Category Archives: Shrubs

A Lackluster Spring

(To those who follow my blog,  I apologize for being away for so long. Late summer, fall and winter was a time of some health issues that took my focus from writing. But I’m thankful for those who still view the site (100 or more views a day) and I’m back!)

This has been a terrible year for spring flowers.

In December we had temperatures in the 70’s and this caused the lilacs to start to bud. But the cold of January brought an end to the budding and the lilacs this year are a bust.

March was a warm month and all of the shrubs and bulbs started to grow. It looked like it was going to be a great season of early blooms but then came April with nighttime temperatures in the lower 20’s. Anything that had started to blossom was damaged and only the toughest of the daffodils survived the cold. The magnolia bush had started to bloom but the cold destroyed them.

peonyThe plant that I find the most interesting throughout this weird weather is the tree peony. By late March the plant was filled with leaves and buds. When the freezing nights of April came, I thought the plant would never recover but it did. A few of the buds opened but all of the rest of them just stayed there in a state of suspended animation.

It’s now the middle of May and the peony is green, bushy and heathy and still covered with buds that have yet to open. Recently I pulled a few of the buds off and cut them in half to see what was going on.

IMG_2222When cut open, I could see the stamens (male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female reproductive organ) of the peony but instead of being firm and health, they were soft and damaged. It’s clear that the cold weather injured these parts of the flower. Since the development of the flower depends on plant growth regulators that are produced by these organs, their impairment meant that flowering wasn’t going to happen. A few buds escaped the damage but most weren’t so lucky.

Yes, this spring was a bust. The weird weather caused all sorts of chaos for the flowering shrubs and bulbs. Flowers are one of the most fragile parts of a plant and this year was too much for them. The good news is that the plants are all fine and will live on to reproduce again another year. I have hope of seeing lilacs, magnolia, tree peonies and spring bulbs all flowering again – next year.


The Rhododendron That Shouldn’t Thrive

Rhododendron Close Up

Rhododendron Close Up

It’s rhododendron time here in PA. There are two rhododendrons growing in the yard: one came with the house and is large and thriving while the other was planted a few years ago and is struggling to hold on to life.

The strange thing about this is that the plant that’s struggling is growing in a location where it should be thriving. The one that’s thriving is growing where it shouldn’t be able to survive.

In nature, rhododendrons are bushes that grow in the understory of forests. They need to have a moist environment because their roots tend to be shallow and dry out quickly. They also prefer to grow in dappled light where they aren’t exposed to the full energy of the sun.

In theory, that’s the sort of environment that should be best for them when growing in a yard. My struggling rhododendron is near a tree where it gets some sun but is protected from the heat of the day. The thriving bush is planted on the south side of the house where it bakes in the sun until around 4pm. And to make matters worse, this rhododendron is planted in a small opening surrounded by a concrete patio on one side, a black topped driveway on another and a brick walkway on the other two sides. This is one of the hottest and driest spots in the yard, yet it grows! (I know of someone else who has a great rhododendron that’s on the southeast side of the house sandwiched between the house and a concrete slab!)


I don’t know what to say about this strange occurrence.

Maybe part of the answer is in something that I’ve noticed as I see rhododendrons in other’s yards. I rarely see a young bush; the ones that are thriving are old and established. This makes me wonder if the older varieties of rhododendron are hardier plants than the ones available now. Who knows?

What I do know is that I want to spend this year trying to get my struggling rhododendron to thrive. As I said, it’s in a good location – at lease in theory. I want to be more diligent about watering it. I also want to check the pH of the soil – rhododendrons do better in acid soil. Even though I’m not one to nurse along a struggling plant, I’m willing to give this bush some special attention for a year or two and see if it makes a difference.

Maybe it will. If it doesn’t, I’ll send the small bush to the compost bin, knowing that there’s another rhododendron in the yard that’ll blossom every spring. It might be in the “wrong” location and should be dead but it’s apparent that no one’s told the rhododendron!

Damage from PA’s Seemingly Endless Winter!

I realize it’s been a while since I posted something on this blog. I have a bunch of ideas that are ruminating at this time but I think the thing that’s kept me away from the keyboard is this endless winter! While I’ve started a few seeds, I still can’t get into spring mode – the piles of snow and the cold weather are getting to me.

This week I was finally able to wander through the yard and see what kind of damage this winter has brought to the yard and garden.

Weeping Willow Damage

Weeping Willow Damage

The first thing I noticed was obvious from the day it happened but when I got close, I could see how bad the damage is. We had a bad ice storm a month ago. Trees and power lines were knocked down and a lot of people were without power for days. Fortunately I didn’t lose power and most of the trees and bushes weathered the storm. But one tree took a beating. The weeping willow in the back part of the yard is a mess. While there aren’t a lot of branches on the ground, many of the branches of the tree are split and cracked. Once the weather warms, I’m going to be spending some time on a ladder with a saw to clean it up.

It didn’t surprise me that the willow was damaged by the freezing rain. Willows grow fast and their wood is very soft. The weight of the ice was just too much for many of the branches. The good news is that the tree’s still fine even if it has lost a quarter to a third of its branches.

Pear Tree with Rabbit Damage

Pear Tree with Rabbit Damage

What might not be as fine are the two asian pear trees. They’ve been growing for a number of years and were doing well. I put some chicken wire around the base of the trucks to protect them from rabbits chewing on the bark. The wire worked until this year. This winter the snow was so deep and stayed for so long that it allowed the rabbits to gnaw on the pears’ trunks.

The only part of a tree trunk that’s alive is the outer ring just beneath the bark. This area contains the cambium layer which allows the truck to expand. Also the tree’s phloem is located under the bark and it transports nutrients created in the leaves down to the roots. If these tissues are too damaged, the tree won’t be able to grow, the roots will starve and the tree will die. I don’t know if the rabbit damage is lethal or not… only time will tell. If the pears do survive, I’ll be wrapping the trunks in chicken wire next fall!

Burning Bushes with Rabbit Damage

Burning Bushes with Rabbit Damage

The other plant that the rabbits took a liking to this winter was the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus). The branches of these bushes are all chewed up and uneven. But this damage doesn’t have me too concerned. Burning bushes are basically weeds (some states such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire have outlawed them because of their invasive tendencies). In the spring I’ll trim them back and they’ll be fine. Also, given all of the rabbit dropping that surround them, they’ll have a nice shot of fertilizer to aid in their recovery!

It’s been a winter here in PA and there’s more snow on the way today. There’s a lot of damage in the yard to clean up when the weather warms. But after this winter, it’ll be enjoyable to just be outside, even if it is to cut bushes and trim storm-damaged trees.

Lilacs = Spring

It just wouldn’t be spring without the smell of lilacs in bloom. I grew up in western New York and lilacs were everywhere. They were so much a part of this area of the country that Rochester hosted (and still does) a lilac festival each year. Western NY lilacs were large bushed filled with blooms. While I have lilacs growing here in Pennsylvania, the number of blooms just doesn’t compare to the New York plants.

I think part of the issue is the coldness of the winters. Lilacs need a period of cold call vernalization in order to blossom. I planted one lilac on the south side of the house and it never blossomed – the location was too protected and warm. The other lilacs I planted are more exposed and blossom to varying degrees each year.

I don’t know all of the ins and outs of getting a lilac to bloom profusely. Maybe there are some tricks I have yet to learn. But even a few blooms makes them worth growing. Below are some pictures of this year’s lilacs. I especially like the last one of the group. While I usually prefer crisp and clear pictures, softening the focus on a white lilac in dappled sunlight makes it look almost ethereal.

Whether the bush is full of blooms or only has a few scattered flowers, I couldn’t imagine spring without lilacs!

lilac 1





Bring Some Spring Inside – Forcing Forsythia

The countdown to spring has started. But if you’re wanted to bring a little spring into the house, forcing forsythia branches to blossom is a good way to do it.

Forsythia Branches

Forsythia Branches

This is one of the easiest late winter projects that you can do. All that’s required are forsythia branches and a container filled with water.

If you have a forsythia bush in your yard (or a friend’s yard), cut some of the branches and bring them into the house. The size of the branches doesn’t matter – cut them to whatever size works for your home.

After collecting the branches and before you put them in a container of water, you’ll want to make a new, clean cut at the base of the branch. The old technique was to smash the bottom of the branches with a hammer and then put them in water. This was believed to help the stems absorb water. In truth, all smashing does is damage the tissue of the branches and cause a lot more bacterial/fungal growth in the water. Instead of using a hammer, just cut the ends of the branches with sharp pruning shears or a knife and immediately place them in water.

When the branches are in a container and arranged to your liking, you can place them anywhere in the house. I like to put them near a window but it’s not necessary because the forsythia buds have already formed and the nutrients to get them to emerge are present in the branches. The only recommendation I’d make is that if the water starts getting cloudy, take out the branches, make a fresh cut on the end of each branch and put them back in the vase after cleaning it and replacing the water.



Within a few weeks, depending on the temperature in your home, the forsythia branches should blossom. The bright yellow blooms are a great pick-me-up for a dreary, late winter day.

Hydrangea – pH and Photos

A number of year ago I planted a few hydrangea bushes. I like look of the bushes and the large, mop-head flowers that come in shades of pink, blue and white.

The interesting thing about hydrangea is that the color of the flowers depends on the pH of the soil. Soil pH is simply a scale that indicates whether the soil is acid, neutral or alkaline. The number 7 is neutral and anything less than 7 is acid and anything greater than 7 is alkaline.

If you remember back to chemistry class, litmus paper is used to tell if a solution is acid or alkaline. If the solution is acid, the strip of litmus paper turns pink and if it’s alkaline, the paper turns blue. You could say that hydrangea are the litmus paper of the plant world, the only difference being that the colors are reversed. If the soil is acid, the hydrangea will be blue and if it’s alkaline, the flowers will be pink. (White hydrangeas will always be white.) The cause of this difference has to do with aluminum. When the plant takes up aluminum (which is present to some degree in all soils), the flowers are blue. The reason pH makes a difference is because in very acid soils, aluminum is available for the plant to absorb  and the flowers are blue; in more alkaline soils, the aluminum is bound in a form that the plants can’t absorb so the flowers are pink.

I wanted the hydrangeas I had planted to be blue so I add some aluminum sulfate to the soil. Aluminum sulfate is a soil additive that lowers the pH; various sulfur compounds can also be used to lower the soil’s pH. I was expecting that all of the hydrangea flowers this summer would be blue but instead I’m finding that the plants are primarily blue but there are still a lot of bright pink flowers. I’m not sure why this happened – some suggest it results from the plant adjusting to a change in pH – but I like the mixture of pink and blue. Who knows what color they’ll be next year!

Below are some pictures of hydrangeas that came from the same bush – one pink and one blue. Clicking on the photos will let you see them full-sized.

Photos from the Garden

Here are some pictures of the garden and some of the plants and flowers that are growing.  If you double-click the pictures or right-click and open in a new tab you can see them full-sized.


Chive Blossom – look closely and you can see the abdomen of a fly that working to pollinate the flower!

Bearded German Iris

Bearded German Iris Bud


Romaine Lettuce

Asparagus with an Attached Aphid!

Endive or Frisee




Asian Pear