Garden Problem Solvers

  1. “Bad” (Invasive) Garden Perennials and Safe Substitutes

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    Purple lythrum looks pretty in the garden but beware this dangerous invasive flower. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Some perennials have major territorial issues.  Give them an inch, and they’ll take a yard – or at least a good chunk of it.  Allow them a toehold, and their rampant root systems or prolific seedlings will likely haunt your garden for years to come.

    Of course, such perennials don’t limit their thuggery to the garden; they also can spread (usually by seed) into nearby natural areas, out-muscling native vegetation.  For the scoop on the worst offenders in your region, check your state’s list of banned invasive species.  But keep in mind that many species with serious boundary issues don’t appear on most state banned lists.  Even if it’s not listed by your state (as is probably true of the species described below), the perennial that’s captured your heart might have designs on taking over your garden.

    Lysimachia punctata JaKMPM

    Yellow loosestrife is pretty but a garden thug. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Baptisia sphaerocarpa 'Screamin' Yellow'

    Yellow wild indigo has characteristics similar to yellow loosestrife, but it is tame. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Just about any list (state or otherwise) of takeover perennials is likely to include a few that go by the common name “loosestrife.”  Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – the perennial that ate the Northeast (as well as several other regions) – is the textbook example.  Close behind, however, are several species in the genus Lysimachia.  Many a gardener has regretted falling under the spell of the arching white spires of gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides).  Lovely in bouquets, this East-Asian native is a rambunctious bully in the garden, spreading rapidly via fleshy white underground shoots (known as rhizomes).  A far wiser (and better behaved) choice for perennial borders is milky loosestrife (Lysimachia ephemerum), which forms 3-foot-tall, gray-leaved clumps surmounted in summer by candles of frothy white flowers.

    Also too vigorous for most gardens are yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia punctata, and fringed loosestrife, Lysimachia ciliata (usually grown in its purple-leaved form, ‘Firecracker’).  Both make good candidates for damp, isolated niches where they have room to romp.  Yellow wild indigo (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) and its hybrids (including ‘Carolina Moonlight’) would be a better choice for situations where good manners and 3-foot-spires of bright yellow, early-summer flowers are desired.

    Rudbeckia laciniata JaKMPM

    Rudbeckia laciniata is pretty but aggressive. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few other yellow-flowered aggressors are commonly grown (and virtually ineradicable) in gardens.  Almost all perennial sunflowers (Helianthus), for example, are rapid colonizers with tenacious questing rhizomes.  If the mellow yellow blooms of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ beguile you, you might want to opt instead for Silphium mohrii, which produces summer daisy-flowers of an even softer pastel-yellow, but on 4-foot-tall plants that stay in place.  Another popular splashy yellow summer-bloomer to avoid is the double-flowered Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Golden Globe’ (also known as ‘Hortensia’).  Take a pass on this common pass-along plant (there’s always plenty of it to share thanks to its romping rhizomes), and seek out its mannerly look-alike, ‘Goldquelle’.  Also often passed along are some of the more assertive yellow-flowered members of the evening primrose tribe (including Oenothera fruticosa and Oenothera tetragona).  These might best be passed by in favor of arguably the largest-flowered and loveliest hardy Oenothera, Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa).

    Missouri Evening Primrose is not fast spreading.In contrast, goldenrods (Solidago) often get tagged with the “invasive” label, even though many of them are model citizens with arresting late-summer flowers.  Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) holds dense, flat heads of lemon-yellow flowers above handsome clumps of gray-green foliage, while the equally fetching showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) carries steeples of bright yellow blooms on burgundy-red stems.  As for the canard that goldenrods cause hay fever: they don’t.

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    Physostegia virginiana ‘Miss Manners’ is tidy and clump forming unlike the spreading species. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    The common name of Physostegia virginiana – obedient plant – also gives the appearance of a canard, given the relentless rhizomes of this Central U.S. native.  The moniker, however, refers to the mauve-purple, turtlehead-shaped flowers that line its 3-foot-tall spikes in late summer.  Push an individual flower into a new position, and it compliantly stays put.  The white-flowered cultivar ‘Miss Manners’ departs from other physostegias in possessing obedient flowers AND rhizomes.  Its flower color is also more compatible.

    The domed flower heads of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) share the adaptable, milk-white coloration of ‘Miss Manners’.  This prolific ornamental onion isn’t so good at sharing space, however.  Neglect to deadhead its late-summer blooms, and it will populate much of your garden with seedlings.  The somewhat earlier blooming Allium ramosum also bears showy (and sweet-scented) heads of white flowers atop 18-inch stems, but without the resulting seedling swarm.

    Three more invasive perennials to steer clear of (and suggested substitutes) include:

    1. Plants sold under the botanical name Adenophora, which almost always are the fiendish, tuberous-rooted Campanula rapunculoides.  Use peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia) or great bellflower (Campanula latifolia) instead.
    2. Yellow archangel, Lamium galeobdelon.  Rather than unleashing the garden-variety species on your yard, substitute its cultivar ‘Herman’s Pride’, which offers even handsomer silver-splashed foliage, sans the infinite spread.
    3. Butterbur (Petasites).  Yes, the romping colonies of immense, heart-shaped leaves are captivating, but the thick rhizomes will not stop until they’ve occupied every square millimeter of available soil.  A Ligularia or Rodgersia will give the same foliage effect without commandeering the whole neighborhood.
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    Butterbur will take over a shade garden in no time. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Whenever you plant a mannerly perennial in your yard, be sure you know its soil needs. Fortifying soil with needed amendments will result in better overall performance. We suggest Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, for starters. Although these and quite a few other perennials are too rampant for most garden areas, they might work in an isolated niche (such as a driveway island) where nothing else will grow, or in an informal planting (such as a cottage garden) that features plants that can fend for themselves.  “Right plant, right place” is a garden maxim that never goes out of style.

  2. Easier Gardening with Ergonomic Tools

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    Something as simple as cushioned nitrile gloves can protect gardeners from blisters and ward off hand pain. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Gardening is a great equalizer. Anyone—from the tiniest child planting sunflower seeds, to the retiree happily nurturing enough tomato plants to feed the neighborhood—can enjoy it.  But young or old, each of us has physical strengths and weaknesses.  Listen to a committed gardener for more than a few minutes and you will probably hear something about aches and pains.  These common complaints eventually led to a happy collision of engineering and horticulture.  Ergonomic gardening tools were born.

    Coined back in 1949, “ergonomics” is the science or study of ways by which tools, utensils and systems can be made safer and easier to use.  An “ergonomically designed” garden hoe, for example, may feature any or all of the following: a padded handle, an easy-to-use shape, or an attachment that gives the user a longer reach.  Once a rarity, ergonomically designed tools are now fixtures in every lawn and garden product category, lining shelves at garden centers and big box stores.  Each gardener has to find the combination of ergonomic options that works just right.  Recommendations can help, but for most of us, trial and error still yields the best results.

    Cushioning and Padding

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    Cushioned seat and kneeler. (Image by Gardener’s Supply Company)

    A little extra padding attached to tools, equipment, or clothing can yield big rewards in comfort. For those of us who like getting close to our plants by getting down on our knees, the range of ergonomic options is large. Cushioned kneelers or garden pants with pockets for padded knee inserts ease the toll on vulnerable joints. Some padded kneelers have long handles that help gardeners rise to their feet. When the kneeler is turned over, those same handles act as supports for the padded portion, transforming the kneeler into a seat.

    Many standard garden tools, including hoes, rakes, spades, trowels and hand forks, are available with padded, easy-grip handles that provide shock absorption, and a secure grip for repetitive tasks and blister prevention.  They are especially helpful to people with arthritis or other joint or muscle problems.

    Easy-grip gloves, especially those with sturdy nitrile on the palms and fingers, make for a tighter hold on just about anything.

    Shapely Options

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomic hand tools by Radius. (Image by Radius)

    Ergonomics specialists have redesigned familiar tools into new shapes that allow gardeners to dig, rake, or hoe more effectively with less effort.  Some trowels and hand weeders, for example, feature curved handles that conform to the shape of the user’s hand, providing greater comfort and ease of use.  Ergonomic rakes and cultivators may appear to have curvature of the spine, but the curves are actually designed to minimizing the effort involved in moving soil or leaves from one place to another.  Spades may have enlarged stepping edges to prevent slipping while digging holes.

    High-Rise Bedding

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    Elevated beds by Gronomics make gardening easier for those unable to bend or squat. (Image by Gronomics)

    One of the greatest ergonomic advances of the past few decades has been the updating of an old idea—raising raised beds.  Whether the challenge is poor soil quality or physical limitations, elevated growing beds offer a great alternative to traditional in-ground garden spaces.  Depending on the situation, raised beds can be anywhere from a few feet tall to waist high.  Filled with a quality growing medium, including a high-grade amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, a raised bed can give anyone great results and maximum accessibility.  The beds placed at the correct height and width have been a boon to wheelchair-bound gardeners, the elderly, or anyone with trouble bending and stooping.

    Right behind raised beds on the accessibility spectrum are lightweight containers that can mimic the look of heavier terra cotta or concrete pots.  Easier to lift and move around, these containers allow people with physical limitations and/or no green space at all the opportunity to grow flowers or edibles.  Some containers have ergonomically designed handles or wheels on the bottom to add even more convenience and safety.

    Reach Extenders

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    Long-handled pole pruners make it easier to reach branches for pruning. (Image by Corona)

    Gardeners who work from seated positions or those with limited ability to stretch and bend can get great results with extended-reach tools, including forks, spades, hoes cultivators and pruning saws, many of which also have easy-grip handles.  In the case of pruning saws, the extended reach capability may eliminate the need to climb ladders—a boon to those with balance issues. Just be sure to keep them away from electrical lines.

    Seating

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    (Image by Pure Garden)

    Older gardeners sometimes find it easier to sit than to kneel or bend.  Folding garden seats or stools are inexpensive, lightweight and come even have pockets for garden tools. Wheeled garden scooters can roll along paths, carrying the gardener from bed to bed and providing secure seating for weeding or harvesting.  Some scooters can also accommodate small garden trugs or equipment trays.

    Watering

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    2-Liter Dramm long-spout watering cans are easy to handle. (Image by Dramm)

    Traditional hoses tend to be bulky to lug around and cumbersome to coil and store.  Newer hoses, either coiled or straight, are made of lighter materials, making them easier to carry, more flexible and less likely to kink.  Sprayer nozzles are available with padded, easy-grip handles as well.

    There are also many ergonomic watering cans. Most have a streamline design with a long pour spout to take the strain off of hands and backs. More lightweight models that hold more water are best for gardeners that suffer from arthritis.

    The advice for gardeners with any kind of physical challenge is to pay attention to their bodies.  Aches and pains are a signal to rest the affected muscles and engage the greatest muscle of all—the brain—to figure out better ways to familiar chores.  With a little help from ergonomic tools, anyone can make and maintain a garden.

    Tools

    The right tools make gardening a whole lot easier!

  3. Permaculture Gardening

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    The goal of permaculture is to create a landscape that sustains itself, its natural surroundings, and the people who steward it.

    The first and perhaps most important choice in creating a garden is this: will it work WITH its surroundings, or against them?  We can try to grow what we want to grow, heedless of the garden’s natural and domestic conditions, or we can choose plants and strategies that fit the situation on (and under and above) the ground.  We can pour on the labor and chemicals to try to force the garden to bow to our will, or we can go with its currents, letting its characteristics be our guide.  One choice leads to landscapes that are at odds with their setting, such as lawns in Phoenix.  The other leads, in some cases, to permaculture.

    Permaculture means different things to different people.  Perhaps its ideal goal, though, is to create a landscape that sustains itself, its natural surroundings, and the people who steward it.  Such a landscape rides with the rhythms of nature, with plants and microbes and soil and air working together as a cohesive, self-nurturing unit that requires minimal inputs of nutrients and labor.  Here are some ways to do this.

    Plant for the Site

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    If you know the right plants for the right site, you are on the right track.

    Know your site. What are your soil and sun factors? What plants best fit your yard and wants? Then you can make smart choices for your yard and garden. (Much as you love raspberries, they’ll languish in too much shade.  How about elderberries instead?) The garden’s domestic setting is also a factor.  For instance, plantings should generally become less formal and more naturalistic with distance from buildings and paths.

    Manage Natural Processes

    Garden Manure BlendWork with natural cycles and processes. Start a compost pile for spent vegetation and uneaten produce, to return their nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  Mulch with beneficial amendments (such as Fafard Garden Manure Blend) and fertilize with organic materials that support beneficial soil microbes and boost organic matter. Disturb the soil as little as possible, to maintain its structure and to avoid bringing buried weed seeds to the surface to germinate.

    Sustain “good” insects by minimizing pesticide use and by utilizing plants that attract them (such as members of the parsley and aster families). Cut back native perennials in early spring rather than fall, to provide food for birds, protection from erosion, and refuge for beneficial insects.

    Choose Diversity

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    Plant using a wide diversity of beautiful plants suited for wildlife and the site. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Use a wide diversity of plants – including natives – that complement and balance each other horticulturally and ornamentally. Try for a harmonious patchwork of species with different forms, colors, pollinators, pests, associated beneficial insects, and other characteristics.  Include a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide structure, and interplant with numerous edibles and ornamental annuals to increase diversity and yield.  Intermingle heavy-feeding plants (such as tomatoes) with nitrogen-accumulating plants (such as legumes) to balance and replenish soil fertility.  Introduce some non-invasive, self-sowing ornamentals and edibles (such as celandine poppies and perilla and forget-me-nots), which make excellent subjects for a dynamic, self-sustaining landscape.

    Choose Multi-Function Plants

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    American persimmons are perfect “dual-purpose” trees that are beautiful and produce edible fruit.

    Create plantings that have multiple uses and functions. Why not plant a couple pawpaw trees, whose handsome, rounded, bold-leaved crowns will produce fruit for the table and provide food for zebra swallowtail caterpillars?  Or a highbush cranberry, for its platters of white, late-spring flowers; its fall harvest of red berries that make excellent preserves; and its attractive maple-like foliage that turns burgundy tones in fall?  Or  the stately American persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) with its edible fall fruits prized for baking? Or one of the many colorful leaf vegetables (such as ‘Rainbow’ chard and red orach) that are both ornamental and tasty?

    Make the Natural Connection

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    Milkweeds make a natural connection with the monarch butterflies they feed. (image by Jessie Keith)

    Connect the garden to surrounding natural areas by using plants that attract, shelter, and feed native insects and animals. A clump of columbine will draw local hummers to their nectar-rich flowers; a planting of winterberries (female and male) will feed yellow-rumped warblers and cedar waxwings and mockingbirds with their brilliant red berries; and a Dutchman’s pipe vine will host pipevine swallowtail larvae, which make excellent food for nestlings. Then there’s the ever-popular milkweeds, which are essential to monarch butterflies.

    Consider integrating “volunteer” seedlings of native plants into the garden, rather than indiscriminately weeding them out.  Conversely, avoid introducing plant species (such as winged euonymus and Japanese barberry) that are likely to invade and disrupt nearby natural areas.

    At its best and most satisfying, a garden that follows these principles develops into a dynamic little ecosystem of its own, where plants and wildlife and humans all have a place.  Permaculture does not aspire to “permanent” landscape features such as a perpetually green, weed-free lawn.   Rather, it’s a collaborative effort between plants and gardener to create a cultivated landscape that is shaped and steered by nature’s ever-changing forces.  A permaculture garden never stops evolving – just as a permaculture gardener never stops learning and marveling.

  4. Garden Healthy: Grow More Greens in 2017!

    Brassica juncea 'Osaka Purple'

    Purple mustard greens (Brassica juncea ‘Osaka Purple’) are packed with nutrients and very easy to grow in spring and fall! (Image by Jessie Keith)

     

    No garden vegetables offer more bang for the buck than those leafy wonders known collectively as greens.  Nutritional champs of the vegetable tribe, they produce a season-long bonanza of vitamin- and mineral-packed foliage while requiring relatively little care. For home growers looking to eat healthier by upping their vegetable gardening game in 2017, greens are a great way to get there. They are the garden vegetables for your health.

    They offer the added bonus of being trendy and made cool with diverse new offerings.  What once was a bland garden province is now a colorful universe of hundreds of leafy vegetables representing a wealth of culinary traditions.  Yesterday’s dutiful row of green looseleaf lettuce has given way to today’s exuberant waves of purple mustard, vibrant Swiss chard, ‘Red Russian’ kale, purple shiso, and other delectable foliar delights.  It’s a cornucopia of leafy edibles out there.

    From this world of possibilities, we’ve chosen seven outstanding leafy vegetables that will help make 2017 your healthiest vegetable gardening year ever.

    Kale

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    Kale ‘Lacinato’ mixed among lettuce ‘Black Seeded Simpson’. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    What better place to start than with arguably the nutritional champion of vegetables, kale (Brassica oleracea)? Its dark green leaves brim with vitamins A, C, and K, and also offer significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, and iron.  Elaborately ruffled varieties such as ‘Starbor’ get the most market play, but flat-leaved selections such as the aforementioned ‘Red Russian’ tend to be more flavorful, tender, and garden-worthy.  The popular ‘Lacinato’ kale, commonly called dinosaur kale, is another perennial favorite.

    Harvest begins about 1.5 to 2 months after sowing, and continues indefinitely,  if leaves are taken a few at a time (“cut and come again”).  As with many leafy vegetables, kale tastes stronger in heat and sweeter in flavor after frost. Like other brassicas, it is very hardy and works well as a “winter green” grown in a cold frame or hoop house.  Although highly adaptable, it particularly thrives in sun and rich organic soil, benefitting from the addition of a good soil amendment, such as nitrogen-rich Fafard Garden Manure Blend.   Sow seed in spring and fall for a perpetual summer-to-winter crop. Where winters are mild, plants will overwinter and bloom in spring, bearing golden yellow flowers that bees cannot resist.

    Collards

    Collard ‘Flash’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Rivalling kale in adaptability and nutritional value, collards (Brassica oleracea) are a traditional Southern U.S. staple now found in markets and restaurants throughout North America (and beyond). Robust in both flavor and texture, the pungent, leathery, wavy-edged leaves begin to mature about 2 months after sowing, with cut-and-come-again harvests continuing well after frost. Though they will withstand summer heat, these hardy greens truly taste best when kissed with fall frost, so most gardeners opt to grow them as late-season greens.  Like kale, collards germinate best  indoors in slightly warm soil.

    Mustard Greens

    Kale and collards are both closely related to another nutrient-rich group of leaf vegetables, mustard greens (Brassica juncea) . Their fast-growing, peppery, tongue-shaped or lobed leaves make zingy garnishes for salads when young and tender, and even zingier additions to stir-fries as they mature and intensify in flavor.  They’re at their best (in both flavor and vigor) in spring and fall, grown from an early spring or late summer sowing.  When subjected to summer heat, they quickly bolt with golden yellow flowers that are also spicy and edible. Seed catalogs offer many excellent varieties deriving from East Asia (such as ‘Osaka Purple’) and the Southeastern U.S. (including ‘Southern Giant’), two regions where mustard greens have long been a hot commodity.

    Swiss Chard

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    Swiss chard ‘Ruby Red’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    A leafy variant of garden beets, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris var. cicla) lacks the pungent kick of the mustardy greens described above. It is a peer, however, in nutritional value and ease of culture.  Produced continually from summer until hard frost, the stalked, crinkled leaves are excellent in salads when young, or for sautéing and stir-fries when mature (about 60 days after sowing).   Several varieties of Swiss chard (such as ‘Bright Yellow’, ‘Ruby Red’, and ‘Bright Lights’) have colorfully stemmed and veined foliage that makes a decorative addition to annual beds and other ornamental plantings.  Plants grow (and germinate) best in warm, fertile conditions. Their leaves taste sweeter and more flavorful in cool weather.

    Spinach

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    Malabar spinach ‘Rubra’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is notorious for flowering quickly in the heat and dying. Malabar spinach (Basella alba), in contrast, thrives in areas with hot summers.  It’s also ornamental, nutritious, and just plain fun.  Unrelated to true spinach, this rapidly climbing tender perennial twines exuberantly up garden teepees and trellises.  Edible when young, the stems are lined with heart-shaped leaves that have a mild chard-like flavor and that go well in salads or cooked dishes.  The purple-stemmed variety ‘Rubra’ is as eye-catching as it is tasty.

    Orach

    Hot summers also don’t phase orach (Atriplex hortensis), another trendy green often suggested as a spinach substitute. Pairs of tender, tongue-shaped leaves are produced on low plants that flourish in most soils and climates.  Ready for harvest a month or so after sowing, orach’s mild-flavored leaves are perfect for sprinkling in salads and sautéed dishes.  Varieties with colorful foliage such as ‘Red, ‘Magenta Magic’, and multicolored ‘Aurora’ make arresting accents for kitchen and garden.

    Shiso

    Flavorful shiso withstands summer heat! (image care of Gardenology.org)

    Also doubling nicely as an ornamental is shiso (Perilla frutescens), long a staple of East Asian cuisines. Its upright, 1- to 3-foot stems are densely set with pairs of wrinkled, heart-shaped leaves that resemble those of coleus (to which it’s closely related).  The resemblance is particularly striking in burgundy-leaved forms such as ‘Aka Shiso’, which integrate nicely into annual borders, containers, and other ornamental plantings.

    The spicy leaves (whose flavor is likened to anise or cinnamon) are good for salads, stir-fries, stews, pickling, drying and powdering, and garnishes.  Tail-like clusters of small flowers extend from the plants in late summer, ripening to seed that falls to the ground and usually germinates the following spring.  Plant perilla once, and you may never have to plant it again!

     

    Fashionable and nutritious, these (and other) leafy veggies are just the thing for adding productivity and panache to gardens of all sorts and sizes.  Whether you tend several acres or several containers, you’ll find there’s lots to love about greens.

    Brassicas, like kale, bear golden spring flowers that attract bees. These are also edible and look great in salads! (Image by Jessie Keith)

  5. Smart Vegetable Garden Resolutions—6 Steps to Success

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    A well-planned, well-tended vegetable garden will give the best yields and most satisfaction.

    Vegetable gardening woes can be rectified with good planning and smart garden resolutions. Last year the weeds took over, you didn’t feed or water enough, you didn’t mulch that bed, or start that new raised bed you’ve been dreaming of for years. Never fear! It’s a New Year! Time to troubleshoot and plan to make this year’s veggie patch better than ever.

    When it comes to smart garden planning and success, experience is everything. Being a part of a large, bountiful community garden for the past 12 years has given me the opportunity to watch new and seasoned gardeners in motion. Not surprisingly, the seasoned gardeners always have well-planning, productive, weed-free plots, while new gardeners haphazardly start their plots in spring and end up with weed patches by midsummer.  In time, novices committed to success learn to turn their beds around through guidance from the old timers and pros. Here are a few of pro tricks to add to the resolution list. Commit to these, and you can’t go wrong!

    1) Plan

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    Good planning, spacing, and crop succession are essential for vegetable garden success.

    Truly productive beds are planned in advance with the seasons in mind. A good planning strategy starts with knowing when plants bloom and produce, and timing your garden to sequentially bloom and remain productive and pretty through the year, if possible.

    IMG_5948 (1)For vegetable growing, you must learn your cool season and warm season vegetables to correctly plan your beds. Knowing the window of productivity and days to harvest (number of days it takes for plants to be harvestable from seed) for a given plant is essential. Here are basic tables showing some of the most common cool season vegetables, warm season vegetables, and their average days to harvest. Use these when plotting spring, summer, and fall vegetable patches. Warm-season vegetable must be planted after the threat of spring frost has past. The Old Farmers Almanac frost dates are standard. (Keep in mind that many crops can be grown all season where summer temperatures are cooler. Fast-producing crops with few harvest days can be grown repeatedly throughout the growing season, if temperatures allow.)

    Click for table of Cool Season Crops for Spring and Fall and Warm Season Crops for Summer

    2) Design & Plot

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    Raised beds make planning and care easy.

    The best vegetable gardens are designed and planned each year to consider space, light, succession cropping, and rotation. Choose a full-sun location, decide what you want to grow, and plot your beds to allow enough space to meet your gardening goals. Investing in raised beds can make the process easier, otherwise, establish your bed lines and pathways and maintain these yearly.

    Next, determine where crops will be planted incrementally in spring, summer, and fall. Designing and planning your garden for the full growing season will help you stay in budget, time seeding and planting (Click here to view Johnny’s Seeds handy seed-starting date calculator.), and plan for harvest, preservation, and storage. When designing your beds, consider the space needed for crops, their overall heights, and include space to add cages and trellises, as needed.

    Crop succession is another essential practice. Some crops must be rotated yearly, so consider what crops will succeed the next. For example, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are heavy feeders that commonly harbor soil-borne pests and diseases, so they must be succeeded by fortifying crops, such as peas or beans, the following year. Legumes, like peas and beans, replenish essential soil nitrogen.

    3) Feed Your Soil

    Garden Manure BlendHappy plants must have good soil. Organic matter is the number one addition sure to increase crop yields. Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost and nitrogen-rich Garden Manure Blend are two top-quality amendments to increase soil health and improve plant production. The addition of an OMRI Listed all-purpose fertilizer approved for organic gardening will also increase plant vigor, yields, and keep common nutrient deficiencies, such as leaf chlorosis or blossom end rot in peppers and tomatoes, from appearing.

    For raised beds, we recommend the addition of OMRI Listed Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which contains RESiLIENCE, an all-natural, water-soluble silicon additive for plants that encourages better root growth, earlier flowering, increased stem diameter, and longer time before wilting. Mix this soilless medium in with quality topsoil at a 1:2 ratio for reliable vegetable performance.

    4) Manage Weeds

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    Grass clippings are free and make excellent natural mulch for vegetables.

    Save yourself major weeding time by applying thick organic mulch for weed control. Compost is a great choice for vegetable garden mulch in addition to seed-free hay, grass clippings, and leaf mulch. Compost should be applied directly around plants while coarser organic mulches are better for walkways and melon and squash beds.

    Organic pre-emergents are also recommended to stop weed seeds from sprouting in the first place. Just be sure not to sprinkle them where you plan to direct sow seed. Corn gluten, the most common of the natural pre-emergents, works by inhibiting root growth in newly sprouted seeds.

    When calculating amendment needed for a particular area, use the following formula:

    Amendment Application Formula

    ([area to cover] ft2 x [depth in inches desired] x 0.0031 = ___ yd3).

    Example: If you wanted to cover a 20 square foot area with 2 inches of compost, the result would be: 20 ft2 x 2 inches of compost x 0.0031 = 2.48 yd3.

    Of course, nothing beats regular hoeing and hand weeding for effective weed control. Monitoring and scratching and digging weeds weekly is the best way to keep them in check, and good tools make the job easy.

    5) Invest in Good Tools

    Good tools are a must for all garden tasks, whether you are weeding, digging, or pruning. Quality tools may cost a bit more up front, but they will last much longer and perform better.

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    Garden knives are great all-around gardening tools. (image from Gardeners Supply Company)

    For hand weeding, nothing beats the classic ho-mi (hoe-mee), also called the Korean hand plow or cultivator. This sharp, downward-facing tool can get to the base of a dandelion root in seconds with a quick chop, chop, chop. It also pays to invest in a trusty garden knife (also called a soil knife or Japanese hori-hori). These can cut into the soil to deep roots below and saw through the bases of tough plants. They are even useful for harvesting greens and digging root crops. One side of the knife is sharp for slicing and the other is serrated for sawing. The classic Cobrahead hand weeder and cultivator it also a nice, effective, well-made weeding tool. It has a sharp, curved head for fast digging and hand hoeing.

    A heavy duty hoe is a necessity for larger weeding jobs. The Prohoes by Rogue are great tools that are so well made, they will last for years. And, for digging and planting, a good spade is a must. Of these, the sharp, all-steel King of Spades pro nursery spades is so tough it will last a lifetime.

    Most established gardens will tell you that Felco makes the best pruners and loppers on the market. Pruning and harvesting is fast and easy with these sharp, Swiss-made bypass pruners.

    Keep your tools clean and sharp for best performance. A 5-gallon shop bucket filled with moistened sand is recommended for dipping tools in for easy cleaning. Handy garden tool sharpeners are also on the market. At the end of the season, apply mineral oil to clean tools to prevent corrosion.

    6) Commit to a Time Schedule

    Gardens need committed care. Regular scheduling of tasks is required for gardening success. Plan to harvest, weed, and water at least twice weekly. (Click here for good watering tips!) During hot and dry periods and high-growth windows, plan to add more time to assess water and plant needs. In no time, your schedule will become habit, your garden will become your passion, and you find yourself there whenever time allows.

    One trick to making any garden a pleasurable oasis is to create a spot where you can sit, sip a drink between weeding. Pick up a cheap patio table and chairs, add a sun umbrella, and make space for them in your garden.

    Renewed hopes and fresh ideas for the New Year offer new chances to make your garden amazing. In most parts of the country, gardeners have a plenty of time to reshape their garden plans and set their resolutions in motion before the weather warms up. So grab your seed catalogs, and get planning.

    (Click here to get more garden planning tips!)

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    Place a table and chairs in your vegetable garden for a place to sit and rest between tasks.

  6. Gardening with English Holly

    holly branh with green leaves and red berries

    Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’

    The holly and the ivy,
    Now both are full well grown.
    Of all the trees that are in the wood,
    The holly bears the crown.

     

    The words of the traditional carol, which originated in England in the early 19th century, neatly sum up the enduring appeal of English holly (Ilex aquifolium). While some people may only think of holly as a source of  holiday decorations, it is also an excellent, evergreen garden plant.

    Illustration_Ilex_aquifolium0You can’t beat English holly for its substantial, lustrous leaves and bright berries, both of which stand out, especially in the winter months when color in the garden is hard to come by.  Left to their own devices, hollies can grow to be substantial landscape specimens, topping out at 30 to 50-feet tall and half as wide.  Pruned to smaller sizes, the plants can fit a variety of situations. Holly hedges, for example, work well  in formal garden settings, as well as for boundary plantings.  As single specimens, the plants can be left to grow naturally, limbed up into tree form or carefully pruned into formal geometric shapes.

    Though best known for its decorative qualities, English holly is also useful for habitat gardens.  The tiny white flowers that appear in mid spring are excellent nectar sources for bees, while the berries are favorites of birds and other small animals. Dense branching and leaf configuration means that full-grown hollies can be veritable “bird condos”, providing nesting sites and cover.  Best of all, holly is relatively unattractive to the deer that bedevil many gardeners

    There are over 400 holly species in the world, and cultivated varieties of English holly are among the best known.  The genus name “Ilex” was bestowed upon the plant by Carl Linneaus, and the Ilex aquifolium was described by Linnaeus in 1753. The species name, “aquifolium”, means “with pointed leaves.”

    And those pointed, spiny leaves make some people wary of the English varieties.  New growth tends to have sharper edges than older leaves, so stout garden gloves are a good idea when pruning or handling holly.

    Holly with bright red berries covered in snow and ice

    Frost-covered Ilex aquifolium leaves and berries

    The  happiest English hollies grow in USDA Plant Hardiness zones 6b or 7 through 9. Some varieties, like ‘Twenty Below’ are more cold hardy and can be grown successfully in the colder parts of Zone 6, or possibly some parts of Zone 5. At the colder end of the hardiness range, site hollies where they will have some protection from cold winter winds. The plants prefer sun to light shade and grow best in soil that is on the acid end of the pH spectrum.  Usually young hollies are available in containers or as larger, balled-and-burlapped specimens. Plant in spring, if  possible, in well-drained soil, amended with a high-quality amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend or Black Gold® Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss.  Water thoroughly when installing the holly and continue to water plants in the first few weeks while they establish new roots.

    Garden Manure BlendHollies are dioecious, meaning that shrubs have either female (berry producing) or male flowers. If you want a holly with abundant berries for holiday decorations or landscape color, you will have to act as a horticultural matchmaker.  In order for female plants to produce crops of  berries, compatible male plants must be planted nearby as pollenizers, preferably within 30 to 40 feet of female plants.  Insects, especially bees, do the actual pollination and one male holly can pollinate several females.  When you buy female plants, check with your nursery or garden center for compatible male varieties.  A few English hollies, like ‘Post Office’, are self-fertile and do not need a companion male plant. The best time to prune holly is in late spring to early summer, but remember that pruning female plants will reduce the number of fall berries. Only prune when it is absolutely necessary for the health and appearance of the plant.

    English holly 1

    The non-fruiting ‘Silver Queen’ is a great selection for areas where English holly is invasive.

    To spice up your evergreen array, use variegated English hollies, like the cream-edged Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’  and yellow-edged ‘Lily Gold’.  These are often somewhat smaller than the species, but they can used in the same ways in the garden.  The edges of ‘Lily Gold’ also turn slightly pink in cold weather. Another attractive form is green-leafed ‘Teufel’s Zero’, a female variety with slender, weeping branches and excellent cold tolerance.

    As with many species that originated elsewhere and made good in the New World, English holly comes with some caveats.  It has been reported to be invasive in parts of eastern and western Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and northwestern California.  In these areas, it may be wiser to choose non-berried male selections with exemplary foliage, such as the confusingly named ‘Silver Queen’. This male form has wonderfully dark green leaves edged in ivory.

  7. Elegant, Evergreen Magnolias

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    Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) is graced with outstanding evergreen foliage and glorious bowl-shaped spring flowers. (image by Pam Beck)

    Gardening in eastern North America has many challenges.  But it also has many glories. Among the latter are the two evergreen magnolia species that call the region home.  Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and evergreen forms of sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana var. australis) have it all: handsome gray bark; large, sweet-scented, creamy-white flowers in late spring (and sporadically until fall); and evergreen leaves that take center stage in winter.

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    Southern magnolias add evergreen beauty to dull winter landscapes. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

    These native beauties are also more cold-tolerant than most gardeners know.  Although they hail from the Southeast United States, they succeed in cultivation into USDA Zone 5b.  Centerpieces of many a Mid-Atlantic and Southeast garden, they’re also capable of making a statement in parts of New England, New York,  and the Midwest.

    Southern magnolia is one of those big, bold, primordial plants that looks like it just dropped in from the Cretaceous.  Indeed, its ancestors dominated much of Earth’s vegetation some 70- to 90-million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the planet.  But this magnificent magnolia also works just fine as a visually dominant specimen tree for twenty-first century landscapes.

    In its boldest forms, Magnolia grandiflora takes the primordial look to awe-inspiring lengths (and breadths).  The aptly named ‘Goliath’ (and the somewhat similar ‘Gloriosa’) produces enormous cupped flowers of ivory that open to a foot or more across, displayed against large, polished, relatively broad leaves.  The flowers of ‘Samuel Sommer’ are even larger (to 14 inches across), and its leaves have striking rust-brown felting on their undersides.  Selected for its abundance of bloom, ‘Majestic Beauty’ also features immense deep green leaves and a symmetrical, broadly conical growth habit.  Cultivars ‘Angustifolia’ and ‘Lanceolata’ have narrower leaves, felted brown underneath.

    Magnolia grandiflora 'Edith Bogue'

    The more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is best espaliered against a sturdy, protective wall.

    Although typically forming a slow-growing, 40- to 60-foot tree, Southern magnolia sometimes assumes more compact forms, as in the narrowly conical, 30-foot-tall ‘Little Gem’.  Its 4-inch-wide flowers are relatively precocious (most Southern magnolias varieties take several years to a decade to come to bloom), and as with most varieties they recur sparingly after the main flush in late spring.

    Two other compact Magnolia grandiflora cultivars are of particular interest to Northern gardeners.  Both ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ and ‘Edith Bogue’ have a good chance of succeeding into USDA Zone 5b in sites protected from winter sun and harsh northwest winds.  For sheer hardiness and sturdiness, ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ can’t be beat, although even this toughest of Southern magnolias will go brownish-tan in cold, Zone-6 winters.  The slightly more delicate ‘Edith Bogue’ is notorious for losing limbs to heavy winter snow, and functions best in North gardens as an espalier, with her branches fixed to a stout frame (a shaded east-facing wall is ideal).

    Whatever the climatic zone, Southern magnolia does best in relatively fertile soil that’s not too sandy or heavy.  A good compost (such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost) can help bring marginal soils into line.

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    The highly fragrant blooms of sweetbay appear in spring and are almost primrose yellow. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Native from Texas to North-Coastal Massachusetts, Magnolia virginiana makes a natural choice for gardens from USDA Zones 5 to 9.  Evergreen forms of this elegant small tree – known botanically as variety australis – are confined to the Southeast, and tend to either expire or defoliate in Zone 5 and 6 winters.  Exceptions do occur, however, including the cultivars ‘Henry Hicks’ and ‘Moonglow’, both of which are hardy and often evergreen (or semi-evergreen) into Zone 5b.

    In all its forms, sweetbay magnolia is one of the finest small trees for American gardens.  Typically single-trunked in warmer climes and multi-stemmed in chillier regions, it bears oval, rich green leaves with silvery undersides that shimmer in the breeze.  The cupped, creamy (almost primrose yellow) flowers debut in late spring and continue sporadically throughout summer, casting a piquant, questing fragrance reminiscent of roses or lemons.  Attractive clusters of red-fleshed fruits follow the blooms.  Often found in wetlands in nature, Magnolia virginiana is well suited for moister areas of the landscape (and loathes dry, sandy soil).

    Natural and Organic

    Before planting evergreen magnolias, fortify your soil with Fafard Natural & Organic Compost Blend.

    Also well worth growing is the hybrid between sweetbay magnolia and umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala), which combines the fragrant, summer-long blooms of the former with the bold, primordial, deciduous foliage of the latter.  Its cultivar ‘Cairn Croft’ is sometimes available from specialty nurseries.  Crosses between sweetbay and Southern magnolia have been developed and introduced by hybridizers, but offer no notable advantages over the parents.  For year-round leafage and beauty, these two exceptional natives can’t be beat.

  8. “Knitting” Perennials for Textural Flower Gardens

    Geranium sanguineum ‘John Elsley’ “knitting” into a silvery lungwort. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Flopping is often frowned upon in the perennial garden (and quickly corrected with bamboo stakes, peasticks, or other mechanisms, if it occurs).  Some perennials, however, make a virtue out of laxity, their trailing growth providing the perfect foil to the upright stems of delphiniums, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), and garden phlox (Phlox paniculata).  In flower gardens, as in containers, nothing complements a towering thriller better than a contrasting spiller.

    Natural and OrganicTrailing perennials are especially valuable for their ability to knit together other garden elements, upright or otherwise.  Mass them at the fringe of a perennial border, and they unify what lies behind them.  Position them near a path or patio, and their tumbling stems interrupt and soften the line between hardscape and softscape.  And they’re literally made for walls, producing cascades of texture and color that bring the landscape alive.

    Margins and walls are not the only places where trailing perennials do their knitting.  They excel at covering the voids left by large perennials that go dormant in early summer, such as oriental poppies (Papaver orientale) and bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis).  Many will thread their stems through upright neighboring perennials, intermingling their contrasting foliage and blooms.  Some ground-hugging sprawlers (including creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum) can even be planted into lawns to form textured, flowering patchworks.

    Here’s a sampling of some of the best of these perennial “knitters”.

    Callirhoe-involucrata

    Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata)

    A native of dry prairies throughout the Central U.S., winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) has just about everything a North American gardener could want, including cold-hardiness (USDA Zones 4-9), drought-tolerance, and a long season of showy blooms. Its lax stems typically form low mats, but will also clamber up neighboring plants or cascade down banks or walls. The bowl-shaped, bright purplish-pink, white-eyed blooms continue for many weeks in summer along new portions of the continually lengthening growth. Several other species of Callirhoe – of various habit – are also well worth growing. All of them prosper in dry habitats.

    Moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is so common as to be dismissed by gardeners who should know better. But, just because a plant species is sold at hardware stores and supermarkets (as well as about every other establishment that deals in plants) doesn’t mean that it’s unfit for sophisticated gardens. Hailing from dry slopes and ledges in the East and Central U.S., this needle-leaved evergreen can’t be beat for draping down a wall, or covering a dry slope, or fronting a xeric perennial planting. Its filigreed foliage would be reason enough to grow it, even if it weren’t also a prolific early-spring bloomer. Gardeners who are put off by brassy-flowered forms of this species have any number of subtler cultivars from which to choose. It’s worth considering for any sunny garden within USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Phlox subulata 'Fort Hill' (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Phlox subulata ‘Fort Hill’ (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Several trailing bellflowers (Campanula spp.) occur on ledges and embankments in European mountains and take well to similar habitats in gardens.  Among the most vigorous of the lot is Serbian bellflower (Campanula poscharskyana), which in late spring bears starry blue flowers on low, 3- to 4-foot-wide hummocks. The typically sprawling stems will also clamber or drape, given the opportunity. Plants tolerate a wide range of conditions and may become overly rambunctious in moist, fertile soil.  Other bellflowers for edging or walls include Campanula cochlearifolia, C. carpaticaC. garganica, and C. portenschlagiana.

    Also from Europe is another trailing perennial that excels on sunny dry slopes: bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum).  A variable plant, it typically matures into a sprawling, 6- to 10-inch-tall mound of deeply lobed foliage, decked in late spring and summer with magenta, pink, or white, dark-veined flowers.  This hardy (USDA Zones 5 to 9), durable perennial is perhaps at its best in naturalistic plantings, where it can be allowed to seed around into informal colonies.

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking )

    Clematis × durandii (Image by Leonora Enking)

    An excellent geranium for threading through perennials and shrubs is the Geranium ‘Rozanne’, prized for its early-summer-to-frost bounty of purplish-blue flowers.   This lanky, 2- to 3-footer will also sprawl obligingly across gaps left by early-dormant perennials.

    The legendary garden designer Gertrude Jekyll liked to cover such gaps with the lax, non-climbing growth of , a hybrid between the shrubby Clematis integrifolia and the vining Clematis lanuginosa.  Its toppling, 7-foot stems bear a summer-long succession of large starry violet-blue flowers that resemble those of its vining parent.  Other clematis for this purpose include Clematis recta, a 5-foot, splaying perennial that envelops itself in summer with small fragrant white flowers; and ‘Mrs. Robert Brydon’, another shrub/vine hybrid whose flopping 8-foot stems carry billowing clusters of pale-blue blooms in August and September.

    Hardy perennials for knitting can be planted in fall. Good soil preparation and light mulch will help them become established and protect them through the winter months. Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be worked into the soil at planting time and added as a light mulch around newly installed perennials.

  9. Reap the Fall Garden Harvest and Make the Beds for Winter

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    Now is the time to reap the end-of-season harvest. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Bringing in the sheaves,” goes the old hymn, “bringing in the sheaves.  We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

    Mid to late fall is when gardeners “bring in the sheaves”, not to mention the tomatoes, pumpkins, cool season greens or whatever crops might still be growing in beds, borders and containers.  As night temperatures dip, it is time to harvest your produce or risk losing it, except in a few cases, like carrots, kale, and collards, where flavor actually improves with a little frost.

    Dahlia 'Deerwood Erika'

    Once the tops of the dahlias have died back, it is time to dig their tuberous roots and store them indoors through winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Edible crops are not the only harvest items.  It is also time to collect seeds from heirloom annuals—flowers and vegetables—that you want to save for next year.  (Click here to learn more about saving heirloom seeds.) Sort and store your seeds in labeled paper packets and keep them in a cool dry place through winter.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, that same cool dry place can provide an out-of-season home for tender dahlia tuberous roots and gladiolus corms. When digging dahlias, be sure to clean them gently while keeping the roots and lower stems in tact. Be sure not to disturb any of the growing points, or “eyes”, located just below their stems.

    Once they have been dug, allow the corms and roots to dry off for a few days, then nestle them into labeled boxes, tubs, or bags full of dry vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. The stored roots should be kept moderately dry, but not bone dry. In winter, check and mist the contents periodically to keep them from completely drying out.

    The late-season garden just on the cusp of frost time. (image by Jessie Keith)It is not exactly harvesting, but fall is also the season to bring tender container specimens, like tropical foliage plants and citrus, into the house. Before bringing them indoors, clean off and inspect both pots and plants carefully for hitchhiking pests. Clean plants from top to bottom with insecticidal soap, if you are concerned that they may harbor unwanted pests. You may also consider repotting incoming houseplants in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil. (Click here to learn more about cleaning and repotting house plants.)

    But even as you bring crops, plant materials, and potted specimens into the house, a good many chores await outside.  Brisk, or at least moderate, fall weather and the beautiful change of leaves make these outdoor tasks a bit easier.

    Dill Seed

    Seed collecting is an important part of the fall harvest process. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    First, decide what you want to do with your ornamental beds and borders. (Click here to learn the best ways to clean your fall landscape!) Some gardeners, especially habitat-conscious ones, leave lots of seedhead-bearing plants standing to provide late fall and early winter rations for birds and wildlife.  If you are one of them, remember to keep pulling up the weeds that sprout around those plants as long as the ground is workable.  This will make life much easier come spring.

    If neatness is a priority, pull out spent annuals and cut down stalks of perennial plants.  Compost the remains.  If your spring planting scheme features some unfilled spaces, now is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths.  Once the ground has frozen, mulch with several inches of pine straw, clean hay or chopped leaves to protect plants from the effects of winter frost heaves.  Use extra mulch around shallow-rooted ornamentals, like the popular Heuchera and Scabiosa, not to mention anything that is only marginally hardy in your climate zone.  Delicate shrubs, like some roses, can be surrounded with stake-supported “cages” covered with hardware cloth or burlap.  These can be filled with chopped leaves to insulate the plant from cold winter winds.

    2209Fafard N&O Potting_3D-1cu RESILIENCE front WEBAnother option for enriching the soil of a productive plot is to sow a fall cover crop of vetch or crimson clover.  This kind of “green manure crop” fixes nitrogen in the soil and can be tilled in or turned under in spring, which allows it to do one final good garden deed as a soil amendment. Cover crops also protect the soil by reducing erosion.

    As you do these chores, remember that these are the last acts in the seasonal play that is gardening.  Applying a little extra effort in fall is an investment in next year’s flowers, vegetables, and fruits.

  10. Fall Garden Cleanup

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    By October, garden beds need to be cleaned and last season’s annuals cut back.

    Putting your garden to bed properly will result in a prettier, healthier garden this season and next. It’s essential to know what areas to clean, what to prune, what to leave undisturbed, and what to protect over winter. Simply taking a leaf blower to your beds and landscape is a start, but there’s more to the process, if you want to do it right.

    Cleaning, Cutting, and Edging

    When cleaning your garden beds, consider bed appearance, but also consider plant appearance and health. This means determining what should be cut back and cleaned and what should be left alone until spring.

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    Hardy chrysanthemums are perennials that don’t need to be cut back until the following spring.

    Begin by cleaning out loose leaf material by hand or blower with a focus on the most visually conspicuous areas. Smart gardeners are wise to leave some leaf litter in beds to provide added winter protection for more tender plants and help support overwintering pollinators. (Some species of overwintering native bees, and butterflies use undisturbed leaf litter as essential winter habitat. Click here to learn more.) After clearing away unwanted leaves, give your fading garden plants needed attention.

    Dead or dying annuals are the first thing to cut back or pull. If some have mature seed heads, consider scattering their seeds in hopes of getting a few self-starters in spring. Once annuals are removed and beds smoothed, start work on your perennials and shrubs.

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    Evergreens, such as lavender (back), should not be cut back.

    Many perennials look great over winter and their crowns are protected by leaving the top growth intact through winter. Most ornamental grasses, lavenders, hardy salvias, hardy chrysanthemums, and rosemary are perennials that should not be cut back until spring. Exceptionally hardy perennials that die to the ground, such as daylilies, coneflowers, hardy geraniums, hostas, Shasta daisies, and asters, can all be fully cut back without worry. Some perennials produce seed heads that naturally feed overwintering songbirds, such coneflowers, asters, and hardy sunflowers, so it is nice to leave a few up. All healthy evergreen perennials and shrubs should be left alone.

    Keep it Covered!

    After cleaning and cutting back beds, cut fresh bed edges, and apply cosmetic mulch. [Click here to read more about garden edging.] Lots of mulches will work, but dark, earthy leaf mulch is like landscape gold. Not only does it look good, but it breaks down quickly to naturally feed soil, and it is easy to create from recycled leaves. [Click here to learn Natural and Organichow to turn your fall leaves into leaf mulch.] Screened, partially composted bark mulch is another good option for broadcast mulching. For small garden spaces, Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost should be applied as a high-quality, fortifying mulch.

    When mulching, work around perennials and shrubs. Many plants will die or perform poorly if their crowns and trunks are thickly layered with mulch. Succulents, alpine or rock garden plants, and Heuchera should never have heavy mulch applied on or around their crowns.

    Fall Pruning

    In fall, start by cutting back any dead, unhealthy, or crossing branches from trees and small shrubs. When pruning out dead, diseased, or infested wood, prune just below the point where growth is still fresh and healthy. If you think that a plant you are pruning is diseased, be sure to clean your pruning shears in a 10% bleach solution before pruning another plant. If additional pruning on flowering trees and shrubs is needed to shape the plants, first determine whether your shrubs bloom on old or new wood. It is okay to prune new-wood bloomers in fall but not old-wood bloomers.

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    Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii ‘Dart’s Papillon Blue’) blooms on new wood and can be cut to the ground each fall. (Photo by Ptelea)

    French lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), forsythia, most viburnum, service berries (Amelanchier spp.), and some hydrangeas, such as oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) all bloom on old wood—meaning they set their flower buds for the next year shortly after they bloom. These plants should never be pruned in fall, unless you want to cut off all of next year’s flowers. Old- or second-year wood bloomers are best pruned right after they flower. Hybrid roses (Rosa spp.), buddleja, crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), and some hydrangeas, such as wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), bloom on new wood, so fall pruning is an option.

    Pruning techniques vary from plant to plant. As a general rule, shrubs that bloom on new wood are forgiving and can be hard pruned, or cut back nearly to the ground. In fact, hard pruning is often recommended for sprawling, aggressive bloomers like Buddleja. Rose pruning is another beast entirely and most recommended for late winter. [Click here to learn more about rose pruning.]

    Toss it or Compost It?

    Bed cleaning creates lots of waste. Some of the waste is perfect for composting and some is best discarded. Loose leaf matter makes great compost. Fall grass clippings and leftover edging pieces can also be thrown into the compost heap. Old perennial and annual waste can also be composted, if it appears to be clean and disease free. Healthy woody branches can also be chipped and added to the bin. Any material thought to have pests or disease should be thrown away. This is especially the case for vegetable waste, such as last-season’s tomatoes, which commonly develop early and late blights. Rose clippings should also be kept far away from the bin because of the many diseases these plants can harbor. [Click here to learn more about rose diseases and pests.]

    Clean, coiffed beds, with crisp edges look great and will make spring prep a breeze. They will also make it easier to plan and implement fall bulb plantings and decorate for the winter holidays.

    Saccharum ravennae JaKMPM

    Grasses, such as this Ravennagrass (Saccharum ravennae) can be left up into winter.