April 2011

Denny Schrock

plant a tree for arbor day

Scarlet Brandywine crabapple

Today is a very important day with long-lasting consequences. And I’m not talking about the royal wedding. It’s national Arbor Day.

While individual states often encourage tree planting on other dates, the last Friday in April is set aside nationally as a time to better the environment by planting a tree. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for a flowering tree, a conifer, a small tree, or a specific type of tree, such as Japanese maple or flowering crabapple. Determine what type of tree is best for your site depending on what interests you, the space available, Hardiness Zone, and environmental adaptability of the tree, and get planting!

Black gum is also known as tupelo.

I learned a lesson in my own yard about choosing the right tree for the right place. Six years ago when I moved into a new home, I planted hundreds of trees, shrubs, and perennials within a couple of weeks. (At last count I have 40 trees on my half-acre lot.) I could determine sun and shade patterns in the yard pretty easily, but it took me some time to learn about variations in soil conditions on the lot. As it turns out, I planted a ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) in an area with poor drainage. In that spot, the subsoil is blue clay, so moisture won’t sink in, even though there is a slope. I planted a black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) in a section of the yard that is well-drained with a tendency to become quite dry in late summer because of competition from nearby established pine trees. After five years of observing poor growth on these trees, last year I decided it was time to switch the trees’ locations, so I transplanted them. Black gum is native to swampy areas, while ginkgo is an upland tree that requires good drainage. This year I expect both trees to put on good growth because they’ll be better suited to the microclimate in which they’re planted. Perhaps in a few years they’ll catch up with the red maple which was planted at the same time, and has already grown to more than 25 feet tall.

Ginkgo tree


Justin W. Hancock

Wordless Wednesday!

It’s Wednesday…that means time to show off some fantastic photos from the BHG Share My Gallery.

Echinacea 'Coral Reef'A beautiful coneflower in the summer garden of reader lvs2grdn!

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Perennial hibiscus 'Luna Pink Swirl' from reader luvs2grdn

Perennial hibiscus 'Luna Pink Swirl' from reader luvs2grdn

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Stunning 'Belinda's Dream' rose from reader stefanie2629061

Stunning 'Belinda's Dream' rose from reader stefanie2629061

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James A. Baggett

Secrets to Better Birding

Imagine my excitement to find a new bird book by my friend Kenn Kaufman waiting in my mailbox this week. Kenn’s the originator of the Kaufman Field Guide series, which includes books on birds, butterflies, mammals, and insects. He has also written Lives of North American Birds and two birding memoirs, Flights Against the Sunset and the classic Kingbird Highway. His new book, the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), deserves a spot on your natural history book shelf. Anyone with a keen interest in identifying birds will find this book makes the learning process more enjoyable—and that truly understanding what we see and hear can make birding more fun. That’s a shot of me (above) and my former art director Jarrett Einck on a birding trip with Kenn a couple of years ago at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

To celebrate the publication of Kenn’s new book and in honor of Earth Day, here are Kenn Kaufman’s top 10 secrets to become a better birder:

1.  Put birds in boxes. No, not literally. But if you can separate birds into categories, the challenge becomes much simpler. If you can decide that a particular bird is a woodpecker, for example, then you only have to choose among a handful of species, instead of hundreds.

2.  Check the map, check the calendar. Although free-flying birds might show up almost anywhere, usually they are predictable. One of the most valuable resources you can get is a local bird checklist that tells you which species are found nearby, and at what seasons. It’s a tremendous advantage to know which birds to expect.

3.  Always look for multiple clues. In the early stages of learning, it’s tempting to settle on one diagnostic mark on a particular bird and ignore everything else about it. But this can backfire in a variety of ways. Top be sure, always look for other marks as a backup.

4.  Exercise you ears. You can train yourself to be a better bird-listener. When you hear a new bird song, try to describe it to yourself in words; the effort to describe it will help you to remember it.

5.  Shape up your birding. One of the best field marks for any bird is its shape: with enough experience, you can identify most North American birds by silhouette alone. When you’re looking at a bird that’s easy to recognize by its color or markings, take an extra minute to notice its bill shape, tail length, head size, and other aspects of shape. Then you’ll know that bird if you see it in an odd plumage or in odd light.

6.  Look at fliers. Birds fly—that’s one of the cool things about them. But many birders tend to avoid looking at flying birds, because it’s harder to see standard details on a little bird that’s moving fast in the air. Make the effort to study birds in flight, and soon you’ll be recognizing more of what you see.

7.  Fanfare for the common birds. Finding a rare bird—well, that’s exciting. But to recognize that rarity when it shows up, it helps if you know the common birds extremely well. Paying attention to the most common, everyday birds will pay off in helping you to pick out something different.

8.  Write it down. The most valuable learning tool for birding—more important than binoculars or field guide—is a pocket notebook and pencil, so that you can take notes on the spot. Not just the names of birds, but details about what they’re doing or what they look like. (If you’re brave enough to sketch the birds, that’s even better.) Concentrating enough to write about or draw a bird will hjelp to fix it in your memory.

9.  Spend more time looking. Many birders spend 95 percent of their field time looking FOR birds, and only 5 percent looking AT birds. The surest way to improve your skills is to shift those percentages: don’t stop looking at a bird as soon as you know what it is; instead, take a little more time studying each one. Birds are beautiful to look at anyway, so this isn’t exactly a grim assignment!

10.  Learn to let some get away. No one can recognize EVERY bird they see or hear—even the top experts have to let some go unidentified. So don’t worry if you can’t put a name on every bird. The important thing is to have a good time. Birding is something that we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder.


Denny Schrock

earth day salad bowls

Lettuce, kale, chives, and pansies make a colorful and edible garden accent.

Why not celebrate Earth Day by jumping on the grow-your-own-veggies bandwagon? Colorful salad bowls are a great way to grow your own produce in a limited amount of space. And they can be far more than strictly utilitarian. Combine salad greens with edible flowers and herbs for a showy and tasty mix.

The folks at PanAmerican Seed and BallHort have made creating your own salad bowl a snap with their new SimplySalad seed pellets. Each pellet contains a mix of several edible greens. Global Gourmet provides Asian flair with lacy red and green mustards paired with lettuces of the same color. The Alfresco blend brings a Mediterranean vibe with arugula, endive, and radicchio combined with red and green lettuces. And for the less adventuresome, the City Garden mix teams mild leaf lettuces in a variety of burgundy and green hues.

This photo shows the Global Gourmet salad mix in a container garden, along with Alfresco mix seed pellets in a vial attached to its store display card.

By planting several salad bowls you can have a steady supply of greens for your dinner table. This bowl is ready to harvest. I’ll simply cut the greens off a couple of inches above the ground. In about 3 weeks, they should be ready to harvest again. I expect to get several cycles of harvest from the bowl before summer’s heat puts an end to the harvest. A bonus with growing the greens in a bowl: I can move the container to the shade when temperatures heat up, extending the harvest season. And I’ll be sure to plant some more pellets in mid-summer for fall harvest. By then, I’ll have lots of tomatoes and peppers from my garden to add to the salads!


Justin W. Hancock

Growing Fruit from Seed

appleblogI get a fair number of questions from readers (and non-gardening friends, too!) about growing fruits from seed.

It seems like a great idea — why buy a $35 apple tree, for example, when you can just buy one for a couple of bucks at the store and plant the seeds. But unfortunately, it’s not nearly that simple in reality.

Most fruit trees are hybrid varieties, and do not reproduce reliably from seed. It’s similar to people — you’re not an exact replica of either of your parents.

In a lot of cases, you actually lose the best traits of the parent — vigorous growth, good quality fruit, or disease resistance.

Another reason that growing apples, peaches, cherries, etc. from seeds of produce from the grocery store is that it takes a long time for them to first bear fruit. So you may end up waiting years for your tree to give you harvests, only to find it’s mediocre fruit.

Additionally, many fruit trees are grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. That means the tree is actually growing on another variety’s root system; this root variety keeps the tree smaller (only 15 to 20 feet tall, for example, instead of 30 feet or more).

That said, if you have the patience and space for from-seed fruit trees, you can certainly plant the seeds and see what you get.

Note: Some gardeners do this with tropical fruits for low-cost houseplants. Avocado, mango, papaya, and starfruit, for example, all grow readily from seed and make attractive houseplants!


Justin W. Hancock

Hungry for Hydrangeas?

Has the hydrangea become America’s favorite flower? I’m starting to wonder if it’s knocked roses right off the throne.

Growing hydrangeas is one of the most common topics in Garden Doctor, our free question-and-answer service.

And I’ve been seeing more and more dried hydrangea flowers in crafting projects (especially at Christmas; I saw one tree decorated with gorgeous dried hydrangea blooms), and there are more new, innovative hydrangea varieties released every year. Two standouts this year are ‘Bombshell’, which only gets 3-4 feet tall and wide, and ‘Little Lime’, a dwarf version of the incredibly popular ‘Limelight’.

It seems like I’m also seeing some garden centers cutting back on roses and adding more hydrangeas to their lineups.

And, hydrangeas don’t have thorns — making them so much easier to work around in the garden.

So what do you think? Are you hungry for more information/pictures/projects with hydrangeas from Better Homes and Gardens?