Horticulture Articles

Grafting: The Best of Both Worlds

By Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

I have always been fascinated by plant propagation, especially grafting.  In essence, grafting is the botanical version of mixing and matching that involves combining the upper part of one plant (the scion) with the lower part of another (the rootstock).  It is a horticultural feat that goes back to around 3000 BCE when Chinese horticulturists started grafting fruit trees and went on from there.

So why graft two plants together? Well because we want the best of all worlds and the rootstock and the scion each bring different desirable attributes. Rootstocks control hardiness and soil tolerance, disease resistance and fast growth.  Scions bring qualities like exceptional fruit or beautiful flowers or interesting foliage.  Many, or I dare say most, fruit and citrus trees, grapevines, roses, weeping and ornamentals trees and conifers are grafted.

There is one caveat on all this plant mashup:  grafting works best with closely related plants within the same genus.  The similar genetic makeup makes them more compatible, resulting in a more robust and viable grafted plant.  Oh, to be sure there are some inter-genus dalliances but those are rare.  It’s easy to spot grafts

Grafted Japanese Maple

if you know what to look for. Grafting scars are distinctive marks where the rootstock and scion were joined and they take years to heal and rarely disappear entirely.  It can be a small seam or bulge on the main stem; the exact location of the scar depends on the grafting technique used.  For some plants, like fruit trees and roses, the graft union may be buried below the soil level.  The decision to bury the graft union depends on factors such as the type of plant and environmental conditions but just be aware of it.

Weeping trees are commonly grafted to create that distinctive form and get them up off the ground.  Take for example a weeping cherry.   A vigorous and hardy rootstock sapling is cut several feet above the ground, and scion

Weeping Hemlock

from a cherry with cascading branches and eye-catching spring blooms is grafted at the top of the cut-off trunk.  And voila!   This is done for deciduous trees as well as conifers like weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’).

Japanese maples boast a wide array of grafted cultivars, each prized for their unique features.    There are the weeping Japanese maples such as ‘Crimson Queen’ and ‘Dissectum Atropurpureum,’ with their finely dissected foliage and cascading form.  Some are upright like ‘Bloodgood,’ known for its stunning foliage and ‘Sango Kaku,’ or Coral Bark Maple, renowned for its striking coral-red branches.  There are Japanese maples which are naturally vigorous and grown from seed.  These are referred to as “own-root” or “seedling-grown” maples and if someone is selling seedlings out of their yard, that is what they are.   My garden has a number of these as well as root stock plants I saved from the dumpster.  No breeding but I like them just the same.

It all sounds wonderful right?  Well, sometimes there is trouble in this horticultural paradise.  Grafts can fail and lead to trouble.  Interestingly, the impetus for this article was just that, a lumpy graft on a weeping elm

Weeping Elm Graft

(Ulmi glabra ‘Camperdownii’) in a friend’s garden.   When a graft fails to establish properly it leads to the formation of a bulge or callus. The bulge is a result of the plant’s effort to heal and compartmentalize the damaged

Japanese Maple Graft

area.  There is nothing to be done and, as one would suspect, this is a weak point for the tree but not a death sentence.

The other common problem I see, and I see it often, is rampant growth from the rootstock.  Graft failure often blocks the pipeline for water and food moving up the trunk and that leads to suckering as the energy of the rootstock seeks an outlet.  Here is a Ruby Falls Weeping Redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Ruby Falls’) that is being tortured in a restaurant parking lot – this is an understory tree for crying out loud!   Anyway, the obvious problem is that those large straight limbs are

Weeping Cherry

growing out of the rootstock.  Then there is this rather interesting looking “weeping” cherry.

In this case the rule is simple:  any sprouts or branches that appear below the graft scar should be cut off immediately.   If not, the rootstock will overpower the scion and well, that’s just not nice.   Cut the unwanted limbs back to the trunk, using proper pruning technique of course, and keep an eye out because more will grow when you turn your back.

If this all fascinates you, I highly recommend you try grafting.   I tried to graft tomato seedlings once – oh yes, that is a thing – with zero success but

Ruby Falls Weeping Redbud

still harbor dreams of being a grafting queen.   The book to read is “The Manual of Plant Grafting: Practical techniques for ornamentals, vegetables, and fruit” by Peter T. MacDonald which covers various grafting techniques and has good pictures.  Even if you never end up doing it (kind of like reading cookbooks but never cooking), it will give you an appreciation for the science, and art, of grafting.

Pignuts & Kin

CFNews December/January 2023 by Renee Marsh

I am embarrassed to say I have somehow missed a plant, a tree nonetheless, in my study of Connecticut natives. I was sitting on a bench on the edge of a walking trail looking at a pile of nuts at my feet and realized I did not know what they were. I kind of suspected, but great plants woman that I am (not), I had to go look it up. Sure enough, pignut. Now, so ignoble a name should not have gone unnoticed by me after living thirteen years in Connecticut. Pignut hickory is not rare and in fact, according to the Connecticut Tree Protective Association, it makes up three percent of our forests and sits in the top ten.   Just for fun, at the end of this article is a list of the ten most common native trees in Connecticut — but hey, no looking ahead!

So, pignut hickory, Carya glabra, is in the walnut family (Juglandaceae), which includes many commercially important nut-producing trees like walnut (Juglans), pecan (Carya illinoinensis), and of course, hickory (Carya). The genus Carya has around 18 species. Twelve are native to the United States, and four are native to Connecticut including pignut hickory, shagbark hickory, mockernut hickory, and bitternut hickory.

Pignut Tree

The pignut hickory inhabits most of the eastern United States, and is most abundant in dry, upland hardwood forests where it likes hanging out with white and northern red oaks. As with most hickories, pignut is a strong, 80-foot tree with a straight trunk. Its bark is tight and the leaves are compound with 5-7 leaflets.  The nut is bitter and enclosed in a thin, tight husk. Pignut is adaptable to sandy or clay well-drained soils and prefers full sun in the north. It is drought tolerant once established and has a deep taproot, which makes it difficult to transplant. It also makes it hard to find for sale commercially. A shame because it makes a handsome shade tree in large yards or parks and has spectacular orangey-yellow fall foliage.

By comparison, shagbark hickory is easily recognized by its loose, peeling bark that gives the trunk a shaggy appearance. It is a bit taller, up to 100 feet, and the compound leaves have only five leaflets. Its sweet, edible nut is enclosed in a thick green husk that splits open when ripe. This tree prefers moist soil and is found growing in rich woods and bottomlands. By the way, all hickories produce juglone, the allelochemical that can stunt or even kill neighboring plants, but at nowhere near the concentration that black walnut does. Still, best to keep sensitive plants at a good distance.

Pignut Nut

Hickories provide food in the form of nuts, flowers and bark for many kinds of wildlife.  The nuts are relished by chipmunks and squirrels and can provide 10 to 25 percent of their diet respectively. Wild turkey and several species of songbirds will eat nuts and flowers; black bears, foxes, rabbits, and raccoons will eat all that and the bark. White-tailed deer occasionally eat the nuts but because of the hard shell, prefer other nuts like acorns. Hogs find the nuts quite tasty, giving the species its common name.

Hickory is also food for the larvae of many moths including the hickory tussock moth, the regal moth and the incredible luna moth. These are some awesome, dazzling and huge moths with equally impressive caterpillars. The luna moth can have a wingspan exceeding seven inches making it of one of the larger moths in North America. The regal moth comes close to that with a six-inch wingspan and has an equally large caterpillar known as the hickory horn-devil.  Sadly, the regal moth is believed extirpated in Connecticut. “Extirpated” you might ask? Extirpation, also known as ‘local extinction,’ means a species no longer exists within a certain geographical location but, unlike extinction, still persists in other areas and in this case, that is the Deep South.

Hickory Tussock Moth

Hickory Horn-Devil

Regal Moth

Luna Moth

Lastly, for us humans, pignut wood is valued for its strength and was used for yokes, wheels, tool handles, ladders and furniture. The wood was often used for broomsticks, giving it another common name, broom hickory. It is also an excellent firewood and a popular cooking wood, giving a rich, pungent flavor to smoked foods.

As promised, the ten most common native trees in Connecticut are listed below. I hope it encourages exploration and awe. It does for me.

  1. Red Maple – 27%
  2. Black Birch – 10%
  3. Eastern Hemlock – 6%
  4. Sugar Maple – 6%
  5. Northern Red Oak – 6%
  6. Beech – 5%
  7. Eastern White Pine – 4%
  8. Black Cherry – 3%
  9. Yellow Birch – 3%
  10. Pignut Hickory – 3%

An Unwelcome Native Tree, Catalpa

By Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

I have this irritating (to my mate) habit of going over to make the acquaintance of any member of the plant kingdom I do not know.  I am endlessly fascinated by new plants and will dive down the online rabbit hole for hours until I know the plant’s entire life history.  So it was this summer with me and Catalpa.   In a landscape of maple and oak, Catalpa looks practically tropical with its giant heart-shaped leaves, orchid-like flowers, and dangling seed pods.  When I saw one at Harkness Memorial Park standing majestically in the lawn, I wanted to know more.  What I found is that Catalpa requires one to consider a more nuanced understanding of “native” and begs the question, native to where?  So, to Catalpa or not to Catalpa?  That is the question and here is the story.

Catalpa is a member of the Trumpet-creeper family, Bignoniaceae, and native to warm temperate and subtropical regions of North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia.  In our world that means Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri as well as southern Indiana and Illinois.  It has many colorful common names including cigar tree, Indian bean tree, catawba, and caterpillar tree.   There are two North American species, southern catalpa (C. bignonioides) and northern catalpa (C. speciosa).  They are very similar in appearance, but the northern species has slightly larger leaves, flowers, and bean pods and is a zone hardier than southern catalpa.

Northern catalpa is hardy to Zones 4–8 and grows to 40–60 ft. tall, with branches spreading to a 20–40 ft. oval shape.  It has a fast growth rate, 13 to 24 inches per year, and a sapling can reach 20 ft. tall in ten years.  It is very adaptable, handling full sun or partial shade, a wide range of soil types, and moisture conditions from occasional flooding to extremely hot and dry.  The wood, though soft and brittle, is resistant to rot and was used for fence posts and railroad ties.

It is easy to spot with leaves that are up to 12″ long and 4–8″ wide.  It is sometimes confused with princess tree, Paulownia tomentosa, a non-native invasive tree from China that has a similar large leaf.   Around late June, clusters of large, showy, trumpet-shaped, flowers cover the tree.  It is quite a show in an exotic way.   In late summer or autumn the fruit appear.  Starting out green then turning brown, the bean-like seed pods are about 8–20 inches long and full of small flat seeds, each with two thin wings to aid in wind dispersal. This explains the tree’s name which derives from the Muscogee name for the tree, “kutuhlpa” meaning   “winged head”.

The flowers of the catalpa are favored by pollinators like hummingbirds and bees.  Most importantly, the leaves are the sole food source of the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth, Ceratomia catalpae.  The moth is a bit nondescript but one can’t miss a fat, juicy two-inch caterpillar.  In a boom year, the caterpillars can completely defoliate a tree but the Catalpa seems to take it in stride and produces new leaves readily.  The caterpillar does have one major predator: fishermen.  Apparently the caterpillars make an excellent live bait and in some southern states, anglers plant Catalpa just to have a source of “catawba-worms”.  The caterpillars can even be preserved by placing them in cornmeal in an airtight container and then freezing them.  When thawed, they will become active again.  Pretty neat trick.

Alas, this striking tree is not one to welcome into our gardens.  The University of Connecticut Plant database warns that it “has demonstrated an invasive tendency in Connecticut, meaning it may escape from cultivation and naturalize in minimally managed areas.”  “Native” is no longer a free pass and the term should have a geographic qualifier, like native to New England or even native to a specific ecoregion.  Even if you get past that issue, there are the other less-than-stellar traits, like wide-ranging, invasive roots and a messy nature.  Catalpa likes to rain down soggy flowers, pointy seed pods, large leaves and finally twigs, branches and limbs.  Some folks find this annoying.

In the end I was sad that there would be no friendship with this tree but I will still give a nod of recognition next time I pass one.

P.S.  If you want to debate this at cocktail parties, use Doug Tallamy’s definition of a native as a guide:  “a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.”  Good luck!

The Journey

CFNews 2023 08 01 by Renee Marsh

The Journey

There are times I hate gardening. Weeds leaping, deer chewing, Asian worms jumping and borers in the ash tree. I wonder if it is time to pack it in and sell the house just so I can stop being haunted by the garden. It doesn’t help that I lost two very old, very large maples in the front of the house, creating an unwelcome crisis. The combined canopy had posed a gardening challenge for sure but I had planted hosta, sedge and liriope in every pocket over a period of years. It was an expanse of foliage, which I prefer, and low maintenance. Then the apocalypse and two massive stumps stand like tombstones, reminders of friends gone.

Weapon of Choice

The garden now bakes in the sun on a slope that is rocky and dry. Last year I waited for rain, unwilling to undertake the work of digging and replanting without water. It never happened. This spring I waited once again. No water. Finally in late June I decided to suck it up, strap on my hori knife and grab my Japanese hoe/digging fork. Nothing like a hefty weapon of carbon steel to make you feel in control. The hostas and sedge were frying, the liriope was not happy but hanging on and the weeds have sprung from the ground like demons. My other beds are full and I have few places to put hosta where deer won’t chow down on them but try to save them I must. There is no joy in this effort, it is a forced march. As I assessed the toasted hostas – variegated ones crisp up real well – I realized that in my absence, natural succession had started. Pioneer plant species did not whine and lay around in the shade like I did. These intrepid plants had stepped in to colonize my disturbed ecosystem – low moisture, full sun, high temperatures and poor soils be damned. There are six sweet birch (Betula lenta), one of which is almost eight feet tall and shading the hostas around the base already. There are three small eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) that I was happy to see. I am a big fan and sad that many of my larger ones are being shaded out in other areas of my property. And finally there is a valiant little white oak. There is only ten feet between the fence and the driveway but I will let them all stay. I hope to be gone by the time that decision has consequences.

Then there are the weeds. There are clumps of field grass which kind of look like switchgrass so they can hang in there for a while. More troubling is a covering of creeping cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans), a perennial weed that is rather new to my garden. I have been ignoring it for a while and thought it was wild strawberry (mea culpa, they are going to rip off my master gardener epaulets). Despite my tolerance for weeds, it is in the “you’ll be sorry” category. It spreads aggressively by stolons and anchors itself with a long taproot so it will be impossible to weed out – even with carbon

Creeping Cinquefoil

steel. Apparently I am providing the perfect conditions for this
little pernicious terror so that needs to change. Taller plants that will out compete the little suckers and better soil conditions are in order. And mulch. I hate mulching. Mercifully there are stretches of ledge that can be uncovered as “features.” My niece thinks rocks are awesome – she is from the Midwest where there are none. And of course there is the ever present mugwort and Canada goldenrod courtesy of the empty lot across the street which hosts legions of them. I sense more are looking over and plotting, waiting for the chance to leap across the road and join in, and feel doomed. I start the process. Tiny ants have colonized the roots of every sedge and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they are not happy with my efforts. I have to dig and set aside the plants until the hordes
subside. I dig the hostas only to find the ants have also colonized every place I want to replant them. It is a banner year for ants. I win that battle but then raccoons dig up the newly planted hostas overnight. I replant raccoon-dug hostas. The ants bite me again. I don’t know what circle of hell this is but I don’t recall reading about it in “Fine Gardening”.

So now you understand why I just want to retreat to the porch with a gin and tonic. I will  try to be the intrepid gardener and nobly work in harmony with nature on this succession. It could end up looking like a highway median strip, a questionable look for the front of the house. Roundup and a lawn mower could end this quickly and it is mighty tempting but I give it another season, sigh….

Gardening is a journey but sometimes, not one you want to be on.

 

Let the Games Begin!

CFNews June 2023 - July 2023

There is a Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) in my garden that was planted before my time.  It is not a shrub I like because, in addition to reseeding itself prodigiously, it is favored by the dreaded Japanese beetles.   After mating in the flowers, the pesky beetle couples head right over to my vegetable garden for their nuptial feast of green bean foliage.  Grrr….  I am tolerant of most insects but give no quarter to non-native ones.  Having recently conceded defeat to the red lily beetles by digging out all my Asiatic and Oriental lilies, I am not about to surrender to the Japanese beetle.

I believe that one should know one’s enemy so I have studied their lifecycle and am presently girding my loins for battle.   As you read this, the little suckers are emerging to eat, mate, and lay eggs.

Japanese Beetle Lifecycle

Actually Japanese beetles are just one of a number of non-native pesky beetles including Asiatic, Oriental and European chafer beetles.   Here are their mugshots.   They all have very similar lifecycles though Asiatic beetles are the sneakiest, hiding during the day and feeding on foliage at night.  Unlike Japanese beetles which tend to skeletonize leaves, Asiatic beetles notch the edge of the foliage so keep an eye out for that damage with no apparent culprit around.

As bad as the adults are, the larvae can be worse.  The developing grubs spend a year underground feeding on

Asiatic Beetle

organic matter and roots.  If you are a person who likes a pristine lawn, you get twice the fun.  Not only will a large community of grubs create great swaths of dead grass; the moles, skunks and raccoons will aerate your lawn in search of a grub snack.

So what is an organic, tree-hugging gardener to do?   Well, kill them of course!   The only question is when and how.

Plan A.   The Ten Fingers of Death

Trying to spray the beetles with pesticides is a non-starter as the most effective

insecticides are very toxic to insects I like.  So, my summer mornings are spent handpicking the suckers off my plants and plopping them into soapy

Oriental Beetle

water (they don’t swim as long as the jumping worms).  It is easier to handpick beetles in the morning when they are not quite as quick.  If you suspect Asiatic beetles, sit outside at night with a light on, sip a glass of wine and wait till they come to the light.  This, as you might suspect, is not real effective but you will feel relaxed and the mosquitos will be happy.

What about those traps you ask?   Well there are two types of traps you can buy.   One uses a bait that mimics the smell of virgin female beetles and of course attracts male beetles.  The other bait has a yummy food smell and attracts both sexes. These traps will bring in hordes of horny and hungry beetles and kill a good number of them.  Unfortunately, the ones that escape death will happily mate and increase the population in your

European Chafer Beetle

garden.   Sigh, this is the law of unintended consequences known as perverse results.

Plan B.  The Mercenaries

The adult females you did not get in Plan A have now laid their eggs in the soil.  Once the eggs develop into larvae, the wretched little pests will head toward the surface of the soil and start feeding.  Time to bring in the enemies of our enemy which are bacteria and nematodes.

In the past, milky spore bacteria was the only game in town but it is not considered that effective in Connecticut and only kills the Japanese beetle grubs.   The new darling bacteria is Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae (Btg), a strain that produces a toxin that affects both adults and larvae.   When consumed the bacterium disrupts the gut lining causing the pests to stop feeding and gradually die.   Sorry but yeah!   The most advanced products in this space are grubGONE! and beetleGONE! from Phyllom BioProducts.

Japanese Beetle Grub

Some earlier Bt products are only effective against 1st instar grubs (the grub immediately after hatching) but grubGONE! is also effective against the larger 2nd and 3rd instar (more mature grubs) which appear later in the season.    So grubGONE! can be used as an early season curative or a late season preventative.    Once the soil cools, the grubs move deeper into the soil and go dormant.

beetleGONE! is sprayed on the foliage that the beetles are eating and can also be mixed into the soil to control grubs.  It is compliant with organic growing standards and in fact, treated vegetables, fruits and herbs can be eaten the day of application (nothing will happen to your gut).  The chart below gives you an idea of timing.

Our friends the nematodes (the species you want is Heterorhabditis bacteriophora) are microscopic, soil dwelling worms that will bore into the grubs, release a bacterium and kill them within 48 hours.   Isn’t the natural world just so clever and deadly?    Nematodes are usually purchased online and as they are living organisms, care in their handling and storage is critical.  They must be applied in heavily overcast or rainy conditions as they are not too keen on sunlight and need moisture in the soil to travel.  They need to be applied around mid- to late-August so if we have a drought like last year, pre-irrigating with at least a half an inch of water is a must.  One online source for nematodes is North Country Organics.

Biological controls require patience as it may take more time to terminate your enemies.  If you want them to drop dead quicker, you will find many grub control products containing pesticides. The active ingredient in Scott’s GrubEx is Chlorantraniliprole (0.08%) and should be applied in the early spring.  The active ingredient in Bayer Grub Killer Plus is Trichlorfon (9.30%) and should be applied in the summer or early fall.

I am staying organic with beetleGONE! and will see how it goes.  If it doesn’t help, well, I never liked that Rose of Sharon anyway.

Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

 

Native Plants vs Native Cultivars – Plant Choice Matters

CFNews June 2023 - July 2023

When choosing plants for the benefit of pollinators, birds and other wildlife, it is important to remember that a native plant lives and grows in a particular region without human intervention. “These plants are part of the balance of nature, developed over hundreds of thousands of years to a particular region.” – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. True natives are referred to as straight species or wild-type natives because they have not been modified through selective breeding. True natives do not have fancy names like ‘double delight’ or ‘butterfly kisses’, dead-giveaways that these are cultivated plants.

Native plants shrewdly evolved over time to develop flowers that attract specific pollinators with unique shapes, sizes and colors to ensure pollination and reproduction. The relationship between plants and pollinators is very complex. There are short-tongued and long-tongued bees, hummingbirds, flower flies, butterflies and moths, all seeking different flower shapes and sizes for obtaining nectar. Additionally, specialist bees are looking for pollen from specific plants to raise their young. These symbiotic relationships work rather well without human interference.

So, why do we insist on creating cultivars of native plants? – AKA native cultivars or nativars*.   I think it’s our nature to want to control things… make something bigger and better. But what are we losing? A double flower, for example, while attractive to us, is totally inaccessible to pollinators. Some cultivars have no pollen or nectar at all. Nectar guides, the lines on flower petals meant to direct a bee to a flower’s nectary are not always visible to the human eye. However, a bee’s ability to see ultraviolet light gives him an advantage when seeking nectar. You can guess what happens if these guide lines are erased in the process of cultivation.

Annie White with the University of Vermont has done research on native flowering plants vs native cultivars. She concluded that when particular nativars varied significantly in color, bloom time, size, or shape from their wild-type, they provided less ecological service to pollinators. She also stressed the importance of avoiding double flowers when planting for pollinators.  (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight’ pictured)

Ms. White also did a study on cross-breeding Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica with Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis to create the cultivar, Lobelia x speciosa ‘Fan Scarlet’. What she found was that this cultivar contained 20% less nectar than both straight-species. She reported that the quality of this nectar was not sufficient to support pollinators and other beneficial insects that might be attracted to this flower. And, she cautioned that this cultivar should be avoided when interested in attracting hummingbirds.

While it is true that pollinators are attracted to many kinds of flowers when seeking nectar, more research is needed to determine if the nectar and pollen of individual cultivars provide the same nutritional value to pollinators as the straight native species. Or, are they just providing a “Happy Meal”.

Doug Tallamy, professor at the University of DE, stresses the importance of providing plants that are hosts for caterpillars because they are an extremely important food source for most bird species. His study on woody plants at Mt. Cuba revealed that cultivars with purple leaves were avoided by caterpillars due to toxic anthocyanins. Tallamy also believes plant structure and density are hugely important for birds seeking shelter and when choosing nesting sites.  Both White and Tallamy agree that we need to proceed cautiously with native cultivars when seeking to maximize benefit to wildlife.

One final thought concerning cultivating plants by cloning. Clones are often created using plant cuttings rather than growing the plant from seed. This method is a much faster way of propagating a plant and each new plant is identical to the parent plant – a clone.  This may sound like a good thing.  Trouble is, if all you have are these cloned plants in your landscape, they are all subject to the same disease and pest problems. “It is a bad idea to load the landscape with cultivars that have no genetic variability”, Tallamy says, “I think the safest policy right now is to encourage the use of straight species.” Genetic diversity in nature is extremely important in fostering healthy ecosystems that support all life on earth. No doubt about it.

* Native cultivars/nativars can be hybrids or products of two or more plants intentionally selected by breeders and crossed to create desirable traits or are clonally-produced copies of a plant.

Holly Kocet, Garden Club of Newtown & Co-Chair, Conservation Committee, FGCCT

Making the Cut

CFNews April 2023 - May 2023

The April/May issue is always a challenging one to write for.  Let’s face it – we are all out in our gardens getting our spring fix.  Intoxicated with flowers and green leaves, why read this article?   Unless it is raining maybe?   Anyway, I am glad you are and thank you.  Now, as to the topic.  Since I cannot compete with the glories of spring, I decided to talk tools, specifically pruning tools.  I attended this year’s Flower & Garden Show in Hartford and love to see what tools folks are selling.  Some are useful, some are silly, and some are downright stupid.  There was one vendor demonstrating how to cut through a sizeable limb with a ratcheting lopper.   In my experience, ratcheting devices are heavy and require the upper body strength of a sizeable gorilla.   Try holding that up to a tree or shrub and ratcheting the multiple times needed to get through a large branch.  Hah!

So, I have decided to share my humble opinion on the subject.  It is based on my tools rules which are the following:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.
  2. Buy high quality tools with replaceable parts.
  3. Buy tools that fit your hands. (Pink is not a size, it is a marketing ploy.)
  4. Don’t buy that many tools. More tools means more maintenance (see next rule).
  5. Maintain your tools – yes, really – clean, oil, sharpen, repeat.
  6. Be honest about what you can handle as you age. Face it, most of us can’t even open a jar anymore.

I have buckets of tools that I bought in big-box stores (who will remain nameless because Home Depot, Costco and Walmart won’t like it).  When I started really working in horticulture as an 8 hours a day job, I learned quickly how awful – and painful – they were.   So, here is my lineup of tried and true pruning tools based on my years as a manual laborer.

Pruners (or secateurs for those of you who think the British still rule) 

There are three types:  bypass, anvil and ratchet.  Anvil pruners have one blade that cuts like a knife, with the blade pushing through a stem onto a lower block – think a knife on a chopping board.   This tends to crush live stems so it is recommended for dead limbs only.   Don’t bother unless you are Morticia Addams and prune mostly dead things.   Ratchet pruners have either anvil or bypass blades and feature ratchet springs and mechanisms to “ease effort” and cut through a stem in a series of stages. You have to repeatedly squeeze and release the handles to cut the branch.   While they are sold as useful for gardeners who lack strength, believe me, the constant squeezing will kill your hands in no time.

Bypass pruners have two blades, with a sharpened blade crossing over a thicker metal platform just like a pair of scissors.  They give a clean cut which minimizes damage to the plant.   They should be sharp as razors which means sharpening them constantly if you are doing a lot of pruning.   If you get anything out of this article, remember this … they come in different sizes to fit your hand.  Gorilla size pruners (I hope that is politically ok) lead to tired hands, aching forearms and carpel tunnel syndrome.    My recommendations:

 

  • Okatsune: You have to give it to the Japanese for forging quality tempered steel that is razor sharp and incredibly durable.   Think of this as your own little Samurai sword.  The design is incredibly simple with a V-shaped spring that distributes the load over the blade (and does not pop out) and a locking system that is easy to release and close.  The result is a really weightless pruner.  It comes with a cute little holster that you might seriously consider.  They will punch a hole right through the bottom of a rubber garden trug if you aren’t careful!    They come in three sizes; I use a 101.  There is a link at the end of the article to a website that shows the sizes.   This is for stems up to roughly ½ inch.   Will they cut larger?  Yes but don’t do it.

Felco:  This is my second favorite and comes in many sizes as well; I use a Felco 6.    Felco products are what one expects of the Swiss – quality and long term reliability.  All parts are easily replaced so their products will last a lifetime.  I find that the blades don’t hold an edge as well as my Okatsune though.  Felco has many permutations of pruners for various types of pruning but really, just get the basic one.

Loppers

This is the tool you use when the job is too large for a pruner.   My favorite is the Felco 200C-60 lopper.   The number one reason is the carbon fiber handles that make them lightweight (1 lb. 9 oz. to be exact), and a joy to use.    Shock absorbers soften the impact on the wrist and hands. The curved cutting head reduces the effort needed for cutting.  They will cut branches up to 1.4 inches diameter at which point I go to my next tool.

Pruning Saw

This little folding saw, the Felco F-600, will cut branches up to about two inches.   This is a pull-stroke pruning saw which means it cuts on the pull stroke, not the push stroke. You start the cut with the back end of the blade.  It gives clean, precise cuts with little effort and folds up to fit in your pocket.

 

Reciprocating Saw

There was a time I was a real purist and eschewed power tools.  Then I got older, wiser, and weaker.   Enter the handheld, battery operated reciprocating saw.  Mine is a Milwaukee M12 Hackzall complete with the additional batteries and charger – and just the cutest little red carrying bag.  One good reason to get the extra battery packs is that they are smaller and lighter for those little jobs.   You can get pruning blades of various lengths at any of the usual hardware places.   By the way this works really well for cutting roots too – which is a bit rough on the blades so use older ones.    Eat your heart out tool guys.

Shrub (Hedge) Shears

My Okatsune 217 shears are categorized as short handled with medium-long blades.   They are razor-sharp and very lightweight with ash handles that absorb vibrations.  At 22 inches long, they are perfect for light hedge clipping yet tough enough to prune small branches.    There are longer-handled ones and longer bladed-ones but keeping with Rule # 4, this can cover all the bases just fine.

 

The Art of Creative Pruning

And finally, maintenance.   There are lots of tools for sharpening blades like files and whetstones but my hands-down favorite is the iSTOR Professional Swiss sharpener.  Watch the videos online and it is a breeze.

So there you go, time to prune your little hearts out!   If you are as obsessed with pruning as I am, check out Jake Hobson’s book “The Art of Creative Pruning”.

Of course, there are other experiences and opinions out there so if there are tools you love, let me know at hortchair@ctgardenclubs.org.  I am always willing to try something new and to share your feedback.

 Resources:

https://okatsune.co.uk/

https://www.okatsune-europe.com/en/pruners-bypass/pruners-okatsune-101-for-small-hands.htm

https://felco.com/en_us/     **Check out the article on counterfeits on Amazon on the homepage**

 From a Reader, the View From YOUR Garden: 

Martha Doshan writes “On one of my walks I picked up a strange growth, on a small branch, and wondered what it was. After reading your article, I figured out that I had an old horned oak gall. I ‘ve attached a picture.”

Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

What Galls!

CFNews February - March 2023

Horned Oak Gall

Weird and abnormal things fascinate most of us … I think … at least they do me. So whenever I am out in the garden and see something “different,” I just have to go investigate. The most amazing and oddly beautiful things to me are galls. Galls are abnormal growths that can occur on any part of a plant — leaves, stems, twigs, branches or flowers. They can be caused by various organisms such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes and mites but most are caused by insects. Insect galls occur in many forms, colors and shapes from bumps and warts to spiny projections and woody structures. They can be beautiful, like the wooly oak leaf gall, or downright alien, like the horned oak gall.

Wooly Oak Leaf Gall

Each insect, be it a wasp, midge, moth, fly, aphid or beetle, attacks specific tissues on a specific plant producing a unique and distinctive gall. They do this by secreting chemicals that cause rapid cell multiplication in the affected area of the plant tissue. The insect, known as a gall maker, essentially reprograms the plant growth, transforming ordinary plant parts into fantastical structures. Galls can only form on growing tissue so gall-making activity occurs in the spring or early summer. Mature plant tissues are usually not affected by gall-inducing organisms. Interestingly, of the more than 700 species of gall-forming insects in the United States and Canada, nearly 80% form galls on oaks.

The gall serves several important purposes for the gall maker. It shelters the egg, larva, pupa and emerging adult from the weather and predators, and provides food for the larva. Eventually, the mature insect emerges, usually through a small exit hole made through the wall of the gall. After the gall-making insect leaves, the gall can remain on the plant through the season. Other insects and beneficial organisms, such as beetles or caterpillars, may move into the abandoned gall for shelter or to feed.

Moss Rose Gall

A common gall for those who grow roses is the mossy rose gall aptly named because it occurs on roses and looks like moss. The gall maker is a cynipid wasp. These tiny wasps are the largest group of gall- making insects, and produce most of the galls on oak trees and plants in the rose family. In the spring the female looks for new leaf tissue on which to lay eggs. The eggs hatch and the feeding of the larvae induces the gall to form around it. The wasp overwinters as a larva in the gall and in early spring, the adult wasp matures and chews out of the gall. If you want to let nature do its thing, you can leave the galls on the rose bush over the winter. Gall-making insects have their own biological controls in the form of parasitoids and predators which will maintain balance in your ecosystem.

Cynipid Wasp

Most insect galls do not seriously affect the vigor of healthy plants so control measures are not necessary. They can be less than aesthetically pleasing for garden perfectionists but they do not directly kill the plant. It would be virtually impossible to time an insect application to prevent the insect from laying the eggs and once a gall begins to form, nothing can stop its growth. It will continue to form even after the insects die. Remember the gall is a part of the plant itself so spraying with insecticides will not make it go away. Leaf galls will fall off in autumn and woody stems can be pruned out if you find them objectionable. And yes, there are plants that don’t get galls, but what is the fun in that?

Oak Apple Galls

Two galls that I commonly see on my winter walks are the oak apple gall and the goldenrod ball gall.   The oak apple galls look like brown ping-pong balls hanging from oak branches. They have paper-like, firm outer skins and are soft on the inside. The gall maker is a small wasp and there is usually a small hole in the gall made by the adult wasp when it emerged in the summer.

Goldenrod Ball Gall with Fly Larva

Now the goldenrod ball gall is caused by a tephritid fly which completes its entire life cycle only on goldenrod. There are distinct races of this species that are specific to different species of goldenrod.  The fly larvae lives inside the gall all winter and emerges in the spring. Even within their galls, the larval flies are not always safe from harm. Two species of chalcid wasps are parasitoids of the larvae. The adult female wasp deposits her eggs into the interior chamber with a long ovipositor and after hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the fly larvae. The following spring a tiny black adult wasp will emerge instead of a fly. There is also a tiny beetle whose larvae will feed on the fly larvae inside the gall. Finally birds, especially Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees, will break into the galls to get to the fly larva. So much for all the best laid plans of gallmakers…

Much goes on in our gardens that we never see. Galls are a reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of life — and our calling as gardeners is to appreciate it and let it be. I am inspired by this thought from Howard E. Evans, a Connecticut-born author and entomologist who was a specialist on wasps…  “I do believe that an intimacy with … their kind can be salutary — not for what they are likely to teach us about ourselves but because they remind us, if we will let them, that there are other voices, other rhythms, other strivings and fulfillments than our own.”

By Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

Deck the Halls (with Holly!)

CFNews December 2022 - January 2023

Deciding what to write can be a torturous task. As you may have noticed, I like to explore the often overlooked parts of the garden world. This time however, I decided to be conventional (yawn) and chose the most obvious plant for December, holly.

Sounded like it would be easy but nope, I soon found that Ilex is a very large genus. Even narrowing it down to the major ornamental species that thrive in Connecticut, left way too many plants. There are natives species: Inkberry (I. glabra), American holly (I. opaca), and winterberry (I. verticillata). Then there are the non-native species: Japanese holly (I. crenata) and the myriad hybrids. Ironically, the species that epitomizes Christmas, English holly (I. aquifolium) with its deep green, vicious spiny leaves and red berries, is marginally hardy to zone 6b. Not relevant for those of us up in the hills.

To keep this article from being unbearably long — we all have holiday shopping to do — I decided to focus on the non-natives species. Yes, yes, I know this will offend the nativists but, as we are steeped in the European holiday tradition, it’s only fair. No one ever sang “deck the halls with boughs of winterberry”. And as it all traces back to the Druids who believed that holly offered protection against evil spirits, evergreen holly with red berries it is.

Big animal picture … these evergreen hollies prefer sun with some moderate shade tolerance, prefer acidic soil, don’t like it too cold or too hot but in general, they aren’t overly fussy. One notable characteristic of holly is that it is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive parts are on separate plants. The flowers are white and not of much interest unless you are a bee, in which case you are happy to gather the pollen of the male flowers. Any male plant can pollinate any female plant IF the flowering time overlaps. Most holly plants are paired (boy & girl) to ensure that happens. If it does, the resulting fruit is botanically speaking a drupe – not a berry – but I will just call them berries.

The freewheeling exchange of pollen is why there are many hybrid hollies which are crosses of different species. It is these hollies we will explore here starting with the Blue or Meserve hollies. Here is a great story of a woman in horticulture. Kathleen Meserve, an enthusiastic 20th century amateur gardener on Long Island, wanted to create cold hardy hollies with red berries. She crossed a Japanese species (Ilex rugosa) with the English holly and created a hybrid called Ilex x meserveae which is hardy to Zone 4. The foliage of this hybrid is so dark green it looks bluish, thus the name, Blue Hollies. There is ‘Blue Prince’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Blue Stallion’, ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Maid.’ You need one male for every four to five females to get a bumper crop of red berries. Cultivars vary in size but, by and large, they are sizeable shrubs growing to 5 – 12 ft. tall and 6 ft. or more across. They can be used as a foundation plant if you don’t mind pruning. Luckily they take to pruning very well and also make awesome hedges (take that, boring Arborvitae).

Ms. Meserve continued her matchmaking and crossed Chinese holly (I. cornuta) and English holly producing ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ (Ilex x meserveae ‘Mesdob’ & ‘Mesog’). They have a rounded, dense form growing to 7-10 ft. tall by 5-8 ft. wide. They too are hardy to Zone 4.

Then a German nursery man, Hans Hachmann, crossed ‘Blue Prince’ and English holly. The resulting blue hollies were trademarked with “Castle” names. They are smallish for hollies, hardy to zone 5 and best of all, way less spiky with softer deep green foliage. ‘Castle Spire’ (I. x meserveae ‘Hachfee’) has bright red berries, dark glossy foliage and a narrow, pyramidal form reaching 8 – 12 ft. tall and 3 – 4 ft. wide. The male, ‘Castle Wall’ (I. x meserveae ‘Heckenstar’) is a bit shorter at 5 – 8 ft. tall. An even shorter guy is ‘Castle Keep’ at 3 – 5 ft. tall and wide; he has a rounded habit that needs no pruning to keep it shape.

Then there is my favorite, ‘Dragon Lady’ (Ilex x aquipernyi ‘Meschick’), a cross between English and Perny holly (I. pernyi). She is a looker with a narrow pyramidal form, 20 ft., tall but only 4 – 5 ft. wide. She has the deeply spiked, glossy leaves and bright red fruits of her English parent in a hardier, leaner package. Also on the smaller side is ‘Red Beauty’ holly (I. ‘Rutzan’) who hails from Rutgers University and is a cross of Blue and Perny holly. She is the same width as ‘Dragon Lady’ but half the height at 7 – 10 ft. tall.

Lastly, the grand dame of the hybrids is ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ a cross of English and Chinese holly. She is monumental and will quickly reach a mature height of 15 – 25 ft. and width of 8 – 15 ft. She tolerates drought, air pollution, and heat but is only cold hardy to Zone 6. She will produce large, bright orange-red berries without a male pollinizer but a male Chinese Holly will increase the berry set.

Beyond being decorative, hollies provide protection for nesting birds and the flowers, though small, are loved by pollinators. In Celtic mythology the revered holly tree is considered the evergreen twin of the oak. The oak is the controller of the light half of the year and the holly controls the dark, winter months. Happy winter solstice!

By Renee Marsh, Horticulture Chair, Federated Garden Clubs of CT