Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Yellow or brown needles on evergreens are normal

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The appearance of yellow, and subsequently brown, needles on white and other pine species in late September and early October often leads some people to conclude that their trees are in peril. Fear not! This is a normal response. I could give a detailed explanation of why this happens, but you're more likely to remember this metaphorical description by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac:

"Pines have earned the reputation of being 'evergreen' by the same device that governments use to achieve the appearance of perpetuity: overlapping terms of office. By taking on new needles on the new growth of each year, and discarding old needles at longer intervals, they have led the casual onlooker to believe that needles remain forever green."

"Each species of pine has its own constitution, which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate for its way of life. Thus, the white pine retains its needles for a year and a half; the red and the jack pines for two years and a half. Incoming needles take office each June and outgoing needles write their farewell addresses in October. All write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown. Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand. It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines."

COLOR INTO THE FALL

Despite a record high temperature just a week prior, this past Monday saw temperatures dip to the freezing point in many locations. For the most part it was a light frost, that is, at or just below 32 F. Yet, even this light frost terminated the growing season for many of our annual flowers. Zinnias and begonias were especially hard hit. However, we were not discouraged since there are many annuals which withstood the cold without any apparent ill effects. Among these are bachelor's button, calendula, annual dianthus, osteospermum and sweet alyssum. Though we don't have any in our gardens, pansy, viola and snapdragon can also withstand a light frost.

The lesson learned from these observations is that the color and beauty of the flower garden can be extended well into autumn with wise selection of species when planting in spring. A good way to learn which annuals are most frost-tolerant is to take note of those in your own garden, and take strolls through the neighborhood or a public garden periodically through the fall.

FALL TASKS CONTINUE

In the meantime take note of these gardening tasks:

- Finish digging the last of your late potatoes. Cull bruised ones for immediate use. The rest can be stored in a place with cool temperatures. You may carefully brush soil from the spuds, but never wash potatoes or any other root crop before storage since this may cause injury to the protective skin and allow entry of decay-causing fungi. Fortunately, this advice does not pertain to my friends.

- Dig up sweet potatoes and sort out any that are bruised or badly cut. Plan to use these soon after harvest. The rest of the potatoes should be cured in a warm, dark and airy place for about two weeks before storing in a cool location, such as a basement or breezeway. Otherwise, cook and freeze the sweet potatoes.

- Wash ornamental gourds with a disinfectant, such as household bleach or Lysol, before waxing or painting them.

- Cut off the shoots of peonies and bury or compost them even if the stems and leaves show no symptoms of disease. These fading tops are ideal sites for various disease-causing fungi to overwinter and be on location for re-infecting newly emerging peony foliage and flower buds next spring.

- Dig and pot up a clump of mint for growing on indoors. Keep the plant near a well-lighted window and water just enough to keep the plant from wilting. Potted mint will grow slowly, but will provide leaves for culinary use. In spring, replant the mint in the garden.

- Plant some regal lilies between peonies or among rhododendron and mountain laurels. The foliage from these surrounding plants will keep the lily roots cool. Mulch the bulbs for winter, primarily to slow their growth in spring. Regal lilies often come up too early and the flower buds can be damaged by late frosts.

- Don't cut back the stems of garden mums when their blossoms have faded. The stems will help keep winter mulches in place and may also capture drifting snow, nature's mulch.

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