Montauk daisies should be divided, if needed, in spring. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Coneflowers can be divided in spring or fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

One of the nice benefits of growing perennials is that they come back year after year without replanting — it saves time, energy and money. However, as the years go by, perennial beds can become overgrown and need to have their plants divided.

When is the ideal time to divide your perennials? Perennials can be divided almost any time, but, ideally, don’t divide perennials in the summer since it will be harder to keep the new plants growing with the heat and lessened rain. In an emergency, for example, when having to clear part of your property for new construction, divide as needed even if it is 90 degrees outside. But this is an emergency situation rather than good planning and means you need to take extra care to keep the plants thriving.

Black-eyed Susans can be divided in spring or fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel


The rule of thumb is to divide spring and summer bloomers in the fall. That means that you should have already divided plants like hostas. Fall-blooming plants (like mums, asters, Montauk daisies, etc.) should be divided in spring. By dividing them at the appropriate time, more of the plant’s energy will go into growing new roots and leaves. However, always do some research on the specific plants you need to divide before digging up the perennial clump as some plant species can be very persnickety when it comes to dividing time. And, some plants, like black-eyed Susans and coneflowers can be divided in either spring or fall.

Some perennials need to be divided every three or four years, depending on how thickly they have grown. Others don’t need to be divided for many years, like peonies. If there were fewer flowers last year than in the past, it’s a sign the clump needs to be divided. If there is a bare spot in the center of the clump, that, too is a sign the perennials need to be divided.

Steps to follow:

• Look at the size of the clump and decide into how many pieces you want to divide the clump.

• If possible, dig the appropriate number of receiving holes before you actually cut the clump. This will lessen transplant shock. You can, naturally put one of the divisions back into the original hole.

• If you can’t plant the divisions immediately, wrap them in newspaper or burlap, dampen with water and store in a bucket in a cool, shady place. Plant them ASAP.

• It’s easiest to dig up and divide a clump of perennials after there has been a rainfall.

• Start digging at the drip line and work your way around the outside of the clump of perennials.

• Once you’ve lifted the clump, if possible, divide the rooted sections by hand. This will lessen root damage.

• If necessary, take a sharp spade or gardening knife (make sure you have thoroughly cleaned it first) and cut the clump into several sections, making sure that you have roots attached to each section.

• If there was a bare spot in the center of the original bed, do not replant that section, but rather discard it to your compost pile. • Make sure you add organic matter to the newly planted divisions of the perennials.

• Keep the new plants moist, but not soggy, until they have had time to establish themselves. Mulch would be useful here. In a few months, your new plants should be growing well.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Ryan Madden from the Long Island Progressive Coalition leads a march calling for renewable energy in the form of wind. Photo from Ryan Madden

Scientists and politicians are relied upon to do the bulk of the work to reduce the effects and pace of climate change, but local activist organizations on Long Island are taking on the burden as well.

“I think it’s really important for grassroots and local solutions to tackle this crisis — to be at the forefront of the solutions,” Ryan Madden, with the Long Island Progressive Coalition said. “A lot of the problems we see in this country, in New York State and on Long Island, whether it’s rampant income inequality, access to education, just issues of local pollution and ailments related to the combustion of fossil fuels, all of this connects into a larger system that informs why climate change is a problem in the first place.”

The LIPC, a community-based grassroots organization that works on a range of issues related to sustainable development as well as achieving social, racial and economic justice, has a program for improving energy efficiency. The group helps low- to moderate-income homeowners take advantage of free energy assessments and obtain financial resources to be able to go through energy-efficient retrofits and ultimately help reduce carbon footprints. The organization also recently entered the solar arena.

Members of Sustainable Long Island’s youth-staffed farmers market in New Cassel. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

“It’s part of a larger push to democratize our energy system so that communities have a say in the build out of renewable energy and have ownership or control over the systems themselves,” Madden said. “We’re pushing for constructive and far-reaching changes, which is what we think is needed in this time.”

Madden added he has fears about the future because of comments President Donald Trump (R) has made in the past regarding climate change and his previously stated belief it is a hoax. Trump signed an executive order March 28 that served as a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, an initiative meant to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. The order infringes on commitments to the Paris Agreement, a universal, legally binding global climate deal.

“We’re trying to meet that with really bold, visionary climate policy that has a wide range of economic transformative impacts, while also remaining on the ground helping homeowners and institutions make that switch through energy efficiency and renewable energy,” Madden said.

Other organizations like the Sierra Club, a nonprofit, are also focused on renewable energy, but in the form of offshore wind.

“Offshore wind is the best way to meet our need for large-scale renewable energy that can help us fight climate change and provide good jobs for New Yorkers, but we aren’t used to getting our energy this way in the United States,” Sierra Club organizer Shay O’Reilly said. “Instead, we’re used to relying on dirty fossil fuels, and our energy markets and production systems are centered on these ways of producing electricity.”

Gordian Raacke, with Renewable Energy Long Island also works on this front. He and his group advocated for and eventually convinced the Long Island Power Authority to do a study on offshore wind power.

“January of this year, LIPA agreed to sign a contract for New York’s first, and the country’s largest, offshore wind project,” he said.

New York Renews hosted a town hall to get community members together to talk about climate change issues. Photo from Ryan Madden

Deepwater Wind will build and operate the 90-megawatt project 30 miles east of Montauk Point in the Atlantic Ocean. The project will generate enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.

In 2012, the group also commissioned a study to evaluate whether Long Island could generate 100 percent of its annual electricity consumption from renewable energy sources. The study, The Long Island Clean Electricity Vision, showed that it would not only be possible, but also economically feasible.

Currently, the LIPC has a campaign to pass the Climate and Community Protection Act in New York State, which would decarbonize all sectors of New York’s economy by 2050, redirect 40 percent of all state funding to disadvantaged communities — which would decrease pollution over decades — and ensure a transition away from fossil fuels.

These topics and others are taught in classes at Stony Brook University under its Sustainability Studies Program. Areas of study include environmental humanities, anthropology, geology, chemistry, economy, environmental policies and planning. Students do hands-on and collaborative work and take on internships in the field. They also clear trails and develop businesses to help increase sustainability among other hands-on initiatives.

“Our mission is to develop students who become leaders in sustainability and help to protect the Earth,” Heidi Hutner, director of the program said. “Climate change and pollution is the most important issue facing us today. We have to find a way to live on this planet and not totally destroy it and all of its creatures. Our students are skilled in many different ways, going into nongovernmental or not-for-profit organizations, becoming law professors, lawyers, journalists, scientists, educators, but all focused on the environment. A former student of ours is the sustainability director at Harvard Medical School.”

Students from the program organized to march in the People’s Climate March in 2014, and will be doing so again April 29. The purpose of the march is to stand up to the Trump administration’s proposed environmental policies.

Students and staff at East Islip High School work with Sustainable Long Island to build a rain garden. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

Undergraduates in the program also work closely with environmentally active local legislators like state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), and county Legislators Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport). There is also a Sierra Club on campus.

The LIPC regularly hosts round tables to show other environmental groups what it’s up to and town halls to let community members share their stories and even visit assembly members to lobby for support. Sustainable Long Island, a nonprofit founded in 1998 that specialized in advancing economic development, environmental health and social equality for Long Island, also focuses on low-income communities through its programs.

Food equality and environmental health are the group’s biggest areas of concentration because according to Gabrielle Lindau, the group’s director of communications, the issues are tied to each other.

“There is a polarization here on Long Island,” she said. “We have extremely rich communities, and then we have extremely poor communities.”

According to Lindau, 283,700 people receive emergency food each year, so Sustainable LI builds community gardens and hosts youth-staffed farmers markets to combat the problem.

“It’s a game-changer for low income communities,” she said. “These communities gardens are great because they give people access to fresh, healthy food, and it also puts the power in their hands to find food and also, the learning skills to be able to grow that food. It’s also a paid program, so it’s giving them an opportunity to earn what they’re working toward.”

The youth-staffed farmers markets, which began in 2010, have been a real catalyst for change in communities like Farmingdale, Roosevelt, Freeport, Flanders, New Castle and Wyandanch where access to fresh food is not a given.

Children help Sustainable Long Island build a community garden. Photo from Gabrielle Lindau

“We have so much farming going on out east here on Long Island and I don’t think people who live here ever step back to look at all the food we have here in our own backyard,” Lindau said. “These markets are an incredible program because they’re not only teaching kids in communities about agriculture where they wouldn’t have necessarily had the opportunity to do that, but they’re also teaching them financial literacy skills, and, at the same time, they’re bringing in healthy food items to their neighbors.”

Shameika Hanson a New York community organizer on Long Island for Mothers Out Front, an organization that works to give women a voice for change — empowering and providing them with skills and resources to get decision makers and elected officials to act on their behalf — does specific work with climate change, also calling for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As a national organization, the topics range depending on the needs of an area from getting methane gas leaks plugged, to stopping oil trains for moving through the area, to getting involved in carbon offsets. Specifically on Long Island, women are creating a task force to ensure the drinking water quality across the island is standardized.

“Democracy doesn’t work without civic engagement,” Hanson said. “There’s a need for a conversation to happen that is united. Even though the water authorities are separate, the water isn’t.”

Sustainable Long Island also works on building rain gardens to reduce stormwater runoff into local waters.

“We’re in a dire situation here on Long Island when it comes to our aquifers,” Lindau said. “We have an intense amount of nitrogen that’s already going into the ground.”

The nonprofit works with the Environmental Resource Management Foundation and PSEG Foundation and builds rain gardens like the one at the Cove Animal Rescue in Glen Cove and others in East Islip and Long Beach.

“It’s about educating communities on the importance of the rain garden and why green infrastructure practices are pivotal for environmental health on Long Island moving forward,” Lindau said. “If we don’t have clean drinking water, we’re going to be in trouble, if we don’t have usable soil to plant in, we’re not going to have farms growing the produce we need to survive and if we don’t have that produce, then we’re not going to be able to bring food into these low-income communities for people who can’t get it otherwise. They’re all connected in a number of different ways and a lot of them root back to health.”

Students in Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program participate in the 2014 People’s Climate March in NYC. Photo from Heidi Hutner

Sustainable Long Island has done work with local municipalities following superstorms like Hurricane Sandy. They helped communities rebuild, hosted peer-to-peer education meetings to better prepare locals and business owners for another devastating storm and provided job training to bring businesses back.

“A big part of this is going into communities and educating them and helping to advocate in order to facilitate change,” Lindau said. “Working with other groups is extremely important as well. We’re not a lone wolf in the nonprofit world — we not only find it important to work with governments and other municipalities — but to connect with other nonprofits who have something unique to offer as well.”

Melanie Cirillo, with the Peconic Land Trust, reiterated the need for local organizations to team up. The Peconic Land Trust conserves open space like wetlands, woodlands and farmland. It keeps an eye on water quality and infrastructure like Forge River in Mastic, which is a natural sea sponge that absorbs storm surge.

“Wetlands are key in so many of our waterfront properties,” she said. “We have a finite amount of drinking water that we need to protect for our own health. The protection of land is integral to the protection of the water.”

She said although every organization may have a bit of a different focus, they’re all working under the same umbrella and premise, with the same goal in mind: maintaining the health of Long Island.

“I think it’s important for groups to have the ability to bring people together, especially because the impact of climate change affects people in a lot of different ways, whether it’s high energy costs, the impact of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, sea level rise or coastal erosion, or ocean acidification that impacts people’s fishery and economic way of life,” Madden said. “We have to meet the immediate visceral needs of people — of communities and workers — but we also need to be thinking decades ahead on what it will take to decarbonize our entire economic system. It’s really important for groups to be oriented toward that long term focus, because this is an all hands on deck situation.”

This version corrects the spelling of Stony Brook University’s Sustainability Studies Program Director Heidi Hutner’s last name.

Make a garden craft like this unique planter at the Town of Brookhaven’s upcoming horticulture classes. Photo from Town of Brookhaven

Town of Brookhaven’s Ecology Site, located at 249 Buckley Road in Holtsville will host adult horticulture classes on Wednesdays, April 5, 19 and 26 and May 3, 10 and 17 from 10 a.m. to noon. Participants will learn about starting new plants through propagation, growing vegetables from seeds, spring gardening techniques and how to make unique gardening crafts.

Children ages 3 to 5 years old can also get in on the fun with Spring Pee Wee Gardening Classes on Thursdays, April 6, 20, 27 and May 4, 11 and 18 or Fridays, April 7, 21, 28 and May 5, 12 and 19 with class times from 10 to 11 a.m. OR 1 to 2 p.m. Participants will learn about the environment, animals and plants through crafts and stories. Price is $50 for each 6-week session. Registration deadline is March 29. To sign up, call 631-758-9664.

Heirloom tomatoes are grown from the seed of the previous generation. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Sometimes when we buy seeds or plants there will be terms listed on the label or packaging that tell us that plants are raised in a certain way or have certain characteristics. Many gardeners will seek out special types of plants, such as heirloom or hybrid. What do these terms mean and how can the gardener use them to his or her best advantage?

Heirloom plants

Virtually all veggies are available in the form of heirloom seeds including green beans. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Each autumn when I was a kid, my father used to select the best tomatoes he had grown the past summer and save the seeds. He’d remove them from the tomato and dry them on a paper towel. Come spring, he’d plant the seeds to get the new generation of tomatoes. He didn’t use the term then, but they were what was known as heirloom plants. Heirloom plants are ones grown from seed openly pollinated and produced by the parent plant. In general, heirloom plants breed true to the parent. We generally think of heirloom plants in terms of tomatoes, but the term refers to any older varieties of plants, generally passed down through the generations.


Hybrids are crosses between two different varieties of a plant in an attempt to get the best qualities of both. Seeds from hybrid plants do not breed true, so saving them for future generations is not really an option. Gardeners therefore must buy the hybrid seeds (or plants grown from them by plant breeders) each year.


Sports are unexpected mutations of a plant. Saving the seeds from sports is iffy at best. The seeds might not be viable, could produce the new characteristics or could produce the original plant. Generally, if a sport has desirable qualities, like an apple tree with a branch that produces larger, sweeter apples, the plant is reproduced vegetatively by cuttings since cuttings will breed true.


GMOs are genetically modified organisms. A scientist in a laboratory has taken genes from one organism and added it to another. The foreign genes could come from any type of organism, other plants or even animals. Supporters of GMOs say that the resulting product is safe and has superior qualities, such as it may be more disease resistant, have a longer shelf life or the plant may produce a heavier crop. Opponents are concerned about unexpected consequences — is the product safe? What are the long-term results? You may see products in the supermarket marked non-GMO because of these concerns. Legislation passed last summer in the U.S. will require foods with GMOs to be labeled. Some foods that have been genetically modified include soybeans, corn and tomatoes.

Organic gardening

Organic gardening refers to any plant — heirloom, hybrid, sport or GMO — raised without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic gardeners use compost or other nonchemical fertilizers like compost tea, bone meal, holly tone, etc. To avoid pesticides, organic gardeners will sometimes hand pick pests like slugs, encourage birds to nest in the garden (to eat insects) and use companion planting, for example, surround tulips with daffodils, to keep the squirrels away. For farms to be certified organic, chemical pesticides and fertilizers cannot be used on the land for a number of years before the beginning of organic gardening.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

The annual Home & Garden Show in Holtsville is a fun event for the whole family. File photo by Heidi Sutton

Highway Superintendent Daniel P. Losquadro (R) recently announced the return of the annual Brookhaven Town Home & Garden Show, benefiting the Holtsville Ecology Site. The show, which will once again run for two weekends, will kick off on March 25. The event will feature dozens of vendor exhibits including landscaping, garden centers, awnings, stonework, driveways, garden structures, sprinklers, siding and windows, interior décor, gutters and more.

“After a long winter, residents are always eager to come out and enjoy the wide array of home improvement ideas our vendors have on display,” said Losquadro, adding, “The Home & Garden Show is a wonderful opportunity for residents to support local businesses and reinvest in our local economy. From building outdoor fireplaces and getting more creative with landscaping design to replacing fencing and walkways or even putting in a hot tub, the Home & Garden Show features some innovative ways to enhance your home, garden and property this spring.”

In addition, with paid admission, visitors can participate in free educational workshops and hands-on classes. Workshops for adults include flower arranging, an introduction to beekeeping, organic tree care and composting. Children can learn about recycling, plant care, water conservation and make a craft. Classes and workshops are subject to change ­— a comprehensive schedule of seminars will be available at as the event nears.

The show will run on March 25 and April 1 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and March 26 and April 2 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost of admission is $6 for adults, children 16 and under are free. Parking is free, as is the opportunity to walk through the animal preserve, which is home to more than 100 injured or non-releasable wild and farm animals and will be open on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“All proceeds from this event will be used to benefit the Holtsville Ecology Site, one of our Town’s hidden gems,” Losquadro continued. “Over the years, so many families have enjoyed and appreciated all the Ecology Site has to offer. Investing the proceeds from this event directly back into the Ecology Site will help to ensure there is adequate funding to support its continued operations.”

The Town of Brookhaven’s Ecology Site is located at 249 Buckley Road in Holtsville. For further information, call 631-758-9664, ext. 18.

Update: Spring craft and storytime

Cindy Sommers, author of “Saving Kate’s Flowers,” will be at the Town of Brookhaven’s Home & Garden Show on March 25, 26 and April 1 at 11:30 a.m., 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m. and on April 2 at 2:30 and 4 p.m. Sommers will read from her book and help the children make a spring craft. Free with admission to the Home & Garden Show.

Above, an illustration of the planned hedge maze. Image courtesy of Walter Becker

By Ellen Barcel

Hedge mazes — they’re pretty and they’re fun and one is coming to Mount Sinai’s Heritage Park this year, courtesy of the Mount Sinai Garden Club. According to member Walter Becker, the garden maze will be very unique. “To the best of my knowledge this is the only hedge maze on Long Island,” said Becker in a recent interview.

A-mazing history

There’s a long history of garden mazes going back to Europe during the Renaissance period (14th to 17th century), especially in Britain and France. Some were just designed to provide a unique walkway. Later on, it became popular to include blind alleys to confuse those wandering through the maze. Still others are destination mazes where one walks through the paths trying to find the center. Some destination mazes have small gazebo’s in the center or some other architectural feature, such as a small bridge, a water feature like a birdbath or a statuary. A bench or small table and chairs is ideal for a smaller maze.

While most mazes are round or rectangular, they can be almost any shape. Some have plants that are quite tall — tall enough that the average adult can’t see over them — while others are so small that you can easily see across them. Usually garden mazes are made from evergreens so that it can be used throughout the entire year.

Setting the plan in motion

The Mount Sinai Garden Club is planning to install a hedge maze at Heritage Park (known locally as The Wedge) as early as the end of March. “The entrance and the exit of the maze are going to be on the same side,” explained Becker, making it be easier for parents “to keep track of their children playing in it.” When installed next to the new putting green, the maze will be 48 by 36 feet and is being donated by members of the garden club.

The Hinoki cypress, an evergreen with soft needles, will be used in the construction of the maze. Image courtesy of Walter Becker

A tremendous amount of research and planning was put into the design of the maze. The group wanted evergreen plants that could be pruned to a specific height, that would be sturdy and pest and blight resistant. For example, Becker said, “boxwoods were expensive and they were prone to a blight,” so they were ruled out. They also wanted plants that required minimum maintenance and that were not invasive.

After looking at many shrubs, they finally settled on the Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtuse, “an evergreen with soft needles, which takes drought conditions and does well in full sun.” A native of Japan, it is a slow-growing conifer that does well in acidic soil, another plus for Long Island’s growing conditions. It’s hardy in U.S.D.A. zones 4 to 8 (Long Island is zone 7) with an eventual height of nine feet high and a width of five feet. The garden club may decide to prune it back to six feet depending on usage.

What gave Becker the idea for a maze? During a recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg, he particularly enjoyed seeing children playing at the Governer’s Palace Maze. They would run in and around, entertaining themselves and even making up games. “It allows kids to have some fun,” he said.

While the garden club members are the prime movers and have donated both time and funds for the installation, many others have helped as well. Thanks are extended to the Mount Sinai Civic Association, the Heritage Trust, Town of Brookhaven Parks Department, Echo Landscape, Jake Ziskin with Blades of Glory Landscape, Schlect Nurseries, Bob Koch Tree Service and DeLea Sod Farms for all their assistance, guidance and donations.

A call for volunteers

“This is a huge undertaking,” said Becker, noting that volunteers are welcome and needed for the initial planting as well as long-term maintenance of the maze. On Sunday, March 26 (weather permitting)) the group will begin the construction of the maze by spray painting the layout on the ground. During the week of March 26, excavating and soil preparation will take place. On Saturday, April 1, 140 shrubs are scheduled to be delivered to Heritage Park. Volunteers are needed to help unload the shrubs and mulch and to help with planting. The plants are in five-gallon pots and are about three to four feet tall. In addition to adult volunteers, young people (over age 12) are welcome.

Volunteers are asked to bring their own tools and dress accordingly and are asked to register at the garden club’s website before the event. Becker also noted that although the garden club is based in Mount Sinai it is open to members of the surrounding communities as well. Once the plants are installed and mulch laid down, the maze will be closed for a short period of time to allow the plants to settle in. A formal opening will be held at a to-be-determined date.

Can you plant a garden maze in your own yard? Well, it is possible if you have enough room. Recommendations include at least a 25-foot across space, but consider a tiny maze with dwarf plants and fairy sculpture as a charming alternative.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Garden plots for rent

Spring is just a few weeks away. The Mount Sinai Garden Club has several garden plots available for rent at Heritage Park, 633 Mount Sinai–Coram Road, Mount Sinai for 2017 at a cost of only $25 per year. Each raised bed is 4 feet by 8 feet, perfect for maintaining a vegetable or flower garden. For more information, email or call the park at 631-509-0882.

Native to North America, mountain laurel produces beautiful white to dark pink flowers with purple markings in May and June. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Most varieties of holly need at least one male plant in the area to produce an abundance of red berries. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Broadleaf evergreens are not conifers (which evolved about 300 million years ago), but flowering plants (which evolved about 125 million years ago). It’s just that broadleaf evergreens happen to keep their leaves throughout the winter and in many cases can be used the same way that conifers can — as a year-round privacy screen. Yes, eventually they will lose their leaves, but they will stay on the plant over winter and will present a beautiful, almost Christmas card, scene covered with snow.

Azaleas and rhododendrons immediately come to mind, especially in Long Island’s acidic soil. But, there are a number of other evergreen shrubs to consider.

Euonymus come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. Small cream-colored flowers will produce red berries in autumn on some varieties. Some are fast growers that reach an enormous size and need to be pruned back several times a year — unless you really want a massive shrub. The golden variety can revert to type (that is, have its leaves turn all green), resulting in a shrub that’s part golden and part green.

The foliage on the euonymus often reverts to green, so you wind up with a bush that’s half green and half yellow. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Some are considered invasive in Suffolk County, including Euonymus alatus (winged euonymus, also called burning bush due to its red leaves in autumn) and E. fortunei (winter creeper), and are on the Do Not Sell/Transfer list. I had one that had a branch root underneath a house shutter — how’s that for invasive? Since this shrub has a number of negatives, why plant it? Do so only if you find noninvasive varieties and are sure you have the room to grow it to its potential.

Holly is one of my favorite shrubs, although over time, they can reach the size of small specimen trees. Most varieties need at least one male plant (which does not produce red berries) in the area to pollinate the female shrubs. Even holly varieties that are self-fertile will produce more red berries with a male plant in the vicinity. Holly prefers an acidic soil, so is ideal for Long Island’s soil. Another plus is that they are fairly disease and insect resistant. Some varieties are even deer resistant. While a number of my shrubs has been munched on by deer, the holly have never been touched.

Native to North America, mountain laurel produces beautiful white to dark pink flowers with purple markings in May and June. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), in the heather family, is native to North America. It blooms in May and June and is hardy in zones 4 to 9. This can be a very large shrub, maturing at 7 to 15 feet tall and easily about as wide. Do not plant this one in front of a window, unless you really want to block the view. However, it is a slow grower. It prefers full sun and, like rhodies, prefers an acidic soil (in a pH range of 4.5 to 5.5). The plant is toxic to humans and some animals — this is strictly an ornamental here. Its uniquely shaped flowers bloom in white to dark pink colors, all with purple markings.

Firethorn (Pyracantha) are thorny, evergreen shrubs in the Rosaceae family. They tend to be upright, rather than bushy shrubs, and due to the thorns should not be planted anywhere near walkways or pools. The plants can get to be quite tall, up to 12 feet at maturity. They present small white flowers in spring and summer that mature to either orange or yellow berries in autumn, which the birds love but are not edible for humans. They are hardy in zones 6 to 9. It’s an easy plant to grow and pretty much pest free. They grow in a wide variety of soil pH levels from acidic to alkaline. They grow well in shady areas and, an added bonus for those of you with clay soil, do well in sandy, loamy and even heavy (clay) soils. If it wasn’t for the thorns, this would be pretty much a perfect plant.

No plant is perfect for every location. Always read plant tags carefully to check for requirements and final size. You don’t want your home to have its windows blocked by giant shrubs or spend entirely too much time pruning them back.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

Ideally, window boxes should be filled with plants that bloom continuously throughout the growing season. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Depending on your home and gardening style, you may want to add window boxes to at least the first floor’s front windows. I also have window boxes on windows that look out on my back patio. I like sitting in the back yard, reading my newspaper and being surrounded by these colorful plants.

In general, since window boxes are not very deep, think in terms of smaller plants, ones where the tops can be seen through the windows from inside the house, but not so tall that they totally obscure the view.

Most people use annuals since perennials will usually grow too large. I have seen window boxes filled with hydrangeas, which presented a beautiful scene all growing season long, but there are a number of problems associated with keeping perennials growing in a window box such as overwintering them. The small pots needed to fit into a window box may not provide enough protection from the cold. For another, the plants really want to get much bigger and will eventually block the view. They will easily become root bound — all roots and no soil.

Geraniums are ideal, easy care plants for window boxes. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Ideal window box plants are those that bloom more or less continuously throughout the growing season. I particularly like geraniums (Pelargonium) because they are drought tolerant and are, for the most part, disease and insect pest free. In other words, once planted you can pretty much ignore them except during periods of drought when they do need supplemental water. Use a good-quality potting soil and add fertilizer, following package directions. If a little is good, a lot is not necessarily better.

Other annuals that look great in a window box include marigolds and petunias. Consider adding some Dusty Miller for its contrasting light blue-gray leaves. If your window boxes don’t get a lot of sunlight, use coleus, impatiens or fuchsia.

Adding some vinelike plants creates a charming effect, as they cascade down between the flowering plants. Consider orange nasturtium scattered between white geraniums, for example, or green potato vines between hot pink geraniums in a black window box.

Herbs are great in window boxes, especially boxes that are outside kitchen windows. Usually there is enough sun and it makes harvesting the herbs for use with a meal really easy — just open your window and pick what you need. There are many herbs that are suited to window boxes such as mints, thyme and parsley. But those that get very tall, like pineapple sage, may block out your view.

These early spring flowering plants may be replaced later in the season with ones that do well in summer and fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Unless you have very sturdy window boxes, it may be easier for you to transfer your small seedlings into larger pots and settle those pots into the window box, rather than filling the window box itself with soil. This is especially important if your window boxes are made of wood, which may soon rot away with the damp soil. To deal with this problem, I have liners of a man-made material in several of my window boxes.

For those more exuberant gardeners, you can change the plants in the widow boxes seasonally. Maybe you want mums in the fall or small bulbs in the spring. Deadheading is one chore that annoys me but really should be done with window boxes, since the plants in them are so visible, especially those on the front of your house. So, whether you go for a very formal look, a riot of colors or a way to grow your herbs, consider widow boxes this coming gardening season.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

The medium-sized pinecones of a Colorado blue spruce can be used for crafts. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

If you decide to plant one or more conifers this spring, here’s a quick rundown of some interesting plants to consider. If you are growing a particular conifer to gather the cones for crafts, make sure you select the correct tree.

Cryptomeria cones are not really suited for crafts. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Crytomeria japonica (in the cyprus family) has mature cones that are very unusual, being small, green and roundish. The tree can grow to an enormous size. As its name suggests, it is a native of Japan.

The Leyland cypress has been advertised in recent years as a fast-growing privacy hedge or, more accurately, wall. This is a cross between the Monterey cypress and the Nootka cypress. It can reach 100 feet at maturity and can grow as much as three feet a year. If you’re looking for a quick-growing screen, this is one to consider, but they do take up a lot of space.

Arborvitae are also in the cypress family. They, too, are fast growing but not as fast as the Leyland cypress. As with many evergreen, arborvitae are very difficult to prune attractively. Depending on the species, they can grow to great heights, so read the tag carefully before buying and planting them. Then, make sure you give them enough room to spread out.

All three of the above have a feathery appearance, rather than the sharp needles so many of us associate with conifers.

Fir trees are your typical Christmas trees and include Balsam fir and Frasier fir with short, flat needles and typical pine cones. There are approximately 50 different species of fir trees, but they are not fast growers. If you’re looking for a tree that won’t quickly take over, consider a fir. Size and shape vary so research your choice to see if it’s what you want for a particular craft.

The medium-sized pinecones of a Colorado blue spruce can be used for crafts. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Pine trees grow well in acidic soil, so you’ll notice many pine trees on Long Island. There are over 100 species of pine including the eastern white pine. They have longish needles and their cones are round in shape. They don’t have the elegance, to my mind, of firs and spruce but they are quick growers and provide a high privacy screen, many losing their lower limbs as they mature. Be careful where you plant them because of their sticky sap that can get on your car if you park it in their shade.

There are a number of spruce trees you might want to consider for your garden. Dwarf Alberta spruce, a sport of the larger white spruce, is used extensively in landscaping because of its small stature and thick evergreen foliage. It can, however, on rare occasions revert to type. It’s accustomed to the cold and does well in U.S.D.A. hardiness zones 2 through 7 (Long Island is 7). It generally doesn’t produce cones.

Another spruce is the Colorado blue spruce with its beautiful bluish needles. This is an elegant, medium-sized tree and not particularly a rapid grower.

Norway spruce is a magnificent tree. The branches on mature specimens drape down gracefully. The tree, however, is enormous at maturity. One in my neighborhood dwarfed a two-story house and it was planted about 45 years ago. If you have room for this magnificent tree, then go for it, but beware of how large this one can get. It’s cones are slightly curved and about five to six inches long.

Hemlock are beautiful and fast growing evergreens, but they have a major problem. They have been attacked by woolly adelgids (the appearance of white, cottony deposits on the needles are the egg cases), to the point that few have survived without yearly spraying. Even treated they do not always survive. They do make a quick growing and beautiful privacy hedge.

The Norway spruce is an elegant tree that reaches great heights. Its cones are approximately six inches long and slightly curved. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Dawn redwood Metasequoia, is a beautiful and fascinating tree, but unfortunately is not an evergreen. Unlike most conifers, this one is deciduous, that is, it loses its needles in fall. So, during winter you have a tree as bare as your maple or oak. Considered a “living fossil” the dawn redwood was believed extinct until it was found growing in the 1940s in China.

Yews (taxus) are small trees and shrubs with unusual cones, which remind one of red berries, rather than the more typical, woody, brown-layered cones. Many birds enjoy eating the seeds. Various species of yews are native to North America, Europe and Asia. Even mature, specimens are relatively small.

Cedar are beautiful, but very large evergreen conifers. The golden deodar cedar has branches tinged with gold, while the blue Atlas cedar have the same bluish cast as the Colorado blue spruce. Cedar cones tend to be very small, but the tree itself can get quite large. They can easily spread out to 40 feet across at the base at maturity. This can be a problem for gardeners who don’t realize their mature size and plant them right up against their house. There are also weeping versions of blue cedar, which are smaller in height but really spread out to make a great specimen plant as well as living screen.

So, do your homework and select just that perfect tree for next year’s garden as well as your craft projects.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

The intense red berries appearing on yews in autumn are really greatly modified cones. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

As you plan your new garden consider adding one or more conifers. Conifers are trees that bear cones and have evergreen needles (actually modified leaves). Many are pyramidal in shape, meaning that they don’t usually grow into your utility lines. Since they are evergreen, they provide a year-round screen.

The cones contain the seeds for the next generation. Conifers include pines, cedars, cypresses, redwoods, spruces and yews. They are woody plants and, almost without exception, are evergreens. The main exception, the dawn redwood, loses its needles in autumn and sprouts new ones in the spring. Note, however, that not all evergreens are conifers (more about that in a future column).

Conifers were the dominant land plant until, evolutionary wise, they were overtaken by flowering plants. So, yes, conifers are older than flowering trees. It is thought that conifers were the main food of herbivorous dinosaurs. Today, the soft wood is used for lumber, furniture and paper. Even turpentine is made from the resin of conifers, mainly pine trees.

The cones of the golden deodar cedar come out green and mature within one growing season. Photo by Ellen Barcel

If you are unable to identify a particular tree, checking out the cones themselves may help you. For example, the cones of the golden deodar cedar are born upright on the branches and are just two inches long. The cones grow upright during the summer and fall to the ground in autumn. The cones of the Norway spruce are long, up to six or more inches long and slightly curved. The cones of some pines are short, round and stubby. Some cones don’t even look like the “typical” pinecone.

Since many people use cones for crafts, particularly around Christmas, growing conifers has another advantage: material for those wreaths and other craft projects. If this is your plan, make sure that the conifers you select will yield the type of craft material you want.

If you can’t grow a tree that has the specific cone you are looking for, crafts shops frequently carry them. For example, the tree with the largest cones is the Coulter pine. The cones can be 8 to 10 inches long and can weight four to 11 pounds (less when dried out). Since this pine’s natural environment is coastal California, this is one you need to buy from craft shops.

The woody long cones on the Norway spruce are distinctive. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Depending on the variety of the tree, cones can form and mature in just a single growing season (like the golden deodar cedar) or can take up to two or three years. Most conifers have both male and female cones on the same tree. The male cones are generally smaller and produce pollen while the female cones are larger and produce the seeds. If you’ve ever used a closed pinecone in a craft and it gradually opened only to release the seeds all over your table or floor, you’ve got a female pinecone.

Conifers rarely need pruning, except to remove dangerous branches or a double or triple leader at the top of a pyramidal tree. If the conifer you’ve selected is very feathery, it needs careful pruning or it will look terrible. Feather the cuts. As always, it’s best to know the final size of your mature plant so that it doesn’t take over. You should not have to spend a ton of time pruning back overgrown plants.

Again, I recommend the Audubon Society’s guide to the trees of the eastern U.S. as an excellent reference. They have color photos of not only the needles of each conifer but of the cones as well. Next week, an overview of some specific conifers.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.