Category Archives: Organic Care

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 3)

Weed Control

weeds

There is no universal definition of a weed. You may be content to see clover among the grass stalks in your lawn, while someone else reaches for the Roundup. Some people carefully scrutinize their lawns and remove any undesirables with tweezers while others are content as long as the weeds are green. Is it enough to eliminate the crabgrass and broadleaf weeds and leave some clover mixed in your lawn? Or do you want a lawn as luxuriant as a golf course green?

Frankly, having a completely weed-free lawn is setting the bar rather high, and will require frequent application of weed control products. Since most herbicides are synthetic, a totally weed-free lawn is not compatible with an organic-only care philosophy.

There are two major categories of weed control: pre-emergent and post-emergent. The pre-emergent treatments prevent seeds from germinating. This helps control weeds like crabgrass, which begin from seed each year. There are several kinds of synthetic pre-emergent products available. Pre-emergent herbicides won’t do much to get rid of plants like dandelions that overwinter in your lawn and spread through roots.

Post-emergent herbicides target broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, plantain and ground-ivy.  Some can be applied to the entire lawn; others are made to squirt directly onto the offending weed.  The herbicide will be absorbed into the weed and kill it off, roots and all. Be careful – it will kill anything it touches with leaves, including your annuals and perennials.

There are no comparable herbicides in organic care. Ideally, as you create a healthier environment for grass, it will become harder for weeds to compete. Weeds tend to thrive and out-compete grass in compacted soil—which is why annual core aeration is a good technique. There are organic vinegar-based  spot-herbicides that can be sprayed on weeds—but they can kill grass as well, if you’re not careful. Perhaps the best organic practice is to pull weeds by hand. There are several hand tools designed to remove weeds; just make sure you extract the entire root or the weed will grow back.

How often you apply weed controls depends upon your philosophy and your budget. Although pre-emergent controls are usually applied in early spring, the post-emergent controls can be applied as you notice the weeds appearing. You can just use them in the areas where weeds are apparent. They are usually applied when the lawn is dry; they need a few hours free of rain or watering. When Almstead provides lawn care to our clients, we typically offer two applications of pre-emergent herbicide in spring, and then follow up with monthly inspections, applying post-emergent controls as necessary.

Hand-pulling weeds is usually easiest when the ground is moist. If you intend to compost the weeds, make sure you turn your compost pile often and that it gets warm enough to kill the seeds (over 131 degrees). Otherwise, you’ll wind up cultivating them rather than killing them.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 2)

Fertilization

How you nourish your lawn depends a lot upon your “turf philosophy.” A wide range of choices are available, from totally organic to traditional synthetic products—and combinations in between.

turf

Whatever your philosophy on type of care, it’s useful to begin by having your soil tested. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do: There are both mail-in and drop-off labs you can use. Once you have a soil analysis, you can fertilize with the products that are right for your property.

In fertilizing lawns, less is often more. Too many people (including landscapers sometimes, unfortunately) dump large amounts of products on lawns, without understanding what the turf actually needs and can absorb. The goal is to create a healthy lawn ecosystem, which will ultimately lead to less use of soil amendments. (See the earlier post about the value of core aeration and composting.) When you add too much of some synthetic fertilizers, it will either wash through the soil unused or actually damage the turf by “burning” the grass.

One of the advantages of organic products is that they are far less likely to damage turf. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and gradually release their nutrients to improve the structure of the soil. This means that it will take longer to see results from organic products; the soil improvements from organic fertilizers will ultimately lead to improved turf, but it could take a couple of seasons. In order to expedite this process, some organic lawn care specialists (including Almstead), “brew” Compost Teas that contains live beneficial microorganisms. This liquid compost can be used to add these organisms directly to the soil, offering a boost to the organic soil improvement process.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How much and how often should I fertilize?” This depends on your lawn goals, available time (assuming you’re doing it yourself) and budget. In general, 2 pounds of nitrogen is the right amount for per 1,000 square feet of lawn in our area, but soil testing may modify that proportion for your property. The rule of thumb for timing is to fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day—and that’s not a bad plan. We have many clients who are happy with the results of a twice-per-year fertilization program. On the other hand, more frequent fertilization visits allow us to narrowly target the growing cycle of the lawn and tailor nutrition to weather and conditions. So we also offer a six times/year schedule (organic, traditional or mixed). That level of attention usually leads to a lawn that looks lush, plush and close to perfect.

Patience and consistency are important in developing beautiful turf: your lawn won’t go from scrub to velvet in a single season. Consistent care, including proper mowing and watering, will help your lawn look great.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 1)

Prepping and Mowing 

Having a beautiful lawn requires attention. Over the next few weeks, our blog will cover a few of the most important dynamics of creating lush, green turf.  We’ll begin with lawn prepping and mowing and then cover fertilization, weed control and pest/disease control.

Lawn2

Creating a healthy lawn is a process that starts with choosing the right grass seed for your location. The first thing to understand is: grass doesn’t grow in the shade. While some grass is more tolerant of shade than others, it will still need several hours of dappled sunlight in order to look good.  Often it’s possible to thin out trees to permit enough light to reach the lawn. If the area is permanently in shade, you might want to forget about planting grass there, in favor of ground cover, hardscape or mulch.

Several varieties of grass are commonly planted in our area; each has its own strengths and drawbacks. There is no “right” grass for all lawns. The right grass for you depends on your soil, sunlight and priorities: do you want a lawn that stays green into fall? Or grass that can take a beating from active play? Or a lawn that can survive with less water?

Kentucky Bluegrass is popular and durable but doesn’t like shade. Fescue and perennial ryegrass are also common in our area, and are more shade tolerant. Most lawns are planted with a mix of these grasses, and different grasses will dominate different areas of your lawn.

It’s often useful to begin your lawn program by checking for soil compaction. Try inserting a long screwdriver into the turf. If it doesn’t easily go in 6” deep, the soil is too compacted to encourage your grass to grow. You’ll want to use a core aerator to pull plugs from the soil and stimulate the roots to grow. This will also help to avoid thatch buildup. If you don’t use a professional for this task, rent or borrow an aerator: the spike shoes and hand tools you see advertised really don’t do the job.This is typically a fall activity, because the plugs may contain weed seed that you don’t want to encourage to grow.

Top dressing with a thin layer of compost in the spring will also get your lawn off to a good start. (This can also be done in fall.) Overseeding can help fill in bare patches.

One of the most important parts of lawn care is mowing. Proper mowing actually encourages your lawn to grow thicker and stronger, by channeling the growth energy into the roots. We recommend setting your lawnmower at 3” – 4”. Maintaining a lawn at less than that makes the lawn very vulnerable to drying out and scorching.

Many people are using mulching mowers now, too, which distribute the grass cuttings back into the lawn, where they decompose, releasing their nutrients back to the soil. Most experts recommend mowing about 1/3 of the length of the blade every time you mow. For mulching mowers, this will keep the cuttings short enough to sink back into the lawn.

Beating Heat Stress

We are at the peak of summer, and the weather can have a toll on your trees, shrubs and lawn. Extended periods of heat and humidity, along with bright sunshine, warm nights and inadequate rain can lead to summer stress on your landscape.

soaker-hose
Arranging a soaker hose to cover the critical root zone of a tree is a great method for the slow, saturated watering that’s best for trees.

Horticulturally speaking, the first place many people notice the effects of heat stress is on lawns, which have the good sense to go dormant and wait it out. We definitely recommend a combination of over-seeding and core aeration this fall to help rejuvenate your grass as the summer comes to an end. However, lawns are actually faring better than many trees, although the symptoms may not be as obvious.

Plants are constantly losing water through tiny holes in their leaves through a process called transpiration, and when it’s hot, the rate of that water loss increases. Add to that a lack of adequate rainfall, and the result is often stressed plant material. The problem facing trees is that they’re really big, and they do not have the luxury of going dormant in hot summer months, like lawns. Instead, trees have a lot of active leaves, so they lose a lot of water, and their roots are searching to replace that water in some pretty dry ground.

Trees suffering from heat stress face problems with producing new growth, healing wounds, and fighting against diseases and insects. If they’re stressed enough, they eventually run out of energy to support their existing growth and begin to decline (sometimes irreversibly). Newly planted (within the last 2 years) and mature trees are the most at risk for serious decline, and we’ve seen both this summer. Some trees that are most prone to heat stress and drought include Birches, American Dogwoods, and Japanese Maples.

dried-leaf

Signs of heat stress in trees tend to develop toward the top of the canopy first, so property owners don’t often notice it right away. They include smaller leaf size, leaf scorch (browning and/or yellowing), wilting, and sometimes loss of foliage (a particularly bad sign). 

 

So, What’s the Solution?

The best way to fight heat stress in trees is through a combination of proper irrigation, mulching, and organic soil amendments.

Irrigation:

Proper irrigation means focusing water on saturating the root zone of a tree. Sprinklers may be good for lawns, but they aren’t going to get the job done for trees. A properly placed soaker hose is a better solution. Treegators are ideal especially for young trees, which run a high risk of suffering heat stress. With a traditional garden hose, it’s also possible to set the flow to a trickle and move the mouth of the hose around to four or five different areas of the root zone over the course of the day.

treegators
Treegators are bags with tiny holes that slowly release water into the root zone of a tree.
Mulch:

A good line of defense against hot weather conditions is to apply a layer of mulch around trees and plants. Light colored mulches are better at reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil cooler in summer. Mulch also reduces evaporation of water from the soil and reduces the need to water constantly. However, to be effective, mulch needs to be applied correctly.

mulch

We recommend a depth of 2-3 inches of mulch for trees and shrubs. It should also cover a diameter of 3-4 feet around trees (to the tree’s drip line ideally) and not pile up against the stem or trunk flare. If you have any questions about mulching, please speak to your Almstead arborist.

Soil Care:

In terms of soil care, organic amendments increase a tree’s drought tolerance without spurring new growth that it can’t afford to support (which is the result of synthetic fertilization of heat stressed plants). Also, by using a soil needle injection method for applying soil amendments (as opposed to a soil drench), we can break up compacted ground and introduce better flow of nutrients, air, and water into the root zone. In addition to Almstead’s organic soil care services our arborists are always glad to advise you on irrigation practices, and we also provide watering services for plants out of reach of irrigation.

To formulate a heat stress survival plan for your trees (and shrubs, and lawn), please schedule a complimentary consultation with your Almstead arborist.

Preserving Old Trees During Construction – Part 1

Almstead was brought in to consult on preserving Sugar Maple trees — that are approximately 75 years old — during the construction of a new home in Riverside, CT. These beautiful old trees will definitely add to the value and aesthetic of the property once the construction is complete. In the meantime, it’s our job to make sure that they stay healthy and safe. In general, Maple trees have a high level of adaptability to environmental change.

We found major soil disturbance within the drip line of the tree caused by the blasting of ledge rock and the excavation for construction and the installation of utilities.

Over the course of the next year, Almstead will monitor the site and ensure that the trees are healthy, and looking their best, after the construction is over. In addition to consultation, our services will include root and crown pruning, fertilizations, soil amendments and air spading.

We will post photos and updates on this project here in the coming months.

construction-care

(Top ) Blasting of ledge rock was done in preparation for construction. You can see the fault line and exposed roots that have resulted from the rock blasting. 

(Bottom) Before and after root pruning — Almstead will be pruning the roots as well as the crown. We will also be treating the tree with cambistat growth regulators and custom fertilizations during and after construction to help preserve these trees throughout the process.

Worm Power

“I doubt that there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world.”   –Charles Darwin on earthworms

Most people know that earthworms are a sign of healthy soil. Worms process the soil, making it more tillable and creating better conditions for root development. Earthworm castings – the waste produced as they churn through the soil — are a buffet for beneficial microbes and provide nutrients that nourish roots. As soil improves and becomes richer in organic matter (think compost), the conditions become better for earthworms and the cycle of soil improvement continues.

earthworms

In addition to promoting healthy soil, scientists have evidence that earthworms actually suppress soil diseases. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station researched the effect of earthworms on vegetables grown in soil infested with soilborne plant pathogens. When earthworms were added to the soil, disease pathogens decreased by 50 – 70% and plant weights increased by 60 – 80% versus the control group. Though more research would be necessary to determine whether the worms directly destroyed the pathogens or if they promoted the presence of healthy microbes that populated and defended the root zone, the beneficial effect of worms on plant growth was impressive.

So how do we encourage earthworms to populate our lawns and gardens?

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible, unless it is compacted. General tilling of the soil just disrupts the worms’ environment. Let them do the tilling for you.
  2. Keep the soil “sweet.” Worms don’t like acidic soil so amend the soil with lime, if necessary, to raise the pH. Worms also need calcium, which is usually absent from acidic soils. Your turf will do better with a higher pH as well as applying a spring or fall lime soil testing to see where it is required.
  3. Feed them. Worms thrive on decaying organic matter. In the urban landscape, we usually remove the leaf litter that nourishes worms. Adding compost and mulch, and leaving grass clippings, will provide them with what they need to thrive.
  4. Minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical residues will slow the buildup of the worm population. Transition to an organic-based or organic lawn care program and incorporate organic soil and PHC programs into your landscape.

 

Soil Care at Almstead

At Almstead, soil improvement is a top priority of our arborists and technicians who care for trees and lawns. We custom-blend top quality compost for top-dressing both lawns and plants – providing a jump-start for your soil. We also custom-blend Compost Tea, which is alive with beneficial microorganisms. Compost Tea can be applied as a drench or soil injection, so the microbes enrich the soil without disturbing it.

It’s almost impossible for earthworms to move through compacted soil. In these situations, we use an AirSpade to remove areas of compacted soil.  We then backfill these trenches with rich compost. This loosens up the soil and gives a base camp for worms and beneficial organisms to gradually penetrate and improve the surrounding soil.  Your arborist can measure levels of soil compaction throughout your landscape in order to formulate a plan if needed.

soil-compaction

Why Are There So Many Grass Seeds?

What we call “lawn grass” covers a variety of plants from several genera. We typically divide lawn grasses into two broad categories: cool-season and warm-season. In our area, cool-season grasses are grown almost exclusively, since our winters are at the limit of tolerance for warm-season grasses. Four species account for almost all of the seed planted in our area: Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and fine fescue. The roots of these grasses start growing when temperatures reach about 50 degrees; the shoots start growing quickly when the temperature is in the 60s. As the thermometer reaches 80 degrees, growth slows and the grass becomes dormant in high summer heat.

grass-chart-cornell

As you can see from the accompanying table, each variety of grass has different characteristics. The first important distinction is between sun and shade. Unfortunately, there are few plants that will grow in both full sun and deep shade—including grasses. So if you have a typical lawn (a grassy patch surrounded by trees), you probably have full sun at the center and shade at the edges. This is why sun/shade mixes were developed.

Grass requires sun. When we refer to “shade,” we really mean at least four hours of dappled sun daily. If you get less sun than that, you can sometimes prune your trees to allow more light to reach the grass. If you have deep shade, a ground cover such as pachysandra or mulch is a better choice.

While a sun/shade mix is generally the best choice for the varied conditions of a lawn, you may want to choose a single grass to meet the conditions of a specific area. When you’re filling in patches in the shade, you could use fine fescue alone or a shade mix. Similarly, a sunny spot will do well with Kentucky bluegrass or almost any mix.

Sometimes sun vs. shade is not the only consideration. If you have kids frequently playing on the lawn, rugged quick-growing tall fescue may be a better choice. This is also a good choice for a slope, and has the benefit of better drought tolerance. However, because tall fescue is a coarser grass, it doesn’t have the silky appearance that a fine grass has. If you want a strong, low-maintenance lawn, a blend of 65 percent tall fescue (combined with 15 percent perennial ryegrass and 20 percent Kentucky bluegrasses or something similar) is a good choice.

The grass that we grow for our lawns was originally brought from Europe along with the animals that like to eat it; these grasses quickly replaced our native grasses. As many of us have become more interested in native plants, there has been renewed interest in buffalo grass, which originally covered the Great Plains. Buffalo grass is a warm-season grass, but can be grown in our area. Except for seedheads, it stops growing at 4 to 6 inches, so it requires little mowing. There are some problems in planting buffalo grass, however: it requires full sun. It is also killed by traditional lawn weed controls; hand weeding is usually necessary.

Protecting Your Evergreens with Antidesiccants

Many of you with rhododendrons in your yard can tell the temperature outside by looking at the droop of their leaves. Rhododendrons are highly thermotropic plants: their leaves move in response to the temperature. As the thermometer falls the leaves begin to droop and curl; when the temperature goes well below freezing, the leaves are tightly curled and pointing straight down.

Rhododendrons respond to cold weather.
Rhododendrons respond to cold weather.

It’s hard to believe that these leaves will unfurl and rise again in response to warmer weather – but shrubs and trees are remarkably resilient. There are times however, when they can use some extra help.

As winter approaches, I recommend applying antidesiccants (also called antitranspirants) to most broadleaf shrubs. This is not a remedy for the curling leaves of your rhododendron – those leaves are supposed to curl and actually help the plant survive the cold. The stomata (the tiny holes on leaves that allow the escape of moisture) are tightly closed, preventing any moisture loss. The problem for broadleaf evergreens is not the cold, but the warmth. When a winter thaw occurs, your rhododendron leaves will straighten out, rise up and start sweating (actually transpiring). Because of the frozen ground, the roots may not be able to replace this water loss. Add some chilly winds, and the moisture loss can be dramatic. This is where leaf damage and loss — and even plant death – may occur.

The antidesiccant adds an additional oily or waxy coating to the leaves, keeping the moisture inside. Many evergreens in our area are especially vulnerable to winter damage, particularly holly, rhododendron, cherry laurel, skip laurel, mountain laurel, Japanese skimmia, leucothoe, aucuba and boxwood. I recommend using an antidessicant on these plants in early winter. We try to spray the plants with antidessicant on a dry day when there’ll be no precipitation and the temperature is above freezing (around 40 – 50 degrees is good); you shouldn’t apply the spray in freezing temperatures.  It’s important to coat both the top and undersides of the leaves. Antidesiccants are typically organic and biodegradable; they will wear off the leaves by spring.

Rose canes and hydrangea stems will also benefit from the spray, as will young trees with thin bark. Some evergreens with needles do not need antidesiccants; plants like arborvitae and spruce can actually be harmed by it, or at least lose their blue color.

When a winter thaw occurs, as often happens in our area, another coat of antidesiccant will help the evergreens stay hydrated until spring.

-Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

The Secrets of Compost Tea

Last month, Almstead had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on Compost Tea and Air Spading for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Arborist Dan Dalton and I, along with compost tea brewing specialist Russell Wagner and lawn technician Marc San Phillipo and several other Almstead professionals, really enjoyed being able to share our knowledge and experience with others interested in organic tree and plant care.

The workshop was intensive. We covered both the science behind Compost Tea brewing and the practical issues and hurdles to creating a brewing business. I’ve been involved in Almstead’s evolution into organic care from the beginning and believe that products like compost tea are win-win: healthier for the lawns and trees as well as the environment, friendlier to consumers, and safer for everyone.

Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.  The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful  campus of Rye Country Day School.
Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.
The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful campus of Rye Country Day School.

Brewing high-quality compost tea is an involved, scientific and careful process. Compost tea is NOT a slurry of compost and water. It must be carefully balanced to meet the nutritional requirements of the plants it’s meant for.  It contains living organisms that have to be kept alive through constant aeration – both while the tea is brewing and in the truck delivering it.

Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.
Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.

We have a mini science lab in our Compost Tea brewing facility, where we examine everything going into the tea. We want it loaded with beneficial organisms, both bacteria and fungi; we add them, and make sure they are live and happy (and in the proper proportions) in the tea before we apply it. We also make sure that no damaging organisms are sneaking into our mixture.  This quality control is vital to brewing compost tea – without it, you’d  just be delivering a truckload of dirty water.

We have a rather substantial Compost Tea brewing operation here at Almstead. Compost tea is an organic way of adding nutrients and microorganisms to the soil – sort of a jump-start for soil to rejuvenate itself, making it more attractive for worms and other beneficial organisms, and keeping the process of soil development going. And it dramatically cuts down the use of chemicals, a plus for both for the environment and for people who are exposed to their lawns.

Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea  for the proper microorganisms and fungi.
Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea for the proper microorganisms and fungi.

Dan Dalton taught the segment on soil properties. He emphasized the necessity of understanding the chemical, physical and biological elements of soil in order to create a compost tea – sometimes augmented by other organic amendments – that facilitates the right soil profile. This goes way beyond simple pH – it includes factors such as adjusting the particle size of soil components and encouraging symbiotic fungi that help keep damaging organisms away from tree roots.

We create different teas for lawns and for trees because of their varying requirements. Lawns need a higher ratio of bacteria, while trees require more fungi. For large locations (like a college campus or business park) we can create a Compost Tea based on soil testing. Sometimes we add specialized ingredients like nematodes or mycorrhizal fungi to meet their specific needs.  We talked in general about recipes for compost teas – but the formulae that Almstead has carefully developed for our clients remains a closely-guarded company secret.

Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.
Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.

Our NOFA presentation also included a demonstration of air spading. Air spading (using compressed air to loosen soil around tree roots) is a wonderful tool of organic tree care. There are several methods we can choose from, depending upon the results desired. Essentially, by using the air spade, we can loosen and/or remove compacted soil. We fill in with looser soil and amendments, allowing the tree roots to “breathe,” encouraging them to grow and giving them easier access to the nutrients and water in the soil.

Russell performed air spading on one of the Rye Country Day School campus trees. Since fibrous roots are concentrated in the top 8” of soil, compaction can deprive a tree of both oxygen and nutrients. First , he excavated the critical root zone around the trunk, easing soil compaction and allowing examination of the roots for signs of girdling or disease; then he air spaded out radially from the trunk (like slicing a pie).  These slices were filled with compost and other soil amendments to provide the roots with easy access to oxygen, water and nutrients.

The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection  of compost tea into the root zone.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection of compost tea into the root zone.

Mark San Phillipo also demonstrated the soil injection of compost tea into the root zone. Compost tea can also be used as a soil drench.

By the end of the day, the workshop participants seemed to leave with a new appreciation for these important tools in organic plant care.

– Michael Almstead, VP  & Arborist

Integrated Pest Management Explained

We sometimes take it for granted that everyone understands what Integrated Pest Management means. It is one of the cornerstones of our tree, plant and lawn health care programs. But, since many of our clients have questions about the practice, let me give you a little more information.

Decades ago, when synthetic pesticides were developed, they were used liberally. And they were effective at killing pests – but they killed many beneficial insects as well. This means that the natural balance in the area where they were used was severely disrupted. The whole food chain was interrupted, and often the birds disappeared along with the bugs.

The concept of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) arose from a desire to work within the natural order. So, rather than saying “We’re just going to eliminate all aphids”,  we ask the question, “Are these aphids being controlled by their natural predators, like lady bugs and praying mantises?”  Or “Are there certain plants that need to be protected, because they are particularly vulnerable to aphids?” If the aphids are growing out of harmony with their natural predators – perhaps on an especially alluring rosebush — we step in with a very targeted treatment to manage their population, either by killing the adults, or more likely, preventing the larvae from emerging. So rather than indiscriminately spraying insecticide all around a garden, we will apply horticultural oil (to prevent the emergence of larvae) to the aphid-loving rosebush.

Integrated Pest Management isn’t always organic – but increasingly, we find that natural or bio-rational products are best for these narrow-focused targets.  And we’re always exploring organic options wherever possible.

So how do we know what to use and when? One of the fundamentals of Integrated Pest Management is inspection.  Our technicians go out and inspect our clients’ properties several times a year, and then use products that specifically respond to any observed insect or fungal threats.

An Almstead arborist shows a client how we inspect plants
An Almstead arborist shows a client how we inspect plants

And managing insects through applications is just one tool for keeping plantings healthy and beautiful. We can also limit the spread of insects or diseases through selective pruning of infested branches as well as by improving the overall health of plants (and their resistance to pests) by improving the soil.

Ken Almstead – CEO, Arborist

Don’t Squash That Worm – He Works for Me

Every gardener knows the benefits of earthworms: they are little humus-creating machines that recycle organic material as they travel, aerating and enriching the soil as they go. Worm castings (excrement) –  and eventually the worms themselves  – decay and release nutrients back into the soil. Grass, plants and trees all benefit from the activity of worms.

It’s tempting to try and improve your soil by adding more worms — and there are plenty of places willing to sell them to you for this purpose. But soil that is inhospitable to your own worms is not going to be any more attractive to imported worms – and you wind up with some really expensive dead worm fertilizer.

workerworm

There are ways to make the soil more worm-friendly, and that can start a cycle of soil improvement. Aerating compacted soil can help to make a better environment for both your worms and your plants. In addition to core aerating lawns, our Almstead arborists also use compressed air (with a tool called an Air Spade) to loosen soil around tree roots or heavily compacted places. Tree and plant roots are able to receive more water through the aerated soil – and moist soil is also worm heaven. The other thing that worms (and plants) need is nutrition. That is one reason that we enrich soil with compost and leave a thick layer of mulch on top: the worms will eat the organic material and then recycle it through the soil.

Healthy soil is not just filled with earthworms – it also contains beneficial bacteria and fungi. All these organisms, along with the roots of trees and plantings, interact to perpetuate a cycle of healthy soil creation. Here at Almstead, we like to help this process with applications of Compost Tea — a carefully-balanced, liquid compost. We brew our Compost Tea from top quality leaf and twig compost and add organic nutrients like worm castings. We nourish the beneficial microorganisms with humates and fish oil to create a nutrient-rich liquid that helps to jump-start tree, lawn, plant (and earthworm) health.

Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO

Getting to the Root of Things

Almstead was asked to do some work at St. John’s University recently.  They had done some construction about 7 years ago in a lovely quadrangle with 8 mature pin oak trees.  They worked around the trees, then resodded the  lawn. The grass looked fine, but the pin oaks, which had remained during construction, weren’t thriving.

St. John's University, Queens, NY
St. John’s University, Queens, NY

This is something we see commonly:  after construction, everything  LOOKS great, but the soil has been compacted around the tree roots by feet and machinery (which can happen even without construction on a busy campus). Eventually, the trees start to decline as their feeder roots struggle to grow and find nutrition in the dense soil. Above, you can see the tree closest to the building is starting to look stressed, lacking a full canopy.

An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning
An Almstead crew cleaning up after pruning

We had several tree care jobs to perform here, so we brought in several different crews: one group did tree trimming, another did air spading, and another took care of the hydraulic soil injection.  That way, we could lessen the disruption to the campus.

Our tree trimming crew worked on identifying and pruning diseased and dead branches  – important for the health of the tree, but also for the safety of people walking on campus.

We also removed the sod and performed air spading around the roots. The aid spade loosens the soil and blows it away from the roots using compressed air – without damaging the roots. There’s no risk of nicking the roots – or a utility line – as could happen with a traditional spade.  We can check for any other problems (insect or disease) while the roots are exposed. Then we just fill the soil back in, sometimes adding some extra amendments to keep the tree healthy.  In fact, last year, the University needed to run a water line through the root zone of this group of trees. We worked with the contractor and uncovered the roots with the air spade. We made clean cuts in the roots where necessary as he ran the line through.

An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs  hydraulic soil injection
An Almstead Plant Healthcare Technician performs hydraulic soil injection

This year, we’re performing hydraulic soil injection of custom blended fertilizer and soil additives for these oaks, to help them stay strong. (There’s Leo in the picture on the left, giving a tree its vitamins).

With some care and extra attention, these oaks should be there for several generations of future students.

– Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO

Helping City Tree Roots Breathe Easy

We performed root crown excavations on three mature ginkgo trees exhibiting signs of poor health in midtown last week alongside NYC Municipal Forester Erin Maehr. The trees had been buried 2’ deep in soil for approximately 30 years. The excess soil was removed using an air spade (which loosens and removes soil using a stream of pressurized air).

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Ginkgos in planters were buried in 2 extra feet of soil

On one tree, a grove of girdling and adventitious roots was found growing out of the trunk, including a 3.5” thick root growing approximately 11” above the trees natural root crown (where the trunk should be emerging from the soil if the tree hadn’t been buried).

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Almstead Plant Health Care Technician Leo and NYC Forester Erin at work pruning the adventitous root system.

Almstead staff member Leo perform root surgery by excavating and pruning roots using shears, loppers and hammer & chisel. We are very optimistic that with follow-up Plant Health Care services, such as deep root feeding with organic bio-stimulants, that these trees will recover and thrive as they once did.

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After air spading, the trunk meets the soil at the proper place. Many roots grew above the natural root system, causing problems for the tree.
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A large 3.5″ thick root growing approx. 11″ above the tree’s natural root syste.
Before we started to work, these trees were buried!
Before we started to work, these trees were buried!

– Chris Busak, Arborist in NYC & Westchester