Gingko, as the fruit is putrid when it ripens.  We had one on our college campus and in the fall it smelled like a combination of a sewer and vomit.  Nurseries do try to keep them out of the trade, but on occasion they can be found.

Dogwood flowers are in the center, the white 'petals' are
actually not part of the flower.  These flowers are 'perfect'
because they contain both male and female parts
within the same flower.  ©2013 BDG
Birch, Oak and Pine are common examples of monoecious trees with both male, pollen bearing flowers or catkins and female flowers. The female ovary is what matures into catkins, nuts and cones respectively.

While we may not like the clouds of Pine pollen to come, it is believed to have very powerful positive effects, especially for men.  Some research says that Pine pollen can increase male testosterone.    If you are feeling a little low on energy or with that 'drive', then spend a few hours out breathing the clouds of pollen over the next few weeks.

While pollen can be a pain to clean up and in many it causes bad physical reactions, it is just plants doing their best to extend the existence of their species.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Suburban Vegetable Gardening Gone Wild

Beautiful new garage with roof top garden. ©2013BDG
A friend recently introduced me to someone who has true passion for vegetable gardening in limited space.  This new friend of mine has built a vegetable garden on the roof of her new garage!  

They recently rebuilt the garage with the intention of putting a deck on its roof to grow vegetables and keep bees.  It is a tasteful and beautiful use of the space on display for the whole neighborhood.  Unfortunately, not everyone liked the proposed idea and tried to block its construction.   In the end, the roof top was built and it is a statement for a movement of people growing their own food.

Garden with early transplants and tomatoes in
water tubes. ©2013BDG
Check out this article on a Montreal couple who were told to dig up their front yard vegetable garden because of ridiculous local restrictions. 

As the trend of knowing where your food comes from continues, Farmer's Markets and local vegetable stands are becoming a part of people's regular weekly shopping.  Farm Shares, where growers deliver a weekly 'Box' of what is in season are now the norm.


A veeeery cool organic farm in Lincoln with a lots of pick your own veggies and fruit:  Blue Heron Organic Farm

More and more people are starting to really work at growing some or all of their vegetables in season, and while you don't have to be as adventurous with a roof top garden, a small plot to grow a few basics can go a long way to connecting you to your food.  And the most awesome part of this garden, is that her children love to work in the garden and are learning to harvest and cook what they grow.

Another cool part of the set-up is the rain barrel that you see in the ground level photo.  She has a pump that brings that water back up to the roof to irrigate the vegetables.  Maybe we can all aspire to bring our food back home and grow some favorites.

My modest raised bed with lettuce blend and first
row of radish and carrot.  Arugula just germinating
in far left row.  ©2013BDG
I was on the 'roof' last week and most of her indoor crop was out.  The weather in New England has been  tremendous this spring, but were are still three weeks away from being frost free.  If we are lucky maybe we can get some early crops while avoiding frost damage.  

I pushed the timelines on sowing my lettuce, carrots, radish and arugula, with the hope that the weather would cooperate.  If it turned bad and wiped everything out then I would have started again.  This weekend I sowed my second round of carrots and radish.  Next week I'll sow the bush beans and put in the herbs.   As you can see in my modest raised bed, I'll be harvesting some lettuce in the next couple of weeks!

Simple honey bee hive in action.  ©2013BDG
A funny story from my visit: Having worked in gardens professionally for over 15 years, I don't recall ever being stung by a honey bee.   Wasps, Hornets, Yellow Jackets are a different story, but the honey bee is such a docile insect.  As we entered the roof garden, one of the honey bees returning to the hive got stuck in my friends hair, and upon release from her long blond hair, immediately attached to my left eyebrow and made me pay the price.  Despite my encounter,  what a great idea to have a small hive for honey and pollination right on the garage roof.

You don't have to build gardens as involved to grow your own food.  Many vegetables and all herbs can be grown in containers on decks and terraces, and for a few dollars its worth a try.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Reed Versus The Volcano (tree volcano that is)

A neighbor's tree that I transplanted 7 years ago.  The
root flare is at lawn grade, and in 2 years the contractor
has added 18 inches of mulch. ©2013 BDG
I am angry, as I just drove by an elderly neighbor's house where the landscape contractor is piling mounds of artificially-dyed mulch on top of last year's mulch.  This annual process is building up soil levels around the base of relatively new plants, and it is starting to kill them.  The result of this reckless heaving of mulch around trees is the ubiquitous "Tree Volcano".

For those of us who live in suburbia, the annual rite of spring is the arrival of numerous 'mow and blow' contractors who come to clean up the gardens and lawns and get them ready for the coming season.  For many it means multiple gas blowers, both backpack and ground, de-thatchers, mowers and a small army of workers edging, pruning, raking and the grand finale of laying mulch.

Azaleas drowned in a foot of black-dyed
wood mulch. ©2013 BDG
As someone who spends time trying to educate clients and friends about their gardens and proper maintenance practices, it is infuriating to see so-called professionals killing their client's gardens.  That said, there are plenty of reputable contractors who perform excellent work, but often in search of saving a few dollars, people go with contractors who promise the same work for less.  Over time, it costs so much more.

This tree has been 'volcanized' for
years.  Last year they removed more
than 50% of branches that were dead.
Some from Winter Moth and some
from poor cultural practice.
©2013 BDG
Last year I wrote a piece called, Mulch?  This Is Not Mulch!, and I want to focus on three critical elements in this follow-up piece regarding mulching in the garden:  preparation, material and quantity.

The worst practice is to pile new mulch on top of old mulch.  When prepping beds, often you will find that raking out the existing mulch may provide partial or even substantial coverage for the coming season, and it is important to rake out the mulch, turn it over and let air in to help in the decomposition process.  If you want to add new mulch on top of the old mulch, that is great, provided you are not building up the level around your plants.  Adding mulch or soil around the base of plants will contribute to their demise by burying the root crown and keeping air out of the root zone which is critical along with water and nutrients.  It doesn't happen immediately, which is why bad contractors often don't get the blame.
The biggest 'Tree Volcano' I have seen on such a small
tree.  This mound is over 2 feet high and look at
the mounds in the beds.  ©2013 BDG

The soil level around plants should remain the same year after year.  A contractor I spoke with said that clients like the mounding of beds and he uses mulch to get the profile raised.  If you want to raise a bed then you need to remove the plants and add back after the grade has been adjusted with soil but you have to be careful changing grade around large established trees.  Away from the trunk, some trees are OK with grade adjustments, while others can be very sensitive to having their surface roots buried.

Many contractors will remove old mulch and add a whole new layer of new mulch because they want the fresh look of new mulch.  By doing this they are removing a layer of mulch that has been decomposing for a year and is that much closer to providing available nutrients and organic matter for the soil.

A Double Volcano, there are five in this front yard.  These
are big trees and the mounds are 18-24" high. ©2013 BDG
In fact the whole process of removing material from beds is part of the problem.  Gardens need every bit of organic material to help them regenerate each spring.  Like everyone else I can appreciate a neat and clean suburban garden bed, and in the fall I remove leaves only to return them in the spring as leaf mold(more on this later).

As a final word on preparation, make sure you are providing the best opportunity for your garden to receive good organic material to improve the soil quality help supply nutrients for your growing plants.  While mulching can be seen as a decorative element, it should primarily be seen as an opportunity to improve the quality of your soil and provide protection from weeds and heat during the season.

My 6 month old leaf mold composted over winter
with Dried Blood as a nitrogen source to
help break down.  ©2013 BDG

Many people love the look when the landscaper leaves and their gardens are clean and have been mulched with red, brown or black mulch.  Often, contractors have used a good bark mulch product that has been well processed and often times aged and composted.  The purpose of using a natural  mulch is to decrease weeds and weed germination, keep soil moist and at constant temperature and most importantly to add organic material to beds that are asked to produce flowers, shrubs and trees year after year.  Organic material that is utilized by plants, needs to be replaced and mulch and compost are critical elements in this cycle.

Close-up of my remaining leaf mold to be
put in the garden.  ©2013 BDG
In recent years, the demand for mulch has outgrown the supply of quality mulch and suppliers have created mulch that is made from recycled wood products that need to be dyed (badly I might add) to replicate the natural color of brown Pine and Spruce bark mulch, reddish brown Hemlock mulch or the aged and composted black mulch.  These 'created' mulches have no value to existing soils and often steal nitrogen from the soil so that they can decompose and they do so at a very slow rate.  The really bad mulches bleach out during the summer as their dye wears off to reveal chunks of recycled wood.  These mulches take years to break down and can cause more harm than good by removing nutrients from the soil that your plants need.

Azaleas after a year in 12 inches of dyed, chipped wood.
These were new and healthy last year before they
go buried alive.  ©2013 BDG
The best product to use as mulch for flower and shrub beds are composted or aged mulches, compost or leaf mold.  If you want to save a lot of money in mulch, you can recycle your leaves in a very simple process.  In the fall when the leaves are dry, I spread out a days worth of raking on my driveway and go over it several times with my lawnmower.  This helps to break up the leaves into smaller pieces and helps in the decomposition process.  If you want, you can get a small garden shredder/chipper and run them through to get a more even consistency.  I put the leaves in a corner behind my house and add a few pounds of Dried Blood, an organic amendment available at most any garden center.  Dried Blood is pure nitrogen that will help the leaves to compost  until spring.  Come spring when my beds are prepped and it has started to warm, I add the leaves, liberally back to my garden beds.

If you don't want to go through this process, find a local supplier of leaf mold.  It is one of the best amendments for perennial gardens.  As for woody mulch, talk to your supplier or landscaper and make sure that you understand the type of mulch that you are purchasing.

So how much mulch is necessary to suppress weeds but also allow water to penetrate to the plant roots. For most garden beds, 2-3" is plenty, and around perennials I would suggest slightly less.  If you add fertilizer for perennials or other plants during the season, too much mulch will limit the amount of nutrients to actually get to the plants.

With the proper amount of quality mulch, much of it will break down during the course of the season and be available for the soil and plants.  Compost and leaf mold will break down and work into the soil during the season.

All of the images in this post were taken within a five minute drive of my house and all were done by professional companies.   Our plants are under enough stress from environmental conditions, new disease and insects, and the last thing we need to do is add poor management practices.  Shame on the contractors who jeopardize their client's garden's out of ignorance and economic influences.

One last Volcano on the way to my son's school.  ©2013 BDG