Monday, November 25, 2013

Favorite type of Christmas tree?

Karma Larsen

I have a strong suspicion that, for most of us, our favorite types of Christmas trees are the ones we remember from our youth—when trees were bigger, sparklier, more magical than anything we’ve seen since.
       So what’s your favorite?  Fir, pine, spruce?
       Or, if you grew up at a time when there wasn’t money for buying anything unnecessary and getting a Christmas tree meant one less redcedar filling up the ditches at the side of the road, maybe it’s a redcedar?
       I confess it’s my favorite. What other tree comes with its own beautiful blue berries, is airy enough to let ornaments visibly dangle between its horizontal layers and can be gotten for free from almost anyone with a pasture?
       We would cut one out of the pasture or roadside at Thanksgiving, and then place it in water in the garage to let it green up for a few weeks before Christmas. I don’t know whether it was the warmer temperatures or the green food color my parents added to the water, but the trees always greened up quite a bit by Christmas. (Note: if anyone in your family is allergic to pollen, dust or mold, they can be hosed off before bringing them in.)
       So before you head off in search of the perfect Christmas tree, take a good look at your neighbor’s pasture and put your money in the next Salvation Army bucket you see instead. Thanksgiving greetings, friends!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't waste those leaves, turn autumn gold into "black gold"

Karma Larsen

As beautiful as fall foliage is when it's on the tree, once the leaves hit the ground those striking colors just don’t elicit the same excitement.  Rather than bringing out gas-guzzling, noise-making mowers, blowers and vacuums to deal with the residue, consider layering them with soil and other organic residue to make compost or create a new garden bed.
                Whether you call it “lasagna,” “berm,” “mulch” or “layer” composting, there’s a myriad of benefits: garden beds can be built on top of soil or even on top of existing lawn; requires less physical labor than bagging and hauling; decomposes to create a rich humus; more closely mimics nature’s way of creating new soil; uses materials already at hand—with the exception of hay, which can help loosen the mixture and increase aeration; and, if it’s done correctly and with a lot of water, can do its work in the course of just one season.
                Though composting can be as simple as throwing waste in a designated spot, many “how-to’s” recommend a very structured process that discourages all but the most enthusiastic follower. In mulch gardening, a series of thin layers of organic waste is built up and then—the essential part—the whole area is heavily watered down to decompose. Watering encourages insect and worm activity, settling in, decomposition, and prevents drying out or “pressing” the materials. Since layers are quite thin, moist and not stacked very high, the temperature doesn’t get as high as in normal composting; and since it offers the right conditions for worm and insect activity, more labor-intensive methods of turning and mixing the layers are unnecessary.
                To start a new bed on top of lawn, you may want to first lay down soaked layers of newspaper to help smother existing grass.  Then begin the layering process, alternating thin layers of leaves (the more decomposed or broken the better), soil, kitchen waste, compost, grass clippings and hay.  Moldy, rotted hay is best if you can find it. You can also add used coffee grounds, still in filters if you want, from home or work.  Water it in periodically as you’re layering it and don’t add woodchips or sawdust, which will slow down the decomposition.  As it breaks down, it will settle to about half the depth of the original layers.  Keep it moist through winter, and by spring you will have turned autumn’s gold into “black gold.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ornamental Grasses Enhance Fall Landscape

Bob Henrickson
          Ornamental grasses are key plants in the natural landscape—providing seasonal beauty with colors and textures only they can provide. Many gardeners are discovering the many benefits ornamental grasses bring to the garden while creating a more diverse and adaptable landscape for the Great Plains. There is an ornamental grass for any garden situation. They are very easy to grow when provided a well-drained soil and sunny conditions. Ornamental grasses are generally free of garden pests and require little, if any irrigation once they’re established. Perhaps no other group of plants can offer such a huge array of textures, forms, sizes and colors as grasses. Make plans to include a few of the following ornamental grass selections in your garden next spring and transform your landscape into a array of long linear leaves and fine stems.
Native Grasses of the Great Plains
Pawnee big bluestem
Junegrass, Prairie (Koeleria pyramidata) native, cool season bunch grass with gray-green leaves; blooms early June with narrow, erect seed heads; needs well-drained, dry soils; can be short-lived in heavy soils; will reseed making them ideal for naturalizing; 18” high.
Grama,  Blue (Bouteloua gracilis) native to dry prairies; tufted with thin, wiry leaves to 8”; 1” eyelash-like seed heads top thin stems to 18” in late June; nice decorator plant or mass for prairie style lawn.
Grama, Sideoats (Bouteloua curtipendula) mounds of gray-green foliage; numerous narrow flower stalks with oatlike seed heads held on one side of the stems, to 3’ h; bronze-orange fall color; straw in winter.
Buestem, Big (Andropogon gerardii) impressive native of the tall grass prairie; rich, green leaves to 2’ by the end of June; flowering stalks in August up to 6’ high; seed heads resemble turkey’s foot; reliable fall color in copper, rich orange, with maroon tones; may grow floppy if shaded; wet or dry soils.
Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) clump former with blue-green leaves and golden, feathery seed heads held above leafs in fall to 6’ high; seed heads move with the slightest breeze;  provide moisture retentive soils for best results; they will reseed.
Lovegrass, Sand (Eragrostis tricoides) native to sandy soils with leafy upright flowering stems to 4’ h; masses of airy, fine textured seed heads in August; self sows manageably in loam and readily in sand but easily managed; early spring green appreciated;  will be floppy in shady conditions or excess water
Dropseed, Prairie (Sporobolus heterolepis) native bunch grass with thin, ribbon-like leaves form 2’ mounds; delicate seed heads appear in late summer and remain attractive through fall; attractive when back lit and scented; foliage turns deep orange to light copper; likes it dry and never needs dividing.
Bluestem, Little (Schizachrium scoparium) dependable native bunch grass with fine-textured bright green or light blue leaves to 2’ tall in summer; the late summer flowers dry in fall, becoming silvery and remain attractive through winter; avoid highly fertile soils or excessive moisture, heavy mulching.
Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) many nice selections of this dependable native; ‘Shenandoah’ tight clump to 4’ with red in the summer foliage; ‘Dallas Blues’ outstanding tall plumes in fall; ‘Heavy Metal’ nice blue-gray foliage; leaves with nice orange-yellow fall color.
Hardy Exotic Grasses
Blue Fesque, Dwarf- (Festuca glauca)
Lovely bunch grass with powder blue foliage to 10”; ‘Elijah Blue’ is the most dependable; must have full sun and well-drained soils for longevity in the garden; native to Europe.
Carex or Sedge- many exciting yellow and white variegated forms selected from plants native to Japan and China. many different grass-like plants in wide variety of color, form, and size for wet or dry soils, sun or shade; there is a Carex for any garden situation; too little known and too little used! Carex grayii and Carex muskingumensis perfect for the bog.
Hairgrass, Tufted (Deschampsia caespitosa) look like tufts of long, thin hair topped by masses of loose, airy seed heads in late spring; consistent moisture for best performance; full sun to part shade; 15-18” high and wide; native to Europe.  
Miscanthus- showy grasses of many shapes and sizes, ranging from 3 to 12’ tall; feathery plumes top plants in fall with new cultivars providing colorful foliage and better flowers; cut back to ground in spring; prefers full sun and will topple if planted in too shady of conditions. ‘Autumn Red’ 3-4’ early bloomer with fall color; ‘Malepartus’ showy seed heads, early; ‘Strictus’ with yellow bands on the foliage;
Oatgrass, Blue (Helictotrichon sempervirens) a western Mediterranean native; clump-forming grass with intense blue leaves to 2’; delicate flower stalks appear in late spring; suffers in poorly drained soils. Zone 4.
Pennisetum, Chinese (Pennisetum alopecuroides) narrow-leaved bunch grass with foxtail-like silvery-white plumes in late summer; typically 2-3’ high; stunning in groups or masses; native to China.
Ravennae Grass (Saccharum ravennae) native to the Mediterranean region; clumping grass forming 4’ wide gray-green mounds of foliage by August; large plumy flower heads are produced in late August on stalks up to 12’ tall; excess moisture or fertility encourages lax growth; cut to ground in spring.
Reed Grass, Feather (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) deep green, lustrous foliage with loosely feathered flowering stalks in early summer; they constrict to narrow buff-colored plumes by fall and remain attractive all winter; easy to grow in most soils, but best in well-drained fertile soils; native to Europe. ‘Karl Foerster’ is a popular selection for good reason; ‘Overdam’ foliage has cream-white stripes; ‘Strica’ earliest to bloom, very upright; very well behaved grass.
Reed Grass, Korean (Calamagrostis brachytricha) native to woodland edge in Asia; glossy green foliage and red tinted feathery flower heads in September create strong vertical plant; the showy flowers fade to silvery green through fall;  prefers consistent moisture but is easy to grow in most soils; excellent in containers; 3-4’ high.            

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Oaks among the Highlights of Fall

Black oak, Quercus velutina
Justin Evertson 

                Although November signals that winter and all its cold, gray dullness is just around the corner, it can be a great time to enjoy and celebrate the landscape around us. In fact, a warm November day can be one of the best times of the year to be outdoors. The air is crisp and easy to breathe and is often filled with the distinct aroma of fallen leaves. The allergens are on the wane and the mosquitoes are mostly dead. Which helps us better enjoy a landscape that is often washed with a dizzying variety of textures and colors from tans and browns to oranges, reds, purples and greens.
                November is often the month when many oak trees are their most colorful. Pin oak and red oak almost always give reliable orange-red displays. White oak provides a very distinctive and long-lived dusty-red. Scarlet oak and shumard oak seem to be on fire with their bright red hues. Even the tans of chinkapin oak and shingle oak are attractive. Perhaps my favorite fall leaf color is the orange-red of the black oak. This underused native tree shines all year long with shimmering pink leaves in spring followed by glossy green leaves all summer. The great fall color seems to hold well into December and even the winter is made more tolerable by the tree's attractive blocky bark.  
                A nice attribute of several oaks including black oak, white oak and shingle oak, is that their leaves are reliably marcescent (most of the leaves do not fall off, but are held tightly by the tree throughout the winter). Other oaks that hold their leaves, though less reliably, include swamp white oak, red oak and pin oak. Such trees provide several benefits including winter wind protection and reliable cover for birds. Perhaps best of all, especially for lazy people like me, is that less leaf raking is needed under such trees.