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Garden Q&A: Should you leave fallen branches and trees or take them to the landfill?

Please settle a family controversy. In our woods, should we leave fallen branches and trees or take them to the landfill?

Sometimes tree seedlings begin life as “nurse logs,” a nutrient-rich nursery bed for the next generation of trees.
Sometimes tree seedlings begin life as “nurse logs,” a nutrient-rich nursery bed for the next generation of trees. (Baltimore Sun)

Where a branch or tree falls, it decomposes into soil, making a nutrient-rich nursery bed for the next generation of trees. Sometimes tree seedlings begin life even sooner on these “nurse logs.” You may be concerned about disease or insects, but lower branches naturally fall off trees as the upper tree canopy shades them. Little sunlight gets through, so lower leaves are not working efficiently and not worth a tree’s energy to maintain. In truth, dead wood is a vital component of a forest, supporting an incredible range of life from mammals and birds to crucial fungi. Most often trees fail from environmental conditions. Rarely do forest trees die of insects or disease that stick around to infect other trees. If you suspect that, send photos and questions to the Home & Garden Information Center at: extension.umd.edu/hgic. (Click “Ask Extension.)

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As for aesthetics, a normal forest is not complete without all stages of tree life and looks sterile without them. When we keep removing the leaves and organic debris under trees, we slowly starve them. Synthtic fertilizers cannot begin to supply the myriad nutrients and soil conditioners in simple decomposing organic matter.

A lot of my strawberries were deformed this year. They tasted okay, but not as sweet as usual. What happened?

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Strawberries are mega-fruits in disguise, meaning each individual “berry” is actually a cluster of connected fruits growing together. The tiny seeds on the exterior of a strawberry? Each is from one of those fruits. And each must be pollinated. Think how many there are on just one strawberry! You can readily see how important pollinators are. If pesticides were used nearby which indiscriminately killed a broad range of insects, there is a good chance your pollinator insects were hit. (Don’t be fooled by “natural” pesticides — asbestos and arsenic are natural, too, but it doesn’t make them less lethal.) Cold and/or rainy weather also keep pollinators from doing their job. Poorly pollinated berries are small, less sweet and often deformed. Plant your landscape to attract and nurture pollinators all year to keep them around, avoid broad-spectrum insecticides, and hope for good weather. Other possible causes include frost injury to flowers and young fruits or tarnished plant bug injury.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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