Friday, September 30, 2011

Since You Asked...Stark Bro's

This is fall tree-planting season...and all those mail-order ads that crop up at this time of year can be mighty tempting. But it's easy to get burned when purchasing sight-unseen nursery stock. Also, mail-order stock is bare-root, which requires special consideration. So Meg Cloud at Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchard Co. has graciously offered helpful advice.

And as a special thank you to our blog readers, Stark Bro's is making the nifty coupon offer at the bottom of today's posting!

Q. Meg, what should a potential customer look for in a mail-order nursery?

A company's reputation among the general public should be a good indicator of their other qualities and characteristics. With a little effort, a google search should result in websites, social sites, forums, and reviews on the nurseries under consideration.

Find out if the mail-order nursery primarily grows their own stock, or if they purchase from another grower just to resell it. Look for the extent of their expertise for your particular growing interest. Stark Bro's prides themselves on being experts in fruit trees, roses, and small fruits, whereas other nurseries may claim evergreens or vegetables as their area of mastery.

Also, do you know things [about the nursery] that are important to you: customer service? Price? Quality? It's my humble opinion that any reputable business should have excellent customer service with an understandable correlation between the quality and the price of their products. But everyone has different priorities.

Dealing with live plants is precarious by nature—but be aware that reputation and quality usually result in one-time planting, while lower prices from obscure nurseries may result in several replacements.

Q. What is the advantage of mail ordering as opposed to purchasing stock locally?

A. Most reputable mail-order nurseries will guarantee a true-to-name variety, whereas local (and some less reputable mail-order) nurseries may not have their resell stock correctly labeled. You can usually find a broader selection of varieties by mail order (particularly in specialized categories, such as fruit trees).

Typically, the warranties on mail-order stock are much better than with local purchases. In addition, local nurseries usually sell potted (higher cost) instead of bare-root (lower cost) stock, which affects your pocketbook.

Q. When choosing trees and shrubs from a mail-order nursery, what is important to know (besides your hardiness zone, and making sure the plant is tolerant of your local extreme weather)?

A. I would definitely recommend knowing the warranty or guarantee behind the nursery stock. Some mail-order nurseries have limitations (such as time or circumstances) on their warranties. Stark Bro's [for instance], has a comprehensive guarantee on all of their trees and plants for up to a year, with a free replacement or purchase-price refund if a customer is for any reason dissatisfied with the product.

Also, know whether the trees/shrubs in question are disease-resistant. A tree is usually labeled "disease resistant" if it has a certain amount of hardiness against typical weather-related fungal or bacterial diseases.

Consider the mature height of the stock in question: will you be able to handle its proper care at that size? Larger stock may end up subject to injury or other issues that cannot be easily handled.

[Note: Weatherproofing Your Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants, provides guidance on selecting weather-resistant species.]

Q. What kinds of preparations should the customer make in anticipation of their ordered stock?

A. Know the soil, light and drainage requirements of the plants to be ordered. Have the planting site marked out, with consideration to the mature sizes of each tree or shrub.

If you have a planting area with poor drainage, be prepared to amend your soil before or at the time of planting. [Note: If you aren't sure how to do this, consult your local Cooperative Extension office.]

Prepare to plant your bare root stock as soon as possible following its arrival. Start Bro's recommends planting right away, but certainly within a week of shipment.

If you'll need to store the bare roots for a time, have a dark, damp place available with minimum light (a shed or garage would be suitable). Keep the bare roots covered in damp newspaper or cloth until you are able to plant. The goal is to keep these trees and shrubs dormant—which limits the transplant shock and any potential weather damage that would normally hurt a leafy green plant.

To get a head start, you could dig your planting holes the day before the anticipated arrival of your stock.

Q. Finally, what is the biggest mistake customers can make when receiving/planting bare-root stock?

A. The biggest mistake would probably be waiting too late to plant. If proper care isn't taken, the roots will dry out and become brittle. This is almost certain death for a bare-root tree. Should you notice the roots drying out, Stark Bro's recommends soaking the root ball in a bucket of water 6 to 8 hours before planting.

Here's the fine print: 1 coupon per customer; must be used online at; code must be entered as a COUPON, not a promotion; expires Nov.30, 2011; good for $5 off orders over $50.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Defending an Urban Tree

When my friends—I'll call them Tree Lovers—bought a house on a corner lot, they also acquired a large tree that shouldered right up to a corner street light. Sadly, the power company informed them that up to half of the tree's canopy would have to go, because it was blocking too much light.

It was hard not to sigh mightily for that unfortunate tree.

Historically, large street-side trees have fared miserably when it comes to urban utilities. Such trees tend to get butchered by municipal tree-trimming crews out to clear overhead power lines. Or their roots get severed by trenching operations for buried utility lines, or sheered off during street-widening projects. So when it came to a choice between a tree and a light pole, one would just have expected the Tree Lovers' specimen to end up being the loser.

But then, one would not be accounting for our intrepid Tree Lovers.

They started off by questioning the inevitable...and found a ray of hope. They learned from city officials that if they could get the majority of their neighbors to sign a petition in favor of it, the streetlight would be removed. Petition in hand, the knocking on doors commenced.

Matter of fact, the majority of the neighbors didn't want the streetlight removed. "But," according to Mrs. TL, "they also admired the tree and hated to see it chopped up." (Also, let it be said that none of the neighbors wanted a streetlight on their own property, which was an option.)

To my surprise—but perhaps not to theirs—the Tree Lovers succeeded: everyone they asked signed the petition. The tree that had stood on their street corner for generations was spared gross disfigurement that would likely have resulted in its death. The streetlight pole came down without so much as a whimper.

But, of course, the threat to the tree hadn't ended—and never will. Besides the formidable difficulties of living in an urban setting, trees contend with regular assaults from the weather. In December 2007, a catastrophic ice storm damaged or brought down thousands of trees in this Tree City. Debris-collection trucks roamed the streets like death wagons during the Black Plague, picking up logs and branches.

The tree on the Tree Lovers' corner survived.

Last year, a severe drought set in, steadily deepening to the most extreme level of "exceptional." With the drought came the most brutal heat wave in state history.

The tree endured.

Last spring came a violent hailstorm, blowing through on winds of 60 to 90 mph. Roofs were stripped of shingles. Air conditioning units were torn off commercial buildings. Again, debris-collection trucks made their grim rounds.

By then, our Tree Lovers had moved to another state, but they hadn't forgotten their corner tree. When they heard about the latest storm, they couldn't help but wonder. So with some trepidation, I promised to swing by their house and check out how the tree had fared.

I know this sounds corny, but when that corner came into view, my heart swelled. There the big tree stood, battered and now seriously misshapen by its history, but still green and thriving. It shades the house that once sheltered my friends. And with luck and continued care, it might continue to stand tall for another generation or more.

A mature urban tree is a miracle of existence. While filtering pollutants from the air we breathe, it struggles with obstructed roots, blasting heat from man-made surfaces, and countless other daily insults. But it still provides habitat for urban wildlife, and enriches the visual texture of our lives.

Thus, the loss of the tree on the Tree Lovers' corner would have left a big chunk of empty sky. As all tree lovers know (or should know), sometimes a tree depends on you to fight for its right just to be.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dissing Cookie Cutter Trees

'Tis the season for fall tree planting. The question is: Are you going to choose the right species for your landscape? Or are you going to let your local big-box store choose for you?

Because really...nothing says "boring" like a cookie-cutter tree—one of those ubiquitous species sold at big-box nursery outlets. Often found plunked down in the front yards of new housing developments, or planted in rows along driveways and streetsides, the widespread popularity of cookie-cutter trees can be attributed to one primary factor: they're cheap.

And let's face it: a cheap price is always such a temptation for impulse buyers. Especially when planting season is in the air, generating a powerful urge to make one's mark on the landscape.

But where extreme-weather events are concerned, if ever there was proof of the phrase, "you get what you pay for," cookie-cutter trees are it. Bradford pear trees are a prime example of a readily available, econo-priced plant that is almost always the first to be damaged or destroyed when extreme weather strikes.

That is not what I'm looking for in a landscape specimen that should be adding value to my property.

Okay...let me qualify all that. For many years, the downtown business district of my town was lined with Bradford pear trees. Overlooking the fact that you couldn't see the storefronts or signs through the dense lollipop crowns, the trees formed a glorious avenue of blossoms for a couple of weeks each spring. What a pleasure it was to walk or drive down the street amid a shower of snow-white petals.

But let's return to those crucial words highlight above: for many years. You notice I didn't say for many decades, or for generations. Those downtown trees are all gone now—and I can easily recall when they were planted. Cheap trees tend to have short natural lifespans, even without being damaged by extreme-weather events or other stressors. Though they sometimes live on well past an age when they should have been removed and replaced, it's usually in an increasingly ramshackle condition as property owners attempt to stave off the inevitable.

So when I'm shopping for a new addition to my landscape's tree or shrub population, I opt for long-lived  species from lists provided by my county's cooperative extension office. These plants are best suited to my local climate and soil, which means they're more tolerant of the weather extremes that they're likely to encounter in my yard.

What's more, I rather fancy the idea of a tree that will outlive me, and go on doing its part to enrich my community's greater urban forest for many generations to come.

Today, I'm happy to say that I don't have a cookie-cutter tree on my property. I did have them in the past...but that's another story for later.