Just yesterday, I was asked if I would help with a Rotary Club tree planting project at a local school. I am quite excited about this opportunity! As far as I'm concerned, schools generally lack ambiance these days. When I was a kid, it seemed like there were more trees on playgrounds. I fondly remember playing house inside the "rooms" created by the heaving roots of large poplar trees, which formerly resided on the playground of Rossman Elementary School in Detroit Lakes, MN. I also remember a small courtyard that used to dwell near the main entrance of Detroit Lakes Community High School. This circular space, completely enclosed by hedging, housed a pink-flowering tree. I remember playing within the "Secret Garden" as a child, attending my siblings' school events. I do not recall whether or not the courtyard was there when I was in high school. I only remember how magical it felt to me when I was "knee high to a grasshopper."
As I listen to people debate the root causes of school violence, I feel like we have become expert finger pointers and lousy idea generators. Whatever causes contribute to these crises, there are positive things that we all can do to try and improve the mental health of our children. I strongly believe that creating little sanctuaries within and outside of our schools can help. Now, I have no children, but I was once one. Because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, interacting with peers on a daily basis at school was a real adjustment for me. Trying to process my feelings after various, failed interactions was extremely stressful. Most of the time, long walks with my dogs helped me get my head right. Everyone needs a place to escape to now and then. Why not create beautiful spots at our schools, where children can find themselves and the peace that lies within them?
As I contemplate which trees are the right trees for a playground setting, I keep looking backwards with my mind's eye. The trees I loved as a kid are widely viewed as "junk trees" now. Willows, Boxelders and Cottonwoods would all have made my crayon scrawled list of favorites. Why? Because they were climbable! They supported swings and tree houses. Their low branches were prime real estate for rookie tree climbers with short legs. Oaks would have also made the cut. Acorns make such wonderful pawns in childhood games. Certainly, they can be weaponized as well; but taunting assailants must have excellent aim in order to use them effectively. Even as an adult, I have been known to engage in a campground game of "Stick-Nut" with my husband. Sure, we could just bring a proper bat and ball, but that wouldn't be as fun. Crabapples (with fruit) would also have been on my kid list. What other ingredient could possibly fill their void in a tasty pot of mud soup? I'm no psychologist, but I firmly believe that a healthy imagination is critical to mental health; especially for children.
There has been much talk lately about the benefits of diversity in our landscapes. Most of this talk is coming from educated folks, such as municipal arborists and university professors. That is likely because they have personally witnessed the downfalls of monoculture in horticulture. What exactly am I talking about? I'm talking about Autumn Blaze Maples, folks.
We really try to emphasize the merits of diversification to our customers, so that they will be able to enjoy the trees they plant for decades. Dutch Elm Disease and Emerald Ash Borers have wrecked that plan for a good many people. Trees are supposed to transcend the generations. That is why our fore fathers planted them- for us. What we hear a lot nowadays is, "do you have any trees that don't drop anything?" I hate to say it, but that kind of hurts our ears. Trees are supposed to drop things! The things they drop help improve the structure of the soil and feed the little creatures that we share our spaces with. Never mind, ensuring the survival of their parent species' for future generations. In order for diversification to work, we need to be a bit more receptive to some really great options that produce seeds and maybe grow at a slightly slower pace. Fall color isn't everything, either. I can honestly say that the messiest trees in my yard are sugar maples and their helicopters are the least of my worries. All maples, even seedless ones, have large leaves that fall very gradually...over a very L-O-N-G period of time. I think of the four seasons as: winter, spring, road construction and raking!
Actually, I think people are beginning to realize that. The reason I am writing this little tribute to arborvitaes, is because I feel like we have done them such a tremendous injustice in the past. In most cases, the only thing that these white cedars have done wrong is grow a little too well. Those of us who live in older homes may have been the victims of house-swallowing arborvitaes. As you can see in the picture below, our home is at risk of being consumed. Of course, once they reach their full potential as plants; arborvitaes often begin to decline. This is usually because other trees that were installed at the same time outgrow and smother them. Root competition can also contribute to their unhappiness. Sometimes, the very house that they were intended to accent cramps their style. While all plants age and some age more gracefully that others, we might be setting them up to look worn out.
I think the '70's did a real number on arborvitaes and their yew and juniper buddies. Please humor me and click on these text links, because they're a real hoot. One of our biggest challenges as plant people, is explaining that plants are living things that are totally capable of doing what they want. If they are happy in their homes, they may just decide to grow twice as large as their average mature size. Of course, it could take them 30 years to do it and that could be someone else's problem by the time it happens. I have experienced that mentality quite frequently as a plant salesperson. We tend to plant for rapid gratification rather than future generations these days. That is completely understandable, because many folks move quite frequently. However, it is our habits not theirs that have given arbs such a bad name. Planting anything three feet from the foundation will probably lead to some sweat and tears down the road. Sticking a pyramidal arborvitae into a scenario like that is kind of like forcing your teenager to wear onesies to school. You might be able to make them fit, but your poor kid will never fit in! I just Googled "teenagers in onesies" trying to find something to reinforce my point. Apparently it's a thing now.
What I am getting at in my typical, round-about fashion; is that arborvitaes have a distinct purpose in the landscape. They tolerate shade quite amicably until it becomes completely suffocating. They can provide a soothing barrier of green between feuding neighbors (or neighbors that just don't want to look at each other or each other's hordes) and block out unpleasant sounds with their dense foliage. They tolerate damp soils much better than many of their cohorts. They do all of these things without devouring your yard or your home if they are just given the room they need to thrive.
Still not sold? Consider the native, white cedar in its natural environment. Since I can't find the picture I was going to use to make my point, please pay some respect to this one that is growing out of a rock. Now THAT'S a tough plant!
As you can clearly see, this picture shows where trees have ceased to be. Said trees, both Boxelders, were favorites of mine. The one on the left side of the picture held many swings during its time. No one really says anything good about Boxelders these days, but I have nothing but fond memories of them and the services they provided for our family. A different one on the opposite side of the house held my tree house. That tree was extremely special to me, as I had always been very jealous of my sister and brothers' tree houses; which occupied gigantic willows. My father darn near cut his leg off while doing some hardcore pruning on one of the two trees in this picture. While that is not a fond memory, it is still another tale of our lives and the roles these trees played in them. Also, Dad's efforts to hold on to these trees as long as possible via tough-love trimming is a testament to his fondness for them. They were the original trees on the relatively tree-less property that my parents purchased in 1970. As you can clearly see, it is not a tree-free property anymore and my parents still reside there.
Last week, I had to report for jury duty. Not knowing what to expect, I brought a bag full of books to read. I did not succeed in reading one sentence, however; because the lady sitting next to me was a lot of fun to talk to! After learning about my tree related occupation, she began professing her love of willows. Her fond memories of giggling children hiding among weeping branches brought a sparkle to her eyes. At a former residence, she had planted three weeping willows in the front yard. She was so taken with their beauty and grace that she dubbed her home, "Three Willows". Her story is very familiar to me, because I think I can honestly say that EVERYONE who has come to the farm looking for willow trees shares the same reverence for them.
Quaking aspens seem to have a similar effect on people. The sound their leaves make when they rustle in the wind really resonates. I remember calling them "cinnamon trees" when I was a kid, because I thought they shared a similar aroma. When I walked past a particular stand, I would always pause and listen and sniff. Sometimes I wouldn't find the smell I was searching for and other times, I would just stand there and take it in. Nowadays, I still notice that sweet fragrance whenever I am hiking in the woods. A whiff of perfume and a whisper of wind take me to a peaceful place of memories. I'm not the only one.
Stately elms and oaks linger in our minds' eyes too. The presence that such trees have is hard to put into words. What they must have "seen" during their years, just standing in one place, is food for thought. How many birds and squirrels must they have accommodated? How many people passed beneath their arching canopies on their trips to and from countless destinations? When you really think about it, trees are much more like family members or peaceful neighbors than yard decorations. We want them around us and we're willing to do extensive work to make it so. If we allow them to be, they are fully interactive.
I attended a short seminar at Northern Green this year called, "Speak Up For Trees". Our speaker is a very neat lady, who has been working in horticulture for many years. Her Lorax themed talk provided ideas for engaging people in community tree planting projects. She rattled off typical tree planting incentives, such reducing energy costs and improving air quality. More intriguing to me, were the statistics she shared on how trees reduce crime, speed healing and even increase the birth weights of babies. There is actually a National Tree Benefits Calculator that can help you put a monetary value on your trees if you are so inclined. While all of these (and oodles more which I neglected to mention) are wonderful reasons to plant trees, I can't get past the fact that we plant trees because it is inherent for us to do so. Throughout the course of our existence as humans, we have learned that there are plenty of perfectly good, intangible reasons for having trees around. Thank goodness that's the case. Trees make memories; plain and simple.
As you can clearly see in this nice picture here, we are virtually snow free on February 15th, 2017. This is not the norm. Here are some pictures taken on later dates throughout the years to provide us all with a little cold, hard, reality.
I guess what I am getting at here, is that we Minnesotans are conditioned to be a bit cynical. Deep down, we are a hopeful lot. We just bury our hope beneath foot after foot of metaphorical snow. That is how we protect ourselves. Our plants are generally protected by literal snow and the lack thereof is a bit of a concern. Luckily, the realist in me knows that there is no point in fretting about it now.
I have more important things to worry about! My husband and friends and I are supposed to play "ice golf" this weekend on a not-so-frozen lake. There's plenty of ice out there, it's just really, really wet. That should make for even sloppier golf than we normally play. So you see, I am a life-long Minnesotan and I can still figure out a way to complain about 50 and 60 degree weather in February!
As I write this, I can't help thinking about Minnesotan tendencies and how our environment shapes our behavior. Last year, the local news did a little bit on "Minnesota Nice" and how that phrase might not be entirely accurate. In fact, I just Googled something to that effect in search of the story I'm referring to, and found a hilarious website called www.meannesota.com. The author has clearly had some very bad experiences here. I was feeling kind of ashamed after scanning through his page, which actually bears the title, "Help Me ESCAPE from Meannosota." Thank goodness, the next search engine result had a more uplifting take. The kind individual known to me only as sorenson.blogspot.com, explains that you can find "Minnesota Nice" "Up North". I can only assume that this good soul is a true Minnesotan.
I'm going to blame the weather for any coldness I might exude, because I'm a good Minnesotan and that's what I do. Notice I automatically chose the adjective, "good," in lieu of a more illustrious one. That pretty much sums up Minnesotan-ism right there. Why be frilly about it? I am reminded of the Marilla Cuthbert character from Anne of Green Gables. Could it be that all of our mental preparations for meteorological disappointment result in us being a bit guarded? Are we so used to thaws in February and freezes in May that we are in a constant state of waiting for the other shoe to drop? I'm going to go with...probably. However, despite the image we might portray, we are a hardy bunch. Just like the other forms of life who reside here, we can take just about anything that comes our way. Will we be shoveling snow again in a few weeks? There's a pretty good chance. Will that break our spirits? No chance. Will folks from other states who aren't used to our minimal usage of unnecessary gestures such as eye contact and tooth flaunting identify us as strong spirited optimists? The verdict is still out...
Most people probably don't know what goes into producing high quality, ball and burlap trees. So much happens behind the scenes. Here is a little peek at what goes on.
First of all, our arborist goes out into the field and flags the trees to be spaded with different colors of plastic ribbon. He knows what sizes they are, because we mark them when we inventory them. Evergreens get a color-coded zip tie and deciduous trees receive a colored mark on their trunks. After all of the trees are flagged, the guys head out into the field. They use whichever spade corresponds best to the size of the trees they're digging at the time and place each tree in a burlap-lined wire basket.
Here are some action shots that I took a couple of years ago. The date stamp is totally wrong. I am pretty sure this was 2013 or 2014.
Once the trees are spaded, they are loaded up onto trailers and hauled out of the field. After that happens, they are shrink wrapped and placed into sockets in the ground. Then they each receive and irrigation emitter that keeps them properly watered until they are sold and planted.
We have fancy equipment for moving our trees around that makes everything much easier. It's almost like playing a video game, except you are in a Bobcat for hours...and hours. You can see our nursery jaws pretty well in this picture. The weather was really nice in early April a few years ago when this picture was taken and the guys wrapped trees outside. Sometimes, it is too cold and windy to do that...like this year.
I hope you enjoyed my little snapshot of our world! Now you know a little more about what goes into producing a B&B tree.
This spring has me feeling like I'm stuck on a seesaw here at the nursery. The weather fluctuates drastically from day to day, puzzling even the most accurate prognosticators. Last week, I was planning on uncovering all of our overwintered shrubs and perennials today. My how things change! With lows in the mid to upper 20's predicted for Thursday and Friday, I am forced to wait another week. Our flowers have been flourishing under the plastic and their new, succulent growth won't tolerate the less pleasant conditions beyond their cozy foam blankets. I only hope that they don't cook under there; as most gardeners prefer their plants raw. Gambling is not my thing and this is the time of year when I'm forced to roll the dice. Quite a few peer-owned nurseries have already taken the plunge and uncovered their plants. Some theorize that doing this will slow down growth and harden it off. All my mind's eye can see when I contemplate this strategy is my happy new growth turning black from frost. Only time will tell who's approach was the best.
In the greenhouse, however, things are going splendidly! While it looks a bit empty at the moment, more plants should be arriving today and next week. Folks in other areas are dealing with weather related ramifications too, so some of our plants were back ordered. When you consider that we began planting bare-root shrubs on March 15th, I would say that we are making good progress. Our Alpine Currants are already loaded with tiny leaves and our Standing Ovation Serviceberries are blooming!
Another of this year's early victories is the addition of a potting annex to our big greenhouse. In the past, we have potted just about everywhere. At first, we planted shrubs in our equipment shop. This didn't really work for anyone. The guys hated having their shop messed up and the crew hated having to move all the plants to the greenhouse. Eventually, we started potting in the big greenhouse. This kind of worked, but only one of our skid loaders barely fit through the doors with buckets and pallets of potting soil. We gradually had to work our way out of the greenhouse as we potted and quarters were tight. Now, we have this!
I owe a great deal of gratitude to my boss, Jesse Kahnke, and all of my co-workers who worked on this project. They have spent over two weeks fixing everything that wasn't quite right with both greenhouses and our outdoor production areas. We are really ready to go now! Each year, we refine our processes a little more. When you work with living things, you never really perfect your techniques because the variables keep changing. Adaptation is key! With any luck, Mother Nature will be content with our willingness to cater to her whims and we will be able to uncover plants next week.
I am re-posting this article I wrote previously for "The Glencoe Enterprise". It seems, Februaries are much the same from year to year.
March is almost here, and the media is a buzz with spring enthusiasm. People in other states are already enjoying the scents of blooming flowers while we brace ourselves for what could be the biggest blizzard of the year. The weekend was a lovely one. My husband and I took a walk across Silver Lake on Saturday afternoon, and played bocce ball on the lake with our neighbor in the evening. The ice is still really solid here. Last week’s thin coating of snow has made it much easier to stay upright on it too. Saturday’s sunshine was powerful enough, that it forced us to remove our hats and scarves while we were out playing. All conditions were perfect for enjoying the day on the lake. In the winter, we feel like we have one, 472-acre backyard. Our neighborhood gang has plans to play ice croquet and bean bag before the season is through. However, Mother Nature’s mood is ready to swing again and she feels like hanging with Old Man Winter. Whether you love him or hate him, Old Man Winter is a loyal companion to Mother Nature and he is going to stick by her side for as long as he can. That is why Minnesotans are always so glad when spring arrives. When we see our first Robins or tulips of the season, our hearts are elevated. Even though we know spring will always return, we experience extensive relief when we know for sure that winter is finally over. For this reason, spring-blooming plants are a must for Minnesota gardens.
One of the easiest ways to create an impressive, spring display is with fall-planted bulbs. Tulips, daffodils and hyacinths should all be planted right before the ground freezes in late autumn. This year, you probably could have planted them in December. Watering after planting is critical, so make sure you have the means to do so. Many people put their hoses away well before bulb-planting season arrives. Beds should be mulched after the soil hardens with evergreen branches, shredded leaves or clean straw. Most bulbs require a well-drained soil. Peat moss and compost can be used to amend heavier substrates. Daffodils and grape hyacinths have pretty commendable shade tolerance. Tulips prefer full sun. Many areas that are shady in the summer receive a good amount of sun before the trees leaf out. Early blooming tulips and daffodils, as well as a nice variety of minor bulbs, bloom well before the foliage of surrounding plants unfurls. This creates full-sun opportunities that aren’t there later in the season. More light always means more options. Bulbs work well planted amongst groundcovers and hostas. The longer you keep the foliage of ephemeral bulbs thriving in the spring, the more food they produce for the next season. For this reason, it is best to plant them in locations where their gradually senescing foliage won’t bother you. Shallow-rooted annuals can be planted right on top of deeply planted bulbs. This is another great way to camouflage withering leaves.
Many Minnesota wildflowers bloom early in the season. Bloodroots, shooting stars, Canadian gingers and wild geraniums are all members of my landscape repertoire. My pride and joy is a little lady slipper that my friend, Neil Hillstrom, picked up for me at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market several years ago. All of these plants do well in shadier portions of my gardens. I would say that none of them get more than half a day of sun. Many spring-blooming natives are ephemeral. That means that they disappear completely during the summer. Some of them make a fleeting, second appearance in the fall. Therefore, you have to handle them similarly to bulbs. In my gardens, I fill the transitional void with plants that need a little heat to get going. Coral bells, hostas and ferns get their extra beauty sleep, while the little wildflowers show their stuff. Then the early birds gracefully flutter away, allowing the vibrant colors and textures of summer to flourish. Many spring-blooming gems are quite tiny. They are best used in mass plantings or as borders for paths. As single specimens, they lack impact. Some native wildflowers take years to establish. They are well worth the wait, however; when your yard looks like a Monet in May.
Lilacs and peonies are two, controversial spring beauties. Many people shy away from lilacs because they attract bees. This is not hard for me to identify with, as I used to me terrified of bees. As a kid, I was stung on several occasions. Interestingly enough, I haven’t been bitten by one bee since I started working with plants ten years ago. Another common complaint about lilacs regards one of their strongest assets. When it comes to fragrance, it seems that people either love or hate their powerful perfume. Mom and Dad have a big old lilac hedge on the farm. Fond memories of vases flowing with fragrant flowers fill my head. In my mind, both lilacs and peonies trigger nothing but positive thoughts. Lots of folks have a beef with peonies though. From the ants that associate with them to their floppy postures, it seems that peonies have fallen out of popularity over the years. Intersectional hybrids are going to change everyone’s minds. New crosses between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies offer completely new color options and much sturdier branching habits. Getting back to the lilacs, lolly-pop forms and dwarf varieties are gaining landscape favor. They fit nicely into small yards and they don’t sucker. Smaller size means smaller smells, fewer bees and a less overwhelming, over-all effect. Crabapples are controversial plants too. Visions of sidewalks, oozing with applesauce, come to mind right away. However, breeding has improved these plants as well. New crabapples retain their fruit well into the winter, when hungry birds gobble them up. Don’t give up on some of these great plants from our past. They generate powerful spring interest. More importantly, they are easy to grow. Rhododendrons and azaleas need the right site to do well. Forsythias often won’t flower above the snow line. This year, we probably can’t expect much from them. There are benefits to the tried and true few that used to grace many a Minnesota farmstead. Their soft colors and mesmerizing fragrances are indicative of a fresh start. By spring, that’s what we’re all yearning for.
Well, my hubby has the day off, and he is patiently waiting for me to wrap this up. We might just have to go for another lake walk. The weather is pretty darn nice again today. Tomorrow could require shovels and four-wheel drive. Minnesota is what it is. Make the most of it, and use plants to enhance your enjoyment of every season. Keep your eyes peeled for the first flowers of spring. I’ve seen sneak peeks on Facebook of crocuses that are blooming right here, right now.
My name is Connie Kratzke. I have worked with Kahnke Brothers for 16 years. During this period, I have done everything from watering the plants to designing our website. My role at the nursery involves selling stock, managing inventory, marketing plants and overseeing the production of shrubs and perennials. Sometimes I sit at a desk and other times I can be found in a Bobcat. During my career here, I have become a MNLA Certified Professional. I am also an at large member of the Minnesota Grown Promotion Group/Minnesota Grown Advisory Committee. Currently, I serve as City Arborist for Silver Lake, Minnesota, and a member of their planning commission. My focus is on helping our clients succeed with their landscaping efforts. Education is a huge factor influencing that success. Keeping it real is my strategy. Through sharing my experiences at the nursery and at home, I hope to debunk myths and eliminate concerns. At the same time, I want people to be aware of what doesn't work. Living things are somewhat unpredictable, but they all have basic needs. Understanding how to fill those needs while simultaneously achieving landscape goals is a process that I want to share with as many people as possible, because I truly enjoy it.