Cedar Valley Arboretum & Botanic Gardens

Archive for December 2010

In Appreciation of Snow

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I love living in Iowa.  I love experiencing four distinct seasons over the year, and the opportunities each of them bring to us as gardeners — every season has its purpose.  At least this is what I keep telling myself as I scoop out my driveway and sidewalks.  While we adjust to our new white landscape (and in honor of the winter solstice!), let’s take a few moments to appreciate the overlooked benefits of snow.

Most gardeners I know need a break by mid November.  Each fall I get to a point where if I have to pull one more weed, I am likely to scream.  Putting away our work boots for a few months gives us an opportunity to relax and wipe the slate clean for next year’s growing season.  Instead of digging in the dirt, we can dig into the latest seed catalogues and horticulture books to dream up new projects and designs.  It also gives the perennials in our garden an opportunity to go dormant – a natural and necessary part of their growth cycle.  We have all seen perennials that look a ratty and crispy around the edges at the end of the season – they need the break as much as we do, and the snow helps that happen.

“Blanket of snow” is the perfect description for this winter precipitation.   Snow is a wonderful insulator and provides important protection to the root systems of our plants when the temperatures drop.  Snow also regulates the temperature of the soil and reduces the chances of heaving.  We often have sunny winter days in Iowa, and without snow cover the change of soil temperature would cause plants to heave (causes root damage and dries out plants).

Snow also lets different cast members take center stage for a few months.  With a brilliant white backdrop, red and yellow-twigged dogwood shrubs pop in the landscape.  Trees with interesting bark, like many of the birches and paperbark maple (Acer griseum), also look great in the winter landscape.

Hope this will help you keep a positive attitude while you are out in the snow.  Happy Holidays!

See you in the gardens.


Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

December 21, 2010 at 8:26 pm

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Holiday Cactus

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The snow is falling outside, and if you are anything like me, you need a little something “green” to read.  I just opened our December e-newsletter, The View, and came across a great article Pat McGivern, one of our View editors.  Hope you enjoy as much as I did.

To read the whole e-newsletter (and sign up to receive monthly, if you do not already), check out http://www.cedarvalleyarboretum.org/newsletter.asp.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter Cacti are collectively called “Holiday Cacti,” named for the season in which they bloom.  The first two are members of the Genus Schlumbergera, and will be the topic of this article. 

Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus are possibly the second most common plants (after poinsettia) enjoyed in North American households in December, but they had their origins in the tropics.  They are from the plant family Cactaceae, or cactus, and the Genus is now known as Schlumbergera, but older works may refer to the prior name of Zygocactus.

These are succulent perennials which lack spines and are native to the South American tropics of Brazil, high in the Organ Mountains north of Rio de Janeiro.  Like many tropical cacti, these holiday favorites are epiphytes, which means they live on other plants, using the other plant as substrate, or a place to live. (As opposed to a parasitic plant, which uses its host for nutrients.)

The true “Christmas Cactus” is considered to be Schlumbergera x buckleyi, a hybrid between S. truncata and S. russelliana produced in the late 1840’s by William Buckley in England.  This true Christmas Cactus has flat stem segments (cladodes) which are arcing, and the stem segment edges are scalloped.  The flowers are pendent (hang downward) and are symmetrical, with petals evenly surrounding and no bend in the flower.  While this plant is very popular and long lived, it is not the usual plant seen in stores for December holiday sale, as it blooms a bit late for December holiday marketing.  They have been kept as holiday houseplants since the 1800’s, and have been known to live for 60 years or more, thus may be passed from one generation to the next.  The flower colors are traditionally red, but also range to magenta and magenta with some white.

The plants most often sold as “Christmas Cactus” are actually Schlumbergera truncata cultivars, known as Thanksgiving Cactus.  They bloom about a full month or more before true Christmas Cactus, timely for holiday sales, but blooms may not last until December 25.  The stem segments are more erect and spreading, and have soft points at each end.  The flowers of the Thanksgiving Cactus are asymmetrical with the bottom petals bent back, and the flower bends upward at the ovary, so that the flower appears to bloom more horizontally outward.  (Through my research for this article, I realized that my old plant in the photos is not a true Christmas Cactus, but has the upright stems, pointed leaf segments, and bent flowers of a Thanksgiving cactus. It typically is in full bloom early November and again in March.)  Flower colors have been developed to range from almost pure white to a deep reddish violet.

Both of these types of tropical or jungle cacti appreciate moist soil with good aeration such as a peat based potting medium, bright indirect light, and cooler temperatures to set their flowers.  The flowers are “thermo-photoperiodic,” meaning both cool temperatures and days and nights of fairly equivalent length trigger the budding.  The plants can be easily propagated by taking a leaf segment, and planting it a quarter of its length deep in slightly sandy soil and keeping moist.  They do not need a lot of fertilizer, feeding only two to four times per year prior to the end of October is recommended.  They also reportedly bloom better when slightly potbound.  These easy to care for plants can bring a wealth of indoor bloom just when we Iowans may need it most!

Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

December 20, 2010 at 8:51 pm

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Dwarf Conifers

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When the snow begins to fall like it is today, I have a new appreciation for the conifer trees and shrubs in our landscape.  The variety of color, texture and size can add so much interest to our winter landscape!

One of the projects I have been working on over the past few weeks is building files for each of our gardens.  Eventually, each garden file will include plant lists, descriptions, construction details, photos and whatever else I can collect.  As I was putting a file together for the Children’s Garden, I added the text found on each of the green signs found in the garden.  I have to be honest that after three summers at the Arboretum I have read only a few of the interpretive signs found in the gardens – my eyes always seem to be on the weeds instead!

Now back to conifers – one of the signs in the Children’s Garden describes how dwarf conifers come about.  It really is fascinating!  Read for yourself:

Dwarf conifers are discovered as horticulturists and hobbyists look for mutated growths growing high in natural species trees.  These growths known as “brooms” are removed from upper reaches of the host tree.  Cuttings taken by the hundreds from these “brooms” are planted and nurtured for many years.

The goal is to see if the rooted cuttings repeat the growth characteristics of their host species, or if they develop into an entirely new plant form.  The real trick comes as the matured “broom” cuttings start producing seed over the years.  If the characteristics of the adult plants started from the seeds of bare rooted “brooms” are the same as the “broom” and not the original host plant, a true dwarf has been discovered.

The Latin word ‘nana’ or dwarf is placed at the end of the species name.  For example: Procumbens Junipers’ dwarf becomes Juniperus procumbens nana.

The reason the plants are so expensive is because as slow growing dwarfs it takes years to get one large enough to sell and to make sure it’s a true dwarf anyway.

Dwarf conifers prefer:

  • to be planted bareroot at times best for species.
  • a sunny but protected location.
  • a slightly acidic soil that is well-drained.
  • a surface application of organic matter, such as shredded bark or leaf mold, to provide an adequate source of nutrients.

It gives you a whole new appreciation for how dwarf conifers come to be, doesn’t it?

Hope you are enjoying the season.  Stay warm.

See you in the gardens.

Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

December 15, 2010 at 5:32 pm

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Season Wrap-Up

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I went out to the Arboretum yesterday afternoon to make a few wreaths for a local Salvation Army fundraiser event I’m attending this afternoon.  And it is c-c-c-c-cold out there!  My how a few weeks have changed things.  It was definitely not as enjoyable to make those wreaths as it was at our November 13th wreath making class!

With the cold comes the official end of our 2010 season at the Arboretum.  Officially our season is April through October, but if we are lucky we have several weeks (Or this year, an extra month!) to work on projects.  With the end of each season, I like to make a list of projects completed and tally up volunteer hours for the season.  What a successful season it was – and it is safe to say we took leaps and bounds in growing the Arboretum!

 Every year our goal is to provide the best visitor experience possible by showcasing gardens that are well-maintained and designed.  Along with diligently working to keep our current gardens looking top-notch, we were able to take on many new projects this season.  To give you an idea, here are a few (in no particular order):

  • Expanded our weekend greeter program to better meet the needs of our visitors.  Many of the greeters were recruited from the Black Hawk County Master Gardener program, with 14 of the volunteers completely new to the Arboretum!
  • Welcomed 5 new gardeners to our community gardens and all 18 plots were adopted before Memorial Day.
  • Dedicated new Shade Garden cement path with a July ribbon cutting.
  • Planted annuals and perennials ordered from a wholesale grower – purchasing wholesale gave us the opportunity to order a larger amount of plant material at low costs.
  • Planted annuals and perennials donated by University Avenue HyVee Garden Center, Waterloo Exchange Club, Green Scene and many volunteers.
  • Planted spring-flowering bulbs in the Rose Garden and at the Arboretum’s front entrance.
  • Planted vegetables from Seed Savers Exchange in the Children’s Garden.
  • Removed the front gates to the entrance and reused as decorative backdrop panels.  The existing flowerbeds were reshaped and planted.
  • Improved our railroad garden with additional track and built a donation box to support future improvement projects. 
  • Built new pergola in the rose garden.
  • Planted companion plants in the Rose Garden.
  • Built four new cedar planters for the Rose Garden.
  • Reshaped limestone walking paths to lessen water runoff after major storms.
  • Improved perimeter trails by removing weed trees and weeded/mulched around collection trees.
  • Removed fence posts running parallel to Orange Road.
  • Revised one-mile walking trail.
  • Installed plant identification signs in the Display Gardens, Rose Garden, Shade Garden and White Garden. 
  • Installed new directional signs to help move traffic from the entrance, west to the parking lot and then east through the Arrival Garden.
  • Installed 5” x 7” signs related to vegetable gardening in the Children’s Garden. 
  • Hosted 20 tours/presentations.
  • Repaired south side of the Head House.
  • Painted the Head House.
  • Built and installed a half wall at the Education Center back door.


How did we get all of this done in one growing season?  With the help of many, many volunteers working in a variety of areas of the gardens and grounds!! 

Since developing a more formal volunteer program in 2009, the Arboretum has seen positive growth in volunteer involvement.  In 2009 we had 57 active volunteers in our database and by the end of October 2010 we grew that number to 80 active volunteers – a 40% increase!  (2009 volunteers who moved away or are no longer active were removed from the 2010 list.) 

Total 2009 hours were 1,748.45 hours and total 2010 hours were 2,718.25 hours – a 55% increase!  WOW! 

Thank you for volunteering at the Arboretum in 2010!!

Special thanks to the “Maintenance Men” and gardeners who helped close down the Arboretum for the season.


See you in the gardens.

Written by cedarvalleyarboretum

December 6, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized