Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Plant of the Month: May

Last May I posted a perennial; so, this time I opted for a deciduous tree (it is actually more like a shrub but can be trained to look like a tree). I chose this plant because I have childhood memories associated with it.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), is an attractive little native tree. In the wild it looks more like a large shrub; but, it is generally used in the urban landscape as a tree (in naturalized settings it can work well to allow it to take on a shrub form). In mid to late spring, the tree is replete with attractive, little white flowers that grow in four-inch elongated bunches (racemes). See the picture.

These flowers later become dark purple/black berries that are commonly used in jellies and jams. It is for this reason I first learned about this plant as a young boy. Each year, just before school started again, my family and I would gather bucketfuls from native chokecherries growing on our summer rangeland (in a mountainous area). This resulted in myriad bottles of chokecherry jam.

The native chokecherry has green leaves; but, red-leaf varieties are more commonly used in the urban landscape--for good reason. Emerging leaves are green yet transform into an attractive red-purple hue by summer. During the transition period, the tree is comprised of green and red leaves, making it an attractive site in the landscape--at least I think so. 'Schubert' and 'Canada Red' are probably the most popular red-leaf varieties.

I have to admit that this tree tends to sucker; so, you will need to decide if you want to deal with this. Due to its suckering habit, some recommend using it in a naturalized setting. It is also susceptible to black knot disease; but, this can always be pruned out. For me, I believe the positive aspects outweigh the potential problems.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lemonade in the Shade

After being cooped up all winter, I get a rush out of springtime yard work. In spring I am successful and powerful, I only have to look at my beautiful landscape to make flowers bloom and leaves grow. I can see what I have created and it is good!

My confidence quickly melts away with the first real heat wave, that brutal precursor of summer. Flowers start to fade in the heat and plants that looked hale and healthy show their true weakness, many issuing their last gasps not too far into summer. The weeds that were big and easy to spot before hunker down in amongst your plants and refuse to be budged. Lawns that were lush and dark green get spotty and mowing them in the heat of the summer isn’t nearly as pleasant as in the spring when the smell of freshly cut grass lets you know winter is finally leaving.

While we are still happy to be out gardening, there are a few things we can do now to make summers easier later. First, the judicious application of fertilizer can help lawns get that extra boost of nutrients to keep them growing strong through the long hot summers. It is recommended to apply one or two applications of fertilizer to lawns in the spring. Healthy lawns require less water in the summer and will be better prepared to seek out water deeper in the soil. Avoid fertilizing during the summer, however, as that will cause the plants to put on a lot of new growth which also requires a lot of water. Our Kentucky bluegrass naturally wants to slow down in the summer; not fertilizing them during that time will help.

Lawns are not the only plants that benefit from additional nutrients. While shrubs and perennials may not need an application of fertilizer, adding organic mulch such as shredded bark, will add essential nutrients as they break down in the soil.

Spring is also a good time to start training your plants to be able to resist summer heat. When you begin watering your landscape, apply about ½” of water each irrigation session and vary the frequency at which you apply it. Like muscles that get stronger with exercise, roots will grow deeper if the soil is allowed to dry out between watering. Lawns can be trained to require water only every third day during the summer.

Finally, get the upper hand on the weeds now. Any weeds that don’t go to seed this year won’t contribute to the supply of seeds in your soil for next year. Using pre-emergent herbicides helps to control many of the weeds you would normally see in the spring. A bit of elbow grease will get the rest.

Fertilizing, irrigating and weeding may be the most overlooked and underappreciated tasks in your landscape, especially when compared with the joy of planting new flowers and designing new flower beds. However, doing these tasks well in the spring helps gardeners to thrive in their preferred summer habitat, lounging in the shade with a glass of ice-cold lemonade.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Plowed ground smells of earthworms and empires" - Justin Isherwood

On the surface, soil seems a very dull topic of conversation. Ask someone about their soil, however, and be prepared for a lengthy discussion, usually involving weeping, wailing and teeth gnashing. Everybody is so totally convinced that the soil in their particular landscape is a thousand times worse than anybody else’s, and they have a thousand reasons to prove it.

Soils are the whipping boy of the landscape. When you have put all your effort into making your landscape look spectacular and you find out that, despite your best efforts, it still looks only mediocre, you naturally look for something to blame it on. Soils, being the great unknown that they are, make the perfect culprit. It is much easier to shrug one’s shoulders, curse one’s soils and get on with life than to admit failure.

There are an annoying few who insist that their soils are perfect, rich and organic and they dig through it like butter. This type of person usually also has the perfect job, children who never throw tantrums and a habit of telling lies.

The truth is that soils can have a lot to do with what you plant and how you water, but rarely does it determine the success of your landscape. When confronted with suboptimal soils, many people look for ways to change the soil composition. Adding organic matter helps in all situations, but texture and pH are difficult to change. The key is to know your soil and to work around its deficiencies.

The first step to living with your soil is to know it a little better. For a small fee, you can obtain a detailed soil analysis through Utah State University and your local county extension offices. See for details.

If your budget is too tight to do that, you can perform a “jar test” ( which will help you determine your soil’s texture. You can also make a few general assumptions. Utah soils are usually quite alkaline and may be high in salts.

Once you are more familiar with your soil, look for plants that will grow best in your soil conditions. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of our beloved hydrangeas, azaleas and rhododendrons, but there are a lot of other wonderful plants that grow well in alkaline soils. The soils in the Conservation Garden Park are very alkaline and are classified as clay loam in texture. There are over 800 species of plants listed in our online database ( that do well in alkaline soils.

After you have selected your plants, make sure that you keep in your soils in mind when you are scheduling your irrigation. Clay soils can hold a lot of water but take it in very slowly. On the other end of the spectrum, sandy soils take water in very quickly but will require water to be applied more frequently. You can schedule a free water check for your landscape that will help you to understand your soils and irrigation system and leave you with a suggested watering schedule. To sign up, simply visit:

In the end, no soil is perfect, but you should know three things; 1) you can work around your soil, 2) adding organic matter helps and 3) my soil is much much worse than yours.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow...

This spring has been exasperating for me and, I suspect, most gardeners. Things are good when the sun is shining and temperatures rising, but each wave of storms that rolls through dashes hopes as the temperatures drop and we get not only rain, but the constant threat of snow and crop damaging frost. At times like these, be glad that you are a hobby gardener and not someone whose livelihood actually depends on blossoms lasting long enough to produce fruit.

The silver-lining to the climate roller coaster is, of course, the additional precipitation, especially after a relatively dry winter like we have had in Utah. There has been a lot of hand-wringing and sighing by water managers as they monitor the snowpack in the mountains of Utah and anticipate the coming water demand. Rainy springs, such as this one, can help to alleviate the lack of winter precipitation and help to avoid the onslaught of another drought.

However, the avid gardener will still experience frustration and moments of doubt as they try to guess when those tender veggies can be planted without sentencing them to an uncertain future of frostbite and sudden death.

There are two solutions to that problem, one difficult and one easy. Any gardener who has a sense of decency and self-worth will opt to grow their vegetable plants from seed. This involves the purchase or creation of a grow system to allow the plants to be started indoors. There are many indoor plant growing systems that can be purchased and easily assembled at home. For those who want to save the money, wire shelving can be rigged with fluorescent lighting to create a cheap indoor growing system.

Whatever type you choose, your grow lights can be located in a basement or warm garage where your seedlings can be nurtured until the weather permits them to be planted into their final spot in the garden. I have known some impatient gardeners to start their seeds in early-March resulting in lanky, anemic-looking plants. No light source can replace the pure light of the sun for long, so timing is everything. Make sure to read the seed packets, which usually provide instructions on starting seeds indoors.

Knowing myself to be a fair-weather gardener and usually neglectful of those tender new seedlings, I will probably choose the second method, which involves a trip to the local nursery, at the opportune moment, to select from a limited selection of already grown seedlings. Although this method is arguably easier, it also takes all the fun out of choosing the latest varieties and growing something different than the neighbors.

Whatever method you choose, just remember that spring is sure to follow winter, but it will probably only last a couple days at which time we will be surprised by a sudden heat wave ushering in a sweltering summer. Thus goes Utah weather.