Plant a tree, save on your utility bills

Properly sited deciduous trees will help keep your house cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Photo by Kathie Rowell

Beauty.

Wildlife habitat.

Shade.

And let’s not forget tire swings.

There are lots of reasons to add  trees to your landscape.

But did you know they can actually save you money?

A properly sited tree can reduce your utility bills by up to 30 percent, according to LSU AgCenter.

So where’s the proper site? The AgCenter recommends planting deciduous trees on the southern and western sides of your house. In summer, their shade will reduce heat gain, saving you money on air conditioning bills. Providing shade over your air conditioning unit will also increase its efficiency.  After their leaves drop, deciduous trees allow sunshine through to help warm the house in winter. And evergreen trees planted on the north side of the house can block frigid winds.

Even if you don’t have enough room for a large tree, you can still save some money. Just use small trees, vines and shrubs for the same purpose.

Sound good? Before you rush out and buy a mighty oak for your garden, make sure you have enough room for it.

An obvious mistake to avoid is planting a large tree under utility lines. Unless, of course, you like the flat-top look.

Not so obvious is accounting for how wide the tree will get. A good rule of thumb, according to the AgCenter, is to figure the mature width, then leave half that distance between the tree and buildings, utility lines or other trees.

The AgCenter has a handy reference to help you choose a tree that will fit your lot and your needs. You can find it at http://www.lsuagcenter.com/nr/rdonlyres/2ed9d933-0248-4cdd-a6e7-7dead5ddfaeb/18167/pub2926nativetreeguide.pdf

Winter is the perfect time to install trees in the South because it allows their roots to start making themselves at home during mild spring weather. You want to give them as much time as possible to dig their toes in before the blast furnace of July and August arrives.

And just think. In a few years, it will return the favor by shielding your house from that same summer sun.

Garden catalog favorites inspire dreams

catalogs

It’s January. Time to put a pot of soup on the stove, curl up with a dog on my lap, a garden catalog in my hand and dream about spring.

Even if you buy most of your seeds and plants locally, like I do, it’s fun to flip through the pages and experiment in your mind. My garden never looks as good in reality as it does in my head while I’m deciding what to order each year. And the great thing about catalogs is the incredible variety available.

Granted, actual paper catalogs aren’t a necessity anymore. You can find more information and photos online, but I still love holding one in my hands while I try to decide:  SunSugar or Chocolate Cherry tomatoes? Soraya or Sunny Smile sunflowers?

If you’ve ordered seeds, bulbs or plants before, you likely already receive catalogs. If not, you can call or go online to request one. Here are a few of my favorites, but if you Google seed catalogs, you’ll find many, many more:  

  • Park Seed: offers a wide variety of flower, veggie and herb seeds and plants, as well as seed-starting and growing supplies.  (www.parkseed.com, 800-845-3369)
  • Burpee:  full-service seed, plant and supply company.  (www.burpee.com, 800-888-1447)
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds: full-service seed, plant and supply company.  (www.johnnyseeds.com, 877-564-6697)
  • Seeds of Change: another full-service company, but this one offers 100 percent certified organic seeds. (www.seedsofchange.com, 888.762.7333)
  • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: a company that emphasizes seeds that perform well in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast states, including many Southern heirlooms. (www.southernexposure.com, 540-894-9480)
  • Tomato Growers Supply Company:  You’ll be overwhelmed with the tomato options available: early season, late season, orange-fruited, beefsteak, etc. I only like cherry and grape tomatoes and they have a huge selection so I usually try a new one each year. Also offers peppers, eggplants, tomatillos and supplies. (www.tomatogrowers.com, 888-478-7333)
  • Totally Tomatoes: Another company specializing in an unbelievable number of tomato varieties. Also includes loads of peppers, a limited selection of other edibles and gardening supplies. (www.totallytomato.com, 318-345-5977)
  • Seed Savers Exchange: Looking for seeds of a plant your grandparents grew? Chances are you’ll find them here. Founded as a non-profit in 1975, this company’s mission is to save heirloom plants by providing a source for seeds and plants. (www.seedsavers.org, 563-382-5990)
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: said to be one of the largest sources for seeds from the 19th century, including European and Asian varieties. (www.rareseeds.com, 417-924-8917)
  • Brent and Becky’s Bulbs: a bulb-lovers dream, with everything from amaryllis to zephyranthes. (brentandbeckysbulbs.com, 877-661-2852)
  • Old House Gardens: a source for hard-to-find heirloom bulbs like Grand Primo narcissus and hardy gladiolas. (www.oldhousegardens.com , 734-995-1486)
  • Thompson & Morgan: This English seed company offers a huge variety, such as dozens of sweetpea cultivars. (www.thompson-morgan.com)

What’s your favorite garden catalog?

AgCenter: Control pests on indoor plants

By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter horticulturist

This time of the year, when we have brought many of our container tropical plants inside for the winter, we need to be on the lookout for pest problems. When they happen, indoor pest infestations can be devastating if not dealt with promptly, effectively and safely.

Indoor outbreaks of insect pests can spread rapidly and cause tremendous damage because of the indoor environment. There is no rain to wash off insects, the temperatures are never too warm or too cold, and no natural predators are inside to help control insect populations once they get started. Insects spread rapidly because we often group houseplants together in well-lit locations close to windows or glass doors. We also do our share of spreading pests around by handling infested plants and then handling healthy plants.

Close and regular inspection of your indoor plants is the best defense against pest outbreaks. Three of the most common pests that appear indoors are mealybugs, scales and spider mites. If you can identify these problems in the early stages, you can reduce the amount of damage that occurs and prevent their spread to plants that are not yet infested.

Mealybugs are small, oval, soft-bodied insects usually less than 1/8-inch long, distinctly segmented and usually covered with a powdery or cottony waxy secretion. They are sucking insects, feeding on the plant’s sap much the way mosquitoes feed on our blood. Look for cottony masses in the growing points of plants, in their crowns, under their leaves and where the leaves join the stem.

Plants heavily infested with mealybugs will appear unhealthy. The leaves may have a shiny appearance and feel sticky, and the new growth may appear weak and deformed. Many older leaves will begin to turn yellow and drop off.

Scales are related to mealybugs and are also sucking insects. They are covered with a dome-shaped waxy coating that is most often white, tan or brown, depending on the type of scale. Once they are large enough to notice, they will have settled in one place and no longer move. You may notice the symptoms of scale before you actually see them. Like mealybugs (and many other sucking insects), scales will often cause plants to have shiny, sticky leaves. Even the floor or table where the plant sits may become sticky. This is the result of the accumulation of honeydew (a sweet, sticky excretion of the scale) on surfaces under the plant. If the population of scale insects surpasses the plant’s tolerance, the plant will begin to lose vigor, and leaves will turn yellow and drop off.

Spider mites are very tiny (most are not even visible to the naked eye), and the damage they cause is initially very subtle. This makes early detection difficult, and so populations are generally out of control and damage is extensive before the indoor gardener notices a problem. Initial damage to the foliage causes it to appear dull, faded and unhealthy. As damage increases, new growth may be faded, stunted and deformed, and older leaves may become faded, develop brown edges and begin to drop off. High populations of red spider mites will form fine webbing on the plant.

Virtually every plant we grow indoors is susceptible to one or more of these pests. When a pest problem is detected, prompt action is called for. First, isolate the infested plant or plants. All three of these pests are contagious. Always wash your hands after working with an infested plant, especially if you are about to handle healthy plants.

Remember that no natural controls exist indoors, so if the pest is to be eradicated, you’re going to have to do the job yourself. If you would prefer not to use a pesticide, physical control is worth a try but requires effort and persistence. Spraying the plant once a day with a strong stream of water (getting under the leaves especially well) will usually get rid of spider mites. Continue spraying for at least a week.

You can try removing mealybugs with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, but the process is tedious, must be done repeatedly and often fails to do a complete job of control.

On small plants, you can try to control scale by dislodging them individually with your thumbnail (yes, this is tedious), then wiping the leaves with a damp cloth. Repeat once a week for as long as necessary.

If you decide to use pesticides, choose materials that are labeled appropriate for use on indoor plants and are safe to use on the plant you intend to treat. Mealybugs, scales and mites are all controlled by oil sprays, which kill pests by suffocation and are very low in toxicity. Year Round Spray Oil has a label for use indoors. Many insecticidal soaps and products containing pyrethrin also have labels for indoor use. They are excellent for mites and good on mealybugs but not very effective on adult scales. You can often find these in products premixed and ready to spray. Use pesticides cautiously and follow label directions precisely. Whatever product you choose, several applications will be necessary for complete control in most situations.

Merry Christmas from Louisiana Blooms

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

— Luke 2: 11-14

Christmas gifts for gardeners plentiful

Yuletide sasanqua makes a wonderful Christmas gift. Photo by Kathie Rowell

Got a gardener on your Christmas list? You’re in luck. They’re super easy to buy for. Check out these ideas:

  • Yuletide sasanqua: This is my favorite plant gift for Christmas. They’re easy to grow, don’t get too big and cover themselves in Christmas colors — red flower petals, golden stamens, evergreen foliage — during the holiday season. Perfect!
  • Tools: Quality tools are always welcome. Two of my favorites are a sharp-shooter shovel that lets me dig in tight places, and a garden fork, which is great for loosening dirt and incorporating compost or fertilizer before planting.
  • Pottery: Containers seem to get prettier every year. From classic black cast iron urns to casual terracotta to colorful pottery, there’s a container – or two or three or four – for every garden.
  • A day of work: This could be the most welcome gift of all, especially for an older gardener who might have trouble tilling, pruning or weeding.
  • Fountain: “Every garden needs the sound of water.” How many times have you read that in gardening magazines? Some day, I hope I’ll find out what I’ve been missing.
  • A start of something: Has your friend or family member admired something you grow? Passalong plants make wonderful gifts, especially if they have a family history, like Grandma’s gardenia. Budget friendly too!
  • Bypass pruners: Felcos are considered the Cadillac of pruners, so I was thrilled when I found a pair under the tree a few years ago. I can’t tell they improved my pruning technique any more than a budget pair, but I sure am proud of them.
  • Garden ornament: Most gardeners love pretties. Just take into consideration their style. A fan of formal gardens might not appreciate a rustic metal sculpture while a cottage gardener might have a hard time finding a spot for sleek, black, modern planter .
  • Bird feeder: It’s possible there are gardeners out there who don’t enjoy the sight of birds in their yards, but I haven’t met one yet. Feeders come in a range of styles and prices, so you’re sure to find something appropriate. Don’t forget to include some seed so the birds can have Christmas dinner!
  • Gift certificate: Not sure whether your gardener is into veggies or roses? A gift certificate is sure to fit just right every time.

Hope you find what you’ve been dreaming of under your Christmas tree.

‘Christmas tree’ choices few for the South

If you dream of having a tree like this in your yard, wake up.

We’re more likely to have snow at Christmas than to successfully grow most firs and spruces in Louisiana.

“A conical, needled evergreen is not a really common plant to survive here,” said retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins. “There’s Eastern red cedar, but who wants that prickler in their landscape?”

She’s got a point. Three gigantic cedars live in my backyard and I give them a wide berth except at Christmas, when I snip off branches with their pretty blue berries to use in holiday arrangements.

So what can you plant if you want a “Christmas tree” in your yard?

“Arborvitae and Leyland cypress make a nice holiday tree, but are a little fussy in the garden, getting twig blight if grown in less than perfect conditions,” Denyse said.

Leyland cypress is also LSU AgCenter forester Ricky Kilpatrick’s top choice because it resembles a cedar “but doesn’t stick and make you itch.”  He too warned of its disease tendencies and recommended  alternating types of fungicide so the tree doesn’t build up resistance.

Ricky also mentioned deodar cedar, which has a natural Christmas tree form when young, but flattens at the top when mature.

And both Denyse and Ricky had a couple of unusual recommendations.

“I very highly recommend Cryptomeria japonica as a living Christmas tree, but I haven’t seen it offered for sale here,” Denyse said. “I only know about it because my husband gave it as a Christmas tree to his parents 35 years ago. I’m now living in that house and it is a wonderful, unusual tree all grown up in the landscape. Pretty cinnamon bark; different foliage.”

Ricky’s pick? Savannah holly, a smaller variety of American holly. “It’s real Christmasy looking and good for planters and things like that.”

Foster Cook, a co-owner of Akin’s Nursery, offers Arizona cypresses and Blue Point junipers to customers who are looking for living Christmas trees. Both have a natural pyramid form and have done well locally, he said.

So the choices are pretty limited.

But don’t be blue. Bet gardeners with Noble firs in their yards dream of having blooming roses at Christmas.

Have you had luck growing other “Christmas trees?”