Don’t throw out the tree after the holidays — put it to work. Here are some ways to recycle a live Christmas tree.
Mulch tender plants with recycled Christmas tree boughs. Gardeners know how important mulch, like straw, hay or crisp oak leaves, is for protecting plants through a harsh winter. But evergreen branches add a little extra punch to your plants’ protection. Just lay the branches in a crisscross pattern over tender perennial plants. Weave the stems together to keep them from blowing away on a windy day.
The branches will moderate the soil temperature, keeping everything nice and cold until it’s really time to warm up. Piled on top of other mulch such as leaves, they’ll prevent the bottom layer of mulch from blowing away. And branches catch and hold snow, which is a good insulator. Place evergreen branches over your garden anytime the ground is frozen, from late November to midwinter, after you’re done enjoying your Christmas tree indoors. Pick them up when it starts to warm up in spring.
Repurpose your live Christmas tree in the garden by leaving it out for the birds. Your old Christmas tree is the perfect winter gift for your feathered friends. Anchor the tree securely in a deep bucket of sand. The branches are enough to provide cover from the winter weather, but if you want to add treats, strings of popcorn will be popular with birds. Hang the treats on the branches, but push them toward the middle of the tree so birds won’t be frightened by any swinging ornaments that move with the wind.
Simmer some pine needle potpourri. You can keep enjoying that piney scent with a simmering potpourri. The idea is similar to mulling spices on the back burner during the holidays. Add water, lemon and orange rinds, a cinnamon stick, whole cloves and other spices. Cover them with water and simmer for hours to scent your home and drive away the January blues.
Make coasters and trivets. This is a particularly nice project for young kids who are having a hard time saying goodbye to the tree and the Christmas season. Cut thin slabs off the trunk, sand them smooth and apply a thin coat of polyurethane to keep the sap off tables and glassware.
Donate it to the zoo. If you live in an area with a zoo, see if they need discarded Christmas trees for the animals to play with and eat. Same goes for local nature centers, which often use the trees as shelter for birds or even fish. Note that our Peterborough Zoo has accepted leftover christmas trees from vendors in the past.
Add needles to the compost. You can finally quit worrying about needles falling on the carpet and make use of your tree’s tendency to shed. Place the tree on a tarp until it’s done shedding and then pour the brown needles into the compost to enrich your soil for next year. As the needles are quite dry, layer them with wetter materials for faster decomposition.
It is a beautiful fall day as I’m writing this blog, blue sky and temperature around 20 degrees. I have just finished the last jobs before putting my garden to bed for the winter. The last of my 30 or so bags of leaves have been mulched and put onto the gardens, apple trees have all been wrapped to prevent rabbits and squirrels from eating the bark off of them, and I have emptied the rain barrels onto the trees, shrubs and fruit bushes.
Time for both a well earned rest and for me to put together my garden review list for this year. All season long I jot down notes of anything that is working, not working or something that I need to concentrate on or remember for next year and then I compile it into one list. This year I’m going to share my list in this blog, although the list is a little long for just 1 blog so I’ll split it in 2 parts.
I don’t plant many annuals in my garden–a couple of urns out front with 2 hanging baskets, and some large pots at the back. I love the colour that annuals provide all season, but they typically need more watering than I like to do, and I find them expensive. Last year I overwintered some cuttings I took from both my coleus and sweet potato vines as well as overwintering the purple fountain grass. All the cuttings worked great, and in the spring after hardening off I was able to plant them into my pots and urns; they grew really lush and full. The green potato vine was much stronger and more robust all season than either the purple or copper plants, however the purple fountain grass grew back very slowly never really getting the vibrant purple colour back. This year I’ve taken even more cuttings from my coleus along with the green and purple sweet potato vine. However, I decided that I would rather spend the money on new fountain plants each spring.
I have 2 large compost piles that I use all year, filling to the top with leaves and then burying food scraps the rest of the year. This year I religiously turned the one pile every couple of weeks starting as early as I could and was rewarded with compost all gardening season. In the second pile though, a couple of errant zucchini plants started growing producing lush growth and lots of flowers and I thought ‘why not leave them?’. I’m sure you can guess the rest, not a single zucchini and I was not able to use any of the compost all season. Note to myself if anything accidentally grows out of the compost next year, turn it back in.
For the first time this season I grew Sicilian zucchini, now I didn’t actually realize I had bought this variety until it started growing up the espaliered tree fence and growing 2-3 foot long zucchinis. I’m definitely going to grow them again next year, although in a different location. When the frost finally killed off the plants and we pulled them off the fence, the wires were no longer taut and needed some tightening. Another point to note is that the zucchinis were consistently eaten throughout August and September when they were barely an inch or two longer. I’m not sure why that only happened later in the summer, maybe the squirrel or rabbit population doubled when I wasn’t looking. I’m thinking of placing bags over the fruit as it is growing, hoping by the time it gets to a foot or more it won’t be quite so attractive to predators.
I tend to leave my perennials to self seed as I love growing plants from seed; it is probably one of my favourite things to do in the garden. I have set aside a nursery plot and any seedlings I find in the garden I move into the nursery. Unfortunately this year I noticed a definite increase in the number of swamp milkweed, verbascum and New England asters seedlings. Now I love these plants, but they are taking over both my garden and my garden paths. I grow Verbascum nigrum which is a beautiful stately plant with either yellow or white flowers. It tends to be a short lived perennial but as it grows profusely from seed, I always have a few plants in my garden. Swamp milkweed is a host for the monarch butterfly; in my garden I have both pink and white flowering plants. They prefer moist to wet soil and because my soil is dry, they are also short-lived. Not so the New England aster; this is a native aster which grows 4 to 5 foot with beautiful purple blue flowers, however it can get very large in just a couple of years. Next year I have to dead head these plants, leaving only a couple to go to seed, which I can then harvest and plant in a specific area of the nursery.
On the positive side, I was surprised by an abundance of aquilegia (commonly known as columbine) in my front garden that I was not expecting. I had left the seedlings thinking from a distance they were meadow rue, only to be surprised by this showing:
Aquilegia are one of my favourite plants, but I tend not to grow them as I find in my garden they are eaten by slugs. One day I have a beautiful plant in full flower, and the next day just a few stems still standing. I’ve slowly been replacing them by meadow rue, which for me has a similar lacy look, which I like when paired with hostas and brunnera. Slugs don’t seem to like meadow rue, but for some unknown reason this year, they also left the aquilegia alone. Based on this I have since ordered some seeds from the native aquilegia, Aquilegia Canadensis, which has beautiful red and yellow flowers and also likes sun to part-shade.
And finally the dreaded creeping charlie in my lawn. I have a small lawn which I have been overseeding with clover in my attempt to make the lawn healthier and more low maintenance. Clover has a lot of great benefits in a law including growing in poor soils. Clover is a nitrogen fixing legume, so it will improve the health of the soil and the surrounding grass, needs less watering and mowing, attracts beneficial insects, and crowds out weeds. Unfortunately though it does not crowd out the creeping charlie and actually seems to co-exist with it harmoniously. The recommended solution in a lawn is to hand pull the creeping charlie and because it grows by rhizomes which then root into the soil, removing all parts of the plant can be very time consuming. I have heard that it is easier if you soak the ground first or weed after it has rained. Note to myself, recruit an army to help me after each rainfall in the spring, either that or learn to love it!
One of the early signs that summer is coming to a close is the proliferation of potted mums. These beautiful fall flowers come in a range of colours from white to yellow to burgundy and almost everything in between. They disappear when flowering is done, only for new ones to appear next year all potted up and blooming profusely again. Although they are perennial (zone 5-9), one doesn’t usually find them in the flower bed, but instead they are displayed in wonderful potted arrangements.
At the end of the season, rather than putting them in the compost, why not try planting them?
There are a few things one can do to try to help your mums survive the winter in the ground:
Choose plants whose buds haven’t started to open. Plant them in a larger pot with fresh potting soil for display purposes, then, at the end of the season plant them directly in the ground.
Mums need full sun 5-6 hours daily.
Mums need rich well drained soil, so add compost to the soil when planting.
After blooming is finished cut the plant back to about 10cm from the ground. (Or wait and do this in the spring )
Mums have shallow roots, so it’s important to mulch them well with several inches of mulch to keep the roots from heaving through the freeze thaw cycles of winter. If you see that they have heaved, just push them back into the ground.
They also need lots of water, so keep them well watered in the pots as well when you put them in the ground
If you’ve been successful and the mums survive the winter, the operative word here is “if” as they have been forced into the wonderful growth we see. So, if they survive:
As they are susceptible to mildew, they need plenty of air circulation, and morning sun to dry the dew from the leaves. Don’t plant them where they will be boxed in.
Once they have reached a height of 15cm pinch the new growth back to encourage side shoots and more fall flowering. This can be done a few times until mid to late June.
Keep the plants well-watered and fertilized with a 5-10-10 fertilizer.
Enjoy another burst of colour from these amazing plants the next fall.
You may also want to keep an eye out at the garden centres in the spring for perennial Chrysanthemums that you can grow in your garden. There are many beautiful cultivars in a wide range of colours and sizes that will keep your fall flower bed looking spectacular.
As mentioned in the my previous blog, creating healthy soil is to be the topic of this article.
Healthy soil is made up of the following components:
Sand, silt and clay – in any soil they are the bones, the structure that is the foundation on which the rest is built. About 48% of the soil.
Air spaces – are the lungs of the soil. They allow for movement of oxygen, water, and nutrients. About 25% of the soil
Organic material – is the food which nourishes the soil to make it a living microcosm for plants to grow in. The microorganisms in the soil process the organic material into a form that plants can use when they need it. The larger organisms in the soil help to maintain its structure. The organic material in the soil is also like a sponge which will hold many times its weight in water. This represents ideally about 4% of the soil.
Water – is like blood. It carries the nutrients from the soil to the roots of plants in a form the plants can use.
In the housing development where I live, we have been provided with good bones. Some of the soils may have more or less of one component than another, but for the most part the bones are good.
From my perspective, the biggest issues are:
compaction from all of the heavy construction equipment that has been driven over and over the sites. Even when the topsoil was put down, dump trucks and bulldozers were used. The soil and sub soil are deeply compacted.
lack of organic material in the soil.
the inability of the soil to retain water.
To overcome these problems the soil needs to be aerated, whether by mechanical means with a core aerator or by hand with a shovel. The plugs of soil, although unsightly, can be left on top of the soil to dry out and then run over with a lawn mower to break them up and spread them over the ground or lawn. Then organic material needs to be added to the soil. For the grass, I would add compost which you can purchase in bulk from garden centres. Spread 1-2 cm (1/2”) over the lawn and rake it in. You may want to add a little grass seed where there are bare spots. With the compost, you won’t have to add any other fertilizer and you won’t have to water very much. For my flower and vegetable beds I add a more generous amount of compost or manure, working the manure into the soil so it doesn’t smell.
It takes 2.5cm (1”) of water to penetrate 15cm (6”) into the soil. With air spaces and multiple surfaces for the water to adhere to and with organic material to act as a sponge and hold the water, the water will stay In the soil better and not run off. For growing vegetables 2.5cm per week is a good rule of thumb. Add more if it’s very hot or windy. With healthy soil, watering the lawn and garden is less of an issue.
The most common grass used for sodding is Kentucky Blue Grass. It is natural for this grass to go dormant in the hot summer months. With good healthy soil to support it, the grass will be able to overcome the drought and revive as the weather gets cooler.
You know you have healthy soil when it has a nice crumbly texture, the surface of the soil doesn’t crack from the heat and when the soil absorbs water instead if having the water sit in pools or run off into ditches. I’ve added a couple of web sites with further information about healthy soils and adding compost to lawns.
My dream is coming closer to being realized. The construction company cleaned up the construction area, removed a lot of the larger stones and graded the property. When it rains this grading directs water to the road in front and to the catch basin in the back. (I’m going to have to plan how to plant my water loving plants to take advantage of this drainage.) We have told the excavating people that we will be putting in a walkway and water barrels. They kindly set up the fill to accommodate that.
As soon as the topsoil was delivered in mid June, I did the mason jar soil composition test, using the Clemson fact sheet I posted in the previous blog and again below. The soil test results show loam. However there is no organic material in this soil. Heavy equipment was used to spread and grade the soil. It is extremely compacted. We ordered enough compost to cover the topsoil to a depth 1-2cm. We really need 5-10 cm of compost.
Once we got the sod installed we were told to water it well twice a day for 5-7 days, then daily for a week. I watered as required, making sure the water had penetrated the sod. In spite of my best efforts the sod turned yellow within a couple of days in places. After 2 weeks it was coming back, but needed continued watering of those difficult areas.
Before we had received our sod, I’d gone crazy planting trees and shrubs. I’ve dug holes and loosened up the soil as much as possible, added organic material, and I’m hoping for the best. I’ve planted my vegetables, loosened the soil and added more organic material. Some beds I’ve made for future plants by turning the sod upside down and covering with cardboard and mulch. Next spring they will be ready for planting.
It is going to be an ongoing process of trying to create a healthy soil environment for lawns and gardens. That will be the topic of my next blog.
A question about sod that didn’t root came to our contact email account recently. The person asked what to do about an area the size of about a dozen rolls of sod that didn’t take or thrive. Replace it or seed over? Below is a photo of the area in question. Because this is the time of year that we see these problems, I thought the answer to this question would make a good blog.
Since new sod won’t be available for a few weeks, I suggested to try seeding a small area. If the seed germinates and grows, then go for it! If not, remove the dead sod and replace. If you’re replacing, make sure the new sod is freshly harvested that day. Also, I would add some compost to the soil before laying the new sod. The compost will help the soil retain moisture and provide nutrients.
This time of year is perfect for seeding lawns as usually there is more rain and the weather is cooler, which grass prefers for germinating and growing. Top seeding is usually done on top of existing lawns, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t work on your recent sod.
Rather than topsoil, my suggestion is to use compost. Depending on where you get topsoil, it could be full of weed seeds. You can get compost from most garden/landscape supply places. The City of Peterborough also makes and sells compost which you can buy at Ecology Park or at the Bensfort Road transfer station. Take your own containers. The compost will also help the old sod decompose into the soil.
Before seeding on top of the sod that didn’t take, rake off as much of the loose grass as possible. Put a good layer of compost over that area, 1/2 inch at least. Before seeding, make sure the old sod and the ground are moist underneath. Two and a half centimetres (1”) of rain/water will soak approximately 15 cm (6”) deep.
Then, seed the area with the same variety of grass that is in the sod so that eventually you will have a uniform lawn. Gently cover the lawn seed with a thin layer of mulch by using the back of a garden rake to rake over the area. Water well.
To keep the existing sod healthy, put a thin layer of compost over that as well and rake it in. The compost will help the soil retain moisture and provide all the nutrients your lawn needs without expensive chemicals.
Spring is here, but it’s still not great weather outside for gardening. In a few more weeks, once the temperature reaches 10 degrees Celsius on a regular basis, you will have lots to do! But for now, here’s something to think about: compost.
Compost is decomposed organic matter like leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste, and it’s the ultimate garden fertilizer. It contains virtually all the nutrients a living plant needs and delivers them in a slow-release manner over a period of years. Compost made with a wide variety of ingredients will provide an even more nutritious meal to your growing plants. Compost is free, and you can make your own.
April is a great time to check the compost pile if you already have one. If it’s too wet, stir and add dry (brown) material like dry leaves, then cover. If it’s too dry, stir and add water (or green material), and mix thoroughly. Either way, mix thoroughly!
At the end of the month, when the weather has improved and the garden is dry enough to work in, add a 1-2 inch layer of well composted material (sweet smelling, crumbly and dark brown) to your garden beds, scratching it in lightly or even just laying it on top. When the earthworms wake up, they will pull that material further into the soil, saving you the trouble of digging it in.
If you don’t have a compost bin, spring is a great time to start one! In our area (Peterborough, ON), composters are available at City Hall, 500 George St. N., or at the Household Hazardous Waste Depot, 400 Pido Rd. GreenUp, Ecology Park, hardware stores and your local municipality likely also carries them. By next spring you could have your own fertilizer ready for the garden, and save a lot of food waste like peelings from going directly to the landfill.
If you don’t have/want a physical composter, a different plan is the trench method of adding compost to the garden. In this method, you dig a series of holes or a trench and lay compost down into it throughout the summer. It’s wise to plan where this trench will be and where this year’s garden will stand. At the end of the summer, cover the trench with one to three inches of soil, and plant your garden next spring in the spot where this year’s trench is. That will get different spots of the soil nourished throughout the years. You can learn more about this type of composting from fellow MG Suzanne Seryck’s article from May 2018.
If you’re new to composting, here are some pointers:
Patience is key. It’ll take six months to a year for compost to be ready to use, so think about investing in a compost pile now as part of your spring garden prep. Your garden will have plenty of natural, nutritious food come next gardening season.
Don’t forget the water. If your pile is covered or you are having a dry spell, add moisture. The pile should be always be damp, but not wet.
Keep the compost loose and turn every so often. That will keep air in the system and allow for healthy decomposition.
Have a balance between wet (green) and dry (brown) compost. Add natural items like grass clippings, leaves, pulled plants, weeds, plant-based food scraps and wood chips.
Don’t add meats or fatty foods, dairy, fresh animal droppings, or diseased plants.
Never add plants containing seed heads to the compost, or next year that plant will pop up everywhere! I will never look at feverfew kindly again, after this happened to me.
The basic rule of thumb is to never add a significant amount of one type of material at the same time. Variety is key.
Again, always remember patience. Using compost that is not ready will rob garden plants of nitrogen. You’ll know the compost is ready when it crumbles easily and has a very earthy smell.
I’ve just spent a rather pleasant afternoon looking through one of the many gardening catalogues, occasionally glancing out at my snow covered garden; trying out ideas in my mind to create more space. Having had a one acre garden for over fifteen years I am still trying to get used to a smaller space. No longer can I just go out and build new beds, or purchase trees or shrubs without having a space to plant them. No longer can I try out different pumpkin, squash, zucchini or cucumber plants without some kind of a plan. To create more space for all the vegetables and fruit I want to grow, I am going to have to get creative making use of all my available space.
Vertical vegetable gardening is a great way to grow vegetables when space is tight. Supports such as obelisks, trellises, fences, stakes, even other plants can be used as a support for many vegetables. Ensure that you select ‘vine’ varieties of specific crops instead of the ‘bush’ varieties. Certain vegetables such as beans will produce tendrils allowing them to climb up supports by themselves, others such as squash or zucchini will need a little help and can be tied at regular intervals. Supports do not need to be expensive; you can build many yourself using cheap materials or in my case left over materials I find in my husband’s workshop. If you don’t have the time or inclination, there are many different plant supports in catalogues or stores. Fruit trees can be espaliered to a fence, while fruit bushes can be grown either against a fence or up stakes; pruning to keep them from becoming too wide. I grow my currant and gooseberry bushes as double or triple cordons (a cordon is a single main stem growing vertical), which take up less space than a traditional bush shape and for me are easier to pick.
My mother loves scarlet runner beans which are vigorous climbers with beautiful clusters of red flowers. Last year I grew them in 2 raised beds side-by-side, creating a tunnel between the two beds using bamboo stakes. I only used up a 4 inch wide strip in both beds and was rewarded with beans for many meals. A lot of people grow beans on a teepee structure which also works well, with a side benefit of being able to use the space under the teepee for planting lettuce. Beans can also grow up other crops such as corn as in the Three Sisters Guild.
Fences and walls are ideal spots to create living walls, especially if located in sun or part-shade. They are ideal for growing leafy vegetables such as lettuce as well as herbs. There are many examples on the internet showing living walls, examples include using wooden pallets, window boxes and gutters. The photo below shows a gutter bed that I had in my last house that I used to grow lettuce and spring onions. The bed worked really well and was both weed free as well as pest free, and if you have difficulty bending down this makes harvesting pain free. The only thing to remember when creating a living wall is to add drainage holes and use a soil that both retains moisture and provides nutrients.
As you can see from the above photo, tomatoes are growing upside down in hanging baskets. This method worked really well for me, although I have heard many negative stories about growing tomatoes the wrong way up. Tomatoes work really well grown in pots as does asparagus and peppers, you just need to ensure that you are growing the correct variety when growing in a pot. You can also grow salad greens in pots which works really well if located on the patio outside the back door where they are easy to pick. Again you do not need to buy expensive pots, I have been known to grow many vegetables in recycle bins, see picture below or even in an old laundry sink. Again, you just need to ensure you have drainage holes and use a moisture retentive soil combined with compost.
And finally, one last space saving idea that I am planning on trying this year is a pillar of peppers. This idea is from a newsletter that I receive monthly called ‘Dallying in the Dirt‘. Peppers are grown in a pillar made of heavy wire and landscape fabric. The pillar is then filled with soil, holes cut into the fabric at intervals all around the pillar and filled with pepper plants. I’m not sure my pillar is going to be quite as tall as the example shown, but I like to experiment in the garden and this sounds like an interesting method of growing peppers.
I first heard the term to be ‘caretaker of your garden’ at a permaculture course a few years ago. It has resonated with me ever since and has changed both the way in which I garden and also the way that I perceive my garden. Being the “caretaker of your garden” means that while you own the land that your garden is on, it is only temporary. You are, in fact, simply looking after that piece of land for a relatively short period of time before passing it on.
For me, being the caretaker of my garden makes me consider the longevity of the garden, what takes away from the health of the garden and what gives back to the garden; how to feed not just my family but also the wildlife whilst providing safe habitats; how to make the garden more self-sustainable reducing my time spent pruning, weeding, and imposing my unnatural demands on the garden thus allowing myself more time to simply enjoy the garden. For most of us, we are already doing the groundwork for this change already–it is simply a shift in the way we view ownership of our garden, or more specifically, the plot of land the garden sits on.
The following are some of the practices that I follow:
A healthy garden always starts with healthy soil. I amend my soil annually with leaf compost. I have 2 large leaf composters in my back garden which I fill with bags of leaves I collect from neighbours. I also mulch up approximately 20 bags of leaves and spread these liberally over my vegetable and perennial gardens in the fall.
I cut back very little in my garden in the fall mainly just anything that is diseased. In the spring I cut everything up into 1-2 inch pieces and drop them back on the garden. This also acts as a mulch as well as amending the soil.
Plants that have multiple uses are important to me. This may be because I have a small garden; multiple functions can include fix nitrogen, use as a fertilizer, be edible or medicinal etc. as well as aesthetically pleasing.
Including vegetable plants in the perennial bed. I will often do this if I run out of room in my vegetable beds, however a lot of vegetable plants have amazing foliage and are great to line paths and place in the front of beds.
Recently I have made efforts to increase diversity in my small garden, increasing the number of native plants. Native plants are generally hardier, more adapted to our climate and require less maintenance; they also tend to attract more wildlife and pollinators.
I try to water as little as possible using rain barrels as much as I can. I must admit that any plants that do require more water, or in fact more maintenance of any kind, tend to be replaced fairly quickly.
For anyone who has not heard of permaculture, it is a set of guidelines, principles and practices for sustainable living and land use. When you narrow down permaculture to your home garden, you are in effect looking at a more sustainable, natural method of gardening mimicking that found in nature to create a cohesive garden, in which all elements benefit, nurture and interconnect with each other. Whilst that does sound like a fairly lofty aspiration, the good news is that just by implementing or adding a couple of permaculture practices can have a significant impact on your garden, but that sounds like a blog for another day.
For me the term ‘being caretaker of your garden’ and the reasoning behind it align with my passion and concern regarding climate change and environmentalism. Whilst the changes I make may only have a small impact these type of changes can add up and often lead to something bigger.
What to do with leaves? It used to be that one would rake the leaves, put them into bags to be collected by the municipality, where they would often be put into landfill or composting. They are a rich source of organic material for the garden that helps retain moisture in the soil.
I have a friend that collects leaves that fall on her lawn, bags them and uses them the next spring in her vegetable garden. They first mulch them into the lawn, then, what remains is collected into bags and stored until spring. The leaves are spread between the rows of her vegetable garden in the spring and watered down. When the tender vegetable plants have sprouted, she then uses the leaves to mulch around all of her veggies. By fall there are no more leaves, just rich organic material in the soil for next years garden.
The leaves can also be used to protect tender perennials by covering them with a blanket for the winter. Indeed, mulch all of your perennial beds with leaves in the fall to protect them from winter extremes. And don’t be in a hurry to uncover them in the spring.
I’ve included a couple of links to give you other ideas of how to use this valuable resource.
Waiting for top soil and sod for our new home, I’ve “planted” pots with my shrubs, tulip tree and peonies into the fill along the side of the house. I collected some bags of leaves along the roadside and have mulched the pots for the winter.