Friday, December 19, 2008

Caring for your Cut Christmas Tree

Christmas trees are a wonderful part of the holiday season. Although artificial tree have taken some of the market away from “real” trees, still, millions of homes display real trees each year. Got mine yesterday and I was reminded of several things….they aren’t that expensive, they’re easy to put up, your wife thinks it’s great that you did it and they smell and look wonderful. If you want some more reasons real trees are a good idea, see the folks at the National Christmas Tree Growers Association. Sure, it’s their product but the website makes some great points.

On to real tree care…. for some reason people want to make tree care more complicated than it needs to be. Penn State Christmas tree specialist Rick Bates dispels many myths in a handy fact sheet. In a nut shell, keep plain old water in the reservoir of the tree stand at all times and everything is OK. Both Penn State and the Christmas Tree Growers think the fire hazard from Christmas trees is way overblown. I recall a very unscientific study my graduate school advisor (and Christmas tree grower) and I did one year in January. We tried to ignite dried out, discarded Christmas trees with a lighter. No luck. I am sure someone has done a better job demonstrating how hard it is to make them burn.

How about tree disposal? Many townships will help you turn that tree into chips. Or do it yourself with a pair of loppers. It takes five minutes to turn your tree into mulch. Ours becomes a bird sanctuary and lawn ornament until late winter.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Holiday Shopping for Gardeners

By some estimates, gardening is our nation’s number one hobby. I believe it. So, gardening gifts make a lot of sense. It helps to know your gardener… are they into flowers, vegetables, woody plants, container gardening? Do they have a special interest such as orchids, bonsai or fruit trees? Here are a few shopping hints.

I just took a quick look at the on-line gardening companies that I buy from. They all offer gift certificates. If you don’t know exactly what your gardening friend needs this ought to work. Rummage through the gardeners’ catalog pile at home (all gardeners have one) and you’ll know where to begin. Local nurseries and garden centers would be happy to have you business, too. No doubt you’ve been along on one of those trips and know where your friend shops.

Pruning is a common practice for all gardening. Pruning tools range from saws and loppers to tiny hand shears. Felco, is a Swiss company that sets the standard in this realm. I notice that they offer 16 different kinds of hand pruners. Wow.

If your gardening friend has everything he/she needs or you just want to do something a bit different, consider planting a tree in their honor. Local arboreta, townships and garden clubs can probably help you get that tree planted. Or try

Last but not least… Penn State Soil test kits make great stocking stuffers. They cost nine dollars and are available at any extension office. Or go to to see how to do it on-line.

Friday, December 5, 2008

If a trees falls in the forest..

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? I won’t get into that philosophical question but I recently spent a few days in a forest and had time to make some observations that made me think about tree mortality.

At Penn State Extension, we frequently get questions about why a particular tree has died or is dying. Sometimes we can attribute an insect or disease pathogen to the problem. However, almost all tree mortality is a complex situation involving environmental stresses as well as destructive organisms. Many people want a simple answer (and solution) about tree death but usually the story is more complex and does not have a simple diagnosis or treatment.
What struck me as I sat in the woods and observed trees was that there were a lot of dead and dying trees around me. Walk into any woods and look around. You’ll see the same thing…more or less. I don’t think this is unusual. It’s natural. Sure, there is explanation for most of it. I know that insect defoliation was involved in the death of some of the trees I was seeing. I know that competition for light was thinning out others. I could see lots of fungal pathogens. One species always seems to die at a relatively young age without apparent cause.

What does this mean? For me, it puts tree mortality in perspective. No one likes it when trees die and when important trees die, or die suddenly without explanation, we look for answers. Sometimes the diagnosis appears straight forward. For instance, hemlock wooly adelgid is the primary cause of hemlock mortality in the woods I was sitting in. And in this case, I think I was witnessing not only individual trees dying but perhaps the demise of our state tree as a species in Pennsylvania. More often, trees fail and exhibit a range of symptoms that lead to educated guesses about the cause. Most of the time that’s as far as our knowledge goes.
The suburban trees that we pamper and tend to in landscapes are subject all of the stresses as their wild forest relatives. It’s sad, but part of Nature’s way when they die.