Choosing Plants for Next Spring

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The winter months are sometimes very difficult for a horticulture enthusiast. There is nothing for us to grow and we can’t go outdoors and do much in our garden beds, so we start to get a bit of cabin fever. However, there is always something to do in January for our gardens because the plant catalogs have begun to arrive. Hooray! We can start planning our gardens for the next season. 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. 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. Often times, Universities and public gardens are potential judging sites to 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.

Each year the group chooses multiple annuals, perennials, and vegetables to be All American Selections. For 2017, the group came up with a great group of annuals, vegetables, and perennials. The one perennial that was chosen for 2017 was Twizzle Purple Penstemon.

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This photo of Twizzle Purple Penstemon is from the All American Selection website at: http://all-americaselections.org/product/penstemon-barbatus-twizzle-purple/

Penstemon plants are great for any garden as they grow tall and upright and have flowers similar to snapdragons because they are in the same plant family. Twizzle purple is a new penstemon with vibrant purple flowers. The judges liked the upright habit of the plant and the overall great flowering performance. This penstemon grows up to 35 inches high and is a great pollinator attracting plant.

Another great pollinator plant is the 2017 Perennial Plant of the year, Butterfly Milkweed. 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. Butterfly milkweed was chosen for the 2017 Perennial Plant of the year to “celebrate an excellent plant known for its ability to support insects and birds and serve as the primary caterpillar food for a beloved North American native butterfly”. That butterfly would be the Monarch butterfly. Monarchs have been decreasing in their population over the past few years due to many different factors, but lack of food is one. Milkweed is the primary source of food for Monarch butterflies and that plant is now reduced in our environment due to the way that we garden and the fact that people regard milkweeds as weeds. Planting pollinator plants will help with the populations.

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This photo of Butterfly Milkweed is courtesy of Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service (retired), Bugwood.org

Butterfly milkweed is a native plant with small, bright orange colored flowers that are held in bunches throughout the plant. This is not the common milkweed that most people find to be a weed, which is another great pollinator plant. This is a unique and interesting plant that will attract many pollinators to your garden. The plants grow 2-3 feet tall and wide. Butterfly milkweed plants are a great addition to any landscape, but especially in a prairie, native grass area, or naturalized planting.

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Windbreaks

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Photo by Jan Hygnstrom, UNL Department of Agronomy & Horticulture

In the winter months you might begin to realize that your existing windbreak is not as efficient as it once was. This would be a good time to assess whether you need to replace some of these trees and start to think about planting new trees in the spring. Or maybe you just moved to a new home or are building a new home and this winter will help you assess the need for a windbreak at your new build.

A windbreak can be used for many different reasons. Obviously, the main purpose is to block wind, but it can provide many other benefits. Windbreaks can help protect a homestead from wind and snow, protect cattle from winter winds, reduce soil erosion on fields, provide food and habitat for wildlife and birds, reduce sound from busy highways to a home, and they can be planted for beautification of the landscape. The size and design of a windbreak depends on the purpose of the windbreak.

Most windbreaks should be at least two rows deep, but the number of rows depends on the purpose of the windbreak. For most acreages our windbreaks are only two rows, but they should be four to ten rows. According to the Nebraska Forest Service, a standard multiple-row windbreak should have windward rows of dense conifer trees or shrubs, interior rows of tall broadleaf trees and leeward rows of shrubs or conifers. The windward side is toward the wind, or on the outside of the windbreak and the leeward side would be on the inside of the windbreak.

Diversify the plant material in a windbreak. Many people are having to replace rows or entire windbreaks from where Pine Wilt came through and killed the scotch or Austrian pines in their windbreak. It is always best to use multiple species from multiple plant families within a windbreak so that you don’t lose the entire windbreak if something else comes in to kill a certain species of trees. Windbreaks don’t have to be made entirely out of conifers, shrubs and deciduous trees can be used in a windbreak to help increase diversity, help block wind, and increase food and habitat for wildlife. If using multiple types of plants and multiple rows, the typical windbreak should consist of a dense shrub in row one of the windward side, followed by two rows of dense conifers, two rows of tall broadleaves or conifers, and finally a dense shrub on the leeward side.

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Photo of a typical windbreak profile is from Windbreak Design NebGuide, Authors: Jon S. Wilson & Scott J. Josiah Extension Foresters with the Nebraska Forest Service.

Spacing is important to remember when planting your trees. The spacing requirements have changed quite a bit over time because many of the old windbreaks were planted too close together causing disease and shade issues to the plants. Plant your trees at least to the minimum requirements for within the row and between the rows.

  • Deciduous shrubs:4-6 feet between plants in a row and 15-20 feet between rows
  • Deciduous trees: 12-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows
  • Conifer trees: 14-20 feet between trees in a row and 20-30 feet between rows

Now is a good time to begin thinking about your tree needs for your windbreak because the local NRD is selling trees from now until March 1. This is a good way to start a windbreak because you can get a large quantity of trees for a low cost. These trees will start small and are suited for Nebraska environmental conditions. They have a good selection of tree and shrub choices for your windbreak, but you do have to order in a quantity of 25. The local NRD’s vary in tree and shrub species available, but they have a good choice of many different species that will do well in Nebraska.