2012-04-04 13.24.59

When I think about spring, I always think about planting. It is fun, stress relieving, and rewarding for me to get my hands dirty and plant some new plants or change what I have in my garden. One thing to always remember when planting a garden or cleaning up an existing one is the mulch.

Mulch is a great benefit to our plants. Mulch can help work as insulation for our plants through the winter months, protect them from lawnmower blight, hold moisture near the plants, and reduce weed competition.

In the winter months, mulch is helpful to keep our plants insulated from freezing temperatures. However, mulch does not necessarily keep the roots of the plants warm, it keeps the temperatures from constantly freezing and thawing. In the winter months, freezing and thawing of the soil can push the plant out of the soil in a condition called frost heaving. This can expose the crown to winter temperatures and possibly kill the plant. We often add extra mulch during the winter months to help protect our plants more. The plants then are adjusted to growing in the conditions under the extra mulch, which is why it is important to wait to uncover them for the spring. If the plants start to green up under the mulch or pop through the mulch you can pull the mulch back away from the plants, leaving it nearby to cover the plants back up if freezing temperatures are predicted again. It is best to wait until early May to fully uncover those plants, once the threat of frost has passed for the year.


Tree damage from Lawn Mower Blight

Mulch also helps protect our plants from a condition we refer to as ‘lawnmower blight’. Lawnmower blight often occurs to our trees and shrubs growing right in the turf with no mulch around them. It is when the mower or weed trimmer gets too close to plants damaging the trunk or branches of the shrub. This damage disrupts the flow of water and nutrients through the tree, but it usually does not kill the plant. Having the mulch ring will keep the lawn equipment back away from the tree.


Mulch is also great for our plants during the spring and summer months to help keep moisture near the plant and reduce competition from other plants around the tree or other desired plants. Wood chips will hold moisture that will eventually be released back out to the plants for extended water availability. The layer of mulch will also help reduce competition for water, nutrients, and space from other plants growing nearby. Turf is included as a competition for our landscape plants. It is best for the overall health of our desired plants to keep the competition limited around the roots.

Mulch needs to be applied correctly to help the plants, if applied incorrectly it can damage them. A layer of mulch 2-3 inches deep is the recommendation. Too deep and you can start to starve the roots of oxygen and the roots may begin to grow in the mulch out of the soil. If the mulch is applied to shallow, weeds will come up through it. Avoid mulch volcanoes which can cause a great deal of damage to the plant. Coarse textured mulches are better for plants than fine textured mulches which can become compacted, reduce oxygen to the plants, and allow more weeds to penetrate.

Organic mulches are preferred over inorganic mulches. Organic mulches would include wood chips, straw, leaves, and untreated grass clippings. Inorganic mulches such as rock or crushed rubber would not give the benefits to plants that organic mulches would. Inorganic mulches do not hold onto water and they make the plants and the roots much hotter in the summer and reflect that heat onto the plant causing more drought and heat stress to the plants. Inorganic mulches would be best used in xeric landscapes and rock gardens.


Planting for Water Savings

Water Wise landscape

Spring will be here before we know it, which is very exciting for plant enthusiasts. We can get outside and do some cleanup once it starts to get warm. Don’t get too excited though, winter could still show up for a couple more months. One thing you can do now, though, is plan your garden.

Choose Well-Adapted Plants

When planning your garden, pay close attention to the growing requirements of the plants you choose. Select plants that are suited for your growing zone. Southeast Nebraska is in zone 5B. Also, utilize plants that have similar growing conditions for each area or garden in your landscape. For example, shade plants should be planted with other shade plants and water loving plants should not be planted with drought tolerant plants.

Be Water Wise

Nebraska often sees periods of drought through the hot part of the summer. For water saving options, look to drought tolerant plants. Some good choices for drought tolerant plants include

  • Yarrow, Achillea spp.
  • Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia
  • Coneflower, Echinacea spp.
  • Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta
  • Daylily, Hemerocallis spp.
  • Salvia, Salvia spp.
  • Viburnums, Viburnum spp.
  • Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius
  • Maidengrass, Miscanthus sinense
  • Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii
  • Little Bluestem, Schizachrium scoparium

These plants will grow well with no supplemental water in normal precipitation. There are also quite a few plants that need very low amounts of supplemental water, which are good choices as well, these include

  • Shrub Roses, Rosa spp.
  • Penstemon/Beardtongue, Penstemon spp.
  • Plumbago/Leadwort, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
  • Coral Bells, Heuchera spp.
  • Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa
  • Lilies, Lilium spp.
  • Phlox, Phlox paniculata

Why does it matter if you use drought tolerant plants? These plants will survive better in our summer environment when it gets very hot and dry. Also, this will help reduce the amount of water we are applying to our landscapes. Water is limited in supply and costly to use. If we minimize the amount of water needed for irrigation, everyone will benefit.

When to Water

Remember, if you are utilizing plants that are more drought tolerant, only water when necessary. Plants will tell you when they need to be watered, they will begin to wilt and show signs of water stress before reaching the permanent wilting point from which they will not recover. Many times, too much water is used in low water-use landscapes due to the tendency of homeowners to overwater.

Take Control of Your Irrigation System

There is also a tendency to overwater with in-ground or automatic sprinkler systems. Many times people use the “set it and forget it” thought process for watering the lawn with an automatic system, but that will actually use more water than what is needed. According to the American Water Works Association Research Foundation, the research from 2000 shows that homes with in-ground sprinkler systems use 35% more water than those without an in-ground sprinkler system. Those who have automatic timers to control those in-ground sprinkler systems use 47% more water than those without timers. It is better to only turn on the sprinkler system when you need to water rather than having it run all season on certain days or times. Also, make sure that you turn the sprinklers off in the rain or just following a rain event, or purchase a water sensor for your landscape to avoid watering when the soil is wet.

Economic Benefits of Landscaping

These statements are not meant to deter people from having a nice landscape. In fact, landscapes can increase the value in your home, reduce crimes, increase the rate of healing at a hospital, provide oxygen, and decrease carbon dioxide in the environment. According to research done by Colorado State University, there are 25% fewer crimes in public housing with landscapes, children who spend time outdoors are better learners, and every $1 invested in a home landscape yields a $1.35 return on the investment.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Starting Seeds Indoors Blog

We are now getting to the time of year where we can begin starting seeds indoors for transplants later this spring. Late February into March is the time of the year when transplants can be started inside our homes, spring will come eventually. Growing transplants from seed takes more work than just buying transplants, but purchasing seed rather than plants is less expensive and you are able to get the varieties you really want rather than just what is available in the nurseries.

It is best to wait until Mother’s Day to plant transplants of warm season crops into the garden. It takes about 8 weeks to grow tomatoes and peppers from seed, so count backward from Mother’s Day to determine when to start the plants indoors. Since Mother’s Day this year is on May 13th, the time to start tomatoes and peppers would be the middle of March. Don’t start your transplants too early or they will get too tall and spindly.

Good transplants begin with good care. Start with good quality seed and a sterile soil or soil-less mixture. For growing media, you can use a potting soil, or a soil-less mixture that contains vermiculite, perlite, and/or peat moss. Just make sure that the growing media is well-drained and has been moistened prior to planting into.

2014-03-04 11.15.35

You can start the seeds in seed trays or other types of containers. You can reuse pots or seed trays from previous years, just make sure all equipment has been cleaned thoroughly prior to reuse. To clean the pots, wash them in soap and then soak them for 10 minutes in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. There are a lot of other, less expensive, materials that can be used to start seeds in. Newspapers can be reused to make a planting pot, look for methods of how to fold them online. You can also use paper or plastic cups, small yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese containers, soda or water bottles with the top cut off and small milk cartons. Just make sure that you make a few drainage holes in the bottom of these containers. If the container doesn’t have a drainage hole in it, the soil will not drain properly causing problems, including death, for your seedlings.

Transplants need to be grown in favorable environmental conditions. Plants should be grown in temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees. Too cold or too warm can reduce the rate of germination or the plants may grow leggy or improperly. Seedlings need 12-16 hours of light per day. This light should be kept about 1 inch above the plants, as they grow, this light should be moved up with the seedlings.  This light source can be as simple and inexpensive as a utility light or shop light with one cool and one warm fluorescent bulb. Fertilization can be applied weekly with a one-quarter strength, soluble fertilizer. Do not fertilize the seedlings if they were allowed to dry out. Replenish the moisture in the plants prior to applying fertilizer to avoid burning the seedlings.

Two weeks prior to planting outdoors in the garden, you will need to prepare the plants to outdoor conditions, this transition is called hardening off. Move the plants outdoors in the shade on non-windy days. Start out by placing the plants in sun for only an hour or two, gradually increase the length of time they are in the sun and the intensity of that sun. Be sure to still bring the plants indoors at night, especially if a frost is predicted. Also, keep them out of direct wind until they have hardened off.

Planting for Spring Color

Planning for spring color blog

If you are the type of person who always tends to get spring fever this time of the year, your landscape can help make it easier in the future. Plan your garden to incorporate different trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers that will bring you spring as soon as possible.

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood is one of the earliest plants to break from winter dormancy in Nebraska. There was one of these planted next to the Plant Science building on East Campus at UNL where I studied for many years. I always enjoyed to see it pop those small yellow buds in late February to early March to prove to me that winter wouldn’t last forever. Cornelian Cherry Dogwood can be grown as a large shrub or small tree, depending on how it is pruned.

Forsythia is a more commonly known early spring blooming shrub. This shrub blooms with bright yellow, finger-like flowers in March, typically. This is a shrub that is very easy to care for, but it can get overgrown, so it should be pruned often to maintain its size and shape. Every year, you can remove 1/3 of the largest branches from the shrub and prune them off at ground level to reduce the size and remove the oldest, least productive branches.

2016-04-02 10.11.52

Redbud in bloom in the spring

Redbud is one of my favorite plants for spring color. It typically blooms in April-May with beautiful violet to pink blooms all along the branches. There is also a white bud that is the same as redbud, but with white blooms instead of pink. This tree is best grown as an understory tree, so it does best with part shade. However, it will grow in full sun, as many are. After the blooming period, the tree has nice, green, heart-shaped leaves through the summer and into the fall when they turn golden yellow. Be careful with pesticides in the lawn around redbuds, however, as they are very sensitive to 2,4-D. The leaves will often cup up and develop an irregular leaf edge with dark and light green striping, as if the leaf was stretched out.

Magnolia is another amazing choice for a tree for spring color. There are a lot of varieties of magnolias, but not all of them do as well in our environment. A couple of the best suited for Nebraska include saucer magnolia and star magnolia. Saucer magnolia blooms with the pink blooms and star magnolia has white blooms. Magnolias should be in a location where they are a bit protected from winter winds. The blooms of magnolias are often destroyed by a late spring frost causing the flowers to shrivel up and turn brown soon after opening up.

2015-03-20 10.05.20

Crocus Blooming

There are a lot of great spring blooming bulbs that can be used in the lawn. Many of my favorites include tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, snowdrops, and scilla. A great collection of many varieties and species of these bulbs will bring season-long beauty and an assortment of color throughout the spring. These bulbs all bloom in the spring but they need to be planted in the fall. This causes a problem this time of the year, but it can help you begin to plan them out if you look at your landscape this spring to see where there are gaps amongst the other plants or areas where color is necessary throughout the spring.

Spring will come…Eventually

Thinking about spring planting blog, Jan 16, 18

It has been quite cold the past few weeks. It is hard to think about spring, but maybe thinking about it will warm us up and bring spring weather back to Nebraska sooner. We can begin to plan our landscapes this time of the year to have a plan in place as soon as planting season begins.

Landscaping seems to never be completely finished. Every year you find new plants you really like and unfortunately it is common to lose a few here and there. When you are thinking about a redesign in your landscape, be careful to avoid causing problems to existing plants you want to keep. A common problem I see is when people add soil around an existing tree to add a decorative block border or a new garden bed or to level off a slope surrounding a tree. People often add soil to roots that have emerged from the soil so that they can continue to mow over the roots. Once a tree is growing in a location, adding soil to the rootzone of the tree can and likely will kill the tree.

Tree roots need to breath just like the rest of the tree does. When you add soil to the existing soil around roots, it will basically suffocate the tree. The majority of tree roots are found in the top 18 inches of soil, they are there so that they still have access to oxygen. If you add more soil to the area around the tree, those roots will now be deeper in the soil profile and unable to get the oxygen they need to survive. The tree won’t die immediately from this addition of soil, but overtime the roots will die.

Exposed Tree Roots, J. Fech

Exposed Tree Roots photo from John Fech, Nebraska Extension

Also, when thinking about your landscape and what changes you will make to it, think about common problem areas. If you have Lilacs that are severely damaged every year with powdery mildew or roses that constantly have black spot, maybe it is time to rethink those plants. If a plant commonly has disease problems, it may be planted in the wrong location. Plants only grow to the best of their abilities in locations where they are supposed to grow. Hostas that are planted in full sun will develop brown, papery areas on their leaves every summer. In this case, the hosta isn’t planted in the best location and should be transplanted to more shade. This gives you a new area of full sun to plant something different in.

Try to think about all of the problems you have had in your landscape in the past. Sometimes our plants grow too large for the area they are planted in. If the plant needs to be pruned often throughout the year so it doesn’t grow over a sidewalk or window, it might be time for removal and replacement with something smaller. Or if the plant has a seedhead that is troublesome to you in some way, replacement may be a good option. Maybe the plant has a heavy top and weak stem, causing it to flop down in your garden or causing you to pinch it back often when you don’t have the time or ability. If this is the case try replacing it with a more self-reliant plant. Landscapes can become weedy or overgrown if the space is too large to manage in your spare time, keep your landscape at a manageable level for you.

Ice and Snow in the Landscape

2015-02-04 09.33.35

Now that we are through the holidays, there is a little less hustle and bustle going on. It was nice to have been blessed with a white Christmas. Fortunately, the snow wasn’t too deep, but there was plenty that we had to get outside for a little cleanup on the sidewalks and driveways. With all the snow we received over the weekend and plenty more weeks of winter to go, I thought I’d give you all a reminder of how to properly take care of snow to not harm our plants.

Deicers can cause damage to our concrete sidewalks and to our plants growing beside them. Many deicing agents contain salt substances, such as sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Because of the salt content found in these products, it can cause severe damage to our plants, if too much is piled on them too often. Typical plant symptoms of salt damage include desiccation (drying out), stunting, dieback, and leaf margin and tip damage that looks as though the leaves were burned by a chemical.

Bag of Deicer

To avoid damage to the concrete, remove the salt as soon as you can. Deicers are meant to make shoveling easier, not to completely melt away the snow and ice. As soon as the salt melts through the ice and snow enough that it can be removed, go out and shovel it off of the concrete. When removing the snow, do it in a manner that protects the landscape plants growing in the yard. Do not pile the snow onto trees, shrubs, or flower gardens. If it has to be piled onto your landscape, move the salt onto the grass and try to do it in a manner that makes it more uniform on the grass surface. If too much salt continually gets piled up on the grass in one location, the turf can be harmed.

The snow didn’t build up too much on our trees with this past snow storm, but when we get a lot of heavy, wet snow, this can be a concern. Sometimes, ice and snow can build up on the branches of our trees and shrubs and can cause the branches to bend improperly. We saw this problem last January with the ice storm that came through. It is best to let snow and ice melt naturally off of our plants. Snow can be lightly brushed off of branches with a broom, if you desire. Do not try to hit the ice off of the tree branches because this can cause you to break some of the branches, which will be more detrimental to the plant. If there is snow on your tree causing it to bend down, it will reform in the spring once the snow melts off of it.

Finally, watch out for your lawn in the winter months as well. It is best to minimize winter traffic on any turf area and especially when frost is present on green turf. If frost has formed and foot or vehicle traffic occurs, the physical abrasion can damage turfgrass. Winter traffic can cause aesthetic damage, physical abrasion, and/or soil damage depending on the situation. Too much traffic on turfgrass at a time when it cannot recover also leads to winter injury. If you have to walk on the lawn for some reason, such as to take a pet outside, try to use a different path each time.

Plant Choices

2015-02-04 09.33.30

The winter months are a great time to start thinking about gardening for the spring. There is nothing for us to grow and we can’t go outdoors and do much in our garden beds, so we can start to think about spring to reduce our cabin fever. It is a great time because the plant catalogs have begun to arrive. Hooray! A great listing of plants to utilize in your garden would include the All-American Selections and the Perennial Plant of the Year.

The All-American Selection (AAS) group is “the only non-profit plant trialing organization in North America” according to their website. This is a selection organization that is unbiased because all proceeds go into the trials and promoting all AAS winners. Each year the group selects many different judges and judging sites. One of the judging sites for this year was in Omaha, judged by my colleague, John Porter. These judges are professional horticulturists who are volunteering their time to evaluate plants for their growth, flowering or fruiting, and how well they adapt to different environmental conditions. Universities and public gardens are good judging sites because they will keep the results impartial. The AAS is a good way to test new cultivars throughout North America to help gardeners trust the plants they purchase. It is hard when shopping through all the different varieties to know which ones do well, the AAS finds those for you.

Each year the group chooses multiple annuals, perennials, and vegetables to be All American Selections. Then, the group comes up with a selection of annuals, vegetables, and perennials. For 2018, their choices include South Pacific Orange Canna, American Dream Sweet Corn, Super Hero Spry Marigold, Onyx Red Ornamental Pepper, Hungarian Mexican Sunrise Pepper, Cocktail Red Racer Tomato and Queeny Lime Orange Zinnia among others. One of the selections judged in Omaha was the Asian Delight Pak Choi. This variety does not bolt like the comparisons. Even weeks after other varieties went to seed, this Pak Choi did not bolt. John Porter stated that it did not bolt at all during the summer.

Pak-Choi-Asian-Delight, AAS Website

Asian Delight Pak Choi, Photo from the All-American Selections Website

Another great plant choice is the 2018 Perennial Plant of the year, Allium ‘Millenium’. This is a plant honor that was chosen by the perennial plant association which is a trade association of growers, retailers, landscapers, educators and others in the herbaceous perennial industry. They choose a plant to showcase each year that is a standout plant. The perennials they choose are widely adaptive and have minimal insect and disease issues with low management inputs.

Millenium Allium, Perennial Plant Association

Allium ‘Millenium’ from the Perennial Plant Association Website

Allium ‘Millenium’ is a great choice because it is a workhorse of the late summer garden, according the Perennial Plant Association. Alliums are ornamental onions, and this variety is supposed to be spelled with only one ‘n’ in the middle of the word ‘Millenium’, unlike the correct spelling with 2 ‘n’s. The parent plants of ‘Millenium’ have late flowering, uniform habit, great foliage, and are drought resistant. These traits are also seen in ‘Millenium’. This plant is a butterfly magnet and provides large blooms of deep purple in the late summer. The plant reaches up to 15 inches tall and stays looking healthy through the season. One of the great things about ‘Millenium’ is that it is deer and rabbit resistant and no serious pest problems are found on it.

Winter Watering

Winter Watering blog

It’s hard to think about our plants in the winter months. It is even harder to realize that they are still alive and sometimes need care in the winter months. Once plants go dormant for the year many people believe that they need nothing until spring, but that isn’t always the case, especially in years with low or no snow or rain throughout the winter months.

Winter watering is essential in dry winter years. Winter desiccation commonly occurs on evergreen types of trees and shrubs. All trees are still transpiring, or losing water, throughout the winter months, evergreen trees are transpiring at a higher rate than deciduous trees. Winter desiccation occurs when the amount of water lost is greater than the amount of water the evergreen takes in throughout the winter months. The branches and needles of our trees will die. The damage from winter desiccation is brown needles out on the ends of branches. However, the damage from winter desiccation will not usually show up in our trees until early spring, so they will stay green through the winter. Drought effects can damage deciduous trees as well. Especially newly planted deciduous trees need to be watered throughout the winter months if natural moisture is absent.

2014-04-23 10.45.50

Damage to Arborvitae following a dry, windy winter

Ensure adequate watering throughout the entire growing season for all trees and shrubs, especially those recently planted. Make sure that the tree is well watered going into the fall. Also, water throughout the winter when the ground is not frozen to help the trees through a dry winter, if necessary. Winter watering should occur during the day on days when the temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above and is only necessary 1-2 times per month until spring. It is a good idea to test for soil moisture with a long screwdriver or soil probe prior to watering to determine if watering is necessary. If the screwdriver goes into the soil easily up to 18 inches, watering is not necessary. However, if pushing the screwdriver into the soil becomes very difficult after the first couple of inches or less, watering would be necessary. After watering, apply a light layer of mulch over the roots of the tree, but not up against the trunk to avoid problems with voles.

Turf is another plant to take into consideration regarding winter watering. Winter desiccation can occur on turf when the soil is frozen, making water unavailable to plants. It is more problematic on sunny, dry, windy days when the air temperature is above freezing but the soil is dry or frozen, according to Bill Kreuser, UNL Turfgrass professor. Bill Kreuser states that, a little bit of drought stress prior to winter can actually help prepare the turf for winter conditions, it helps harden off the turf before any severe cold happens. It is actually better for the turf to have drought prior to winter rather than go into the winter with higher precipitation, as has been the case this year.

That being said, home lawns are more tolerant of winter desiccation stress because the Kentucky bluegrass, fescues, and buffalograss have a deeper root system and less overall stress than turf on the golf course. Established lawns may not need winter watering, but newly planted lawns may be more susceptible to winter desiccation. However, if we face a dry winter with little to no snow cover, irrigation may be needed at low amounts. Ensure that winter watering is not through an irrigation system or it will need to be cleared out again so the pipes don’t freeze and burst. It is best to hand water with a hose or bucket in the winter months.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Happy Thanksgiving blog 2017

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is the beginning of the Christmas season for many of us. I know many families go pick out their Christmas Trees on Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a great time to do that and it really begins to get you into the Holiday Spirit.

The biggest decoration in size and in use is the Christmas tree. Christmas trees have been used for centuries for many different reasons. According to Alabama Cooperative Extension, Christmas trees are believed to symbolize immortality. The Germanic people used evergreen boughs in their homes during winter for protection of their home and to return life to the snow-covered forest. There have been many different civilizations throughout history that have used evergreens in their homes, decorated or not, to celebrate the holidays, according to the University of Illinois Extension. The ancient Romans used decorated trees during their winter festival to honor their god of agriculture. Trees were sold in Germany in the 1500’s to be put in homes, undecorated.

Christmas Trees came to the United States in 1747, when people in Pennsylvania decorated wooded pyramids with evergreen branches and candles. By 1850, decorated Christmas trees were a widely used tradition in America.  The first retail tree market was in New York in 1851 and the first President of the United States to put up a Christmas tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce in 1856.  The first national Christmas tree was put up in 1923 on the lawn of the White House by President Calvin Coolidge.

There are many different tree species you can choose from for your family’s enjoyment through the Holiday season. The most common tree species used for Christmas trees in Nebraska include: Balsam Fir, Douglas-Fir, Fraser Fir, Noble Fir, Scotch Pine, Virginia Pine and White Pine. Before leaving to go pick out your tree, it might be a good idea to measure the area of the room where the tree will be placed to ensure you get a tree that fits in the room.

Christmas tree farm, flickr, UGA College of Ag & Env

When choosing your tree, assess the tree to learn the condition it is in. Walk around the tree to look for holes in the branching. Slightly tug on the needles that are on the tree to ensure they are tightly attached to the tree. Also, give the tree a good shake, if green needles fall off this is not as fresh of a tree, choose another. Brown needles can fall from the tree and not indicate a problem with the tree.

When you take your tree home, cut a fresh cut on the stump of the tree and place it immediately into the tree stand with plenty of water. Ensure that the stand maintains an adequate amount of water through the Holiday season. A fresh tree can use one quart of water or more per day. If you allow the water to drop below the fresh cut, a seal will form. A new cut would then be necessary to keep the tree fresh, use hot water the first time you water the tree after the new cut to dissolve any sap that would clog the water conducting tissues. The use of additives in the water will not help the tree stay fresh longer, just use fresh water and make sure the tree has enough.

A few fun Christmas tree facts from the Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers Association:

  • When one tree is removed for a Christmas tree, 2-3 seedlings are planted in its place
  • It takes 7-15 years to get a mature tree height of 6 feet tall for Christmas trees
  • Christmas trees are grown and harvested in all 50 states, including at 15 choose and harvest farms in Nebraska
  • There are approximately 1 million acres in production for growing Christmas trees

Fall Color

Shagbark hickory, flickr, Nicholas A. Tonelli

Shagbark Hickory photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr Creative Commons License

Fall is a wonderful time of the year, especially when the trees have a good display of colors.

There is a reason why our trees turn so pretty in the fall and why they are green the rest of the year. The color in our trees, during any part of the year, is due to four different pigments that are present in the leaves: chlorophyll, carotene, tannin and anthocyanin. During the spring and summer, chlorophyll is the primary pigment in leaves. It is constantly being generated by the trees as it is easily broken down by bright sunlight. When this compound is being produced in the spring and summer, it is the most prevalent and that is why we see the green in the leaves.

As the nights gets cooler and the days get shorter, the tree produces a membrane between the branches and the leaves, causing them to no longer receive any chlorophyll that the tree might still be producing. This membrane also leads to the eventual shedding of the leaves in the fall. At this time, the other pigments are allowed to show up in the leaves.

Carotene is the pigment that is responsible for yellow and orange colored leaves. Carotene is always in the leaves, as it aids in the capture of sunlight for photosynthesis, but it is at a lower amount than chlorophyll so the green color shows up as the predominant pigment.

Tannins are our least favorite pigment color; they make the brown colored leaves. Tannins are always present in leaves but are not shown until the chlorophyll and carotene are gone from the leaves. These often accumulate in the dead portions of the leaves, which is why dead areas of our leaves turn brown in color.

Anthocyanin is the pigment that is responsible for pink, red, and purple leaves. This pigment is usually not present in the leaves until the fall. Some trees have red or purple colored leaves during the entire growing season because they have higher amounts of anthocyanins than chlorophyll throughout the whole growing season. Other trees don’t produce any anthocyanins and those are the trees that turn yellow, orange, or brown during the fall. Those trees and shrubs that turn red in the fall form anthocyanins when the concentration of sugar in the leaf increases. Low temperatures and bright sunshine destroys chlorophyll and when the temperatures stay above freezing during this time, anthocyanins are produced.

Burning Bush- 4

Burning Bush with great Red fall color

So, what causes our trees to turn bright and colorful in the fall and why are some years better than others? The brightest fall colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights. The dry, sunny days are needed to break-down the chlorophyll in the leaves allowing the other pigments to be dominant in the leaves. The cool, dry nights are also necessary for fall color because trees need to avoid freezing temperatures which can injure or kill the leaves causing them to stop producing much sugar at all. The sugar content is what increases the amount of the anthocyanin, or red pigment. The yellow and brown will be present, but the red is necessary as well.

You don’t have to travel far to get amazing fall colors from the trees. There are many places right here in Nebraska to go for a wonderful fall color display in the trees. Indian Cave State Park in the far Southeast portion of the state, Ponca State Park in Northeast Nebraska, the Nebraska National Forests, and even your own backyard are great locations to find fall tree displays. Look around, they are not that hard to find, just as long as we have dry, sunny days followed by cool, dry nights and minimal frost until later in the season we will have a beautiful display of trees in the fall.