Archive for March, 2014

Robins in a peach tree trying to figure out where spring went

Robins perch in one of our peach trees trying to figure out where spring went!

Daffodil foliage pokes out of the snow.

Daffodils poke out of the snow.

What happened to spring?

The day before yesterday was a beautiful, sunny, 63o day and then less than 24 hours later, the temperature tumbled and it started snowing! This morning we were buried in over 6” of snow! CRAZY! I guess winter wasn’t quite done with us yet.

Actually the precipitation started out as rain but quickly changed over to a heavy, wet snow as the temperature continued to fall throughout the afternoon. The snow came down fast and furious and it wasn’t long before the trees and shrubs were covered. It basically stuck and froze to the wet branches. By morning, the evergreens were bending low under the weight of the heavy snow that was frozen fast to their foliage and branches.

Small American holly bent under the weight of snow

Small American holly completely
bent over under the weight of snow

The poor hollies and azaleas in front of our house were quite splayed out under their burden of snow and a young American holly tree growing along the driveway was bent over all the way to the ground. I’m sure these will all spring back up once the snow melts later this week but it was sad to see them in such a state! In situations like this, where a combination of snow and ice has accumulated on your trees and shrubs, it is important to let them melt off naturally. You risk doing much more damage by trying to knock the snow and ice off.

Don’t be tempted!

China Girl holly buried and flattened by the heavy snow

This China Girl holly flattened by the heavy snow should spring back up.

Helleborus covered with snow. These too will pop back up once the snow melts.

These helleborus will pop back up once the snow melts.

Asparagus bed covered with a blanket of snow.

Asparagus bed – buried!

In anticipation of the coming snowfall, I went out to the vegetable garden and cut back the old stems of the asparagus and fertilized it with Espoma Garden-tone. I also mulched the entire bed with some nice composted leaves. Now as the snow melts, it will carry some good nutrients down to the roots.

We also did some other garden maintenance while the ground was still fairly dry – probably things we should have done last fall but …

Trellises ready and waiting!

Trellises are ready and waiting!

Eric pulled up the tomato and cucumber trellises and stacked them against the pea fence for later while I pulled up last year’s pepper and eggplant stalks and did some weeding. I can’t believe that the chickweed and henbit are already in flower! Yikes! I got them all grubbed out and raked up along with some of the other old garden debris.

Everything was looking pretty good and now it’s all buried under snow.

HA! Poor man’s fertilizer!

It seems that spring is on hold for a few days. It will be back soon enough, though. Don’t you worry! Perhaps this is old man winter’s last hurrah!

Time will tell …

Until next time – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The woods were beautiful!

The woods were beautiful!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty's Day!

The dogwood buds wore hats of snow for St. Patty’s Day!

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Orchard mason bee nests in bamboo tubes

Who are they?

Blue orchard bee

Blue orchard bee

They are great little native bees called orchard mason bees or blue orchard bees (Osmia lignaria) and they are one of the most prolific pollinators of early spring flowers. These bees, which are native to the US, are solitary bees. They don’t have a complex social system or live in hives like the European honeybees. They are loners that keep to themselves and do not interact with other bees except when they mate.

Everything about these mason bees, including their life cycle and their nesting habits are very similar to the two other solitary bee species I have written about; ground bees and carpenter bees.

The major difference is that mason bees do not excavate their own nesting cavities. While the carpenter bees chew perfectly round nesting tunnels in wood and ground bees excavate nesting sites in the ground, mason bees make use of pre-existing holes and cavities. They will use holes left behind by wood boring insects, holes drilled by woodpeckers, and sometimes they make their nests in hollow stems.

Nesting tubes plugged with dried mud

Nesting tubes plugged with dried mud.
Note the old nest with the broken plug.

Orchard mason bees emerge from their nests in the early spring. Male bees emerge first because the eggs that are destined to become males are laid in the front part of the tube and the eggs that will become females are laid towards the back. When the female mason bees emerge, they mate and then hunt around for a suitable nesting site. Once they find a good place, they collect pollen and nectar from nearby spring flowers and deposit it in the back of the nesting hole. When a sufficient quantity of pollen and nectar has been collected, a single egg is laid on the pollen ball and a plug of mud (this is where they get the name mason bee) is used to partition off the cell. This continues until the tunnel is filled with separate cells of pollen balls and eggs. The hole is then sealed with a final plug of mud.

When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the pollen ball over the summer months and then eventually pupate. The adult bees develop in the pupal case but remain dormant in their individual cells through the winter. They emerge from the nest when the weather warms in the spring.

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

Like many species of solitary bees, mason bees are very docile and not prone to aggressiveness. The males do not possess a stinger so they can’t sting and the females will only sting if they are handled roughly or really provoked. Thus, they are wonderful bees to have around in the garden.

Since mason bees are such great pollinators, many gardeners and home orchardists will place artificial mason bee houses around their gardens or fruit trees in order to encourage them to nest there. This can help ensure good pollination of spring blooming trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Several years ago, my sister gave us a very attractive mason bee house which we placed on a post in our little orchard. Every year most of the tubes are occupied by mason bees. Yay for us!

Grass plugs made by a grass-carrying wasp

Grass plugs made by a grass-carrying
wasp fill two tubes.

When I was up in the orchard a few days ago, I noticed that there were several nests of woven grass in some of the tubes of our mason bee house and I was curious about who had built them. I didn’t think that mason bees ever used grass to plug their nest holes. It turns out that a solitary wasp called a grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia sp.) sometimes makes nests in mason bee houses. These wasps line their nests with grass and provision them with crickets or katydids for the developing larvae to feed on rather than making pollen balls as the mason bees do. Interesting!

Homemade mason bee house.

Homemade mason bee house.

Now is a great time to put up some mason bee houses in your garden or orchard. These perky little pollinators will be emerging soon and they might just stick around to pollinate your early spring flowers if they find a vacant “hotel” nearby!

You can even make your own by drilling 5/16″ holes on 3/4″ centers in a block of untreated wood. The holes should be drilled at least 4″ deep depending on the depth of your block of wood. Just make sure you don’t drill all the way through the block – leave about 1/2″ of wood at the back.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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beech leaves in winter

American beech retains leaves through most of winter.

American beech retains leaves
through most of winter.

Last November, I wrote about why the leaves of deciduous trees drop in the fall. Now as I survey the trees in our woods and around the yard, I am reminded that a few deciduous trees hang on to some or all of their leaves through the winter. Our little Japanese maple and many of the oaks in our woods still retain a lot of their dried up brown leaves. In Vermont, I notice this with the beech trees that are scattered through the woods at my mom’s. This got me thinking about why these trees, oaks and beeches in particular, keep their leaves through the winter.

Marcescence is the term used to describe the retention of dead leaves on deciduous trees through the winter. Certain tree species show this characteristic more commonly; oaks, beeches, hornbeam, and witch hazel.

Why do these trees hold onto their leaves?

Mature oaks usually retain leaves only on their lower branches.

Most oaks usually retain at least some
of their leaves through winter.

The answer is – no one really knows for sure. There has been much speculation and several theories have been put forth but still nothing has been established definitively. It may well be a combination of reasons.

I was always taught that leaf retention in winter was a sign of juvenility and in fact, it is the younger trees and the lower branches of mature trees that consistently hold onto their leaves.

One theory holds that because these younger trees (and lower branches of older trees) are essentially growing in the shadows of the taller trees, they hold their leaves longer in the fall so they can take advantage of the increased sunlight they receive after the leaves of the mature overstory trees drop off. This allows them to continue to photosynthesize through much of the fall and thus produce more food for the tree. Because these leaves continue to function physiologically later into the fall, the abscission layer that normally forms between the leaf and the twig (causing the leaf to fall off) may not develop completely before the onset of freezing temperatures. Therefore, the dead leaves persist on the trees until the swelling buds in spring pop them off.

A young oak hangs on to most of its leaves through winter.

A young oak hangs on to most of
its leaves through winter.

Another theory related to juvenility is that the leaves of these young trees are retained over winter to provide the tree with a nutrient source in the spring when the leaves eventually drop off. According to this theory, leaves that drop in the fall breakdown and release nutrients which may leach out of the ground before the following growing season. I don’t like this theory as well because leaves (especially whole leaves) don’t breakdown very quickly; it can take 6 months or longer for most leaves. This, combined with the fact that the leaves of oak and beech trees (trees that most commonly show marcescence) are some of the slowest to breakdown, makes me question this idea.

Still another hypothesis is that these withered, tough, dry leaves provide protection for the young buds beneath them. Protection from what, you ask?

Leaves may provide protection for the new buds.

Marcescent leaves may provide
protection for the new buds.

Marcescent leaves may provide the dormant buds protection from bitter winds and cold temperatures of winter or a more popular idea is that they protect the nutritious young buds from hungry herbivores like deer and moose. The dry leaves may be unpalatable enough to deter these large browsers from chewing off the tips of lower branches. Perhaps that’s why it’s the lower branches and younger trees that most commonly exhibit marcescence! I wish my fruit trees had marcescent leaves to protect their buds. Walking through our orchard last weekend, I noticed a lot of deer browse especially on the apple trees. Bummer!

My favorite explanation of all comes from a beautiful story, perhaps from Native American lore. You can read it for yourself. I think it’s the best!

A tufted titmouse enjoys a sunflower seed in the shelter of oak leaves

A tufted titmouse perches in the
shelter of oak leaves

Regardless of WHY these leaves persist on the trees, I for one enjoy seeing them throughout the woods in winter – especially the light tan leaves of the young beech trees. They really brighten up the winter landscape and their rustling breaks the stillness of the woods.

The birds enjoy them, too. It provides them with shelter from the winter winds and gives them a place to hide while they peck at sunflower seeds from our feeders!

Until next time –
Happy Gardening!

Special thanks to Scott Welsh for the 2 Vermont photos!

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