Making the Most of Mulch

Landscape Maintenance

Mulching has been favored by gardeners and landscapers alike for many years, as mulching adds a nice finishing touch to well-landscaped grounds and protects plants, trees, and shrubbery. Since mulch can affect the soil beneath the mulch, it must be applied properly to not damage the root system of your plants. We’ll discuss what to consider when adding mulch to your property so you can make sure your gardens, yard and landscaping look their best year-round.

What is mulch?

Mulch is the name used for a substance that’s put on top of soil to provide protection or add visual interest to an area. When you are deciding which mulch to use in your landscaping, remember, the best mulch is an organic material, that is, it’s a substance that already comes from nature. Common mulches are made of bark/wood chips, and moss. Mulch comes in a variety of colors, so you can choose one that best complements your property features and landscape design.

Why use mulch?

Mulch has been used to add an aesthetic, decorative touch to landscapes for decades. Mulching around plantings, shrubs and trees adds a dimension of shading under foliage as well as contrast under brightly colored flowers. But mulch serves much more than a decorative purpose.

Mulch can help deter weed growth among your plantings by not allowing sunlight to pass down to them. It will help the soil around your plantings retain moisture, which is always beneficial to their growth, especially in dry periods. Mulch traps water and slows evaporation from the surface of the soil, so plants stay hydrated longer, reducing the need for frequent watering. It can protect your plants during periods of heavy rain, as it will absorb water and protect the roots; mulch will also help minimize soil erosion around your plantings.

Mulch can also help protect your plant’s roots during periods of extreme heat, as it acts as an insulator. The use of mulch can reduce the occurrence of heat damage to both the base of your plants and the surrounding soil. It will also help your plants resist pest and plant disease; in fact, organic mulches provide earthworms and micro-organisms with food, which is great for your plants and your plant health.

During decomposition, organic mulches add beneficial nutrients back into the soil, enriching your soil for next year.

Apply mulch correctly

Once you’ve decided on the “what” (type and color) of the mulch you want to use on your property, you’ll want to focus on the “how” of spreading the mulch. Improperly spread mulch can not only be disruptive to the overall design of your yard, it can also be damaging to a garden or landscape. Mulch that’s applied too thickly can be damaging to a plant’s root system and may stop water from making its way down to the root of the plant, or not allow the area surrounding a plant to drain correctly after watering or a rainstorm.

Start your mulch application by cleaning out the areas where you want to apply mulch. Take out the weeds, sticks, leaves, etc. that have accumulated over the winter months, and water if necessary. Then start spreading the mulch; it’s best to lay down mulch in a depth of approximately 2 inches.

If you’re putting mulch down around plants, shrubbery, and trees, etc., make sure to keep the mulch around three inches away from the plant itself, to help with air circulation around the root of the plant. However, if you’re mulching a vegetable garden, you do want to mulch right up to the stalk of the plant, to help with water retention. Water the whole area after mulching.

At Stephens Landscaping, we have a lot of experience with using many kinds of mulch, and we’d love to discuss which kinds and colors of mulch are right for your landscape and garden. Call us at 603.707.0630 or reach out by email.

Spring is Almost Here!

Landscape Maintenance

Spring is the time of renewal, and that means for your landscapes and gardens, too! While the official start of spring begins in March, the actual start of spring feels like it begins a little later here in New England. We still have bits of snow and ice hanging around in spots, but signs of spring are certainly beginning to pop up everywhere. This transitional period is the perfect time to start preparing your green spaces and gardens for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. Here are a few tips to get started.

Walk Around and Take it In

Before you do anything else, walk around your property and see what needs to be done. Winter can be rough on a landscape, and a lot of damage can be hidden under piles of snow. You may discover holes in lawns from burrowing animals, damage from ice on walkways, broken tree branches and flattened shrubbery, and dead spots of lawn.

Start with a Clean Slate

Once you’ve seen what needs to be done to get your green spaces and gardens ready, the best place to start is with a good cleaning. Now’s the time to remove broken branches, leftover leaves, and the stuff that the wind picks up stuff from driveways, roads, and nearby properties.

Raking your lawn is the best way to clean up any dead leaves that fell during the winter or remain from the last fall clean up. Raking will also remove the bits of grass that did not survive the winter as well as the myriad of twigs and small branches that fell during the snow and ice storms we had this season.

Clean around your plant beds and in your garden area. It’s important to get these areas ready for planting, so once the threat of frost has passed, these areas will be ready to go.

Tidy up the Trees

Early spring is the best time to lightly prune your trees and shrubbery. Heavy winter snows and ice storms are damaging to trees and shrubs, so a light pruning helps to keep them in good shape.

By pruning early, you’re also giving your trees and shrubs a healthy start on new growth. It’s best to prune before any new growth starts, because in later spring and summer, the plant’s energy will be focused on flowering and growth. Shaping the plant will also be easier when there are no leaves to get in the way of your view.

Lawn Care

Your lawn may look a little sparse and brownish this time of year. If you have bare spots on your lawn, once the weather gets a bit warmer and your lawn gets a bit greener, it’s a good idea to have your lawn spot-seeded and fertilized. You can pull out any weeds you see, before they’ve really had a chance to start growing and before you’ve fertilized your lawn.

Don’t mow the lawn just yet, though, even though you may see a bit of winter growth. The lawn has been through a lot over the winter months, and you don’t want to cut it too short while it’s growing in the early spring or you may damage its root system. Wait until it’s well-established and warmer outside before you begin mowing.

If you didn’t aerate your lawn in the fall, you can do it in the spring before the real growing season starts. You should also fill in the holes in your lawn at this time, if you’ve found any.

Get the Whole Area Ready

Don’t forget about your hardscapes. Sweep up the patios and verandas, uncover or bring out the furniture, and clean out the planters.

Inspect your irrigation system. If it’s warm enough, turn it on to make sure that it works properly and that there are no leaks. If you find problems, call your irrigation company before they get busy for the season.

Plan Ahead

During the long winter, and especially while tending to your property during this late winter/early spring prep, you’ve most likely thought of some ideas on what you’d like to do with your property this year. Now’s the time collect all those ideas into a plan. Decide to plant a vegetable garden or find a new spot for your existing one to see if it’ll do better. Select new annuals or perennials to bring more color to your outdoor spaces.

Visit our Garden Center in Moultonborough to see what you may want to plant, or if there’s anything new to try out. Of course, you’ll want to wait until the chance of the last frost has passed before planting anything, but now’s the time to plan what you want to plant, and where. We’ve got an experienced and creative team on hand, so be sure to ask for help or see what they are doing for new ideas.

 

Deer-Resistant Plants for the Lakes Region

Landscape Maintenance

There aren’t any completely deer-proof plants. Deer eat almost anything when food is scarce, or their population is high. Like humans, deer have food preferences, even when they have many options to choose from. Depending on deer pressure, here is a selection of plants that we have found to be more and less susceptible to deer browse.

HIGHLY SUSCEPTIBLE TO DEER BROWSE

Deer love to graze on many types of groundcovers, especially the tender new growth in the spring. If you have deer on your property, we recommend avoiding the following plants as they are more prone to deer browsing and can be severely damaged:

  • Hosta
  • Arborvitae
  • Petunias
  • Euonymus
  • Some Rhododendrons
  • Evergreen Azaleas

Deer seem to prefer plants which have been fertilized over those which have not.

LESS SUSCEPTIBLE TO DEER BROWSE

Deer tend to avoid fragrant plants with strong scents or highly aromatic flowers, and plants which have leathery, fuzzy, hairy, or prickly foliage. In our experience, the following plants are rarely damaged by deer:

  • Spiraea
  • Potentilla
  • Nepeta (Catmint)
  • Achillea (Yarrow)
  • Salvia
  • Pachysandra
  • Perennial Grasses & Ferns
  • Daffodils
  • Leucothoe
  • Pieris (Andromeda)
  • Iris
  • Lambs Ear
  • Dusty Miller
  • Lavender
  • Allium (Ornamental Onion)
  • River Birch

GARDENING WITH DEER-RESISTANT PLANTS

While gardening can be challenging in areas with high deer pressure, there are a wide variety of plants with beautiful flowers and fragrant foliage that are less susceptible to deer browse also attract bees and butterflies.

Deer are especially hungry in the spring, so consider filling your spring garden with deer-resistant plants or aromatic perennial herbs. Even resistant plants are more vulnerable in the first few weeks after planting; to eliminate temptation consider a strong-smelling deer repellant or plan for additional fencing or barriers for protection.

If you’re experiencing problems with unwanted deer on your property or are looking to plan ahead before it becomes a problem, we recommend talking with our experienced staff. We’ll help you select the right plants for your landscape, plan for additional protection such as the use of fencing or recommend deer repellant products which are available at our Garden Center.

Spring Pruning Techniques & The Best Time To Prune Which Plants

Landscape Maintenance

Pruning can be intimidating based on the decision of when to prune, how much to prune, and the proper types of cuts to make. Proper pruning is important and provides these important benefits.

  • To maintain plant vigor.
  • Create and preserve a good branch or plant structure
  • Increase flower or fruit production on fruit trees.
  • Improve overall health and air flow.
  • Keeping the plant size to the space in which it is planted.

People often find themselves pruning shrubs or trees more often because they have been planted in a location where mature size was not taken into account. The excess growth can lead to encroaching on other plants, screen windows, or spill into the lawn spaces and walkways.

A common mistake is pruning a plant purely by its appearance rather than looking at its natural growth factors: size, width, shape, growth rate, and determining the best course of action from there. If possible, it’s important to start pruning plants when they’re young as it is easier to maintain a well pruned tree. It’s important to cut back conservatively and knowledgeably, otherwise the plant often ends up worse off than if you just left it alone.

The first step to starting with good pruning practice is to select a high-quality plant from a reputable garden center who has been pruning it correctly from the early stages. This will create good branch structure and a good balance that will eventually establish well. Starting with healthy plants that have “good bones” makes a huge difference.

Some Things to Consider Before You Prune

It is a known fact that more pruning in young, vibrant shrubs and trees increases the amount of new growth. This means that if you prune too often, it can make the situation worse or even require more attention than if you had just left it alone. With older trees that have lost a lot of their vigor, a good heavy renovation prune often stimulates new growth of the tree and helps produce more branches, flowers, or fruit. Just like mowing grass weekly, when pruning a shrub or tree it is recommended that no more than 1/3 of the height be taken off per year to avoid stress on the tree or shrub.

Timing your pruning also has a lot to do with the species that you are working on. There is a spring and early summer prune which will help take off a lot of the new flushed growth and prohibits a lot of new shoots. You should be careful on fall pruning of some items as this can stimulate new flushes of growth that can be damaged by early frosts and cold freezes.

For flowering type shrubs and trees, it’s important to determine if the species will flower on the new buds from the current season or the previous season’s growth. Knowing this will help you decide when it’s best to prune and reduce cutting off the new potential flowers. We have found that if you prune in the dormant season, and take off growth with buds that would have developed in the spring, it will help the plant flower more and develop a stronger branch structure. This also helps reduce the time that the open wound is susceptible to disease before active growth starts.

There is definitely a benefit to pruning shrubs and trees for the right reasons. It’s always good to take off any dead, diseased, or dying material at any point. This will reduce the stress on the plant, reduce the wounded area from insect and disease damage, and allow the wound to heal correctly. If you put thought and consideration into what you are trying to accomplish and what outcomes you hope to have, this will drive how you do your pruning, when you do it (depending on species), and will also help you decide if you really have the right plant for the area.

Proper Pruning Tools

  • Loppers: used for larger branches up to 1” in diameter.
  • Pole Pruner: used for different size branches that are further up in the canopy of the tree that cannot be reached from the ground or ladder. These have a lopper-type cutting ability as well as a heavily toothed saw that is used for larger branches.
  • Hedge Shears: used to shape smaller shrubs with very fine or thin branches.
  • By-Pass Pruners: this type of pruner has the blades slide by side like a pair of common scissors.
  • Anvil Pruners: this is a sharp blade that pushes down on a flat, small metal surface on the pruner to cut the branch.
  • Chainsaw: used for larger branches that cannot be cut by a pole saw or other method.

It is very important that you sanitize your tools before you start pruning anything. A simple 10% bleach and 90% water solution is the easiest way. It is recommended that you do this between each type of plant and cut that is being made to reduce the chance of spreading a disease. Although it is not common to spread disease through pruning, there is some risk, and sanitizing your tools will reduce that risk greatly. It’s also a good idea to always start with your known healthy plants and then finish pruning any plants or shrubs in question.

When you start to prune your plants, you need to consider what the mature look of the plant is and make your pruning cuts accordingly. The type of cut and where it is made will have a big impact on how the wound heals, along with how the new branch structure will grow out and effect the health of the plant in the future. It is said that most species of shrubs and trees will respond to the cut similarly as long as it is done the right way.

Different Types of Pruning Cuts

There are several different types of cuts that can be made during the pruning process depending on what the condition of the plant is, what you are trying to accomplish, and the species of the plant as well:

  • Heading Cuts: this is when the new growing part of the branch is taken off, which then stimulates the lower buds to push out a vigorous flush of new growth. This method is often used when you want to create a dense type of growth like shaping a small shrub, hedge, or tree. If you are using this method only to keep the plant size down, you have the wrong plant for that location.
  • Pinching: this method is used by taking off only the new growth on the stem or branch, which then pushes out new growth from the buds below that to develop into branches. The more often this is done, the denser the branch structure will become as the plant grows. For example, we see this type of practice a lot in the growing of annual plants or fall mums that have 3-4 pinches in a 6 month period to shape and build out the density and fullness of the plant.
  • Thinning Cuts: these types of cuts are taking off more than the small new growth at the tip. It is cutting back down to the first or another lateral branch which then will put energy back into the growth of that lateral branch rather than pushing out new growth at the pruned location. This method is often used to help open up air flow inside the canopy of a tree, cut crossing branches out, and decrease the height.
  • Removal Cuts: this is one of the heavier cuts made which results in taking the branch right back to the main stem or trunk of a large tree. It can be utilized when trying to limb a tree up from the ground.

Branch Collar and Branch Bark Ridge

When making cuts during pruning, it is very important that each cut is done with the correct angle as trees and shrubs do not have the ability to heal “tissue”. Instead, they create a barrier of cells to reduce the damage of the wound. The cut angle is easy to establish once you are able to identify the key features on the branch. These features are the “branch collar” and “branch bark ridge”.

  • Branch Collar is the swollen area that is found right where the branch and trunk tissue connect at the start of growth.
  • Branch Bark Ridge is the area of the branch in which there is raised bark that the branch and stem meet at. This area is crucial to the health of a tree because the “woundwood” is located inside this area, which has cells that help form tissue to protect the tree from decay after cuts are made.

When you start to prune, the cut needs to be right above the branch collar and at the same angle as the branch bark ridge. If you cut below or your cuts are flat, this reduces the amount of woundwood and the trees ability to fully heal the wound, which then opens the tree up for decay and insects.

If you are worried about doing this process, you can always start out on a small shrub or tree in an inconspicuous location, take a photo of the area you are about to prune, and make the proper cut. Then, in a few months, return to that same shrub or tree and see how your pruned area has developed based upon your pruning technique. Start small until you are comfortable and confident in what you are doing. There are many books, online articles, and resources to refer to in making the right decisions on timing and techniques. And, as always, our experienced staff at Stephens Landscaping Professionals is here if you want your pruning expertly taken care of.

Prepping Your Lake House Lawn for Summer

Landscape Maintenance

Mid to late April is the perfect time in the Lakes Region to begin prepping your lake house lawn for spring.  During the summer months, lakefront lawns take a lot of abuse, especially during busy holiday weekends, like the 4th of July.  In addition to increasing temperatures, lawns can suffer due to drought, lack of nutrients and increased foot traffic.  Beginning your lawn preparation in the early spring when the weather and ground conditions allow it is essential to making sure your lawn is prepared for the rigors of summer at the lake.

Spring Clean-up of Your Lake Winnipesaukee Lawn

  • A thorough spring clean-up of your entire property is the first step in preparing your lawn.  This includes picking up any sticks, branches and leaves that may have been missed during the fall-clean up.  It is very important that the entire property be cleaned and a buffer be created between your manicured landscape and any woodland area.  Unkept, less manicured areas are more likely to harbor pests and insects that can be harmful to your landscape.
  • Scout your entire property for any bugs, insects or pests that can pose a threat to your lawn.  This includes visible mole, vole or chipmunk damage.  If you encounter any of these threats, it is best to contact a professional.
  • Prune trees and shrubs that were not part of your fall or winter pruning schedule.  Unkept trees and shrubs can shade out turf areas or lead to future debris that can be harmful to your turf.  If you are unsure of the pruning requirements or timing of certain trees or shrubs, there are plenty of resources available to you, or you can hire a professional.
  • Perform a soil test.  Knowing your soil pH and macro and micro nutrient levels will help you to determine exactly what your lawn needs.

Lawn Care for Your Lake Winnipesaukee Lawn

  • Repairing winter damage with a good loam and compost soil mix and a grass seed mix of Fescues and Kentucky Blue Grass is an important step to getting your lawn on its way to mid-summer form.  It is important that you wait until the ground is warm enough to support the seed, but before consistent hot weather arrives.  The month of May is usually a safe bet in New Hampshire.
  • Dethatch your lawn to remove dead grass roots and stems to ensure that nutrients, water and sunlight can penetrate the soil.  If your lawn was installed late in the previous season it is likely that it is too tender for this service and it should be delayed for at least another season.
  • Aeration is typically performed in the fall, but if you notice dead spots or water logged spots, where compaction may be the cause, aeration is a great way to break up the soil and prepare it for seed.
  • Mulch garden beds to help suppress weeds.  Open soil areas are hotspots for weeds that can easily spread into your lawn area.
  • Put down a good pre-emergent to slow the growth of crab grass and weeds.  It is important to do this as early in the spring as possible before crabgrass and weeds are present.  If you are going to try and grow new grass it is important that you time this properly.
  • Get a regularly scheduled fertilization plan.   It is important to remember the 25′ setback line when applying fertilizer around the lake.  A green lawn is important, but not as important to the value of your property as clear, clean water.
  • Making sure your lawn is properly hydrated, mowed at the proper height and routinely fertilized are the best ways to make sure that your lawn is healthy and free of weeds.

Lawn Irrigation For Your Lake Winnipesaukee Lawn

  • Start and test your irrigation system once your lawn is dry.  Make sure that all your sprinkler heads are operating properly with the correct coverage and watering schedule for early season watering.  If you do not have a smart irrigation controller, and mother nature is providing plenty of April showers, you should leave your irrigation controller in the off position until supplemental water is needed.  Your irrigation schedule will need to be adjusted throughout the summer season to meet current watering demands.
  • Most lakefront landscapes use a shallow well pump or a jet pump to draw water off of the lake.  It is important to make sure that your suction line is equipped with a micron filter.  When drawing off of the lake, the chances of pulling in debris that can clog the pump, valves and sprinkler heads is likely.
  • Sign up for an irrigation plan that includes ongoing monitoring.  Two check-ups during the summer should be sufficient.  This is important because watering needs change, landscapes change and maintenance to the system may be required.

Be Sure to Consider Time and Budget

As with anything, when determining your landscape maintenance needs, you must consider the time and budget that you have available.  For many second homeowners the benefit of hiring a landscape contractor to perform maintenance services outweighs the financial investment and the time spent doing it themselves.  This is because time at the lake is precious and many homeowners prefer to spend this time relaxing, enjoying water sports, and with family.  It is important that any service agreement for maintenance services be detailed and that there is a clear expectation for work to be performed.