Don’t you just love a Christmas Tree bargain?

Bargain Christmas Trees from Lowes. Image ©
Here in the US some people buy their Christmas trees a month before the holiday, as soon as they’ve recovered from Thanksgiving. Some wait until Christmas Eve. We went out for ours yesterday afternoon – and the timing was perfect.

We passed the local store - “Christmas Trees from $19.95” - and carried on to Lowe's (For Brits: Like a supersized B&Q) because we needed some bungees to tie the tree to the roof of the car. When we got to Lowes we were greeted by a “30% off Christmas Trees” sign. “OK,” we said, “let’s take a look.”

There were plenty of trees left, a range of species, and the quality was pretty good. And the prices… We picked out a 6ft/1.8m Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) - $5.97 (£3.84). Then we thought: Perhaps we could have a tree by the front door too? 5ft/1.5m Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) - $3.97 (£2.55). And then we thought: Why not have one on the back porch as well?! 5ft/1.5m Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) - $2.97 (£1.91). Yes, you read right. And these were originally $30-$40 (c£20-25) trees!

The very friendly and helpful woman who netted the trees for us explained that the manager of the store had yesterday decided to slash the prices of the remaining trees.

Then at the checkout, two more happy surprises: Not only were there free plastic sheets and twine to help us get our trees well secured to the car. -- We still got the 30% discount! So, with sales tax, we got three trees, about 16ft/4.8m of tree in all, for $9.58. For Brits that’s £6.17. Don’t you just love a bargain?

But here’s the thing. Not only is this a great deal, but the staff were so friendly and helpful. And we were told that store manager, Evan Yanik, is full of great ideas that help the store by helping the customer. Makes you want to go back, doesn’t it. And you should have seen the poinsettias…

I just hope we have enough lights for three trees. Otherwise it will be back to Lowe's. Lights are 30% off, you know.

Book Bullet: Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo

Review: Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo with photography by Robert Llewellyn ISBN: 9781604692198l“I would suggest planting a white oak with the care and attention you would give to locating a new city…,” says Nancy Ross Hugo. And as I look out at the white oaks in the woods outside my window, crowded there by nature, not one has the solid majesty of the tree in Robert Llewellyn’s photograph – the only tree in an arable field.

This is a book whose photography is as elegant as so many of the trees it features, as specimens or in the intimate intricacy of their flowers, and is matched by appropriate elegance in the book’s design. The engaging and very personal text, is derived from enthusiasms for the trees in her and neighbor’s backyards and an inclination to look closely, reflect and ask searching questions.

Brits may be bewildered by some of the common names - but don’t worry about it.

Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, with photography by Robert Llewellyn, is published by Timber Press.

  • Altogether elegant in its design, photography and writing
  • You’ll never look at a tree in quite the same way again


Help with crab apples, please

Mystery Malus Number One. © (All rights reserved) I'm having some trouble with crab apples. Not that they've got some terrible disease or the voles are eating them as well as everything else, no.

I have some great pictures of their flowers that I'd like to use - but I don't know what varieties they are. I know some expert plantspeople check in here, so can anyone help?

The first one (left, click to enlarge) has distinctive bi-colored flowers which I thought I'd be able to find, but not so far - not even in Father John Fiala's monumental book Flowering Crabapples.
Mystery Malus Number Two. © (All rights reserved)
The second one (right, click to enlarge) we thought might be 'Golden Hornet' but the  flowers seem a little large, a little too blushed, and the foliage a little pale.

Finally, a very prolific one with darkish leaves (left below, click to enlarge) – not with purple foliage like 'Royalty' but with a purplish tint. It makes a neat rounded tree, with small Mystery Malus Number Three. © (All rights reserved) purple-red fruits. 'Lemoinei' perhaps? It's not an old tree, so perhaps one of the more recent ones.

Crab apples are just not something I know a huge amount about. So any help will be gratefully appreciated.

Blueberries in fall color

I’ve been out shooting blueberries today. No, no… I’m not utterly bonkers, not quite yet. I’ve been taking pictures, of the leaves.

Vaccinium,blueberry,highbush,fall color, autumn colour. Image © (all rights reserved)

In general, our leaf color is past its best but amongst the bare branches and under the dark brown oak leaves there are a few colorful standouts, mainly maples. And all through the under story of the woods here, the high bush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, are still in color. As the clouds part, they’re like flickers of fire.

One noticeable feature is how much they vary. The leaves of many are red, sometimes with purplish overtones, while others are orange or yellow. But some plants have already lost every leaf while others, and not only those in shadier places in the woods, remain green. Jennifer Trehane’s comprehensive book on blueberries (see below) reveals that named forms grown for their fruit also vary in their fall coloring. I also noticed that where one red leaf is laying on another, the covered area remains yellow.

Of course one crucial influence on the display is the deer. Here, the lowest 4-5ft/1.2-1.5m of every bush outside the fence is stripped bare leaving a sort of mound of foliage at the top which is just out of reach. You can see the bare stems in the picture above. Though when the plants are in fruit, we’ve sometimes seen a black bear standing on its hind legs pulling the branches down so it can eat the fruit. (Sorry, the camera is never to hand. One of these days…)

Vaccinium,blueberry,highbush,fall color, autumn colour. Image © (all rights reserved)

Other highlights apart from the maples, of which more in a day or two, include not-sure-which forsythia (soft yellow), Syringa x meyeri ‘Palibin’ (pale yellow), a weeping cherry (yellow and green, still), the superb Solomon’s seal that was variegated earlier in the season, Polygonatum odoratum var. plurifolium ‘Variegatum’, (biscuit yellow), two eupatoriums (yellow) and some surprisingly dashing hostas in bright butter yellow to biscuit brown. Even one of the rhododendrons is covered in scarlet sparks.

Few flowers remain, but there’s still plenty of color.

British and Irish readers can buy Jennifer Trehane's book Blueberries, Cranberries and Other Vacciniums from

North American and other readers can buy Jennifer Trehane's book Blueberries, Cranberries and Other Vacciniums from


Guest post: judywhite goes nuts for nuts

I’ve been learning about nuts. Acorns, to be specific. From oak trees. Because they’re lying all around in great masses this year, much more so than usual. The “mast”, as the crop is called, is good. And by extension, I’m learning more about chipmunks, who eat the mast. The chipmunks are running around in great masses eating the great mast this year. Might be a connection.

I confess to being rather stupid about trees, a failing I keep meaning to correct. But this year’s bounty of nuttiness strengthened my resolve, so I picked up some books. (Stan Tekiela's invaluable little Trees of Pennsylvania Field Guide helped me identify our oaks.) 

Quercus,marilandica,scrub oak,Trees,Pennsylvania. Image © (all rights reserved)
One in particular has been not only greatly informative, but also vastly amusing. I recently acquired this delight at our library’s semi-annual book sale. A great bargain at a dollar. Published in 1929 (mine is the original version, and still in its dust jacket), Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith, is apparently still the classic work on the subject. The poet-farmer-writer Wendell Berry wrote in the foreword of the 1950 reprinting, “This book contributed to a fundamental rethinking of agriculture in our century.” No wonder Wendell Berry loved it. Besides the common sense and prescient thought that “farming should fit the land,” and despite the ponderous nature of the book’s title, J. Russell Smith has me laughing with every wry twist of phrase. Consider the 1st sentence in the chapter, “The Oak as a Forage Crop”:  “The oak tree should sue poets for damages.” There’s also a picture of some sorry-looking muffins for the next chapter, “The Acorns as Human Food.” The caption reads, “Muffins made of Missouri acorns. Said to be good.”

Anyway, back to chipmunks. I had gathered up a bunch of different acorns, some from the Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus, a white oak type), which at an inch or more in length are fairly big, and some much tinier ones from the Blackjack Oak (aka Scrub Oak, Q. marilandica, a red oak type apparently at the edge of its hardiness zone here in northeastern PA), and dumped them in a pile on a rock in the garden. The next morning, I noticed all the little acorns had disappeared, and all the big ones scorned. Clearly a preference had been established.

Graham said, “Hey, get more of those nuts, set up the camera, and photograph the chipmunk taking them.” He handed me the long remote camera shutter cord, and then we sat in wait from inside the house, ready to snap. Two hours elapsed before the chipmunks A) decided it was safe to come out of hiding and, after running around sort of aimlessly in the garden, B) finally re-found the pile of nuts. If it hadn’t been morning, all the waiting and peeping out the window would have been much more enjoyable with a glass of wine. (I clearly have standards that need some eroding.) Two different chipmunks availed themselves, first actually eating a nut or two, then stuffing the rest in their cheeks and running off, coming back and repeating the process of eating and stuffing.

Mixed-Acorns-J014909I discovered in Tannin and Lipid Content of Acorns in Scatterhoards and Larderhoards (Marianna Wood,  Northeastern Naturalist, 12:4, 2005) that “…Tamias striatus (eastern chipmunks) …prefer acorns from white oaks for immediate consumption in the fall, but prefer acorns from red oaks for caching for winter use. In the fall, red oak acorns contain higher levels of lipids and tannins [making them more bitter] than white oak acorns [i.e., sweeter in taste]. ...Throughout the study, red oak acorns had lipid levels five to ten times greater than those of white oak acorns and tannin levels two to four times greater than those of white oak acorns.”

But as my little pile of bitter red oak type acorns disappeared, it was clear that our chipmunks, at least, will eat the tannin-rich nuts right away as well as store them, and ignore the supposedly sweeter white oak type completely. Maybe it’s a size thing.

By the way, I cracked open one of those big, supposedly sweeter Chestnut Oak acorns to see for myself. Didn’t do what J. Russell Smith recommended to remove the tannins. Tasted horrible. Spat it out. Drank some wine. Not making muffins anytime soon.

Autumn fruits confirm an old wive's tale?

Pyracantha,berries,fruits. Image © (all rights reserved) People often say that an autumn in which branches are weighed down with fruits and berries is a sign, a sign of a hard winter ahead. It's one of those old wive's tales that many people embrace, but those of us with a scientific bent tend to refute. And, in this case, of course, it's is nonsense. How does a pyracantha (left, click to enlarge) know that it’s going to be unusually cold six months after flowering?

No, a fruitful autumn is a sign of a sunny and frost free spring earlier in the year. And as I’ve been driving around the south of England this last two weeks, it’s been obvious that again spring blossoms were undamaged by frost, that pollinators were plentiful and that the mix of sun and rain this autumn has ensured that the crop is indeed prolific.

In hedgerows, the blackberries are weighing down the branches (right, click to enlarge);  Blackberry,blackberries,Rubus,fruticosus,berries,fruits. Image © (all rights reserved) the scarlet hawthorn berries sparkle in the sun; the misty blue sloes line the branches of the blackthorns. Seedling crab apples and eating apples shine bright along the motorway.

In gardens, the pyracanthas are so crowded with berries - scarlet, orange and yellow – that the branches bend under the weight. But that’s not all due to the spring weather. Recently introduced disease-resistant varieties, like those in the Saphyr Series, are now much more widespread so good crops of fruits are more likely, even in bad years.

Quince,Cydonia,fruits. Image © (all rights reserved) Apples, plums, soft fruit, even the enormous quinces I spotted in a suburban front garden (left, click to enlarge). Quite a crop. But.

An email from a Latvian friend here in Northamptonshire reads: “Just read the first prognosis on a Latvian site from Polish meteorologists about the forthcoming winter. They argue that due to the significant weakening of the Gulf Stream the arctic air mass is going to penetrate into Europe for a prolonged period and produce one of the coldest winters ever. Time to open a ski shop!”

So, as it turns out, this abundance seems perfectly timed to help the birds through an unusually icy winter. Are we sure that nature doesn’t know more than we do?!

Our chestnuts are dying

Aesculus,hippocastanum,horse chestnut,leaf miner,Cameraria ohridella. Image l© (all rights reserved) As the plane from New York approaches Heathrow airport, look out of the window and the horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are easy to spot. Not, as my mother insists, because they’re the first tree to develop autumn colour – although coming in to land in September that might at first seem to be the reason.

No. Just about every horse chestnut tree in the south of England has turned brown because it’s infested with a pest, the horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella). This little bug tunnels through the leaves causing translucent patches - in the same way as the leaf miners infesting chrysanthemums or aquilegias. But the tunnels soon merge, the leaf turns brown, the edges roll up, then the leaf drops off. By August, some trees have lost all their foliage. After a few years of losing all their leaves, trees die.

First noticed in south London in July 2002, trees across most of south and central England are now infested. It’s spread very rapidly and continues to spread. There is no effective control. Other species of Aesculus, plus Acer platanoides and A. pseudoplatanus, are also damaged.

Aesculus,hippocastanum,flowers,horse chestnut. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.	
© Andrew Butko In Britain, the horse chestnut is an iconic tree. Its bold foliage opens from fat, sticky winter buds, then the dramatic spring flowers are followed by conkers, large shiny nuts used in kids games. The World Conker Championships are held, this year on 10 October, just a couple of miles away from where I’m writing this. Aesculus,hippocastanum,fruits,conkers. Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photograph © Andrew Dunn.

But – the horse chestnut is not a British native tree. It grows wild in Greece and Albania and was first brought to Britain in the early 1600s. It’s so common that some American observers would probably classify it as an alien invasive and would be delighted that the leaf miner is killing trees. By contrast, in Britain research is continuing to find a predator that will kill the leaf miner.

First it was the English elm, now the horse chestnut. But things change. Last year, in Northamptonshire a few miles from here, there were elm trees growing in the hedgerow that reached about 4.5m/15ft high. And on the south coast, there were many trees that were never infected. But things change again, and now those trees are again under threat.

Aesthetically and culturally the loss of so many of these trees is a disaster. But the horse chestnut has only been in this country for 400 years, the elm for 2000 years - not long, in the evolutionary life of a tree species. And things will continue changing.

Bye bye cherry tree – the easy way

CherryTreeHeave19730 Well, it started back in the winter of 2007 and 2008 and finally it’s done. The last of our ailing thirty year old cherry trees is no more. And this time it was easy, all done in half a day.

In one of the comments to my original post about removing them, Joanna mentioned a winch. Now I just let this go by – I thought they cost a fortune. Then my old friend Bob – ace fisherman and advisor on anything to do with construction and DIY - came to stay and he said: “What you need is a come-a-long”. Never heard of it. Turns out that in Britain we’d probably call it a cable winch. I thought they were huge and cost a fortune; the ones we used on the tree gang at Kew years ago must have done. But no, $38. And in the UK I see you can get one for £11.50! Don't you just love a bargain?

You loop one end of the cable round a nearby sturdy mature tree (I used a big old spruce), attache the other end to whatever you want to pull out – like this old cherry tree - and crank the handle on the device in between (right, click to enlarge). And the tension mounts. ComeAlong19726

Here’s the thing. As soon as the tree starts to move, you can see by the movements in the soil where the roots are. Scrape the soil away, cut the root with a chainsaw or pruning saw – and crank some more. The tree leans more and more (above, click to enlarge), eventually all the roots are cut and the tree topples right over. Log up the remains of the trunk and you have a new batch of firewood waiting to dry out.

Then… You attach the cable to each individual piece of root remaining in the soil. And crank the handle. And it pulls the roots out. Then you’re just left with a hole and a mess to clear up. Brilliant. Thanks, Bob.

Now, what about those birches?

Acacia in London’s suburbs

Acacia baileyana,mimosa,wattle Image: © Do not reproduce in any way without permission. One of the first things I do when I get back to England is check out the acacia that’s growing near my daughter’s house in south London. It’s 12-15ft high and is planted in the grounds of the local school – but this is first year I’ve actually been here at just the right time to actually see it flower. It’s quite a sight.

And it’s a sign of how the climate’s has changed. When I was training at Kew Gardens decades ago, the acacias were either growing in a greenhouse or trained against a sunny wall. Now, only about ten miles from Kew, this one is thriving outside and last winter - one of the coldest for a very long time – does not seem to have hurt it at all.

And it really is quite a spectacle.

The leaf problem

Over on the Homestead Gardens blog, Susan Harris again raises the whole issue of what to do with fallen leaves. For many British gardeners this is not a big issue – we Brits cut down most of our tress in the 1800s to build ships for the navy in a doomed attempt to hang on to our colonies – like America.

OakleavesAjuga14948 But it’s an issue in parks and some small gardens over in Britain while in North America what to do with dead leaves is a big issue in many towns, suburbs and rural areas – there are just so many more trees.

This is my simple take: it all depends on what you grow.

1. Get fallen leaves off the lawn. Leave them there and you’ll end up with bare patches – it’s that simple.

2. If you grow mainly shrubs, rake or blow them under the shrubs and forget about them. They’ll slowly rot down and if you usually smother the soil in bought-in cedar mulch you won’t need to bother.

3. If you have the time and energy to put them through a shredder first - or spread them on the lawn, mow them into pieces, and rake them up again - they’ll rot down more quickly and will be less likely to blow back where you raked them from in the first place.

4. If you grow small woodland plants like wood anemones, epimediums, corydalis and the like under and between your shrubs, or in shady borders under trees, do NOT simply dump freshly leaves on top of them. Their delicate shoots just won’t be able to penetrate and they will die. (In fact one of my upcoming jobs – after I’ve cleared the leaves out of the ditch alongside the drive so the rain and snowmelt runs off quickly - is to take the fallen leaves off some of the shade beds.) Even bugle (above, click to enlarge) will suffer is leaves are left to smother its leaves.

5. The best – and, needless to say, the most time consuming – answer is to shred the leaves and make a heap so they rot down; then use them as a mulch anywhere and everywhere or to improve the soil when planting. And the heap will often be a useful source of worms for fishing.

6. Finally, rake or leaf blower?  Clearly, blowers are noisy and emit all sorts of nasties. But if it only gets done if you use a blower there’s no argument really. Raking can just take too long. In densely planted beds use a hand fork or your fingers to get them out.

Leaves are valuable free resource – just do your best to make the most of them in the time you have.