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.

Attract chickadees to your yard in the winter by filling your feeder with a mix of sunflower seeds, peanuts and cracked corn. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

Before the holidays I wrote a column on the Christmas Bird Count, a citizen-scientist effort to preserve and count birds, rather than hunt them as had been done in the 1800s. Now it’s time for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Let the count begin

The GBBC will be held on Friday, Feb. 17, through Monday, Feb. 20. Billed as a “real time snapshot of where birds are,” the count helps not only the Audubon Society but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as well. The GBBC organizers note that bird populations are in constant flux. Having people count birds in their backyard (or any location they select) does something that scientists can’t do since they are simply not enough to do the job. Last year, over 160,000 people took part in the count.

Participants count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes, or any length of time they chose and report their findings online. This makes the count a “real time” picture of what’s happening. The website for the count notes that some of the questions being studied are:

• How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?

• Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not others. Where are these species from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns?

• How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?

• How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?

• What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

You may be wondering why the GBBC takes place in February, notoriously the coldest month in the United States. The answer is that when the count first started 20 years ago, the goal was to check out the bird populations just before their spring migrations began, usually in March.

Getting started is easy. Go to and register. The website is very useful. There’s even a way online to help identify birds and details on a related photo contest. EBird, another program, is a way for Cornell Lab to keep track of bird populations throughout the entire year.

Attracting birds to the garden

Attracting birds to your garden in winter is easy. Just put out one or more bird feeders and keep them filled with seed. A heated water supply is nice, if you can manage it.

Black-eyed Susans provide seed for birds as the growing season comes to a close. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Attracting birds to the garden in late summer and autumn is just a matter of growing plants with seeds that the birds enjoy. Consider, for example, growing sunflowers. They’re beautiful annuals, come in a variety of colors and sizes, and the birds love the seeds in late summer and fall (and sometimes even into winter). Birds also enjoy all sorts of seeds, including the seeds of the black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Liatris, Coreopsis, zinnias, marigolds, poppies and cosmos.

Note that virtually all of these flowers prefers a sunny location to grow to their full potential. Birds are also attracted by plants that produce fruit in the fall, such as the dogwood, elderberry, beautyberry and grape.

Another way to attract birds to the garden is to provide one or more birdhouses and to make sure that some brush and twigs, etc. are available in your yard for birds to use for nesting material. Keep a birdbath or two in the yard as well. Remember to change the water frequently so as not to provide a breeding place for mosquitoes.

So, as you plan next year’s garden, consider adding one or more of these flowers, which add not only lovely color to your garden but lots of nice food for the local birds. Since many birds eat insects as well as seed, attracting birds to the garden is an easy way to help keep those harmful insects in check.

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

Learn how to transform your yard into a wildlife-friendly habitat at one of 12 free workshops offered. Photo courtesy of Jay Gammill

By Ellen Barcel

The Maritime Explorium, a nonprofit organization based in Port Jefferson and dedicated to science-themed exhibits and activities, will be holding a very special series of workshops dedicated to helping gardeners “transform 100 square feet of your yard into a butterfly, bee and bird friendly habitat that keeps our waterways clean and clear …”

Lauren Hubbard, founding president and former executive director of The Maritime Explorium is the program director. She noted that there are a number of reasons for transforming part of your yard into a wildlife-friendly habitat, and there are many ecological benefits to using native plants.

“They provide food for pollinators as well as food for birds,” she said. It is these very pollinators that guarantee the seeds for the next generation of plants and that farmers rely on to produce our food. She noted that native plants don’t required fertilizers. This reduces the runoff of nitrogen [from chemical fertilizers] into the surrounding waters. Excess nitrogen leads to poor water quality, which for one thing affects eel grass which is a fish nursery. Excess nitrogen also increases algae in the Sound.

Hubbard added that native plants have roots that go very deep, that is, many have taproots. They need less supplemental water from the gardener and they catch runoff of excess rain. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and other varieties of milkweed, for example, have a taproot. And, many, like the New England aster, are deer resistant. Native plants also feed native birds, who also eat many of the garden pests, insects, for example, that damage our gardens.

Each project participant registers for only one workshop, but to make the workshops and project convenient, they are spread over the next six months and are held at two locations. Those at the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field are held on Saturdays (Jan. 28, Feb. 18, March 25, April 29, May 27 and June 24). Those at The Barn at Avalon Park and Preserve in Stony Brook (off Shep Jones Lane) will be held on Sundays (Jan. 29, Feb. 19, March 26, April 30, May 28 and June 25), all from 9 to 11:30 a.m.

Not only are the workshops free, but each project participant is reimbursed up to $50 for plants they buy to create their own butterfly, bee and bird-friendly garden if they complete the project. The workshops are open to all who are interested, but there are several requirements to participate in the project and receive the reimbursement. The piece of property you wish to transform (100 square feet, i.e., roughly 10 by 10 feet) must be within the Long Island Sound watershed (water on your street drains to the Sound as opposed to the Great South Bay and ocean). If you have a question as to whether your area is within the watershed, email [email protected] for details.

The property must then be planted with appropriate plants — a list will be provided at the workshop you attend. You are then asked share a before and after photo of the 100 square feet you have transformed.

This project is funded by a grant from the Long Island Sound Future Fund from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. To register, go to

For more details on native plants, visit The Long Island Native Plant Initiative website at, which holds an annual sale of native plants.

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