Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Blog

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 2)

Last week, my blog covered the basics of preparing your lawn in spring and how to mow it. This week, I’ll discuss fertilization. The next blog will cover weed control, and finally pest and disease

How you nourish your lawn depends a lot upon your “turf philosophy.” A wide range of choices is available, from totally organic to traditional synthetic products—and combinations in between.

Whatever your philosophy on type of care, it’s useful to begin by having your soil tested. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do: There are both mail-in and drop-off labs you can use. Cornell University Extension in Valhalla will do pH testing, and they can also direct you to a source for more extensive testing (914-285-4620). Once you have a soil analysis, you can fertilize with the products that are right for your property.

In fertilizing lawns, less is often more. I see too many people (sometimes including landscapers, unfortunately) dumping large amounts of products on lawns, without understanding what the turf actually needs and can absorb. The goal is to create a healthy lawn ecosystem, which will ultimately lead to less use of soil amendments. (See my last blog about the value of core aeration and composting.) When you add too much of some synthetic fertilizers, it will either wash through the soil unused or actually damage the turf by “burning” the grass.

One of the advantages of organic products is that they are far less likely to damage turf. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and gradually release their nutrients to improve the structure of the soil. This means that it will take longer to see results from organic products; the soil improvements from organic fertilizers will ultimately lead to improved turf, but it could take a couple of seasons. In order to expedite this process, some organic lawn care specialists (including my company, Almstead), “brew” Compost Teas that contains live beneficial microorganisms. This liquid compost can be used to add these organisms directly to the soil, offering a boost to the organic soil improvement process.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How much and how often should I fertilize?” This depends on your lawn goals, available time (assuming you’re doing it yourself) and budget. In general, 2 pounds of nitrogen is the right amount for per 1,000 square feet of lawn in our area, but soil testing may modify that proportion for your property. The rule of thumb for timing is to fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day—and that’s not a bad plan. We have many clients who are happy with the results of a twice-per-year fertilization program. On the other hand, more frequent fertilization visits allow us to narrowly target the growing cycle of the lawn and tailor nutrition to weather and conditions. So we also offer a six times/year schedule (organic, traditional or mixed). That level of attention usually leads to a lawn that looks lush, plush and close to perfect.

Patience and consistency are important in developing beautiful turf: your lawn won’t go from scrub to velvet in a single season. Consistent care, including proper mowing and watering, will help your lawn look great. Next week, I’ll discuss another important issue: controlling weeds.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn: Prepping and Mowing

Having a beautiful lawn requires attention. Over the next few weeks, our blog will cover a few of the most important dynamics of creating lush, green turf.  I’ll begin with lawn prepping and mowing.  In the next few weeks, I’ll cover fertilization, weed control and pest/disease control.

Creating a healthy lawn is a process that starts with choosing the right grass seed for your location. The first thing to understand is: grass doesn’t grow in the shade. While some grass is more tolerant of shade than others, it will still need several hours of dappled sunlight in order to look good.  Often it’s possible to thin out trees to permit enough light to reach the lawn. If the area is permanently in shade, you might want to forget about planting grass there, in favor of ground cover, hardscape or mulch.

Several varieties of grass are commonly planted in our area; each has its own strengths and drawbacks. There is no “right” grass for all lawns. The right grass for you depends on your soil, sunlight and priorities: do you want a lawn that stays green into fall? Or grass that can take a beating from active play? Or a lawn that can survive with less water?

Kentucky Bluegrass is popular and durable but doesn't like shade. Fescue and perennial ryegrass are also common in our area, and are more shade tolerant. Most lawns are planted with a mix of these grasses, and different grasses will dominate different areas of your lawn. Follow this link to Cornell Cooperative Extension for more information on grass types.  

It’s often useful to begin your lawn program by checking for soil compaction. Try inserting a long screwdriver into the turf. If it doesn’t easily go in 6” deep, the soil is too compacted to encourage your grass to grow. You’ll want to use a core aerator to pull plugs from the soil and stimulate the roots to grow. This will also help to avoid thatch buildup. If you don’t use a professional for this task, rent or borrow an aerator: the spike shoes and hand tools you see advertised really don’t do the job.This is typically a fall activity, because the plugs may contain weed seed that you don't want to encourage to grow. 

Top dressing with a thin layer of compost in the spring will also get your lawn off to a good start. (This can also be done in fall.) Overseeding can help fill in bare patches. 

One of the most important parts of lawn care is mowing. Proper mowing actually encourages your lawn to grow thicker and stronger, by channeling the growth energy into the roots. We recommend setting your lawnmower at 3” – 4”. Maintaining a lawn at less than that makes the lawn very vulnerable to drying out and scorching.

Many people are using mulching mowers now, too, which distribute the grass cuttings back into the lawn, where they decompose, releasing their nutrients back to the soil. Most experts recommend mowing about 1/3 of the length of the blade every time you mow. For mulching mowers, this will keep the cuttings short enough to sink back into the lawn.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Right Way to Prune Trees

Pruning small trees is not difficult, but it does require care and knowledge. There are many reasons to prune trees, including: to trim away dead or dying branches, to provide healthier air circulation among the branches, to keep them clear of obstacles or buildings and to highlight their natural beauty.

Source: Cornell University Extension
Although most trees can be pruned at any time when it’s necessary, late winter is the time I recommend, before the tree needs to use its energy for growing. Also, for deciduous trees, you get a better look at the tree structure without leaves. Before you pick up the pruning saw, take a good look at the structure of the branches. If you see branches rubbing together or crossing, one should be pruned away. Are there dead branches that need to be removed? Are there signs of disease?

 The timing of pruning sometimes depends on the purpose of your tree. For example, if you intend to harvest fruit from your apple or pear tree, pruning after the fruit is harvested is recommended. If the fruit tree is ornamental, pruning in winter or after flowering is fine.

The first rule of pruning trees is safety. If you need to climb a ladder, make sure that it is firmly situated. For small trees, a pruning saw and loppers should meet your needs. Don’t use a chainsaw, unless you have safety training. The same goes for climbing. Any reputable tree care company (such as Almstead), requires many hours of training and certification before we let our crews perform this kind of work.

 When pruning tree limbs close to the trunk (as opposed to outer branches that are pruned back to a fork or a lateral bud), it’s important to understand the role of the branch collar. The branch collar is the junction where the branch meets the trunk; it is a swollen ring around the bottom of the branch that looks more like the tree trunk than the branch. Never prune the branch flush with the trunk: you should leave the branch collar intact. Ideally the pruning cut is made just beyond the branch collar. If you’re in doubt, leaving extra branch is better than damaging the collar. 

 The reason for this careful treatment of the branch collar is to help the trees heal themselves. Trees have the ability to compartmentalize damage. The branch collar will seal off the wound made by pruning; if the cut was made correctly, in a couple of years, the wound will be healed. It used to be common to paint something over these wounds to seal them; now we realize that the tree will do the job better if left alone. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Biggest Mistake You Can Make Pruning Shrubs

For most of us, pruning shrubs is a do-it-yourself project. Unfortunately, the results are not always satisfactory. This is especially true in the long-term: often a shrub looks good right after pruning but becomes progressively less attractive in the following seasons. What went wrong?

One key mistake is usually responsible: not knowing your plant.

You don’t need to be a botanist or an arborist to understand the basic requirements of your shrubs. Observation, coupled with a little research, will provide you with a pruning plan that will enhance the appearance of every shrub in your landscape, while promoting their long-term health.

One of the first things to learn is when to prune. Late winter is the ideal time to prune most shrubs—but there are exceptions such as lilacs and azaleas. The rule of thumb is to prune in winter unless the shrub flowers in June or earlier; these should be pruned after flowering. You only need to do the research on your plants once, then you’ll have a pruning calendar for the future. For most landscapes, two or three pruning times a year will meet the needs of every plant.

Another important thing to know is what your shrub or tree should look like. Unless you are an extremely skilled and committed pruner, you will want to enhance the natural shape of the shrub rather than coerce it into an artificial form. Even in something as common as a hedge, maintaining a formal shape is much more labor- and knowledge-intensive than maintaining an informal one that allows for the natural forms of the shrubs.

Last week, I talked about how to prune cane plants such as roses, forsythia and viburnum. These plants, which are so common in our gardens, are often pruned incorrectly. A few seasons of shaping forsythia into a ball by shearing off the ends will leave you with a shrub that has few flowers and many brown, woody stems. Pruning canes from the base (the correct method) will lead to a beautiful drift of yellow flowers.

In fact, there are really no plants that can be simply sheared into the shapes we want. For hedge plants such as boxwood, arborvitae and yew, which are often sheared, pruning is necessary as well. Is the hedge or ornamental beginning to show woody dark places instead of lush greenery? This will only get worse, unless you let some light inside the hedge and prune to promote new growth. (The need for sun is also why the top of the hedge should be narrower than the base.) Ideally, after shaping the plant each year, you will judiciously prune some branches, promoting new inside growth. If this hasn’t been done in several years, it may be time for a serious rejuvenation pruning.

Pruning evergreens, like pine and spruce, requires hand pruners rather than shears. These trees and shrubs should not be pruned beyond the current year’s growth. If you wish to maintain their size or shape them, careful annual pruning by trimming the new candles is a must.

Woody deciduous ornamentals, such as lilac and Japanese maple, require gentle pruning to refine their shape. Some, such as lilacs, will need to be “de-cluttered” of the nest of crossing branches that can limit airflow and encourage diseases. Others, like Japanese maple, will need an occasional snip to correct any branches that depart from the desired shape. For an ornamental such as laceleaf Japanese maple, begin by envisioning what the tree should ultimately look like: a series of fans, gently overlapping but maintaining separate layers. Carefully trim out any limbs that touch the ground or fall on the layer below. If you’re not sure, wait until next year and see how it looks then—you get another chance.

Although learning to prune properly can seem daunting, it is also rewarding. Mistakes are rarely fatal to your shrubs. Observe your plants and see how they respond to your pruning. Every year, you will improve—and so will your landscape. And of course, if this isn’t a job you want to do yourself, an arborist can help you keep your landscape in top shape.

-Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist