Gardening Tips

  1. When Planting, Take Your Lead From Nature

    The kids are gone, and you don’t need as much lawn as you used to?  Consider using some native grasses and a simple gravel path to create such an incredible retreat and focal point in your yard.

    What to plant - that is the “perennial” question from many of our customers. 

    With so many options available these days - and a never-ending list of new plants being introduced by nurseries not only from the US, but from other countries as well - it’s a challenge to know what will grow in your yard.

    Trends for planting right now? Plant natives and pollinators to help attract beneficial insects to your yard, and help maintain better health for the bees. It makes good sense to use plants that work in your yard, offering you a good supply of flowers (and pollen) from early in the season until late in the year - and if you live in warmer areas - to offer a source of pollen year-round. 

    Maybe you can’t control the way others handle chemical use and adding pollinators, but you can make a difference in your own yard. Cut back on your chemical use especially when it is not needed, or use only as a preventative. There is a better approach using safer alternatives or home remedies that can help solve some simple problems with insects or disease in your own yard. 

    Using a grouping of native Birch clumps create a cool and shaded micro-climate beneath so you can include some of your favorite shade loving plants.

    Get familiar with native trees, shrubs, roses, vines, and perennials that grow naturally in your area. The native range for plants changes by region and by the climate in a region. Nature Hills offers many natives, all you need to do is find out the natives where you live.

    Not only can you ask your local extension office or garden clubs, but you can ask a neighbor or plant lover who might be a good source for what plants perform well in your immediate area.

    When you are out doing your daily routine or errands, pay attention to what is growing well in your local area and utilize those plants for the bones of your landscape. What looks healthy and offers color at a time of the year that your yard is lacking color?

    Look at how nature arranges plants in undisturbed areas. Watch how those areas change with the seasons offering color, texture, or fruits and berries for attracting wildlife to that area. There is a reason a plant grows where it does in nature. Hot, dry, south facing-sites create a very different microclimate than the north-facing slopes that will have cool soils with plants that will need more moisture. Check out your own yard and see what areas are sunny and dry. Use plants that you are seeing doing well in your area for those hot, dry sites.

    Look at how landscapes are being planted for new construction projects. What trends are you seeing that you like? There is no reason you can’t borrow those design ideas for your own yard. 

    Native plants are plants that reside in undisturbed sites and have a relationship with the plants and animals in the area over thousands of years. Native plants include selections that some call “nativars” or selections (cultivars) of the native plants that have superior characteristics. Larger flowers, shorter plants, more fruit, better fall color and a whole lot more! All reasons for bringing a new form of the native plant to market.

    With a backdrop of natural grown Green Giant Arborvitae shown above, and the introduction of color makes for an incredible and interesting landscape.  Check out the use of cut tree limbs formed into a natural trellis for flowering vines or even climbing veggies.

    Remember when introducing new plants to your yard to look at the site where the plant will be installed. Make sure the plant will get the right amount of sun or shade, and the type of soil in that location will best support healthy establishment and growth. 

    You can plant native trees in your town or city and they will thrive and live forever, right? Not necessarily. Planting an oak tree in a sidewalk area in a downtown concrete jungle is most likely not going to mimic where that oak tree would grow natively.

    It is so important to look at where certain healthy plants are growing because there is a reason it is doing well in that location. 

    Be aware of the plants around you, and how they are being used where you live. Watch for interesting design ideas that you too can borrow for your own landscape. Incorporate native and “nativars” and pollinators in your yard. Learn to watch and appreciate the plants in your environment and the wildlife they attract - and most of all…enjoy!

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  2. Winter Landscape: Brown Is a Color Too …

    Most of us think of the winter landscape in many parts of the country as bleak or boring and just brown. Keep in mind that brown is a color too … and so many different shades of brown that can be accented by many other colors in the landscape for some beautiful results.

    One of the most obvious dormant winter plants are the native and ornamental grasses. The grasses turn brown in many parts of the country for the winter months. Grasses are wildly popular and continue to grow in popularity mainly because of the whole new dimension they add to the dormant winter landscapes. The dramatic fall colors that precede the dormant winter color of grasses vary and can be wildly showy with reds, purples, oranges and many shades of brown.

    Native and ornamental grass selections have become a staple in most all residential and commercial landscapes. They offer interesting substance in the winter landscape not only with color, but movement. The attractive seed heads and feathery dried flowers wave in the wind and look amazing when lit with some landscape lighting during the growing season and when dormant too.

    Mixing broadleaved evergreens - like boxwood and hollies - works well in combination with all grasses. Backdrops of pines, fir and spruce really set off the beauty of dormant grasses. Using grasses with Japanese Yews, Distylium, or some of the many different Junipers create some nice harmony in your plantings.

    Let’s think about how Hydrangeas add to the dormant landscape. The newer Hydrangeas are shorter, offer more flowering and many colors, but turn brown when dormant. Those dried, dormant flower heads make very bold statements in the landscape and they last forever. Dried Hydrangea blooms are incredibly useful for decoration, and they catch and sculpt the snow beautifully in the landscape.

    What about those perennial borders? Don’t be in such a hurry to cut all those beautiful seed heads offering many different shades of brown. Coneflowers and Blackeyed Susan offer not only attractive seed heads, but are nature’s bird feeders. Those perennial borders with all their brown and dormant mounds of leaves and stems are home to many beneficial insects and offer some winter protection for birds and other wildlife as well.

    Some plants like the Russian Arborvitae (Microbiota) go dormant in the fall by transforming the soft green and fluffy ground cover to a beautiful brown color. Now think about a beautiful green evergreen ground cover used in a more natural setting that morphs into the color of a cedar sided home blending into the landscape like no other plant. It’s brilliant and looks amazing.

    Probably our favorite plants that turn brown during the dormant months must be the family of Oak trees. Oak trees are strong, long lived, and many have amazing character. There are many new introductions that have improved forms and hybrid vigor. 

    Now, we can hear you saying … “Oak trees grow so slow” … au contraire! Young transplanted Oak trees may take a year or a bit more to re-establish in your yard, but once they get past that break in period, Oak trees grow quite rapidly. They soon become a favorite in everyone’s yards.

    The other interesting thing about many Oak trees is young trees many times hold their leaves into spring. Holding their brown foliage offers interest, screening, and beautiful backdrops to other plants in your landscape. Even as these beautiful trees get larger, they many times hold the bottom third of their foliage in winter. It does add some interest to your winter landscape, and is something to take note of. Check out this young Oak (left) with its leaves holding tight in early winter. 

    We are just talking “browns” today … but just imagine what the fruit of a holly, crabapple, Viburnum or Hawthorn can do to your winter landscape! 

    Look around the landscapes in your area and see which plants provide some winter interest near you. Send us a picture if you cannot identify a favorite plant kicking up the interest in the landscape near you, and let’s see if we can help you find out what plant you are liking these days. 

    Your homework is to look for year-round interest, cover and food for birds and beneficial insects, and diversity of plants and trees - all things that keep your landscape the envy of the neighborhood. Now is a great time to find the plants that will increase the aesthetics of yard and home. 

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  3. Adapt Your Fruit Tree to Your Home Garden

    The desire to grow your own fruit has never been more popular than today. The access to different fruit types has never been better. The internet makes the possibility of what you can grow seem limitless. But there is one limit that all who desire to be successful at producing home grown fruit should consider in their pursuit, and that is adaptation.

    Cold winter temperatures, extreme hot dry summer temperatures, inadequate sunlight, poor draining soil conditions, susceptibility to local diseases and size control are some common adaptation considerations.

    Depending on where you live, your selection of what fruit to grow may often require special needs to keep it healthy and productive.

    Some things to keep in mind when choosing what you would like to grow are:

    - Is this plant recommended in my USDA climate zone? USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

    - If not, search out information on other home gardeners that may have been successful with your desired selection. See how they adapted the plant to achieve success in your area. If you are willing to put in the extra effort, go for it! If not, seek out the similarities of your desired selection by descriptions and try something new.

    - Light is essential when growing plants outdoors or bringing plants indoors for winter protection. For outdoor, select a location with at least 8 hours of sunlight, preferably morning sun as it is the drying/warming sun. When adapting them to an indoor environment, choose the brightest location possible. In many cases, artificial grow lights will be necessary to provide adequate light for plants grown indoors. This is common with citrus and should be researched well.

    - Poor drainage is the #1 reason people lose plants. This is common both in the ground where soggy soils deplete oxygen and suffocate plant roots. This also happens in container growing. Overwatering allows too much water to collect in the bottom of the container where root damaging diseases get started and challenge the plant’s rooting ability. Study your outdoor drainage in the locations where you intend to plant and add a raised bed or a tall mound in poor draining locations. Always be careful not to over water your container plants especially after bringing them indoors. This is also a very common problem with citrus.

    - Plant diseases can be very disappointing and costly. For your plant selection, research what diseases might be prevalent in your area and then choose resistant options if available. Look up your local ag advisors to get current information on how others are dealing with common diseases and decide if those are adaptions you are willing to take on to enjoy your fruit choice. Consult local Master Gardeners to find the varieties that do well in your area.

    - Short of apple rootstocks, most semi-dwarf rootstocks do not control the growth of the tree to a reasonable size. Even with apples, the rootstock most associated with successful dwarfing requires some sort of trellis or system of maintenance to make them successful. Pruning is the only true means of size control of any fruit tree. Be sure to familiarize yourself with basic pruning techniques and just do it!   

    There are so many varieties of fruit to enjoy that with a little planning and understanding of responsibility, your successful adaptation should be a sure thing.

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  4. The Loring Peach: A Variety Once on Top

    There once was a variety of peach that was so admired for its flavor, adaptability, and size, that from the time of introduction to becoming the principal variety grown in zones 5b-9 was less than 10 years. This variety is the Loring Peach.

    The Loring Peach is to this day considered by many the best choice for marginal peach growing areas, from the coastal and inland areas of zone 8-9 to the colder zones of 6A-5b and all in between.

    But what happened to this variety is what often happens to fruit when evaluated for its commercial value; it failed in appearance.

    The Loring Peach was developed at the Missouri State Fruit Station at Mountain Grove as a part of a project to discover superior varieties with winter bud hardiness and late-blooming qualities. The primary goal was to introduce better commercial varieties of peaches that would work well in the greater zones 5b-7b, which make up the state of Missouri. Under the direction of P.H. Shepard, a cross of the Frank peach with the Halehaven peach yielded many selections of which 2 we deemed superior. These were the Ozark and the Loring Peach, which were both introduced in 1946.

    Though not as hardy as the project was hoping for, the Loring was undeniably a wonderful flavored selection with great size and as such, it was introduced. Reported to be a heavy cropping variety with good disease resistance - most notably to bacterial spot – the Loring peach caught on fast. The fast rise to popularity in the state quickly turned into a nationwide demand sought after by commercial growers.    

    The Loring was tested in many areas throughout the country with mixed results. Loring proved to be a little too early bloomer for most 5A zones and even in 5b if not given the best growing site possible.

    But the Loring still faced an uphill battle, the commercial growers - though pleased with the cropping and size of the Loring’s fruit - were never quite happy with the lack of red in the skin. It was the case in the 1930’s, 1940’s and throughout most of the 50’s that a prevalent red blush indicated higher sugar to the consumer. Although this was far from the truth, it was what the peach growers of the time identified with as a value to their customer and as such, a replacement for the Loring was just a matter of time.

    Along this time the variety became popular with the home gardener and the adapted areas for planting the Loring grew to zone 9 and coastal zone 8. Coming from a Midwestern hybridization program, it was not the obvious choice; but after some time, it caught on and became noted for its dependable production. Noted on both coasts from Virginia to Oregon, the Loring has become a common recommendation on many home garden suggested lists throughout the country.

    Although varieties have come along to replace the Loring, commercially it has continued to be a popular home garden selection where, of course, the lack of a predominate red blush means nothing.

    The Loring peach has many attributes for the home gardener - the biggest being its reliable production. Where Loring is suited it will always produce. Next is the wonderful flavor. Loring is a taste test winner in many panels conducted across the United States. Loring is a freestone peach that has a noted wonderful spring bloom, the yellow flesh surrounds a red pit with the harvest coming in the mid-season. The fruit is most often large sized and with firm flesh. It is great for drying, canning, cooking or, of course, fresh eating. The Loring’s fruit hangs on the tree well until ripe, but is known to self-thin; Meaning it will drop a portion of it crop in what appears an attempt to space the crop on its own on the tree before ripening. 

    If you are unsure of a peach variety to try, this may be the one to start with. Select the popular home garden variety, without which would most likely not be here today.

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  5. Arkansas Black Apple: The Cabernet of the Apples

    Apples are the most popular fruit tree planted in the world with 7,500+ varieties to choose from. This can make selecting just one a challenge. Based on the adaptability alone, the Arkansas Black apple should be on the top of your list.

    Thought to have been discovered in the mid-1800's in Bentonville, Arkansas, it is said to be a seedling of the Winesap apple, which it shares many characteristics. It quickly grew to become a popular regional selection and was a commercial success into the 1930’s. The Arkansas Black has distinguished itself as a true Gem of home garden apple selections since that time.

    Very able to adapt to many climates, the Arkansas Black can tolerate the hot summer inland valley temperatures of California - sometimes more than 110 degrees - or the cold winter climates that are found in USDA Zone 5a - minus 15 to 20 degrees. Then everything in between including coastal planting zones like 8a and b and zone 10 are all good for the Arkansas Black Apple.

    The fruit has a deep rich red to black color that distinguishes it from all other apples. The flavor is a wonderfully unique and sweet taste to which there are few comparisons, often defined as if it were a fine wine.

    Arkansas Black has become best known for its ability to be stored for 3 to 4 months and - like a fine wine - it just continues to improve in quality. In fact, the Arkansas Black apple is a difficult apple to eat directly off the tree; it is hard as a rock, almost impossible to bite into and really lacks any flavor to speak of.

    When picked and stored in temperatures of 50 degrees or less (such as the refrigerator), the Arkansas Black Apple begins to mellow into one the finest dessert apples known. The hard texture softens to a pleasant crispness, and the flesh comes alive with a unique musky, sweet flavor not found in any other apple. This process of refinement just continues with storage, with each Arkansas Black Apple tasting just a hint better than the last.

    Arkansas Black is a highly desirable cider apple, as well as a great cooking and applesauce selection. Of course, it is second to none when fully ripe for fresh eating.

    Arkansas Black is an apple that requires a pollinator and is a perfect addition to ones already-established apple collection. If you are just getting started and your desire is to enjoy an Arkansas Black, be sure to include a self-fruitful selection like Golden Delicious or Empire apple as a pollinator. Not only will this ensure a great crop, but it will also extend your apple enjoying season with early selections and the Arkansas Black, which ripens later in the season.

    Plant Arkansas Black where it gets a full day of sunlight and always mulch well. Mulching well is particularly important in the hotter, drier climates where Arkansas Black will be protected from getting a sun spot on the sun side of the fruit. Mulching keeps the root cool and helps to avoid premature fruit drop, which is common in hot/dry climates. Mulching is a benefit in all climates as it improves the soil beneath the tree and cuts the amount of water needed throughout the season.

    Finally, the Arkansas Black is very disease resistant, which just adds to the value to the home gardener, as most of the common apple diseases will not interfere with successfully growing and cropping this jewel. With the enormous selection of apples one has to choose from, the Arkansas Black is one that should rise to the top of the list of considerations.

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  6. Don't Plant Trees Too Deep

    Planting trees and shrubs too deep will cause a slow death for sure. 

    It is so very important to be sure that you plant your new trees and shrubs at the same depth as they are growing in the container that you received them in. If you are working with bare root plants be sure to plant all roots just under the soil surface and not bury them too deeply. Many times, the planting depth is visible on a bare root plant showing where they were grown at the nursery. 

    Planting your trees and other plants too deep where there is less oxygen in the soil and can cause root girdling and death of your plants. 

    Roots like to grow in the warmer soils closer to the surface where they can grow out in all directions to find food and water. Most tree roots can be found in the top eighteen inches of soil and many feet away from the trunk. 

    Another kiss of death beside planting too deep is the addition of mulch up against the trunk of the trees and shrubs. Mulch is great over the roots of plants, but not against the stems of the plants above ground. 

    In the picture below, the young maple tree was planted way too deep and then additional mulch was added on top of the soil to make things worse. Please be careful to plant your new plants at the proper depth.

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  7. The Empire Apple: The Most Adaptable of all Apple Varieties

    The planting season is fast upon us and all looking to grow fruit are busy researching what to plant. For my money, one of the first choices for Apples should be the Empire Apple.

    Starting with the McIntosh Apple and Red Delicious Apple first crossed by Lester C. Anderson at Cornell University in the early 1940’s which resulted in thousands of seedlings that were planted in 1945 to be grown and tested by the New York Agricultural Experiment Station of Cornell University in Geneva NY. Over the next 20 years, the Cornell team tested and eliminated thousands of seedlings - finally resulting in the introduction of one: the Empire Apple in 1966.  

    Today, as reported by the US Apple Association, the Empire is one of the top 15 most popular apple varieties planted in the United States.

    But unless you happen to visit Orchards that grow it or Farmers Markets where it is available, many home gardeners may not be familiar with this tremendous home garden selection, due in part to the popularity of other apples such as Fuji, Gala and Honeycrisp that so often consume the limited space on the Supermarket shelves and make up for 90% of all apples sold.

    The strong appeal of this fruit is the wonderful McIntosh Flavor in a variety that can be grown almost anywhere.

    The flesh of the Empire apple is firmer than the Mac in warmer climates such as California, where it dependability produces year after year in zones 8-10. Though the versatility of the Empire makes it a first choice for the colder zones 4-7. 

    In the Central Valley of California, I have enjoyed The Empire in Zone 9b for many years and on a recent trip to Vermont, I enjoyed the Empire in Zone 4b. 

    For first-time fruit growers or people looking for a variety that is easy to grow, Empire is again the top choice. Mostly disease free in all climates or at the very least much less susceptible to common Apple problems like Mildew, Fireblight, Cedar Apple Rust, and Scab. This keeps the need for excessive use of chemicals to a minimum.

    The Empire is partially self-fruitful so in most cases will not require a pollinator, although the addition of another mid-season blooming variety or adding the Empire to an already existing group of Apples will only improve the set. It is a surprisingly early ripening variety in the warmer climates, whereas in the cold regions it is a late ripening variety.

    With all the attributes of the McIntosh, bright white flesh, snap to the skin and dessert quality flavor, it is a wonderful variety for fresh eating, cooking and baking. Also great for Cider, and for a real treat try dehydrating or drying the Empire - wow, good!

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  8. Snow: Natural Insulation, and its Free

    It’s only natural for us plant nerds to like to try growing things that may or may not be perfectly hardy in our yards. Or, maybe you have some rose bushes or other plants that might benefit from having some additional winter protection.

    For those of you who live in the colder regions where you get snow throughout the winter… keep this in mind when you are out moving that snow out of the way of your sidewalks and driveways.

    Snow makes the perfect insulation for your plants. Roses for instance will love having the snow piled up and covering as much of the stems as you can beneath the snow! Just be careful not to pile heavy snow on top of plants that might get crushed. 

    The rose bushes in this picture welcome the addition of piled up snow protecting the cold and wind off the canes closest to the ground. The parts that stick out an are exposed will be trimmed down anyway allowing the new growth to grow from the protected parts under the snow. 

    The snow is a great insulator for groundcovers and perennials too. Give it a whirl!

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  9. Protecting In-ground Citrus & Avocados - Zones 7, 8 and 9b

    With the onset of winter comes the cold. Depending on where you live you may have begun watching the weather reports to get ahead of a cold snap that could damage your Citrus or Avocado plants.

    Depending on the variety, a rule of thumb is Citrus and hardier Mexican varieties of Avocados will tolerate to 30 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours without damage. Some noted exceptions would be the Mexican Lime and any citrus or Avocado tree that has been recently planted.

    Selecting the best location to plant is your best advantage against the cold. Choose locations that have good air movement but not exposed to high winds and avoid low locations where cold collects during the fall and Winter. In marginal citrus locations (zone 7) selecting a wall of the house or a south facing wall that radiates heat to add protect to your plants. Avocados are not recommended for planting in the ground in Zone 7.

    Protection for you citrus should begin in the late summer. A good feeding with and organic fertilizer in September will help add to the protection against winter frost. The current rule is a well fed and well-watered citrus will improve the plants tolerance to cold. Also with Zone 7 Citrus, colder weather may call for wrapping the trunk into the lower canopy with burlap or old blankets and then mulching the base of the tree to 4 inches out past the canopy adds to the overall protection

    In all zones prone to freezes a frost blanket to cover the tree is essential. Adding 100 watt conventional bulb or a string or 2 of C9 Christmas lights hung through the trees under the Cover will add to the degrees of captured heat. I have found that during the cold periods leaving the covers on for a few weeks will not bother the tree. Be sure to turn the lights on early in the evening to allow the heat to collect under the cover. There is some evidence that pulling back the mulch during the warm part if the day allows the ground to heat up to be released into the canopy later that evening.

    The real trick to successful Citrus and Avocado Protection is keeping the trees below 10 feet during the growing season. I recommend below 8 feet to make covering and adding protection like lights a breeze. When size control is a part of your Citrus and Avocado growing adding a simple structure around your tree is easy and makes applying a frost blanket simple.                                                                      

    Applications of any of the Anti-transparent products are not recommended. Any damage that might occur on the trees as a result of winter cold should be left until the temperatures begin to stabilize in the spring to be pruned off.

    Finally, selection of varieties can mean the difference between success and failure. Very few avocados that are not of the Mexican type will survive in a winter cold climate such as Zone 8 or 9b or lower.  

    Varieties like the Mexicola, Fuerte, Stewart, Jim Bacon, and Zutano are good to try. The all popular commercial Hass should be reserved for Zone 9a and greater.

    For the hardest of the citrus, the varieties that are able to tolerate to 28 degrees for short periods are the Meyer Lemon the hardiest of the lemons, Kumquats with Nagami being the most well-known and the Fukushu a newer very sweet large fruited tree gaining in popularity. Calamondins are a very cold hardy kumquat like fruit used mostly in cooking. Owari Satsurma mandarin is a noted cold hardy variety and are very dependable. The jury is still out on newer varieties like Gold Nugget and Pixie. The Yuzu a fruit used primarily for Asian cooking is thought to be the hardiest of all the citrus. Sweet Oranges must be protected along with most Lemons, Limes and Grapefruit. Some varieties to try in these zones are the Trovita Orange, Lisbon Lemon, Bears or Persian Lime and the Oro Blanco Grapefruit.  

    For all other varieties grown in Zone 9a, 10 or higher, simple recommendations for covering your plants and feeding and keeping them watered in the event of a hard freeze are the order.

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  10. Advice For Overwintering Your Roses

    Most people cover their roses for the winter too early.  Wait until your rose plants have been exposed to several killing frosts and some good colder weather to help them go dormant BEFORE covering if winter protection is needed in your area.

    All across the midsection of the states, typically the right time is about Thanksgiving time to protect your roses.  In the more northern states still time if you have not, and as you move into the more southern areas if winter protection is needed it may be a bit early still.

    Hybrid tea, grandiflora, floribunda, and of course all the new shrub rose types can all benefit from some additional mulch added right on the plants about a foot deep.

    Wait to prune your roses until late winter or early spring so any winter damage is removed when being pruned.  And for roses that bloom on last year’s wood - they don’t get pruned until after the June bloom is done.

    Any kind of shredded mulch (bags may still be available near you), or compost works great too.  Dump the mulch right where the canes come out of the ground piling it up about a foot thick.  It will protect the canes from dying back.  The exposed parts will discolor and may die back but those parts get cut off in spring anyway, and the covered portions will remain green and viable.

    Many used to use the styrofoam rose cones and many times those plants would rot underneath the cones so if you are using them, be sure to cut the tops off the cones to allow moisture in and out during the winter months.

    A pile of mulch is such a simple way to insure winter success in areas that do get cold, and now is the time!


    Photo (left) shows a foot of mulch piled on the canes covering the crown of the plant for the winter for simple success.

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