Wordless Wednesday–Winter Greenery

Basket of Greens

Every year I get a basket of evergreens for my landing outside my door. Most years I purchase a commercial basket. Occasionally I try to get creative and make my own. I am usually not satisfied with the result and the following year I go back to the purchased basket.

Home made basket

Here, for example, is my “home made” basket” from 2012. As I look back on it now, it’s perfectly respectable. But at the time I was very unhappy with it. And the winter of 2012-2013 was a particularly snowless one. We only had one big snow (although it was a whopper! We got all our snow in one big storm that year–over 3 feet fell in one storm in February!)

I wonder if this is a “the garden is always greener somewhere else” thing? Are we really never happy with our own gardens? Should we be? Maybe that should be my New Year’s gardening resolution!

Like “Groundhog Day” But With Bugs

Every year this time it’s the same thing and I know now what to be alert for: sawfly larva!

Interestingly enough, the two plants I examine couldn’t be more different–one is a dwarf mugo pine and the other is my roses.  But the crafty little larva of these insects are on both plants and they conceal themselves nicely just the same.

Each appears just around Memorial Day in my part of the country–New England–no matter what the weather. It’s been unseasonably warm and I spotted them perhaps 5 days before the holiday this year so they were about on target. This is one of the great things about gardening in the same place for any length of time–you really get to know your garden pests!

pine sawfly larva

These are the pine sawfly larva. I use insecticidal soap with great success. Interestingly enough, I have a robin pair nesting very close by. I let these get quite large so that she could feast on them if she wanted but she shows no interest. It may be because they are not true caterpillars.

Notice my previous sentence–these are not true caterpillars. Do not try to use bt on them. You can use Neem or do as I do and use insecticidal soap.  (If you’re having trouble distinguishing them from the oak flowers that have fallen, the insects are the green and black striped things with the black heads.  They will sort of rear up nicely at you, particularly as you spray them).

I don’t spray my whole shrub–there’s no need. I just sort of hunt down the insects and spray those. Remember, these organic sprays have no residual effect so there’s no point in over-spraying.

rose sawfly larva

Then there’s this little guy. Talk about hard to see! Yes, there’s an insect in the photo. Most of the time, they are on the underside of the leaves, which makes spraying even more difficult. Look at the most damaged leaf in the photo. Find the mid-rib on the bottom-most petal. The little larva is lying right along that and is almost the identical color.

Another way to find them is to look for their “frass” (poop–small black specks). Or you can just notice the damage.  Again I use insecticidal soap for this but neem will work. If your damage is just beginning, a strong spray from the hose should dislodge them, but be sure not to do that when the leaves will stay wet overnight.

Once your plants have these insects, they seem to recur every year, so make a note of what time of year they seem to visit you (in warmer climates it can be multiple times, particularly with the rose sawfly larva!) and start watching for them!

Getting them at the beginning, before they do much damage, is always far better than trying to feed your plant back into health!

Wordless Wednesday–Merry Christmas


I decided to have a slightly different wreath this year. Otherwise most of my decorations are the same or slightly different “variations on a theme.”


I salvaged this old sled from the trash 9 or so years ago. I think this was before the trend of decorating with sleds really began. Now I see them quite a lot. Someone in my area even has one with a pair of old ice skates draped over it. I usually just use a spray of greens, and then that will come off after they get too brittle and I’ll just keep a bow on for most of the winter.

Kissing ball

This is another favorite of mine and I leave it up way longer than I probably should–some years I leave it until almost Easter, if Easter is in late March. No idea why I love these so much but I have one almost every year and have for decades.

Porch basket

I often, but not always do some version of this as well. If I’m feeling crafty I might make it myself. Usually I’ll just purchase one. This one the Spoiler liked when we got our tree so that’s how I chose it. He’s very traditional–everything has to be red and green. As you can see by my wreath, I prefer unconventional, but I indulge him.

Fraser or Balsam or Something Else?

Fraser FirFor my 1,000th post I really should have something more significant to say. But since many folks will be Christmas tree shopping in the coming days, I thought this would be timely. And why have a blog if it’s not going to be timely?

The Spoiler and I went to pick out my live tree over the long weekend. Long time readers may remember we do 2 trees. I get a live tree and he does an artificial. We avoid a lot of headaches that way.

As soon as we arrived at the tree lot, The Spoiler walked over to the first tree he saw, grabbed it and said, “Now this is a real tree. Get one like this. That way we don’t have all the problems we had last year.”

Apparently I have a memory like a sieve because I remembered nothing of the problems of last year. But what he telegraphed to me with that statement was that he wanted a fraser fir. That’s what he was touching.

I tend to prefer balsam firs because they smell better. But of course, they have softer limbs. Apparently last year we had some issues with the “soft” limbs and decorating the tree.

So we found a nice fraser–probably the second one we looked at–and brought it home.

What about at your house? If you choose a cut tree, how do you choose?

Oiy Tannenbaum!

Oiy Tannenbaum

I am not prone to bursts of spontaneous laughter–especially at a memory–but one that will always have me laughing aloud is one from many Christmases past. I’m not even sure we have it on video anymore although we did at one time.

It was such a simple thing. My Dad had set up a camera to record himself putting lights on the Christmas tree. He video’d himself doing this while the lights were unplugged–and I’m sure you can see where this is going. Then he walked away, plugged in the lights and gestured to the tree, saying proudly, “Ta Da!”

Well, of course only half the tree was lit–and when Dad turned around and saw that, his crestfallen look was priceless! I think that was funnier than the fact that half the lights were out!

Seriously though, few things are fraught with more difficulty than acquiring and putting up a live Christmas tree, even if you don’t cut it down yourself (trust me, I’ve done it both ways).

I’ve never had quite the trouble Bob Tedeschi portrays in the New York Times, however. Maybe it comes from being a gardener.

I have had a tree topple over once, onto a hardwood floor. Somehow, miraculously, not an ornament was broken. But since that time, I use a “backup” system and secure the tree if I’m feeling nervous.

It also helps that I use one of the most marvelous stands ever made. It comes in 2 pieces. I think it was originally sold as the “swivel straight” stand. Who knows what it’s called now?

The stand wasn’t cheap but it’s worth every penny. There’s a collar that goes around the trunk of the tree while the tree is still outside (at least that’s how I do it). You can secure the tree in this collar while the tree is somewhere that’s easy to work on. Then you bring the tree into the house and place it in the stand.

There’s a foot pedal on the stand that allows you to “swivel” the tree into any position to straighten it (hence the stand name). Once you get the tree the way you want it, you lock the pedal in place and the tree is locked in place.

I actually push on the tree to be sure it’s secure–several times–before I fill the stand with water. That’s the other great thing about this stand. It has a large reservoir for water so the tree doesn’t dry out. I usually keep my tree about a month. (Of course, in my chilly home, that’s not too much of a problem).

And that is my secret for avoiding unpleasant Christmas tree surprises. It also helps that I string the lights while they are lit. No “ta da” moments for me!

Winter Interest Plants–Weeping Evergreens

Evergreens are the backbone on a winter garden.  Back in the day when I worked in retail gardening, I would always suggest evergreens of some sort–whether broadleaf or conifer types–to those choosing a new planting because, I’d tell them “You want to have something to look at in the winter.”  It really didn’t matter to me what they chose–there are evergreens for just about every gardening taste–but it was important to me that they had something beside bare dirt to look at.

For those that wanted something a little more out of the ordinary, there were weeping evergreens to choose from. These plants are just “variations on a theme.”  The weeping white pine, pinus strobus ‘pendula’, is a weeping variety of the native Eastern White Pine.  The weeping Norway spruce, picea abies ‘pendula’ is a weeping form of the Norway or European spruce.  It was a mature Norway Spruce that I showed 10 days ago, in my post of January 4. (Here is that post).

Weeping white pine

These trees have different habits and growth rates.  The more upright of the two is the pine, but it is also the faster growing.  Faster growing is a relative term of course, but this tree will require more pruning to keep the weeping form–and to keep it from appearing “unkempt.”

weeping norway spruce

The Norway spruce is slower growing but is also may need some training if it is purchased young.  This tree can either be an upright accent tree, or it can assume a lower pendulous form, almost like a ground cover.

Both trees do best in full sun and well-drained soil.  They prefer acidic soil but so long as your soil isn’t heavily alkaline, they’ll do fine.

Winter Interest Plants–Microbiota

microbiota close-upThis evergreen shrub, known as microbiata dessuata, is one of the most versatile there is.  It’s a low-growing shrub that can serve as ground cover because it’s ever widening girth will eventually cover the ground.

Yes unlike disease prone junipers (at least they are disease prone where I come from!), these plants are not subject to pests and especially that bacterial browning.

Better yet, this plant isn’t fussy about sun–you’ll often find it as a soft ground cover under lacy trees (but it can’t take dense shade–just light shade).

Better yet, once cold weather comes, it turns from a “plain green” evergreen to one with a purple-ish, bronzy hue–like getting two plants for one!

Here is what UConn’s extension service says about the plant.  Don’t be dissuaded by their comment about shade tolerance.  I have a 12 year history with the plant and find it will definitely take light shade.  It’s deep shade you would want to avoid–and perhaps that’s where it was trialled.

Gardening for Winter Interest

In a year where, as of December 19,  Dallas has gotten marginally more snow than Chicago, gardening for winter interest takes on a whole new meaning.

Forsythia in bloom 12/22/12

Here, for example, is a very confused forsythia in bloom in a neighbor’s yard on December 22!

It’s not as if this is a new topic. It’s just that most of the “Winter Gardening” books and articles published show the plants covered either with a delicate tracery of snow or a shimmer of ice.  They don’t contemplate December blooming forsythia!

Lately, in many parts of the country, snow and ice are scarce (and I know folks are glad that at least the ice is scarce!).   But it is still “winter,” meteorologically, astronomically, and, so far as the plants are concerned, horticulturally.  By that I mean that most plants are in their dormant state, some may not be visible at all, and deciduous trees have lost their leaves.

In this version of winter, the landscape is brown and not white.  So I’m going to try to address, during the month of January, plants that can enliven this “brown” winter landscape.  I’ll do posts on this on Mondays and Fridays and on Wednesdays I’ll focus on some great winter interest houseplants.

In traditional winter gardening, conifers and broad-leafed evergreens are the stars of the show.  In this “milder” version of the brown winter landscape, some conifers stand up better than others.  Of course those with color are standouts, but other, more traditional evergreens can be attractive as well.

Inside a Spruce

Take this spruce, for example.  This is a shot that I took while standing underneath a neighbor’s tree.  It’s tall–at least as tall as their two-story house, if not taller.

What’s so interesting about this tree, even in the brown, drab landscape, is, among other things, the weeping nature of its branch structure.  Almost every branch weeps, and while the tree itself is straight and very upright, the branches give a pendulous feel to it.

Also, get a load of those gorgeous cones.  They’re easily 4-6″ long and present a nice contrast to the dark green needled branches.  They’re also great for indoor decoration.

Finally, there is spectacular peeling park on these trees as well.  This one’s bark is obscured by english ivy in this photo, but it is there, nonetheless.

The day I stood under this tree to get the photo, chickadees and juncos were flitting among its branches (presumably I took far too long to take this shot for their liking.)  So in addition to providing a lovely deep green accent in the landscape, it shelters and perhaps feeds birds as well.

This tree is a standout no matter what the weather.  You can imagine how beautiful its branches would look dusted with snow or ice, when that comes!

Merry Christmas 2 (Christmas Evergreens)

Last Friday I discussed legends (variations on a theme, really) associated with our most popular Christmas blooming plants, the poinsettia, the Christmas rose and the Christmas Cactus (for more on care of these, look Here for poinsettia and here for Christmas Cactus.)

Today I’ll discuss some of the evergreens and how they became traditions in decorating. These are actually the more interesting stories because they come down to us from all regions and traditions.

One of my favorites is the mistletoe.  Although I wouldn’t dream of having “real” mistletoe in my home because its berries could be toxic to my pets, I do hang a cut paper version and a lovely glass ornament version every year.  I guess I like the idea that it can be “protective.”

The legend comes down to us from Norse mythology.  It tells of the goddess Frigga who had a beloved son.  Despite her best efforts at protecting him, the god Loki intervenes and her son was killed.  Winter came to the earth as a result and darkness and drear covered the land for 3 days until the son was revived with the help of mistletoe. Its berries supposedly turned white from her tears of gratitude and from that time on, anyone under it would not be harmed and would receive a kiss (hence our modern tradition) as a token of love.  I adapted this tale from the much longer version shown at World of Christmas.

Holly, especially, and ivy to a lesser extent, play a role in our holiday celebrations as well.  Holly has a religious role as well in one of its legends, supposedly sprouting leaves out of season in Bethlehem to hide the Holy Family.  Holly legends and facts can be found at this Suite101 site.

Ivy bears a less well-known role, and perhaps used only because of its association with the song “The Holly and The Ivy.” Some legends of both holly and ivy are found in the song lyrics.  Other legends associate ivy with ancient Druids, Celts and Greeks who decorated with greenery, much as we do, to dispel winter’s gloom.  There is also some thought that “holly’ was perceived as “masculine” and “ivy” as “feminine and the old song–and indeed the plants–discuss that relationship.  More about that here, as well as the song lyrics, from About.com.

Finally of course, there are the conifers or needled evergreens we decorate with in all manner of shapes and forms: wreaths, swags, garlands, centerpieces and of course the tree. Some of this again goes back to ancients of all nationalities who brought the greenery into their homes to dispel winter’s gloom (and who blames them?).  EWTN has an interesting variation on the idea that the Germans first brought Christmas trees into use with its tale of St. Boniface cutting down the oak sacred to the Druids and decreeing that a small fir that had somehow escaped nearby when the oak was taken down be brought into homes instead.  You can read all the details of that legend here.

But of course other legends are associated with our evergreens, including the wreath.  Wreaths have of course been used for centuries, most notably by the Romans and the Greeks, who used them as symbols of victory ( tradition still found in the modern Olympics).  The older legends date back again to germanic tribes who put evergreen wreaths on their homes. It continues today both in secular Christmas decorating and in the Advent wreath.  Read more here from the site History of Christmas.

Finally there’s the yule log, a purely pagan tradition that still survives today in HD on some cable channels, which will stream a live feed of a burning fireplace! It may sound corny but growing up we didn’t have a fireplace and did watch the local (decidedly non-HD) version on TV.  I’ve heard there are DVDs available as well today for those who want to re-create that effect.

The Yule log dates back to the Vikings, who brought logs into their home for prosperity and to chase away the evil spirits.  The log had to burn from the solstice on.  If it for some reason went out, that was considered a very bad sign.  You can read more from a post I did in 2010 on the yule log here.

With all of that said, for those that celebrate the holiday, I wish you a “Merry Christmas.”