Zoned Out Trees, Practical Gardening Series


As frost moves out of the ground in the northern Midwest, and mud season moves in, we eagerly wait to begin gardening. And while we wait, we plan.

Looking out through windows and doors we often see open areas in our landscape. We might think that a new ornamental tree or evergreen would add visual interest. Trees and shrubs are more permanent than herbaceous perennial plants. So take time to plan for the long term beauty and investment of hardwoods.

Before you make a purchase, consider where you’ll plant the tree or shrub. Soil analysis is important so obtain this first. Soil pH, composition and drainage need to be matched to the hardwood you plan to grow. Remember the key is “right plant, right place.” Read up on the plant you intend to buy and match it to the site.

In southern Michigan, where I live, the cold hardiness zone is rated Zone 5, meaning average winter temperatures can get as low as -10º to -20º.  When plants are tagged by Zones it indicates that they will survive a 50% winter-kill and still come back in the spring. Did you get that? Winter damage to 50% of the plant and survive…that can be pretty devastating to a tree! We don’t often have -20º temperatures, but with wind chills and sustained lows below zero plants tagged at this Zone will be stressed. And remember…stressed plants are more prone to diseases and pests.

For this reason I often select hardwoods for a Zone colder especially when they’ll be grown in an exposed location. I also read the grower’s tag attached to plants to learn where the nursery is located, and purchase plants commercially grown in a similar climate. A hardwood cultivar grown in a nursery in Carolina will be more prone to winter kill than the same cultivar grown in Minnesota—both being tagged for Zones 4-6.

You can locate hardwoods that are at the farthest range of their Zone in an area protected from winter winds and where heat from buildings creates a micro-climate (where temperatures run a bit warmer). This helps but is not a guarantee against winter damage from ice and snow.

Greenhouses and nurseries buy bare-root stock that is dormant, pot them up, and grow them on for sale in the spring. At the end of the season the remaining unsold plants are carried over and usually repotted to prevent becoming root bound.

Root bound plants often do poorly in the landscape. Hardwoods that are root bound are fairly easy to spot—and frequently discounted. Often larger roots are pushing out through drainage holes, can be seen circling near the surface, have forced their containers to become warped, or are so tightly compressed in their container that nearly all the soil is missing. An experienced gardener may be successful transplanting a hardwood in this condition. The average homeowner should select another plant—no matter how low the price!

Finally, when purchasing a tree or shrub, be sure you can lift it. You may have help loading the tree into your vehicle, but not at home to unload it and plant. I have finally learned at middle-age that bigger is not always better.

Laetare Rocks

Image Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB. All rights reserved.

We’ve passed Laetare Sunday, the fourth week of Lent, and still I’ve not been able to adhere to its disciplines: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. My usual prayer and abstinence routines are securely in place. It is the extras, so important to this spiritual season of faith, that are lacking.

The other morning after Lauds and a rosary, rising from my chair, I stood at the home altar. Drawing the sanctuary light that hung from the wall towards me, I blew out the candle. The holy images that would draw me into prayer hung above and were hidden behind purple cloths. Their hidden faces echoed the distance I felt from the observance Lent.

I touched the arrangement of objects placed on the altar. On a wood box covered by linens was an eight inch rock with angular surfaces of pink and black, on which set three square-cut iron spikes.

The book Way of the Cross, by Pope Benedict, was propped open to the image of the eighth station—Jesus meets the women. Here the suffering Christ was concerned with the weakness of those women. I shuddered remembering his words, “…weep for yourselves and your children…” It is chilling to know that his suffering brought to us in ours would be our only comfort. I wondered if those women, like me, focus on the gentleness of God and minimized the mystery of evil and pain in our world.

On the altar is a path of fourteen stones, representative of each step of the Passion. I picked one up, smooth and cold in my palm, and rubbed my thumb over its surface. These rocks suggest the austere realities of the life of Christ, and moments of our own: The hardness some paths take, the coldness of the journey, that every path has a beginning and an end.

Flat and dark, each stone has its own weight. As do each of our challenges, as do the Stations-of-the-Cross. All are hard and, depending on our frame of mind, can halt our progression under the burden.

I turn and look out the window. Laetare Sunday has passed. It marks a time to rejoice in the middle of Lent, a time to see the joy to come as the Pascal Mystery lives out.

The stone in my hand has warmed. It, along with the thirteen others, holds many silent prayers. The little path of stones is like a Lenten rosary. Each stone passes through the hand, and a memory through the heart. The images may be brutal and sad, but each is softened with gratitude. Had Christ not suffered, I would have no way to God. Had my life not been demanding, my soul would not have sought Our Lord.

It was the hardness of life that had brought me to joy. I look to the rock in my hand and rejoice.


Fall Mums in Spring, Practical Gardening Series

Mentioning hardy mums in the spring may seem like an oxymoron. Let me explain.

For years as a garden consultant I’ve heard homeowners say what bad luck they’ve had growing perennial chrysanthemums. They plant the big cushy mums every fall and rarely find that they survived the winter. Tired of failing they stop planting them or only pick up a couple of plants to toss into containers for fall interest.

This issue of hardy mums not being hardy has to do with timing and the roots. When you buy a mum in the fall it has grown in its pot in a greenhouse for the summer. When removing the plant from the pot you will see the massive tangle of roots that developed. Attempting to tease apart the roots—a good practice for spring planting—does little late in the season to establish the mum. Your big cushion mum takes up water to make it through the fall but lacks the time necessary to set roots deep enough to survive Zones 4-6 winters. The chances of mature, fall planted mums returning the following spring is less than 30%. 

Yes, I know some of you have had luck over-wintering these potted mums, you are the 30%. The other 70% of us are left with a stalk attached to a nicely compacted and thoroughly dead root mass.

The point here is when to plant mums. The small plugs used commercially to pot-up for the big containers of cushion mums in September are the same as the ones available in spring. Be aware and read the tags. Hardy mums cultivars for Zones 4-6 are root pernicious through our winters. Florist mums are hardy only in the southern regions of the country.

To grow hardy perennial mums that return every year pick an appropriate well drained sunny site and plant them in the spring. By planting hardy mums early the root system will have sufficient time to become established before winter.

Before you plant your mums remove the top one-third of the central stem and pinch off tips of remaining stems. Mums are terminal bloomers, which mean they bloom on the tips of new growth. By pinching the tips early the plant sends out side branches, leading to more tips for flowers in the autumn. 

A rule of thumb for when to pinch back established mums is based on our holidays: pinch them back by half on Memorial Day, and again on the 4th of July. After the second pinching let the mums grow-on and develop buds. 

Bud development is based on photoperiodism meaning the length of the period of light and night. Mums growing in the garden flower as the days become shorter. This is why we see their beautiful blooms in late summer and autumn.

As the years go by and your mums return each spring and spread, remember to keep them pinched back. With larger masses of mums I often use hand held hedge clippers to quickly cut them in half.

By following these simple rules in spring you’ll have a beautiful colorful display of cushion mums as summer comes to a close.



Nearly Feral

The three year old tabby was small for her age at only five pounds. Her dark-gray fur was striped in black with a lovely undercoat of coppery-gold and was surprisingly soft and thick, more like rabbit fur in winter.

Her round little head seemed too small for her expressive and large oval eyes, especially when the pupils dilated—anxious at my approach. She was nearly feral and only partially tamed by the priest who cared for her. She needed food and protection from her own kind so he had set up a covered cage on his deck where she could eat and sleep in safety. When I adopted her she had two sizeable infected wounds from being attacked by other feral cats and the trip to the vet was traumatic.

When I looked at her tiny paws and miniature prick ears, somewhere deep inside a warm gentleness overtook me. I wanted so much to cuddle this diminutive kitty and feel her warm purring body against my own. But she was small and frightened, so my patience was required. I’d had her long enough that she no longer bolted from the room when I came with her food.

In order to move close to her as she shrunk into the corner I would lay on my belly and scooch slowly across the floor, softly repeating her name “Georgia.” Extending my arm I would pet her with two fingers, being very delicate with my touch. Too much pressure or too near and she’d dart into hiding. When that happened I waited for her to regain her trust and return to me, that non-priest person.

What I found worked best was to sit on the floor near her with my open hand facing up and resting by my side, and where she was just beyond my reach. This one knew arithmetic well and could calculate exactly how far a human’s arm could reach! If I was patient she would often inch toward me, leaning into my open palm and choosing to feel my touch. She had decided to be more accepting of my enormity in her little life.

I think of how God is just so with me, waiting patiently just beyond my reach for me to draw near. He waits, knowing I may bolt if I become sensitive to his approaching greatness compared to my littleness. His quietness draws me in as I trust the closeness of the hand that nourishes and protects. And I too, with desire overriding my fears, inch towards that loving touch.

Georgia only came to me at night after I had settled in for sleep. She’d softly mew at the foot of the bed until I pulled my hand out from under the blankets—palm up and fingers slightly curled. She would then come eagerly when I whispered her name. Curled up next to my hip, she would rub against my fingers a few times, place her round little head in the palm of my hand, and settle down. We both would fall asleep in peace.

Too sick from being feral for too long, Georgia has since passed.


(This column originally appeared at