|Above, my much-used photo of the newer Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’ which would be a better cultivar for writer Cliff Ellsom; below eight shots I took back in May 1988, during my tour of China, and specifically the Li River cruise out of Guilin. I’ll have more on this topic in later items. |
Gladys James in Grand Prairie Alberta wrote to Donna Dawson on Monday last week with this question about her spruce trees, which she practically answered herself, but nevertheless the answer is very important in areas of the country (unlike Toronto!) where it has been a dry summer. Here’s the question: “My name is Gladys James. I live in the County of Grande Prairie, Alberta. We have two 40 foot spruce trees in our yard. One of the trees has the lower branches turning yellow from the trunk to the outer tips. It appears to be occurring up the tree as well. The other tree is a blue spruce and it is doing the same thing but not to the same extreme. We have several smaller spruce trees which are also turning yellow but again not as bad. We had a very hot, dry summer. We watered our lawn a lot but did not water the trees individually. Is the yellowing a sign of stress from the extreme heat we experienced over the summer months? I have the water hose turned on very low and am watering the trees with a slow trickling of water. I am hoping this will help. Am I on the right track? Thank you for your insight.”
Donna responded saying I would put it in this week’s article, and also urging Gladys: “I know that they require tons of water. The hair roots of these trees gather the water so I hope you are watering at the drip line and not close to the tree trunks.” That was good advice, and likely I should just expand on it.
All spruce (Picea) species are shallow-rooted hence they suffer quickly in a dry season, and even more so if the soil in which they grow is sandy thus losing its moisture more quickly. Also, as an example of their shallow roots, it is often noted in colder climates during the late fall (before the ground is solidly frozen) wind storms--many spruce trees will be partially uprooted and left sitting at a 30 degree angle.
Another factor that may be involved in Gladys’ spruce trees is the removal of lower branches. This is often done because the trees were planted (when they were small) without regard to just large they would be when nearing maturity and the home-owner finds it necessary to trim up the bottom branches in order to access a driveway, walkway etc. Removal of the lower branches is one of the worst things that can be done to a spruce because that exposes the mass of old needles beneath the tree, which for the sake of tidiness are neatly raked away. But what those who do this do not realize is that they are removing the natural mulch that keeps the roots cool. With the needle mulch gone, the roots dry out even faster! If lower branches have been removed it is almost necessary to install some sort of irrigation (even if just a common soaker hose covering the main root area--a 60 cm-wide ring just inside and just outside of the drip edge of the branches (as Donna mentioned). And, an additional applied mulch such a bark will certainly aid the cause as well.
But the best is not to ever remove any of the lower branches and be sure to leave the natural mulch of old needles in place!
Also this past Monday, Clifford Ellsom of Arthur Ontario (about 42 K north-west of Guelph) wrote: “As you know, a tree bought from a nursery will have a small patch of paint on the trunk. A friend is trying to convince me that it is there to signify in what direction it should be planted. He says that when the tree is dug out of the ground the paint is put on the north side and for a better chance of survival it should be planted the same way. Can you tell me if there is any truth to this?”
Well, that’s an interesting question, and even a more interesting response that Cliff had from his friend. Your friend is wrong, Cliff!
Those small patches of paint (usually circles in white in a vertical line) are the technique the growing nursery uses to size the tree. No doubt there are several ‘codes’ now, but I believe it all started with the late Joe Pokluda who was the Sheridan Nurseries manager at their Glen Williams nursery farms, a way back in the 60s. As I recall the technique was in use when I arrived there in September 1962. No doubt other nurseries use similar systems now. The idea is that the non-English-speaking labourers would not necessarily understand just exactly how to measure the calliper (diameter) of the trees. It had to be done at a precise height from the ground, and of course each tree even within a species likely grows at a different rate. So each late summer the management staff would go through the nursery and check the calliper and if it had increased into another size category, add another spot of paint. Quite novel and simple actually! While the location of the ‘dots’ might well always be on a certain ‘side’ of the tree, it had nothing to do with any one direction, or how the tree should be orientated once planted. In fact, the rule for that is to face the tree so that the most pleasing view of the tree should face whichever direction the home-owner likes best.
So, I don’t know if I have settled an argument, or made anybody any money or not, but that is how the ‘system’ evolved al-most half a century ago!
A day later on Tuesday, Judy Heffer from Clarksburg (zone 5a), responded to my original response to her in my column here of September 7, in which I said I needed more information. Here is what she said on Tuesday: “I wrote you a couple of weeks ago about my hydrangea that only had 1 bloom on it this year. It is a Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Alpengluhen’ and the blooms are quite beautiful--when it blooms. I had my yard landscaped in 2006 and that was when it was planted and I had lots of blooms last year. It is mulched with chip mulch and like I said in my previous email, the plants look really healthy--there are three of them. Any help would be appreciated.”
In my September 7th response I mentioned that it was “entirely possible that the flower buds were killed over the winter.” Now that you have told me the cultivar (‘Alpengluhen’--sometimes known as Glowing Embers in North America) I am more than certain that is your problem. ‘Alpengluhen’ does not produce flowers on new wood, thus if the flower buds are killed over the winter, it will not bloom the following summer. You would need cultivars such as H. m. ‘Endless Summer’ which does produce flowers on new wood.
Now, what if anything can you do to have your ‘Alpengluhen’ bloom? Unless you can be assured that the plant will be totally covered in snow throughout the winter, then you will have to cover it. Perhaps the best is to cover it with a bushel basket, maybe supported by stakes if the shrub is too high for the basket alone. Another method would be to surround it with three or four stakes and then wrap it in several layers of burlap or a product such as Texel’s Arbotex (still difficult to find though manufactured in Saint-Elzear-de-Beauce, Québec).