Thursday, May 29, 2008

Planting Perennials with Spring Flowering Bulbs

Over the last year-and-a-half I have been consulting and coaching a gardener and HSNY member in Rego Park, Queens. I make seasonal visits to advise on new plantings to add, transplants to perform, pruning to consider, plant and weed identification, and the like. Not only am I thrilled with how the garden is coming along, but the owner has become really educated and empowered herself, and that is what is most gratifying to me. She had embraced and prioritized horticulture in her own life and every time I visit it is wonderful to see how she in return is positively influencing her neighbors and their gardens. Just the same, questions always arise, such as the following which came in a recent email. As always I am more than happy to further educate and empower to the best of my ability. If you have a garden space and need the advice of a professional horticulturist let me remind you that HSNY does provide a consultation service for residents in Manhattan and the outer boroughs. Feel free to email me for more details at

I did do one probably bad thing Sunday. I couldn't resist some shasta daisies and then couldn't find a sunny spot to plant them so in desperation put them among the tulips (there are two big bunches, which I later realized I probably should have broken up). Now I'm concerned that the tulips and daisies will be fighting for nutrients and water next spring, will they?
Not necessarily a bad move to plant the daisies among the tulips. Yes, you could have broken them up and planted them interspersed instead of in large clumps, but as we have discussed I know how the clumps make more of an impact in your garden so it is fine to enjoy them that way. Often spring flowering bulbs are active and then dormant at different times than many perennials. Up at NYBG they have a fabulous daylily/daffodil walk, a long expanse with the two different perennials planted in large clumps right next to each other. The daffodils do their thing nice and early in spring as usual and as they go dormant for the summer the daylilies really come into their own and then flower through the summer months. Bulbs do not need nor want tons of excess moisture during the summer, but the day lilies end up taking most of the water for themselves so it turns out that the two co-exist quite happily. Your situation is slightly different, but I think the basic factors remain the same. Your tulips have already pushed their flower and foliage. Now we are just letting the foliage remain to build up energy and nutrient reserves for next year. As those leaves will soon yellow and the bulbs will begin to go dormant the daisies will begin to enjoy the spotlight, including the sun and the regular watering you provide. Next spring the cycle should repeat itself, with the bulbs active early followed nicely by the daisies. In a couple years we might have to plant some new tulips as they only seem to last 3-5 years comfortably, and by that time we can plant them in more concentrated clumps between the daisies to keep the look and feel of your garden sensational.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Movie Screening this Friday at HSNY

Image courtesy of MGM Studios

Come and join us for an environmental cult classic!

HSNY Movie Screening: Soylent Green
Friday, May 23, 2008, 6:30-8:30pm
Suggested Donation $5

Soylent Green
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young
97 minutes

A tale of Earth in despair in 2022. Natural food like fruits, vegetables, and meat among others are now extinct. Earth is overpopulated and New York City has 40 million starving, poverty stricken people. The only way they survive is with water rations and eating a mysterious food called Soylent. A detective investigates the murder of the president of the Soylent Company. The truth he uncovers is more disturbing than the Earth in turmoil when he learns the secret ingredient of Soylent Green.

The Horticultural Society of New York
148 West 37th Street 13th Floor
New York, NY 10018
212.757.0915 x100

Last chance: RICCI ALBENDA - 26 DEVOE on view in the HSNY Gallery through May 23rd

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Yarrow in Manhattan?

(Achillea Millefolium 'Moonshine' found outside of a public school in the East Village last July, photo: Alex Feleppa)

Can a yarrow plant grow inside? Where in Manhattan can I purchase a yarrow plant?

I do not think that you could successfully grow yarrow indoors. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium and its many hybrids, is a winter hardy perennial here in the northeast and without a winter chill to allow the plant to go dormant I do not think it would survive. Or, I should say, it might live indoors, but is certainly not going to be as happy as those you see in outdoor gardens around the city. As far as where to find yarrow in Manhattan, I might first check at the Farmer’s Market in Union Square. The Market is open Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and it is best to get there early in the day. Recently I have noticed greater amounts and selections of perennials for sale and a coworker mentioned that he saw yarrow plants for sale not too long ago. If you strike out there, then I would visit Chelsea Garden Center or Dimitri’s. Chelsea Garden Center is on 11th Avenue at 44th Street and Dimitri’s has moved to 2413 Third Avenue in the Bronx. They also have websites if you would prefer to go that route and call before visiting. Of course there is the Flower District on 28th Street but it can be a challenge finding perennials some times. I tend to go there more for houseplants, tropicals, annuals, or the occasional woody plant. As a final thought, I wonder if the garden sections at Home Depot might have anything. Out near my home in Astoria, Queens, I bought a bunch of great looking yarrow last week for cheap, but perhaps that is just the case at Home Depots in the outer-boroughs. Needless to say it is better to buy locally from a grower at the Farmer’s Market or one of the garden centers, but I want to present you will all the options that come to mind.

Cotinus Care in Yonkers

Oh please tell me that it is still OK for me to prune "my baby" which is really starting to make me very worried. It is more like a tree than a bush/shrub and I've let it grow to high and I did not prune it hard by March 31. I did prune back the long branches but the base of the "shrub" is more like a tree shape having a right and left side with the middle having been destroyed in a hurricane two years ago. This year, only the left side is beginning to leaf with the right side still bare but amazingly, growth pushing up from the bottom. The leafless right side is alive - how do it know? - if I prune off a small branch, the smell is there and if you scrape the bark, you see green. I would estimate it's overall, crooked height to be about 5' tall.

So, after having read your article and only having about 10% of the shrub/tree in leaf, my question is:

Can I safely prune back now/today to approx 3' tall, fertilize and keep moist, and hope that it will begin to leaf more evenly?

This is the Queen of my Garden and I must save it and restore it to its overall beauty. I don't care if it flowers; I just want all the leaves to return all over the plant and enjoy them as they sway in the breeze and look like silver when it rains.

thanks for your help; it is greatly appreciated.

I asked if she could send me some photos to get a better idea of the situation and here is one:She also added:
Incidentally, I lost my first one. Following its demise, I sent a soil sample to Cornell in Illinois (I think) because I suspected verticillium wilt and I know this shrub does not do well under these conditions. I hope this one is not falling prey to the same fungus.

To date, I have fed it with Plant Tone but if there is something else that I should use to strengthen it, please let me know.

To all this I answered:
The left side I doubt is going to come back. There might be some green left in the tissue but it is not going to come back nearly as well as it once was, if at all. Cut the left side back to the ground and remove that dead stalk entirely. I also see that there is a stub in the middle which looks like it stands about 4”-5” tall with no growth. Cut that back to the ground as well. Since you are getting all that new growth from the bottom you might as well capitalize on that, even if it is not the ideal situation. It means in the long run the shape of your Cotinus will be quite different than the tree form it was, but it will certainly survive, and that’s the important thing. Cutting back that dead wood on the left side and in the center will continue to push out new growth from the base and you will end up with more of a shrub form. Ideally I would suggest cutting the right side stalk back all the way to the ground too, but since right now that stem has most of the plant’s foliage on it, I’m going to say hold off on that for now. In order for the Cotinus to have the best chance of survival, I am sorry to say it might look a little funny for this season, but with proper, spaced-out pruning it can still be a beautiful presence in your garden. On the right side I would remove any shoots that have no growth on them, of which I see a couple in the photograph. Prune them back to the next branch or trunk where there is healthy growth and foliage. While the shrub pushed out new growth from the bottom and establishes new leaf and stem tissue you want to remove as little living tissue as possible. As a general rule of thumb, you can always remove dead wood from a tree or shrub, but you want to allow the healthy parts of the plant to come out of dormancy and grow with as little stress as possible, especially early in the season. So, you will be left with a bunch of growth from the base and the “odd ball” stalk on the right side. Like I said, it will look funny, but if you remove the right side now the shrub might suffer too much stress. Therefore, I would remove the right stalk back to the ground, like the left and center pieces, but not until next winter. Next spring your Cotinus will then be a shrub form with new growth flushing out from all sides and you can prune it lightly to give it a better shape.

Regarding the fertilizer and verticillium wilt:
Do not go crazy fertilizing your shrub right now. If you have applied some Plant Tone to your garden this spring that is fine, but when it comes to perennials and shrubs, your plants are going to be happier if you don’t overdo it. Annuals and tropicals and turf can be “heavy feeders” as we call them, but over-fertilizing perennials and woody plants can force them to produce more stems and leaves than they want to and that can lead to unnecessary stress. Once established in the landscape shrubs have their own agenda and know their abilities and limitations based on the conditions they are living in, and often we should live with that instead of over-compensating to force what is not natural. Especially as a plant gets older it adjust to the nutrients in the soil and often does not want too much extra coddling. Also, regarding diseases, always be sure that you are taking care of the cultural needs of the plant before jumping to conclusions about dieback being the effect of a certain disease. Because a plant can be susceptible to a certain disease does not mean that that is your answer. I have been working closely with Cotinus for easily 10 years now and I can comfortably say that I have never seen one die because of Verticillium Wilt. Often irregular watering, soil that doesn’t drain properly, or being situated in an area without enough sun, those are often the culprits. If you do suspect a disease is present, be sure to familiarize yourself will all of the symptoms so that you can diagnose with the greatest degree of certainty. And either way, remember that proper plant care is always the best solution, disease or not.

Caring for a 30+ Year-Old Miniature Rose

I have a miniature rose bush, thirty plus years old. It has done very well over this length of time, however, we have moved two times since Spring 2006. I first transplanted it in a sunny location facing West when we moved in the Spring of 2006 and it did well (even though it developed a fungus and I had to spray it with a rose fungicide when the leaves had a grayish coating on them). It bloomed well the rest of the summer. When we moved to this house in the Fall of 2007, I planted it once again in a sunny spot (this time facing South). Now, after looking good the remainder of that Fall and earlier this Spring, although it has flower buds there are no leaves. Can something be eating them, or as a local nursery employee suggested, could it be in a location where there is poor drainage? There are some darkish colorings to part of the stems.

Thank you for any light you can shed on this problem. I would hate to lose this very nice plant.

Two moves in two years is a lot of stress for a shrub that is over thirty years old. Young plants can often bounce back pretty quickly while for older and more mature plants it can be harder for them to recuperate. Just so you know, it might be a couple years before you are sure that the rose is ok in its new home and on the road back to recovery. And even though people then (I especially) often try and overcompensate with more action, sometimes the best plan of attack is simply good observation and patience. As long as the spot gets over 4-6 hours of direct sun and has good air circulation the rose should be able to photosynthesize and put out a new flush of foliage. The question and concern about drainage is an excellent one, especially if you see any darkening of stems which can be a sign of rot. Next time there is a heavy rain go out and inspect the area to make sure there is no sitting water that is not draining quickly enough. Also make sure your rose is planted high enough. It is important that you can see the flair at the bottom of the branches where the roots begin. If the shrub was not planted right at or a tiny bit above the soil line then the roots might not be getting the fresh air they need and the stems might be in contact with too much moisture, which they do not want. Make sure that the rose is not too crowded – they do like their space. If you mulch, a thin layer would suffice and again, avoid any major mounding of soil or mulch around the crown of the plant. I hope you do not have to move it again or take any major action that might only add stress, but keep me posted and hopefully I can help you keep your miniature rose healthy and beautiful.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Trolley Tour seats still available

Thanks to the generosity of the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation we get to ride around in these classic trolleys to gardens all over the city.

Today we went to four community gardens of the Manhattan Land Trust up in Harlem between 121st and 141st Street. This is one called Five Star, where the HSNY GreenTeam under the supervision of John Cannizzo has been involved and helped a great deal.

The gazebo had to be taken apart and rebuilt in order to be moved to the center of the garden, but now it is easily wheelchair accessible so everyone can visit and enjoy. Michael, wearing red, is one of the community gardeners and was busy filling up the new raised beds with lettuce and peppers. Standing with him is Erica Packard from the Manhattan Land Trust and devoted HSNY members. No question there will be a lot of good veggies coming out of this garden!

From there we moved on to the Hope Steven community garden up on 141st. There the new brick path laid by the HSNY GreenTeam came in handy as we walked to the front so that I could show people the mini green roof that John installed this spring. The green roof is atop the shade structure in the background of the photograph and is planted with a fabulous selection of Sedum and other winter hardy succulents.
As the day warmed up the shade of the fruit trees were becoming more and more welcoming. This peach tree is definitely an important member of the local community up there at Hope Steven.

First off, thank you to all the HSNY members and supporters that joined Erica Packard from the Manhattan Land Trust and I for the HSNY trolley tour of four community gardens today. It was a fabulous crowd and such a pleasure to expose and share these gardens that the local communities, Manhattan Land Trust, and HSNY have invested so much time and energy in.

Also, in related news, there are still seats available for the HSNY trolley tour this Saturday from 10am-2pm. This Saturday we will pick people up at the NW corner of 60th and 5th Avenue in Manhattan by 10am. Then we will venture out to Brooklyn to visit three of HSNY's GreenBranches Learning Gardens. "GreenBranches works within a social context to design, install, and provide educational programs in public gardens at branch libraries to transform under-resourced public space into community learning centers." By visiting these gardens with us you will see how we work with and for the local communities to create green spaces that are both beautiful and programmatic. Each garden is unique and has something special to offer. Tony Smith, HSNY President, will be there to give you a history of the GreenBranches program which he created, and I will be there as well to point out specific plants and flowers and answer any horticultural questions that might arise. We will leave at 10am and hope to return to Manhattan (again to 60th and 5th) by 2pm. We will supply water and snacks. You are welcome to bring lunch if you wish. Lastly, in case there is any confusion, these tours are open to the public so any one can RSVP and join us. Donations the day of the tour are not required, but certainly welcome. We hope very much that you might be able to join us. It will be a great day.

HSNY Trolley Tour: HSNY GreenBranches Learning Gardens
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Donations Accepted, RSVP Required, Limit 25 People

RSVP to Fiona Luhrmann at (212) 757-0915 x100 or
Hop aboard a classic trolley, provided by the NYC Dept. of Parks and Recreation, and join Alex Feleppa, for a tour of three GreenBranches Learning Gardens in Brooklyn. Discover the past, present, and future of this unique outreach program that provides local communities city-wide with both beautiful and programmatic garden space outside their public library branches.
Please Note: Meet at the NW corner of 60th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

The river birch trees out at the Dekalb GreenBranches garden looked fabulous in the springtime sun on Tuesday. Saturday I am sure I will be talking about how the garden has transitioned from sun to shade and how we attend to that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

HSNY Used Book Sale

(Just a few of the many titles you will find at the HSNY Used Book Sale)

For those of you that used to frequent The Horticultural Society of New York at our old location on 58th Street between 6th and 7th you might remember the ongoing book sale Katherine Powis ran in the HSNY Library reading room. The HSNY Library accepts donations of horticultural and other related publications to be incorporated into our library collection, which is open to the public and now well over 10,000 volumes. Sometimes, however, there are duplicates of books which we already have in our collection and those books can be sold at heavily discounted prices to the public.

It is my pleasure, on behalf of Katherine and the HSNY Library, to announce that we have reinstated the HSNY used book sale at our new home here at 148 West 37th Street on the 13th Floor. We have one full case of used books devoted to the book sale and anyone here can direct you to those when you visit. The books are priced to move and we can accept all forms of payment. The topics and titles vary greatly, so it is best to simply come in to HSNY and see for yourself. We are located on West 37th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway, and you will find #148 on the south side of the street. We are open to the public 10am - 6pm Monday through Friday and Katherine Powis, HSNY Librarian, is here Monday through Thursday. To learn more about the HSNY Library click here, and for general information about The Horticultural Society of New York, click here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Upcoming HSNY Events

Just a reminder that the HSNY events for May and June are now posted on the HSNY website. They include trolley tours, garden visits, evening lectures, and much more, so please take a look and join us if you can. You can RSVP to Fiona Luhrmann at (212) 757-0915 x100 or Visit the HSNY Calendar by clicking here, and if you are interested in joining HSNY as a member, click here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Echinacea purpurea and related cultivars

I was digging through my photos trying to help my coworker put together the graphics for our latest mailer at work and I rediscovered these great shots of Echinacea from Garden in the Woods and Nasami Farm, both operated by The New England Wild Flower Society. Thought I would share them for a nice little visual on this gray Thursday. Above is the straight species Echinacea purpurea, commonly called purple cone flower. Echinacea is a native perennial plant here in the northeast, hardy in USDA Zones 3-9, and can grow to 4-5' tall and 18-20" wide. It flowers mid-summer and the blossoms can often last well into September or early October. It does best in full sun, and once established is marginally drought tolerant. A rich soil heavy in organics will produce the most robust plants, but I have seen them adapt to less ideal conditions as well.
Then there are a lot of great new cultivars that growers are developing. Many still need to be tested for years to make sure they hold up as well as the original, in terms of size, durability, winter hardiness, etc. Above is an Echinacea called 'Sunrise' and below a beautiful reddish orange 'Sundown'.
If you are a member and/or are on the HSNY mailing list then you should have received the latest programming mailer, the graphic of which was derived from the photograph above. If you are not a member, please visit the HSNY website and sign up as an HSNY member today!

Pachypodium Care (con't)

(A photograph of a cactus emailed to me which I believe belongs to the genus Pachypodium)

The precursor to this blog entry is a post from last August which I made a link to here.

Returning to our exchange of e-mails last year, here is an update on my columnar whatsit.
It remained dormant and leafless all during the winter. A month or so ago it began putting out leaves from all columns and I gave it one dose of Miracle Grow in its every-three-weeks watering.
It now has leaves from the top of each column and seems to be putting out more.
BUT once they come out at the top of the tallest (about 42" tall) they shrivel in curls, although others seem to be pushing out behind them.
What might be happening and what can I do?
Is the stalk simply too tall? Can the water not get up that high?
Are there bugs on that stalk and not on the others (I can't see any and am reluctant to spray it since the dosing last year seemed not to do anything good.)
Could it use more feeding?
Should I just forget about it and admire the rest?

Answers (for now):
As I said in a previous email I believe that your columnar whatsit is in the genus Pachypodium. In short, I know of no other cactus (at this point in my career) that produced those tufts of almost tropical looking foliage atop their spiky stems.

I've revisited a few references here in the library and these are my thoughts regarding your questions:
The stem is not too tall for water to be able to easily travel. Cacti can grow to well over 20' in their natural habitats and do just fine so we can rule that out. Plants vascular systems can allow water to be transported up and down hundred of feet in fact. I still refer to an article I read years ago on giant redwoods of the west coast where they talked about how, at 300 feet above the soil surface, water transport became significantly more difficult, often leading to the tips of these giants being sheared off by coastal storms.

That being said, one concern might be if the tallest stem is being hit with any kind of dry air. Is there a heater or fan that blows on the tallest stem at all? Here in the office I try and keep plants as moist as possible but sometimes if they are in the direct path of a ventilation or heating system that can dry plants out very badly regardless of my efforts. Even though it sounds kind of crazy, I suppose you could mist the tallest leaves and see if they continue to be deformed. Cactus often thrive in dry climates, hence "sounds kind of crazy", but our apartments can get so dry this time of year before we open them up to the summer humidity outside.

Since the issue is isolated, I might guess that it is an insect issue. There are plenty of mites that are not easily visible to the naked eye, but I do not know of any that target cacti, nor do the references suggest any in particular. Red mites and spider mites have been found to attack some cacti, but those two you can usually see. I would probably spray the top, deformed leaves with an insecticidal soap just to be safe. Isolate the plant before spraying if you are worried about spraying any other plants or furniture in the same area. If you have an outside space where you can situate it, perhaps the fresh air will help it out. Of course, I'd avoid leaving it out during any major rain, like we might get tomorrow.

I certainly wouldn't fertilize it any more than you already are.

Hope this adds at least a little new food for thought. Chat again soon.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Most Reliable Low Light Houseplants

(Dracaena marginata in a northern exposure with lots of bright, reflected light)

Can you please tell me what houseplants would do well in a Northern exposure with low light?

With limited or low light there are not many houseplants with showy flowers that would do well, but there are plenty of large leaf foliage plants that should be able to acclimate to your situation and perform well for you. Here is a list of plants that I have grown in low light conditions and/or northern exposures:

Aglaonema sp. Chinese evergreen
Calathea sp. peacock plant
Dieffenbachia maculata dumb cane
Dracaena fragrans corn plant
Dracaena marginata dragon tree
Epipremnum aureum pothos, devil’s ivy
Howea belmoreana sentry palm
Spathiphyllum wallisii peace lily

Aglaonema, Calathea, and Dieffenbachia all have interesting texture and color in their foliage. The foliage of Aglaonema is usually green and silver. Calathea often have combinations of green, yellow, and maroon in their leaves. Dieffenbachia leaves are mostly yellow with green edges. Dracaena will grow tall and upright, but they are very tolerant of low light as well as dry apartment conditions. Pothos is often sold as a hanging plant and does very well situated in a window. Sentry palms can be hard to find and many might try and sell you a kentia palm instead, thinking that they are one and the same, but I would not suggest a kentia as they are typically pricy and require more light. Lastly, the peace lily is one of the best houseplants for its ability to help purify the air in your apartment, and they can hold up well in low light, but do not expect a prolific flower if the light is limited.

I hope this helps. Let me know if we can help you further.

The Mysterious Black-Stemmed Jade

The following is an interesting back and forth I have been having recently regarding a jade (Crassula sp.) that I am still trying to identify. Enjoy, and if anyone has suggestions of obscure black-stemmed jade species that I am not familiar with, please be in touch. Thanks. -Alex

I have a jade plant that has a black stem and the leaf is a very small half circle. I cannot find it in any of my books. It is in distress and I need to find what type it is so that I can find out how to help it. Can you please direct me in finding some sort of publication?

I first want to clarify – does the entire plant have black stems, or just a few black stems where it seems to be distressed?

If the entire plant has black stems then it is a different species than I am used to and yes, I will have to try and identify that for you in order to best help you. If there is just one stem that has gone black then I am guessing your plant is being affected by some root rot. Various succulents, including jade (Crassula sp.), require much less water during winter when they are dormant. Jades can be allowed to go fairly dry between watering, and many references even say that you can avoid watering your jade all together through the dead of winter when the days are the shortest. If you continued to water your jade through the winter then what happened was the plant did not take up that moisture, and it sat in the soil. If you have not repotted your jade in a few years and the soil has become compacted then sometimes that too can be a proponent of too much moisture staying in your container. Either way the wet soil is of no use to the plant because it is dormant and is not taken up or used in a timely fashion. Moisture in the container for lengths of time promotes various fungi to form and spread and this leads to your blackened stems. If they are soft or mushy to the touch, then there is no question that this is root rot you are dealing with. If you can prune that stem out and remove it entirely without damaging the rest of the plant, then that is your best plan of action. Next you might consider repotting it in new soil that is properly free draining. Any cactus or succulent potting mix should suffice; certainly avoid any “moisture control” potting soil.

I hope this helps. If you have any further questions or need further clarification, just let me know. Also, we have a number of excellent houseplant reference books here at the HSNY Library, but I am not sure where you are located, and if you might be able to come in and have us show you a few things.

Reply to my answer:
Thank you for your timely response. The plant has black stems or very dark stems all the time. No, I have not re potted them in about 3 years. A bit of history: I have three different jade plants here in RI which are cuttings from ones which my father grew in Calif. for 40 years. He lived on the Monterey peninsula and the plants thrived out of doors. In the spring (Feb. - Mar.) they bloomed the most beautiful, delicate pink blossoms. I could not move the 4 ft by 4 ft here so I took cutting 6 years ago and the plants have done very well until this winter. In the summer I have been putting in my north facing garden for June to Sept. and have been pleased with the results. Now the problem is with the small leaved, black stemmed one.

Answer #2:
I am still researching your jade as I have never heard of one with such dark stems. In the meantime, while I do, I would go ahead and suggest repotting. The leaf may very well be stunted because of limited root space available to the plant. Jades can tolerate being slightly pot-bound, but that is not to say it is their favorite situation to be in. If you can feel stem or roots going right up to the edge of the container, then it is definitely worth repotting. You only have to repot your jade to a container larger by one or two inches in diameter. Like I said before, most garden centers and big retailers have a cactus and succulent potting mix available that drains well while still providing some nutrients to your plant.

Pine Mulch and Spruce Care

We bought pine mulch for our front yard but the bag did not indicate that the pine mulch was treated for termites. Is there a prevention agent I can spray on the mulch to kill termites?
Also are there any sprays or treatments to use on my spruce tree to prevent any damage to our lovely 40 ft spruce? Are there any diseases I need to look for or prevent against for spruces?

Regarding the mulch, I can relate. I apologize I am not writing sooner because I might suggest returning it if you have seen any signs of termites present. I have the HSNY Librarian, Katherine Powis, searching to see if there is any new information we might be able to share. At this time I do not know of anything that you can treat your mulch with. Supposedly the termite issue in mulch often comes from bags or palettes that sit with excess moisture for lengths of time. The best is to look for a nice dry bag or palette of mulch next time you are shopping. From what I understand the termite mulch issue got significantly worse after Katrina because much of the mulch was coming from down south and exposed to more moisture than not for lengths of time prior to being shipped up north. Even some staff here in our office have been dealing with these issues in their own gardens. We will continue to research and let you know what we come up with.

Regarding your big spruce, simply taking good care of the tree as you have been is the best approach. The older trees get the less they need or like to be coddled. Mature trees should not be fertilized heavily or pruned aggressively because it takes them longer to acclimate to the changes. To minimize stress and encourage a healthy, long-lived tree practice basic proper upkeep. Prune any dead or diseased wood but otherwise keep pruning to a minimum. Feel free to top-dress the soil with an inch of compost or mulch, but do not add more than 2 inches because we want to make sure the roots continue to get enough water and fresh Carbon Dioxide. Try to avoid any compaction of the soil at the base of the tree. If we have extended periods of drought then the tree can tolerate some supplemental water, but by this point it is probably pretty used to "nature's watering schedule". Regularly scout for pest and/or disease issues. The lower and interior branches and needles will fall as the leader and tips of the branches continue to produce new growth. In terms of scouting for pests and diseases, you want to focus your attention more on the new growth and tips. Make sure that you do not see any browning of the needles, holes in the stems, or black fungal spots, or anything that seems blatantly different than the rest of the tree. When it comes to a mature tree like that spruce of yours I hesitate to take any drastic action until we know there is a detrimental situation present.