A Bit of Dirt – Winter 2010

The full pdf copy of this edition is available here.


Welcome to the start of a new gardening year. The drought has been declared over, and if your garden is like mine, all plants have suffered: perennials, annuals, trees, shrubs, and turf.

Gardening has not changed in its basic philosophy but has been changed through the new hybridization of plants and scientific research. As Master Gardeners, we benefit from the efforts of these dedicated horticulturalists.

Master Gardeners are the volunteer arm of the extension office. Last year in 2008, we, as a group, volunteered 10,302 hours, delivered to the community 2337 various programs, and answered almost 8500 questions. You can give yourselves a “pat on the back” for these efforts. I am sure that once the forms have been filled out, 2009 will be even more successful.

When you volunteer for duty at the Extension Office Master Gardener’s desk, you’ll be answering the phone and emails or doing some necessary clerical chores.

When the phone rings, you’ll probably hear something to the effect “I have a problem, can you help me?” Simple questions can be answered  directly; however, more complex problems require some research.

Get their name and telephone number and tell them you’ll call them back. Before you hang up, you need to get some information. The Master Gardener’s file has a sheet with questions that you should ask the client. Some of the questions involve watering frequency, fertilization schedule, insecticide and herbicide use, and many other pertinent questions. The answer to these questions will help in resolving the problem. When all else fails, ask Marlene!

Other articles in this issue:
Caring for Your Rose Bushes in Winter – By Andy Crossland, ACMG
Bonsai, An Ancient Art – By Steve Pettis
Feeding Birds In The Winter – By Dan Willis
Preserving Fall Leaves – By Dan Willis

Preserving Fall Leaves

The other day, Martha Stewart and I were chatting in the Master Gardener’s office when we were interrupted by a telephone call from a lady asking how to preserve fall leaves. Weren’t we lucky to have the queen of crafts, food and entertaining, weddings, pets, home and garden, and the latest in prison fashion? Here is what the queen bee teaches.

Glycerin Preservation:
By preserving autumn leaves with glycerin, you can create a wreath that will last for months without drying out. The method will also work with green spring and summer leaves. Some leaves don’t take well to the glycerin method, so experiment. For best results, always cut the branches in the cool of the evening and never use leaves that have been through a frost.

Tools and Materials:

  • Pruning clippers or handsaw
  • Hammer
  • Deep bucket
  • pH testing kit (lemons and powdered lime required)
  • Glycerin (available at drugstores, craft stores, and some hardware stores)
  • Surfactant, such as Spreader Sticker (found in garden centers)
  • Florist’s wire; wreath form

Preservation Method:
Select a dozen or so small but leaf-heavy branches from trees at their peak of color. For best results, cut branches at night. Use ones that have not weathered a frost this season; the process will not work on leaves that have seen a frost. Keep in mind that glycerin will change the leaves’ colors. Yellows respond best, becoming more intense; reds and oranges turn a ruddy brown; green magnolia leaves take on a chestnut color but retain their glossy veneer.

  1. Cut branches from trees with pruning clippers or a handsaw. Pound the end of each branch with a hammer to expose is vascular system.
  2. Fill a deep bucket with a half-gallon of boiling water (Glycerin, an oil, will dissolve in boiling water only). Test the water pH with a testing kit to make sure it has a pH between 3 and 4. (If pH is too high, add citric acid – lemon juice. If too low, add powdered lime.)
  3. Add 17 ounces (2 cups plus 2 tablespoons) of glycerin and 4 to 5 drops of surfactant to the water. (The surfactant breaks down the glycerin molecules into smaller ones, enabling the branches to absorb glycerin more easily.)
  4. Stand the branches in the bucket; place them out of sunlight while the branches and leaves draw up glycerin. After 3 to 5 days, leaves will feel supple. Magnolia branches may take 3 to 6 weeks to absorb glycerin.
  5. Pick leaves from branches and with florist’s wire bind into small bunches. Position a bunch on a wreath form and bind with wire to hold in place. Wire a second bunch so that leaves overlap wired stems. Continue until circle is complete.

Did I mess that up! So sorry! I mistook Kathy Parent for the queen bee, Martha Stewart.

Alternate Glycerin Method:
The glycerin and water method is generally used to preserve coarser leaves, such as magnolia, rhododendron, beech, holly, heather, or Japanese maple.

Pour the glycerin and water solution (one part glycerin and two parts water) into a flat pan. You will only need about a cup or enough to cover the leaves. Place the leaves in the pan and put a weight on the leaves to keep them submerged (place the leaves between two paper plates and submerge both; place weight on paper plates). Keep the leaves submerged in the solution for 2-6 days. Dry the leaves gently with a paper towel. They should feel soft and pliable.

Wax Paper Pressing Method:
Take the leaves and place them between two paper towels. Dry one side of the leaves by ironing them for 10 minutes on medium heat without steam (move iron continuously). Then turn the leaves over and using a fresh paper towel, repeat process for about 5 minutes.

Take the dried leaves and place them between two sheets of waxed paper, waxy side against the leaves. Add another sheet of waxed paper to protect the iron and press them again for a minute or so, until the leaves are coated with wax.

Peel off the waxed paper and see how well the leaves have become preserved.

Arrange the leaves on top of two paper towels. Lay another towel over the leaves to cover them. Microwave the leaves
for 30 to 180 seconds. Be very attentive and careful. Leaves that are cooked in the microwave too long can catch fire.

The drier the leaves, the less time they will need. Leaves that curl after removal from the microwave have not been in
long enough. Leaves that are scorched have been in there too long. Only dry them for a few seconds at a time. Let the
leaves sit for a day or two and then finish by spraying an acrylic sealant on both sides of the leaves.

Feeding Birds In The Winter

I feed birds year round but I’m sure some “experts” will disagree with this practice. Providing food and water attracts a variety of birds that delight me with their presence, particularly in the winter. Remember that you will be taking on the
responsibility for feeding these birds throughout the winter and early spring. They will come to depend on you since their natural food supply is limited.

There are many different types of feeders on the market. Plastic, steel, or glass feeders are best since they are easy to clean. Feeders with porous surfaces, such as wood or clay, can be difficult to clean and can grow algae and fungi that may be harmful to some birds. Diseases such as salmonella can spread at feeders, especially where seeds and droppings mix. Ground-feeding birds, such as doves and finches, are especially vulnerable. To reduce the risk of disease, clean your  feeders at least once a year with a 10 percent bleach solution – one part bleach to nine parts water. Small feeders are
desirable since they empty out quickly and reduce the chance of wet, spoiled seeds.

Do not leave your cat outside even it has a bell on its collar. There are about 100 million domestic and feral cats in North America, and these kill about several hundred million birds each year. Cats kill about 30 percent of birds found dead at feeders. Cats are such stealthy hunters that they can stalk and pounce on prey without jingling the bell on their collar. By keeping your cat indoors, you’ll not only protect birds but also keep the cat safe from disease, traffic, and fights with neighborhood pets and wildlife.

Unless you love squirrels, avoid hanging feeders from trees and eaves. Place them on isolated poles at least five feet off the ground and as far as possible from your house and nearby trees and tall shrubs. Keep in mind that squirrels can leap as far as six feet. Attach to the feeder pole either an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or a PVC pipe or stovepipe that’s 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each

Water is also needed for drinking and bathing. I am fortunate in that I have both a pond and a creek that seldom freeze over. I do, however, have one birdbath and it is located away from the feeders to keep the water clean. Rinse the birdbath daily and clean it weekly with a 5-10% solution of chlorine bleach. In the winter, never add antifreeze or other chemicals to the water.

Feed the birds more often at times of high stress, such as during temperature extremes, nesting season, and migration. Definitely feed in late winter and early spring when natural seed sources are depleted.

Birds are attracted to feeders that they feel are safe. Make sure that there is cover nearby to which birds can escape from predators, like my neighbor’s cat. Place ground-level feeders in open areas so that predators cannot sneak up on  unsuspecting birds.

Different birds have preferences as to what level they like their food served. Mourning doves, sparrows, towhees, and juncos like to feed at ground level. Cardinals, finches, and jays prefer table level feeders; whereas titmice, goldfinches, and chickadees prefer hanging feeders. Of course, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens prefer tree trunk feeders.

Bird feeding does not necessarily give instant gratification so be patient. When a feeder is first placed outdoors, it may take several weeks before the birds discover it. Depending on the type of seeds you offer, the number of birds at the feeder may increase or decrease. To maximize the number of species that visit your feeders, offer a variety of food and offer it at different heights.

The following is a selection of seeds that attract a wide variety of birds. I store all my seeds in roof ratproof metal containers in the garage.

Black oil sunflower seeds: These seeds are the steak and potatoes of the bird world. Don’t get the grey-and-white sunflower seeds sold as people food. Black sunflower seeds are higher in oil content, softer shelled, and cheaper. These seeds attract cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, goldfinches, finches, chickadees, and titmice. Use very sturdy, hanging feeders. Squirrels and raccoons like to visit this type of feeder.

Niger: Niger (PC spelling: Nyger, Nijer, Nyjer) has replaced thistle as the most popular seeds to feed goldfinches. Niger is a black seed that is very tiny and light but very expensive. Buy a hanging tube with tiny holes especially designed for Niger (I found mine in Kroger’s). I hang mine where I can see it from inside my house.

Safflower seeds: Safflower is a white seed that is slightly smaller than the black sunflower seed. It is extremely bitter and squirrels don’t like it. Neither do grackles, blue jays, or starlings. Chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers eat it with abandon.

White millet: Millet is the cheapest seed around and is available at many stores. Scatter it on the ground for sparrows, juncos, and mourning doves. This will also attract squirrels and raccoons.

Cracked corn: Place it in a feeder away from your regular birdfeeder. It will lure away squirrels, sparrows, blackbirds, jays, and doves. Placed on the ground, it will also attract deer, turkeys, and, if your lucky, a few reindeer at Christmas.

Good seed mix: In general, it will have a large amount of sunflower seed, cracked corn, white millet, and perhaps some  peanut hearts. Junk mixes contain wheat, red millet, dyed canary seed, and lots of filler. It is not a bargain. Buy seeds from  specialty bird stores or hardware/feed stores.

Suet: Birds love suet. It is solid fat rendered from beef or venison. Birds need this concentrated energy source in the  winter. Always hang suet cakes so as to not attract mammals. Although suet can be placed in plastic mesh bags that are used for onions, the method can be harmful to small birds if the mesh tears and they can become tangled in the mesh. There is no evidence that suet puddings are more attractive to birds than chunks of suet.

Homemade suet pudding: Making “suet pudding” can be an indoor project for all ages. When working with children, make sure an adult supervises the project so no one gets burnt. You will need the following supplies:

  • Small bowl
  • Selection of birdseed, nuts and fruit, bread
  • Bacon fat, lard or shortening
  • Small saucepan
  • Small plastic container (a sandwich container is ideal)

Fill a small bowl with birdseed, nuts, small chucks of apples, cranberries, bread and anything else you think birds might enjoy. Mix everything together. Transfer to a small plastic container. Here is where an adult comes in handy. Melt about ½ c. of fat or shortening in saucepan and pour over mixture in the small plastic container. Leave it in a cool place to set and hardened. When the fat has hardened, carefully pull it out of the plastic container. Your “suet pudding” is ready to sit in a suet basket, on a feeder tray or table.

Peanut butter blends: Combine a mixture of peanut butter and cornmeal. This not only stretches the expensive peanut butter but also makes this sticky treat easier for the birds to swallow. Pack peanut butter-cornmeal blends and/or suet puddings into the crevices of large pinecones or into one-inch-diameter holes drilled into logs. Hang the pinecones or logs from poles near other feeders, from trees, or from a wire stretched between trees. Avoid feeding suet pudding or peanut butter blends when temperatures climb into the 80-degree range; it turns rancid and drippy and may damage feathers.
Pine Cone/Sweet Gum Ball Bird Feeder: You’ll need wax paper, pinecone or sweet gum balls, wire, peanut butter, butter knife, and birdseed.

Spread the peanut butter inside the openings all around the center and bottom of the cone or ball and fill up the spaces. Spread birdseed of your choice on the wax paper. Take the cone or ball and roll it in the birdseed so that the seeds stick to the peanut butter all around the outside. You may also want to sprinkle seeds inside any openings.

Measure your wire to hang down from a branch of a tree or bush so that it is far enough from the branch to keep any squirrels from eating your feeder. Tie your wire to the top of the pinecone or sweet gum ball and then to the tree branch. Watch and record who comes to visit your cone feeder this winter.

Blackbirds, starlings Cracked corn, millet, wheat, table scraps, baked goods, suet Juncos, towhees Millet, sunflower, cracked corn, peanuts, baked goods, nutmeats
Blue jays Peanuts, sunflower seeds, suet, meat scraps, cracked corn, baked goods Mockingbirds, catbirds, Thrashers Apple halves, chopped fruits, baked goods, suet, nutmeats, millet, soaked raisins, sunflower hearts
Cardinals, grosbeaks Sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, fruit Nuthatches Suet, sunflower seed, peanut kernels, peanut butter
Cedar waxwings Berries, chopped fruits, canned peas, soaked raisins Robins, thrushes, bluebirds Suet, berries, baked goods, chopped fruits, soaked raisin, nutmeats, sunflower seeds
Chickadees, titmice Peanut kernels, sunflower, suet, peanut butter Sparrows Millet, sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, baked goods
Doves Millet, cracked corn, wheat, niger, sunflower, baked goods Woodpeckers Suet, meat scraps, sunflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, fruits
Finches Thistle, sunflower hearts, black oil sunflower seed, millet, canary seed, fruits, peanut kernels, suet Wrens Suet, peanut butter, peanut kernels, bread, fruit, millet

Caring for Your Rose Bushes in Winter

By Andy Crossland, ACMG

You have pruned, fertilized, watered, sprayed, and weeded since spring. Your efforts have been rewarded with blossoms that no artist can do justice. Most gardeners “do not go easily into that dark night” of winter but try to prolong the growing season. Do your neighbors look out the window to see what that “crazy gardener next door” is doing in the yard covering the plants on the first few nights that frost is predicted?

Eventually we all give in to the futility of trying to keep winter at bay. We need a rest, and so do our roses. If we do not want to treat our roses as annuals, we have some work to do before we settle down with the catalogs that bring dreams of next year’s triumphs.

Just as we deadhead to prevent the rose from setting hips (seeds) we can now send a message to the plant that its job has been accomplished for this year. The seeds necessary to insure a future generation of this plant are in the hips. The plant can now concentrate on storing energy to survive the winter, and come back in an even grander fashion than this year. There can be no set date to stop cutting the roses off. You must take into account the microclimate and your own variation of the growing season. Generally stop cutting roses off your plants 6 weeks before first frost is expected. Decrease water as the plants go dormant.

Cleanliness is next to …
When the roses have gone dormant, clean up all the debris. This includes leaves, mulch, and pruning clippings. All of these may provide a place for insects and diseases to winter over. Do not use this debris for compost that will be used on your roses next year.

Winter pruning . . .
Do you have to prune your roses for winter? This again will be an educated call on your part. If your roses are exposed to areas of high wind with no protection, you may want to prune them to prevent the wind from rocking the plant, thus damaging the roots. Some roses bloom on last year’s canes. If you prune them off, there will be no roses next year. There are many books on roses and pruning. The library and your local nursery are  good places to start. Call the local Extension office and ask a Master Gardener for help. Join a local rose society. The American Rose Society has a monthly magazine that is included in their membership fee.

Mulching for winter . . .
Most people think that you winter mulch roses to keep them warm. The graft union does need some protection, but keeping the rose dormant is the best benefit of winter mulching. Let the ground freeze before you mulch, as this helps keep moles, and mice from tunneling into your mulch and setting up housekeeping for the winter. They will appreciate the rose bark you have provided for their culinary pleasure, but you won’t like girdled stems that either stunt or kill your roses.

Cones, Collars, or the Minnesota Tip . . .
There are as many ways to protect your plants for the winter, as there are gardeners. You can do nothing. You might get lucky. Dirt covered with
straw, either with a chicken wire support or not is a relatively inexpensive way to go. There are Rose domes of Styrofoam, or pressed paper. Some
people take cuttings that are rooted from their plants into a green house as insurance for winter survival. In extreme situations you can use the Minnesota Tip. Developed in Minnesota by a man who was tired of losing his roses every year, the Minnesota Tip involves trenching the rose plant into the ground by loosening 1/2 the roots and laying the plant into the trench. The plant is covered with straw and soil. This is also used for tree roses that are too tall to mulch. When danger of a killing frost is past, stand the plant back up. Use the same techniques that you used in the first place.

Hardiness . . .
Most species roses tend to be hardy. Roses grown on their own roots instead of grafted to a root tend to be hardier. Roses grown in local nurseries are a pretty good bet too. See what your neighbors are growing. Ask a Gwinnett Extension Agent or rose-loving Master Gardner. Grafted roses from your local nursery are usually proven roses for your area. Most mail order roses are guaranteed. If you’re not sure, ask them before you buy.