Friday, November 18, 2011

Since You Asked...For The Weatherproof Your Landscape Holiday Gift List

Ordinarily, I don't like to jump the gun on the holidays. But, okay, you asked for it—and you must have known this list would be filled with practical items that every homeowner should have for maintaining trees and shrubs.

The fact is, most households do not own a full set of the basic non-powered tools for the care and repair of the landscape's valuable anchor plants. With today's increasingly extreme weather, these tools are a must. So here we go with my top ten recommendations:

Available from publisher:, or call
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1. Weatherproofing Your Landscape

I won't even blush. Anyone who owns a tree or shrub needs a copy of this book (perhaps tastefully packaged together with one or more of the next nine gift ideas).

This is suitable for both new and veteran property owners anywhere in the country, from California to Maine to Florida, and all points in between. (Much of the information is applicable to landscapes around the globe.) If you know someone who has relocated to a new region that has unfamiliar weather issues: yup, also a super smooth idea.

Recipients will thank you every time an extreme-weather event hammers their landscape—and as recent history has shown us, that's going to happen no matter where you live.

Bypass pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 2. Pruners

These come in two basic types: anvil and bypass. Both are useful for small branches up to about finger-diameter. Pruners are a must for training young trees and shrubs into sturdy growth habits, as well as for removing small broken branches.

Anvil pruners, Courtesy Fiskars
 Anvil-jawed pruners (at left) have a cutter blade that chomps down on a flat surface. These are bulkier than bypass types, and so are more difficult to maneuver into tight crotches for close cuts.

More popular bypass pruners (above) have two sharpened blades that work with a scissor action. They'll fit into almost any nook and cranny, and  this definitely makes them my choice if I could own just one type.

Both types of pruners come in a wide array of models, some with easy-grip hands and other nifty features.

3. Loppers
Loppers, Courtesy Fiskars

As with pruners, loppers are available in anvil or bypass models. Designed for  larger branches than pruners can handle, they need to be built to stand up to heavy-duty use.

My old loppers have toiled in the trenches for three decades, and are still going strong. But what I'd really like is a set with telescoping handles, to reach up a little higher without resorting to a tree pruner (see blow) or having to break out a ladder...especially when dealing with an ice storm.

Power-tooth saw, Courtesy Fiskars
4. Pruning saws

Saws are a must following almost any tree-damaging extreme weather event. Again, you have a choice of two primary models: power tooth and bow.

Power-tooth saws (to the left) are great for removing branches that won't quite fit between the jaws of a lopper. The shape of this saw blade is ideal for making cuts close to crotches and other tight areas.

Bow saw, Courtesy Fiskars

Bow saws (to the right) are for larger limbs that are just short of needing a powered chainsaw. We've even used our bow saw for felling small trees. This can come in handy if a storm causes significant damage to a tree.

Tree pruner, Courtesy Fiskars
5. 12' tree pruner

This is a must for trimming broken branches out of trees following wind or ice storms, or even for basic manicure pruning to help prevent damage. The telescoping handle brings a range of branches into easy reach. I find this tool indispensable for pruning tall varieties of crape myrtle without having to resort to a ladder.

Shrub rake, Courtesy Fiskars
6. Shrub rake

Extreme weather events commonly leave a lot of debris scattered around the landscape. A shrub rake can reach into those tight places where a standard rake can't, so you won't have to get down on your hands and knees to grub out the yard trash.

Courtesy Water Right Inc.
 7. Water hoses

There are water hoses...and then, there are water hoses. Some high-grade hoses don't contain any metals or chemicals that can be harmful to pets or people. Some are sturdy enough to drive a truck over. Some are super-easy to coil, and never kink. So something as seemingly simple as a water hose can be a nifty and varied gift, indeed. This would be an especially good gift for anyone who lives in this year's vast drought area, where more of the same is forecast for 2012.

Courtesy Wells Lamont

8. Gloves

I'm not talking about those namby-pamby plastic or cotton gardening gloves that you find on store racks everywhere. If you're going to do serious maintenance or repair work in the landscape, you need something that will hold up and protect your hands. I stick with sturdy leather-palmed gloves that get me through the entire year no matter how hard I work them—and, yes, you can find them in women's and even children's sizes as well as men's.

9. Safety goggles or glasses

Nothing makes a bad day worse than getting a scratched cornea. And that's so easy to do when trimming overhead branches or reaching into shrubs to make just the right pruning cut—not to mention when using power tools such as shredders and chainsaws.

Today's safety goggles and glasses come in a wide array of cool styles to suit even the most discerning fashionista. Just make sure you select a model designed to protect your eyes from flying debris, not against chemical splashes or other industrial uses.

Courtesy Fiskars
10. Water catchment system

Nothing is more vital to the landscape than water—a natural resource that is becoming increasingly scarce. Water catchment systems will someday become standard equipment for all households. Indeed, they are already being built into many new homes, especially in drought-prone areas.

A system is available to fit every budget. So 'tis the season for making sure your loved one gets on the  bandwagon with a new water-saving system that can help tide over their plants during dry periods.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Earthworms...The Canaries Of Your Landscape

Weatherproofing Your Landscape is all about the health and weather-tolerance of your trees and shrubs. So you might be wondering: What do earthworms have to do with that? Well, it happens that these little squiggly creatures have a lot to do with your big anchor plants.

For one thing, earthworms are the canaries of your landscape. If you dig a hole a cubic foot deep and don't find at least 5 plump and lively earthworms, you can bet that your soil lacks the organic matter and microbial action necessary for healthy plant growth—be it pansies or a mighty oak tree.

Here's the scoop on why you should care:

Earthworm castings (poop) have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) rating of 5-5-3. Castings sell for up to 25 bucks a pound. For every three earthworms, your soil gains around a pound of this high-grade organic fertilizer each year. Worm-friendly soil can host up to 25 earthworms per cubic foot. Do the math.

As if that weren't reward enough for treating these guys with royal respect, earthworms help neutralize soil pH by oozing calcium carbonate. (I guess you could say they're the Rolaids of the garden.) And their miles and miles of tiny burrows allow air, moisture, surface nutrients and roots to penetrate deeply into the soil. They also treat lawn thatch and harmful nematodes like Thanksgiving dinner.

Ya just gotta love 'em.

So here are some things you need to know about your little subterranean buddies.

• Earthworms have the sunlight tolerance of Dracula, coming out only at night to grope for food. (They collect on the surface and haul everything downstairs.)

• They like soil temperatures of 50F to 60F degrees. In the heat of a summer day or during winter, they burrow deeper to find that temperature.

• Move a worm to unfavorable soil, and it'll die, pronto.

• Earthworms have a taste for grass clippings and shredded leaves, as well as banana peels, coffee grounds, composted cow or rabbit manure, and ground eggshells. (Steer clear of pickled foods and salt.)

• When adding a powdery substance to the soil, suspend it in water first, or it'll desiccate worms.

• Even if you don't have earthworms, you probably have them. Worm eggs can remain dormant for long periods...until you create a favorable habitat for them.

• With earthworms, you don't need to till. In time, they will burrow up to 6 feet deep, turning the soil as they go.

• Earthworms breathe through their skin, so any chemicals used in the landscape will either repel them or kill them outright.

The best earthworm habitat I've ever seen was beneath a bird feeder outside my living room window. Over a period of months, birds left a layer of sunflower-seed hulls several inches deep. I could rake my fingers through the moist hulls and stir up masses of huge, fat, wriggly earthworms.

If only the robins had known...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Coming Friday...Holiday Gift Ideas!

In response to requests, I'm putting together Weatherproofing Your Landscape holiday gift ideas for folks who want to make sure friends and loved ones get on the road to more weatherproofed landscapes. (And you just might want to add some of these items to your holiday wish list for yourself!)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leaving Leaves Alone

When I was a kid, autumn was always accompanied by the Currier & Ives aroma of burning leaves. Before the age of leaf bags and curbside yard-waste pickup, that's what homeowners did with the huge piles of leaves dropped by their trees.

I miss that smell. But I've come a long way since those days. Besides appreciating clean air in the fall, I've also come to know that lighting a match to leaves is akin torching pure gold.

Fallen leaves contain up to 80 percent of the nutrients that a tree has absorbed during the growing season. If allowed to decay on the ground, they return this store of nutrients to the soil, where they are reabsorbed by roots and channeled back to a new season of growth.

Leaves also are an incredibly rich source of organic matter that helps soil retain nutrients and moisture, while keeping pH levels in balance. And they are a favorite food of those often unsung heroes of the garden—earthworms (which will be covered in Wednesday's posting).

But a season's production of leaves from a single large tree can amount to a formidable pile. And if you live at the south end of a cul de sac, as we once did, a stiff north wind could gift you with most of your neighbors' leaves, as well. (I learned to accept these freebies with glee!)

So how do you manage these mountains of gold?

Flowtron LE-900 with tilt stand
You shrink the mountain.

Shredding leaves can reduce the bounty to 1/16th of its original volume. Shredding also solves another problem: if left whole, leathery leaves such as oak can take years to decompose, meanwhile creating a barrier to moisture reaching the soil.

When it comes to shredding leaves, you have a lot of options, both gas and electric. My sister, who has two large trees in her backyard, simply runs over the leaves with her electric mulching mower. She lets the shredded leaves remain in place, thus eliminating the added chore of raking.

There are any number of gas or electric free-standing shredders—some of the heavy-duty variety also chop small branches, which can be handy during spring cleanup or following a storm. This method requires raking, as well as  stoop labor as you pick up armloads of leaves and feed them into the hopper. But that's terrific exercise almost guaranteed to reduce the waistline.

We use a hand-held leaf vacuum, with a hose that runs to a hood, which fastens onto a garbage can. (You can simply let the leaves blow out the back end of the hood onto the ground, but that makes for a pretty messy situation.) This works most efficiently if the leaves are raked into a pile first, then vacuumed up. But there isn't any stooping.

Patriot Pro-Series leaf vac
Or you could go with a walk-behind leaf vacuum that sucks up and shreds leaves, then deposits them into an attached bag. No raking or stooping—except when clearing leaves from beds.

Of course, if you have a large property with lots of trees, you might want to go with a riding mower with a mulching/bagging attachment. No raking or stooping—or even walking.

So there is a leaf-mulching system to suit just about anyone's pocketbook or energy level.

Once you have your leaves shredded and tidied, you can spread them directly onto garden beds (no more than 2 or 3 inches deep...and rake them in lightly). Or you can corral them in a wire cage or leaf bags for later use, either during winter or during the next growing season.

Shredded leaves make an excellent, nutritious mulch for summer (keeping soil cool while maintaining soil moisture) or winter (piled around tender plants to provide insulation against the cold). Note: you might need to top with a thin layer of cedar mulch, straw, or other weightier material to keep them from blowing away.

Most of all, leaves returned to the soil are able to play their vital role in your tree's great annual cycle of life, from birth to rebirth.