The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

April 17, 2019

Reproduce forest soil to help trees get off to a good start

Filed under: Shrubs,Soil,Trees — Tags: , , — bob @ 5:26 pm

Spring is the best time of year to plant trees. During the winter the dormant buds and roots are in a kind of holding pattern until the right growing conditions happen in the spring. Then they have the entire growing season to establish themselves before next winter.

No doubt you’re aware of the requirements for a proper sized planting hole and the need to water the young tree after planting. Proper planting depth is also very important. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important it is to remove the wrapping from the root ball, even though it can be a hassle.

I always set aside any sod and never use it to back-fill the planting. Actually, I don’t use the topsoil to back-fill either. I just use the subsoil from the hole for back-fill and save the topsoil for the very top of the hole. That way the original soil profile is maintained.

After I’ve taken great pains to get the tree into the ground, there’s one more thing I like to do to and that is to create an artificial forest floor covering.  It’s something I’ve been doing for decades and I like the results.

It’s really a way of mulching that small trees seem to respond to. I first apply a thin layer of partially decomposed wood chips around the newly planted tree, over the topsoil,  maybe a couple of inches deep. Then I cover that with a layer of chopped leaves. Chopping the leaves prevents them from matting down which can slow down rain water penetration into the soil.

Here the mulch is applied  about four feet in diameter.

Here the mulch is applied about four feet in diameter.

The layering combination of subsoil in the hole, with topsoil over that then covered with the chips and leaves mimics the soil conditions of a forest. I don’t mix the layers, I let the soil microbes do their thing. Eventually as the mulch decomposes, humic acid and related compounds are formed providing an environment for a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes. All of that allows the tree to adapt to its new home and grow to its full potential.

Not everyone will want to fuss with their trees like this and some will say it’s overkill and I certainly wouldn’t expect a landscaper to do it. but it’s something I’ve found to work for me.

Bob

March 28, 2019

If possible, save dead trees for woodpecker nests

I spend a lot of time outside and one of my favorite sounds this time of year is the drumming of woodpeckers. In our neck of the woods we have mostly hairy woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers.

We live in a rural area and there are plenty of trees around to provide nesting sites for woodpeckers. If you remember, woodpeckers only nest in holes that they carve in tree branches. When looking for a likely nesting spot, they always choose dead branches first because the wood is softer due to decay making it easier for the bird to excavate a hole.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. They were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

This branch is about ten inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet off the ground. The holes were most likely made by hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers prefer smaller diameter branches.

Unfortunately, people don’t always think about birds when it comes time to cut firewood or tidy up the woodlot. Often, dead or dying trees are the first ones that get cut down. That reduces the number of nesting opportunities for woodpeckers.

When there is a lack of trees,woodpeckers will look for other places to build their nests. The outside wall of a house can be tempting for them, especially if it is covered with wood siding. They can be fairly destructive if they drill into a wall to make their nest.  More dead trees left standing may draw woodpeckers away from homes and back to their preferred habitat.

It’s not only woodpeckers that benefit from standing dead trees, other species of songbirds and small mammals will move into old woodpecker nests once the woodpeckers have eventually moved on.

If you decide to leave a damaged tree standing, just make sure it is in a location where it won’t cause any damage if the branches, or even the whole tree, falls.

Bob

March 8, 2019

Making a DIY maple sap stile from an elderberry or sumac branch

We’re rapidly approaching the maple syrup season. Actually if it wasn’t for this cold snap we’d be gathering sap right now. It all depends on the weather,  cold nights with quickly warming morning stimulates sap flow.

Now that I reminded you of it, maybe you want to try making some maple syrup yourself this year. First you’ll have to collect maple sap and for that you’re going to need some equipment before you start. One very important piece of equipment is the stile, or tap. That’s the little doohickey that is used to funnel maple sap from the tree trunk to a pail or other collecting container.

Like so many other things that started out simple, a huge retail industry has developed around selling items for tapping maple trees. To hear them tell it, you can’t even get sap out of a maple tree without their products. People have been tapping trees and making maple syrup for centuries, How did they do it without access to modern day gadgets? Well, they made their own equipment using raw materials available in the environment around them.

If you hurry and ask for priority shipping, you may be able to order tree tapping stiles online and get them before the season ends. Or you can make your own.

You can easily carve a stile from an elderberry branch using tools you already have around the house. Sumac branches work just as well or perhaps even better than elderberry and may be easier to find in your neighborhood.

The hardest part of the whole process is finding the shrubs. Once you find a likely bush, take out your sharpened pruners and cut off a section of branch around a half an inch in diameter.  Freshly cut, green stems are relatively soft and very easy to work with.

Cut elderberry branches into sections three to four inch long.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

This is about the size of stem you need to make a stile.

Using a screw driver, hollow out stem by removing the soft pithy part running through  the center.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.

Use a screw driver to clean out the soft inner pithy part of the stem.

Work the screw driver  through the pith to form a hollow tube.

Work the screw driver through the pith to form a hollow tube.

Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

Try to get as much pith out of the stem as you can.

For the next step, use a sharp pocket knife to whittle away one end to form a taper. This will be the end that goes into the tree.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

A utility knife with a new blade makes short work of tapering the end.

Finally, make a slanted cut at the far end to form a spout. And that’s all there is to it. Your first stile will probably take several minutes to make but once you’ve done it, you’ll find the next one will be easier and can be finished in less than a couple of minutes.

Make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout.

To complete your stile, make an angled cut at the opposite end to form a spout. Shave off the bark f you want.

I’m not going to go though all the steps necessary to tap a tree and boil down sap into syrup but if you want to learn more, click here to find an old publication that I posted several years ago describing the process from start to finish.

After the first year, you may find you’re interested in expanding your syrup making hobby, if that’s the case then by all means go online and start collecting  more sophisticated equipment for next year.

Bob

 

February 26, 2019

Forcing spring tree and shrub branches

We’re getting an early taste of spring at our house by forcing branches into bloom. It’s something gardeners have done for centuries ever since someone figured out if you cut some branches and bring them into a warm room during the winter, they will bloom.

When I was in elementary school, forcing pussy willow branches in the classroom during the winter was a regular thing. Do they still do that?
Right now we have willow branches blooming that Judy cut a couple of weeks ago. They’re not the large-budded pussy willows but they are still attractive. They just happened to be the ones growing in our yard.

Our willow branches have buds that range in color from light pink to yellow all on the same branch.

Our willow branches have buds that range in color from light pink to yellow all on the same branch.

In addition to willows, just about any kind of spring-blooming tree or shrub will work including, forsythias, vernal witch hazel, most fruit trees and many others.

In its simplest form , all you really do is cut off some branches and stick them in some water. You can improve the odds of getting better blooms by choosing branches that have more closely spaced buds — more buds means more flowers. Branches that are thicker than the average on the plant, work best too since they contain more of the nutrients the buds need to open and grow.

It's a lot of  fun watching the buds slowly progress through their development.

It’s a lot of fun watching the buds slowly progress through their development.

Cut the branches you want to force two to three feet long for best results. Once cut, remove all buds and side twigs that would be under water in your vase or other container.

Sometimes making a slit at the bottom of the stem will help it take up water more easily. Branches from lilacs and possibly other plants benefit from being lightly crushed at the bottom, best tool for that is a hammer. Just put the end of the branch on a scrap of wood and tap it until it is crushed.

Placing the entire branch in lukewarm water will help jump-start the process. The only big enough container we have to do that is the bath tub, plus there’s plenty of warm water handy right from the spout. A couple of hours in the tub will do it.

Change the water in the vase every couple of days or so to prevent mold and algae from growing and clogging up the water-conducting parts of the branch.

When forcing branches, keep in mind that not only are the flowers fun to see but the shape of the branch itself is also part of the arrangement. Don’t be tempted to cram too many branches into the vase or you may lose the pleasing design effect the branches add.

To extend your forcing season, cut new branches every week now until spring to have a fresh set of buds opening all the time.

Bob

November 15, 2018

Tree leaves help build soil

I’m running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. Maybe it just feels like I’m behind because of the snow we’ve been having recently.

This past weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Valuable soil building components found in leaves are destroyed by burning.

Valuable soil building components found in leaves are destroyed by burning.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

 

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