Garden Zone column

Eyes on Plants, Shrubs and Trees

Looking for a free project that involves plant watching, helps advance science and … parents, grandparents, teachers take note … can be done with children? Project BudBurst fits the bill.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProject BudBurst collects information from scientists and citizen scientists who monitor growth patterns, known as phenophases, of wildflowers and herbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees throughout the U.S. Doing so takes no special training, just the desire to watch and record the time of first leaf, first bud, first flower, peak flowering, final flower, first ripe fruit, peak fall color, and leaf drop – events gardeners notice anyway; events non-gardeners can easily learn to watch.

Phenologists – people who monitor seasonal lifecycle phases of living things – use this information to study climate change. Read more about Project BudBurst and the kid-centered BudBurst Buddies in my most recent Garden Zone article, Plant-Watching Can Advance Climate Study.

This volunteer project is a great way to introduce children to life outdoors. Plant-watching leads to improved understanding of plant needs and how weather and people affect plant survival. This can open topics of insect life, animal life, water use, soil health, and how various actions may alter all of these. The enrollment process even guides you how to locate the latitude and longitude of your property – assuming you will be observing in and around your property. The learning possibilities are nearly endless.

I’m going on my third year as a Project BudBurst observer. I wish this project was available, long ago, when my children were little. When my granddaughter is old enough I plan to enlist her in BudBurst Buddies so we can plant-watch together. It’s easy to enroll, the plant resource lists and guides are wonderful (you can access these even if you don’t enroll), and it’s interesting to occasionally check out the reported observations. You can also review observations, including mine and the handful of other Connecticut observers, recorded in 2007, 2008, and 2009 (2010 data is not yet posted).

My previous observations include:

  • Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) – the photo at the left shows the associated plant guide. I have just one of these native plants growing in the woods around my house. It grows amongst large granite boulders and directly in the shade of a fallen tree trunk. I suspect this sheltered location has kept marauding deer from munching the the leaves, stems and flowers of this woodland native.
  • common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) which, in 2010, showed first leaf on March 29 and and first flower on April 24. Not so sure I’ll note these event so early this year.
  • Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis),
  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum),
  • Common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale),
  • and Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) – I use binoculars to check for first leaf and first flower on the sixty-plus foot tall tulip tree behind my house.

If you are a social media user you can follow Project BudBurst on Facebook or search #budburst on Twitter. Link to both of these or sign up for email updates through the Join the BudBurst Community box on their website.

I’d love to compare notes with fellow Project BudBurst observers in Connecticut and elsewhere, so If you sign up please keep me posted.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Joene Hendry

Breathe a little easier…

Take a moment to look around your home or office. Stop your gaze on any plants you see. Now consider what these plants do for you on a daily basis.

Sansevieria They brighten up empty corners. They bring the outdoors in. They trade carbon dioxide for oxygen. They give gardening junkies something to exercise their green thumbs on during cold winter months. But these often underappreciated and overlooked houseplants are also doing a bang-up job of purifying the air you are breathing at this very moment.

This is not necessarily new knowledge – NASA reported, back in the late 1980’s, that many potted houseplants removed benzene and trichloroethylene from the air in specialized testing chambers. These chemicals are found in inks, oils, paints, plastics, rubber, lacquers and varnishes, and adhesives. And since then other researchers have tested  similar capabilities of potted plants in indoor office settings and potted plants abilities to clear formaldehyde from air. (My latest Garden Zone column explains more about this research.)

The remarkable abilities of plants to care for our air is interesting food for thought, especially considering that many homes and offices already contain some of the very houseplants identified as air-cleaners: Peace lily, dracaena, Ficus, Sansevieria, English ivy, and Dieffenbachia. Even some of the potted herbs – rosemary, lavender, scented geranium – many cold-climate gardeners overwinter inside showed air-cleansing capabilities.

One of the studies listed Japanese fern (Osmunda japonica), Squirrel’s-foot fern (Davallia mariesii) as the most effective ferns for formaldehyde removal. Likewise, the most effective herbaceous foliage plants included variegated spider plant (Chlorophytum bichetii), Dieffenbachia, and Anthurium, while scented geranium, lavender, and rosemary were the most effective herbs.

Here I thought I was caring for the many houseplants gracing corners, tables, shelves, and plant stands throughout my home and office – makes me more conscious that making sure my houseplants have adequate light and water, clean foliage, fresh soil, and a touch of organic fertilizer is doing more than caring for them … it’s caring for the air my family breathes.

Here’s the list of houseplants I compiled for A Touch of Green and So Much More.

  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Dracaena (D. deremensis ‘Janet Craig’ and ‘Warneckei,’ D. marginata, D. massangeana)
  • Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifritzii)
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
  • Ornamental fig (Ficus benjamina)
  • Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria laurentii)
  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’ and ‘Sweet Chico’)
  • Japanese fern (Osmunda japonica) and Squirrel’s-foot fern (Davallia mariesii)
  • Variegated spider plant (Chlorophytum bichetii)
  • Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia ‘Marianne’)
  • Flamingo flower (Anthurium andraeanum)
  • Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
  • Scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I’m pleased to already have English ivy, dracaena, sansevieria, spathiphyllum, pelargonium, and rosemary growing inside. Now, with list in hand, I’m tempted to add a few others … a spider plant and a new palm may be in my future.

How many of these plants do you grow inside?

Update: University of Georgia researchers found purple waffle plant (Hemigraphis alternata), variegated wax plant (Hoya camosa), and Asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus) plus English ivy (Hedera helix) are all highly effective in removing VOCs from indoor air according to a report in ScienceDaily.

I’m adding hoya to my list of current houseplants.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2011 Joene Hendry

Fresh Cut Christmas Trees–Repurposed

Fresh-cut Christmas trees frequently become a municipal disposal issue during early January. But you can ease your local waste burden by following a few simple steps. The first two are part of my gardening in Connecticut winter routine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA First, I often turn my former Christmas tree into an outdoor shelter for feathered friends.  It’s relatively easy to either lean the tree against a bird feeder pole, an outside deck railing, or some other vertical support near where birds feed during the winter. (If a snow pile is handy you can simply pound the base of the trunk into the pile and pack the snow tightly around the trunk. If it stays cold the tree can stand in this spot for quite a while.) Birds waiting their turn at the feeding station can find refuge in the tree, as can those seeking a roosting place while they ingest seed. To provide even more feeding stations hang stale bread, suet-filled pine cones, or orange or apple slices from the tree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA A second idea is to trim still-green branches off the trunk of the tree and use these – or, as shown in the photo, any other cut evergreen boughs – to mulch dormant perennials.  Sometime later in the winter when I need a little outdoor time, I will also trim the tree’s branches to spread over other dormant perennials. This adds an extra layer of protection from soil heaving during the thaw/freeze cycles of winter and early spring.

The branchless trunk usually gets added to other collected brush for burning in our outdoor enclosed fire pit (don’t burn fresh-cut Christmas tree parts inside – too much sap).  Parents: you can give your kids a good demonstration of just how flammable Christmas trees are by gathering the kiddies around an outdoor fire pit while you ignite dried Christmas tree boughs – good way to make them understand why cut trees need constant water and should not remain indoors too long.

Don’t have an outside fire pit? Use the tree and other brush to create a small creature shelter in the neighboring woods. Then, after a snowfall, check out and identify any tracks left by the creatures using the brush shelter.

But before turning your tree into a wildlife shelter or mulch mound, consider enlisting some help in moving the tree to locations in your yard and gardens that might look better planted with an evergreen or conifer shrub. Granted, you might not want to try this with a large tree, but one that’s about 5 feet tall could act as a nice stand in for any future planting. Think about it … how often do you have the opportunity to use a shrub stand-in prior to purchasing any new shrub?

Evergreen boughs can go in a compost pile – just don’t expect them to decay quickly. If planning a new compost pile, these boughs could become your base layer.

I’ve also heard – but not implemented – suggestions to turn the branchless trunk into a bird house post or, if handy with woodworking tools, you could mimic the Christmas-tree-turned-artsy-stool repurposing method reported by Bonnie Alter at

Cutting and using a locally-grown Christmas tree is a tradition in my family and many others. This practice supports local business and results in less transportation compared with trees trucked in from far away. Therefore, why not also try to re-use parts of the tree locally rather than sending it off to some landfill for burial?

If you simply cannot find another way to re-use your fresh-cut tree then find out how your local trash disposal or municipal waste department handles them. Let’s hope they either chip collected trees for mulch or find another environmentally sound reuse like the many listed at the National Christmas Tree Association’s  website.

For a more light-hearted and poetic look at ways to repurpose your tree, read my Garden Zone version of Clement Clark Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

And … do tell … what becomes of your fresh-cut Christmas tree?