VEGGIE GARDEN GOALS

You might have noticed that I didn't write much about the vegetable garden this year. That's not because I didn't grow vegetables, but it wasn't my best year in the vegetable garden.

It's been my pattern to really let a garden slip after I've developed a plan in my head for how I'm going to change it. The most recent example of this was the circle garden, which looked like utter garbage for at least two years before I ripped it all out last fall and redesigned it.

As you can see, the vegetable garden is still a mess. That's the state it's been in most of the summer. But plans are in the works for this area. 

The vegetable garden has been on my mind for a few years now and I've been gathering inspiration on every garden tour I've been on and all over the Internet. And here's my conclusion: I want a vegetable garden that is as beautiful as it is practical. Veggie gardens do not have to be particularly pleasing to the eye, and one might argue that the most productive vegetable gardens are anything but. But I crave that perfect balance of producing food in the midst of a gorgeous garden.

I know my dream is perhaps a little unrealistic, especially for a gardener who has never been good about perfect spacing and daily maintenance in a vegetable garden. But if I aim for veggie garden utopia, I imagine I can land somewhere around "really pretty garden."

I was hoping to share this idea with you when it was either in the works or very close to it. I was also hoping to plant garlic this fall in the first stage of a new vegetable garden. None of that happened because sometimes that's how life goes.

The primary holdup has been a couple of enormous spruces. These are some more trees on our property that have been scalped on one side by the power company and don't offer much in the way of screening or aesthetics. They are also blocking a lot of sun to the existing and future site of the vegetable garden. Right now I'm getting away with a part-sun vegetable garden. More sun than shade but by no means full sun. And I do OK in that situation, but we all know that most edibles appreciate a lot of sun and if I'm going to make the investment in an upgraded vegetable garden, I want what I plant there to grow well. In other words: Those trees have to go.


I've also come to the realization that I'm sick of being limited to growing only certain plants outside of the raised bed that has a fence incorporated in it. Some years I get away with it, but this year, for instance, the kale never stood a chance thanks to the pair of young deer with indiscriminate tastes. (Kale has never been an issue in the past until last in the season.)


For me, raised beds are the only way to for growing edibles. It's just that I need a lot more of them. Although I have enough space in my current vegetable garden setup to grow small quantities of several different edibles, I don't have the space to properly rotate crops like I would like, so I'm constantly fighting disease issues, particularly with tomatoes.


Here's a cocktail-hour sketch I made this summer of how I envision the new vegetable garden might look. And if you think I can find this piece of paper now, you are obviously a far more organized person than I am. 

So here's what the dream vegetable garden would look like, all encompassed within a fenced area:

  • A series of raised beds, preferably a minimum of 20 inches tall, that would allow for easy crop rotation from year to year. 
  • A handful (possibly four) of smaller raised beds for cutting flowers that would add color as well as attract pollinators, not to mention provide fresh cut flowers all season.
  • Skinny fruit gardens on the east and west sides of the garden to plant espalier fruit and smaller berries.
  • Brick pathways. 
  • Gravel in between beds and everywhere there isn't brick, so there is no need to mow grass in this area.
  • A small arbor at the entrance over which to grow climbing roses or another flowering vine.
  • A Belgian fence along the back (south) "wall" of the fence.
  • A back door in the fence that would allow easy access to the compost bin just out the back of the garden.
  • A small seating area, either a bench or a little bistro table with a couple chairs. I know better than to think that I'll be lounging there much, but it would be a shame not to have a seat to sit back and enjoy it for a little bit. 
  • A center focal point. My favorite idea right now is a small, containerized water garden.
Earlier this summer, this WAS the plan. Then I did the math and it didn't really work out in my favor. So it seems likely that this is a project that is going to have to be developed in stages. Brick paths, gravel and espalier trees can wait, even if it makes me sad. The immediate need is level ground, raised beds filled with soil and a fence. 

I was hoping by now that some of that would have been accomplished, but it seems this has fully turned into a spring project at this point. But goals are good, right?





WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THOSE LEAVES?

Mr. Much More Patient and I spent a good part of the weekend dealing with the first round of fallen leaves at our house. Because we have a lot of trees, it works better to do it in two or three sessions rather than wait until everything is on the ground.

And while some people bag their leaves or push them to the curb for pick up by the city, every leaf in our yard gets put to use in any number of ways.


First off, I'll admit to a bit of ridiculousness when it comes to leaf clean up. I blow or rake leaves out of garden beds so that they can be chopped up and put back in those garden beds. Go ahead and laugh at me, because I agree that sounds a little insane. But I'll tell you why I do that: Chopped leaves break down in months; whole leaves take much longer and can stick together and create a mat that's difficult to break up. Of course the latter works just find in forests, so clearly it's nothing major to be worried about, but aesthically it's not as pleasing to me.

The leaf pick up process starts with our lawn tractor and a bagger. The mower chops the leaves up some. From there, I run them through the chipper shredder, which chops them up into about half-inch sized pieces. Because the mower cuts the lawn at the same time, there is some grass mixed in as well, meaning that there's a pretty good balance of nitrogen-rich material (grass) and carbon-rich material (leaves) and it should all break down relatively quickly.

It's not the prettiest composting operation, but it works.

From there, I use the leaves in several different ways.

1. IN THE COMPOST BIN

Garden cleanup produces a lot of green material in fall so I need a lot of leaves to get the compost balances right for proper cooking. To be honest, if I were composting "correctly," I would have a bin to hold greens in until I needed them, but I'm a lazy although enthusiastic composter, so it all goes in the bin when I have it and I try to figure it out later. Basically I jam the bin as full as I can with leaves along with the greens, throw some water on it before I put the hoses away for winter, and let nature do the rest. By late spring, most of it is lovely compost and the rest becomes the basis for future compost.

2. MULCH GARDEN BEDS

I did this for the first time last year in one part of the garden and I was so happy with the results that I'd like to do it everywhere I'm able to this year. After I clean out my beds (I leave some plants standing for winter interest, others get cut back, and I try to remove all the perennial weeds that I can), I just throw on about a 4-inch layer of chopped leaves. In the bed I did this in last year, I had significantly fewer weeds in spring and by mid-summer, when the plants had filled in, the mulch was almost entirely broken down. It does take a lot of leaves to mulch like this, however.

Chopped into tiny bits, the leaves quickly break down into leaf mold or as part of compost.
3. MAKE LEAF MOLD

Leaf mold, which is nothing more than what's left after leaves disintegrate, is an amazing mulch and soil amendment. I like to mix it in to potting mixes to help lighten the soil and add some beneficial microbes. It's also a fabulous mulch for spring and summer. The good news is that making leaf mold requires nothing more than patience. Some people do it by filling up plastic garbage bags with damp leaves, poking some holes in the bag and letting it do its thing, but all I do is make a pen out of chicken wire (just to keep them from flying everywhere), and fill it up with leaves. I use my chopped leaves, but whole leaves work just fine too. I never look at it again until they've broken down and it's time to use what's left.

4. PROTECT SENSITIVE PLANTS

On occasion I'll protect the crowns of cold sensitive plants with leaves. For the roses I planted this year, I will use either a rose collar (here's an affiliate link to one I found but haven't tried) or create a cage with chicken wire or hardware cloth and mound up leaves over the crowns. I've also done this with non-bud hardy hydrangeas with some success (and some failure). The key is to wait until the plant is dormant before you do this. I've heard Thanksgiving weekend as a suggested time and that works pretty good for me.

5. MULCH OVER HEELED-IN PLANTS

Any plants that I either don't have time to plant or don't want to plant in their final location get heeled in inside their pots (usually in my raised vegetable beds, just for convenience). After a hard freeze I go back and cover the whole group of pots with mulched leaves to provide additional insulation.

The shredding part of this leaf operation is optional, but it does speed up the decomposition process. Mulch with a mower works just fine as well and for compost and leaf mold, whole leaves will work as well.

I actually use so many leaves that I occasionally take some from my neighbors. I'm not going to lie. All of this is boring, tedious work, often done in a fair amount of solitude because I'm wearing hearing protection when we run all these machines, so it's not my favorite job. But when nature dumps a whole bunch of free, fabulous material at your feet, you don't look that gift horse in the mouth.



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FRIDAY FINDS

It has been a difficult few weeks to be a gardener in my area. The sun is setting early (and soon to be much earlier) so there's no time for gardening after work and the weekends have been rainy. I appreciate this late season rain, as I believe that it is best for plants to go into dormancy well hydrated, but it would be much more convenient if it could just rain during the week instead of on the weekends.

That pattern may change this weekend, thankfully, but it's also going to be in the 40s. Remember how I said that the problem with cleaning up the garden is that it's either the right time for the plants or the right time for the gardener and those two things rarely happen simultaneously? Well, that's what's happening now.

Box o' bulbs waiting for planting. More coming tomorrow too!

Well there's nothing to be done about it. It all has to get done. The priority this weekend will be bulb planting, and a lot of it. Once that's finished I can better clean out beds and then start mulching with shredded leaves (of which there are thousands on our lawn). After that, the containers need to be cleaned out. Most of the plants are mostly still alive (and would be more so if I hadn't pretty much given up on watering) as we've not had a frost yet, but they've served their purpose. The new containers I planted for fall will stay, but everything else will begin its road to compost.

So that's what is occupying my time this weekend. Here are some of the things that I enjoyed online recently:

Linda, whose garden shines no matter the time of year, is celebrating flaxen hues.

I do tend to go on about Chicago's Lurie Garden, but check it out in fall! It's gorgeous.


This is not a link, but can I just say I wish I would stop seeing posts about holiday shopping? Enough! Unless its a DIY project that takes time, it is WAY too early to be discussing such things. We still have Halloween and poor, forgotten Thanksgiving!

Sadly, many salvias are not hardy in my area, but they are beautiful enough to give some of them a shot and hope for the best.

Did you know you can buy kit houses on Amazon? I sure didn't until I read this article on GardenFork.

Are you planning to be in the garden this weekend?
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PLANS FOR NEXT YEAR: A SHRUB BORDER

I tend to go on a bit here about taking stock of your garden so you can make changes next year, but that's because I still think it's one of the single best things you can do. Plus, I find it to be a very optimistic activity. In the middle of a season of decomposition, I find it quite enjoyable to think about what comes next.

This is the fall view of the wooded area. The ferns have all died back, and the Viburnum 'Mariesii' is starting to change color on the left. I'd like to make the entire edge where the woods meets the grass an informal shrub border.

Many garden designers advise that you should start your design process inside, and I agree. Make what you see when you are in your house looking out the best it can be from that view. Beyond our kitchen, the next place I spend the most time looking out the window is, believe it or not, our upstairs bathroom. Because we live in a fairly secluded area with neighbors that aren't too close (and have lost any cares we might have about it anyway) we enjoy the view out the bathroom window from the glass shower as well as when I'm standing there drying my hair and getting ready in the morning. So it's an important view, even if it's probably the last place you get to if you are strolling through the yard.

Big strides have been made in this area over the years, but it's a slow process. The area that abuts the wooded area is most in need. We love the woods and the ostrich ferns that take over, but the edges of this area get taken over by jewelweed, which is not a plant I care for.


Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' has been allowed to grow into a large, free-ranging shrub. It's putting on nice fall color now.

A few years ago (maybe four), I planted Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' on the edge of this area. It's a lovely shrub that can get quite large—10x10 or so—and I wanted to make sure it had all the room it would need or want. I recall thinking at the time I planted it that I could also add other shrubs in the area. For some reason I never acted on that idea.

After a lot of studying of that area (like, every morning), I've doubled down on that plan. There are a lot of fabulous older shrubs that I don't have the space to grow elsewhere, but a shrub border along the woods would be the perfect location for these. Don't get me wrong, I love so many of the new cultivars available now, many of which are more compact than the species and they fit in well in much of my garden, but there is a certain statement that can be made by a large specimen.

At the far end of the wood's edge we planted a  Cercis canadensis (Redbud) 'Forest Pansy' last year. It struggled a little this summer, but its leaves are so beautiful.

I don't have any shrubs in particular in mind and that is exciting to me. I can't wait to get stuck in researching shrubs in winter to design this area. Shrubs are not inexpensive, so it's probably something I'll install over the course of several year, and pick up things as I find them, or even better, as I find them on sale. And I hope to be able to incorporate a few somewhat unusual shrubs to keep it interesting and to satisfy the needs of my suppressed plant collector.







WHAT TO DO WHEN THE GARDENER IS READY TO WRAP UP BUT THE GARDEN ISN'T

This is a challenging time in the garden for me. We've not yet had a frost, so although things are looking a little ragged, there's nothing that's dead and looking terrible. Which means I'm faced with the conundrum of going against my gardener's gut reaction to do everything I can to keep plants looking good and the practical voice in my head reminding me that there is a lot of work to be done in the garden before the snow flies.

And of course, the lovely fall weather we've been having makes it all that much more difficult. Because when it turns, it's going to turn quickly. And even a hardy Wisconsin gardener like myself doesn't really relish being in the garden with winter gloves on.

The Calamintha 'Montrose White' in the foreground of this photo has finished flowering, but it still looks good otherwise. It will be difficult to cut it back at this point, but there's so much to be done in the garden. 

I was formulating a plan of attack for the fall garden chores the other night at 4 a.m. as I stood in the back yard begging the newest member of the family to pleeeeaaaase go to the bathroom. We got a 3-month-old Newfoundland puppy last weekend so we are in the throes of potty training, which is far more tedious than I had remembered. Anyway, I was noticing that other than a bit of flopping here and there, most of the perennials are looking fine and it seems a little sad to be planning to go in there and hack things back.

I know this picture is blurry but little Dorothy is in the perpetual motion stage of life so it could be awhile before she sits still enough for a good picture.

There are a lot of different ideas about cutting back perennials in fall, and from what I've read I believe it probably is better for the health of the plants to let them stand for winter. But sometimes the health of the gardener is more important that the health of the garden (which probably will be OK no matter what), and in my case I know that spring is so busy that anything I can do in fall to decrease the spring workload is well worth doing.

So, even though things are still green, I think this weekend I'll start dismantling beds one by one. I'll cut back things like Nepeta, but I will leave Sedums and Echinacea standing for winter interest. Dahlias, of course, have several more weeks in the garden. Not only are they still flowering, they need to be killed off by a good frost before you can dig them for storage.

As I go through, bed by bed, I'll also pull as many weeds as I, again so it's one less thing to do in spring. In a few weeks, when we're drowning in fallen leaves, I'll run them through the chipper-shredder and create a lovely mulch for my beds. The areas that I mulched with chopped leaves last fall had noticeably fewer weeds in spring, so that's another investment in my spring time.

Still, cutting back plants that still look OK is hard to do. But the knowledge that it will be far more tolerable a job at 60 degrees than at 35 degrees is enough for me to get over it.



THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO GUIDE TO PRUNING

To my knowledge there is no garden task that strikes fear into the heart of gardeners so much as pruning. By my estimation, the two most likely explanations for this are:
  1. We've all been scolded and made to feel bad/silly/stupid for pruning incorrectly.
  2. We live in perpetual fear of killing plants by pruning incorrectly.
There are rules for pruning. Oh boy are there rules. Start with the hardest: When to prune? There's no doubt that there is a better time to prune to maximize future flowering and keep the shrub or plant looking its best. But how is a gardener supposed to keep track of what to prune when, when everything seems to have its own very specific set of rules?

This is a newer cultivar of Spirea that only gets lightly shaped after blooming, but older varieties can turn into woody, ugly behemoths if not pruned at all. 

Then there is the question of how much we're supposed to be pruning, and how should we physically prune?

Most of the answers aren't that hard to remember:

WHEN: Spring-blooming shrubs generally set their flowers on "old wood," aka the previous year's growth, so if you prune anytime between late summer and early the following spring, you'll be cutting of the flower buds. Summer- and fall-blooming shrubs can be cut back in very late winter or very early spring (in my zone 5 garden this typically involves walking through a bit of snow). It's generally safe to prune right after flowering, but on something like Virburnums, you would be cutting off the branches where beautiful berries will form.

HOW MUCH: The general rule of thumb is to not prune more than 25 percent of a shrub or tree's growth in a year. Some push that to 33 percent, but I err on the side of a quarter.

HOW: To keep it simple, you at least want to prune back to something, usually a branch but maybe a leaf node at least. Often you may want to consider something called rejuvenation pruning, where you remove some of the oldest branches/stems all the way to the ground.

Of course there are finer points that go well beyond these. As gardeners get more into gardening, as is usually the case, these details become second nature. But in the meantime I feel like the gardeners who know those details are doing a good job of scaring the pants off new gardeners who may quickly decide that gardening is too complicated and they don't have time or space in their brain for such details. And that's sad, because while it is certainly better to have intimate knowledge of how and when to prune every plant we grow, the world will not end if you don't.

In other words, let's stop spreading the fear of pruning.

In fact, while some people may tell you that you MUST prune at a certain time, I'd like to challenge that idea. And by the way, I'm not alone. Christopher Lloyd, the late, great British gardener who did much to influence how we think of gardens today at his Great Dixter, has said that the best time to prune is when you have the tools in your hand and you think of it.

"The wrong time may be the only opportunity and a preferable alternative to not doing something at all," he wrote in The Adventurous Gardener. "Or it may not be the wrong time, contrary to accepted practice as quoted in gardening literature, if you act cannily. It's all very well to accept received advice and opinions gratefully and at face value when you're starting, but we graduate. You'll make mistakes but you'll perhaps learn not to mind making them. That's a great release from all sorts of inhibitions."

In other words, it's far better to prune at the wrong time than it is to not prune at all, which is a far more common and possibly egregious crime against horticulture. (Exception: There are many shrubs, that, when planted in an appropriate location can and should be allowed to live their lives with little to no pruning, short of removing dead wood.)

I planted this Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' in an area where it will be allowed to grow to its full size, maybe 10 feet tall and wide or more, so I will never need to prune it for size. 

Sometimes, when considering doing something in life that I'm not entirely comfortable with, I think, "What's the worst that could happen?"

And I believe that might be a good approach to pruning as well. If you have the time and the tools handy, what's the worst that could happen if you prune a shrub at a less than optimal time? And in most cases the answer is that you'd negatively affect its next flowering period. So is that so terrible? Well, it probably is if it's the shrub around which you planned your entire garden, or if you have a garden wedding planned specifically for when a particular shrub blooms.

Hydrangeas, perhaps more than any other shrub, strike fear into the hearts of gardeners when it comes time for pruning. This is Hydrangea panniculata Limelight, which blooms on new wood at the ends of branches. I cut it back somewhat hard (some years more than others) in late winter, and in recent years have taken out the oldest stem all the way to the base to encourage new growth. What's the worst that would happen if I didn't prune it that way? If I failed to prune it all it would still flower, but it would get to its full size, 8 or more feet tall and eventually dead wood, if not removed, would sully its appearance. If I pruned at the wrong time, I would probably get later, fewer and smaller flowers (if pruned well into spring) or maybe nothing different would happen if I pruned in fall instead of winter.
To me, the worst-case scenario of something that could happen to a shrub is that you'd kill it, and providing that you follow the other two rules (particularly the one about how much to prune), it's unlikely you'll do that.

Now think about the worst-case scenario if, year after year, you forget to prune a shrub when you are supposed to and never touch it because you don't want to prune at the wrong time. You may end up with an overgrown shrub that outgrows its location and is so badly shaped that it can't be salvaged. And then you end up taking it out, probably after several years of looking at a pretty ugly shrub. In effect, you make the decision to end it's life.

The point is this: No one wants to reduce flowering accidentally, but I think it's time we stop acting like pruning at the wrong time is one of the seven deadly sins. Not to mention, Lloyd's point about making mistakes is a good one: Sometimes it's the best way to learn in the garden.

Rather, I'd counsel gardeners to check a good gardening reference book or even Google (add .edu to the end of your search and you're more likely to quickly get to more reliable information) for pruning information for their specific plant if they know what it is. But if you don't and you have the tools in your hand and you know it's likely the only time you'll have for the job, go for it.

What's the worst that can happen?




FRIDAY FINDS

It's been awhile since I've done a Friday Finds, so I thought I'd pop in quickly to share some of my favorites for the week.

First off, a bit of a programming note. I haven't been posting a lot lately simply because it's been one of those busy times in life. I was out of town last week (in beautiful Annapolis, Maryland, where it was 80 degrees!) and then catching up this week and blah, blah, blah. I've got some posts in the works and a video I'm editing, so you should see those all soon. I'm also working on a new website for the blog. I'm changing platforms and sprucing up the design just a bit. In the past some of you have written to tell me that you've had a problem leaving comments and hopefully those issues should be gone and the entire user experience should be better. No launch date to announce yet, but hopefully it won't be long. If anyone has requests that you'd like to see on a new website, please give me a holler!

But let's get on with the fun bits, shall we?


This frog, or perhaps a whole bunch of frogs, seems to be living in my rose containers on the driveway and I keep catching him out sunning himself. I have all kinds of pictures of him now, but I love this one. I worry about what will happen to them when I move the container in the garage for winter. Is it safe to assume they'll move on before I do that (after a hard frost)?

It's pumpkin season and of course the folks at Detroit Garden Works have the most amazing collection of interesting pumpkin varieties, which you can see in this post. I will say that a couple of the price tags had me thinking I should start growing fancy pumpkins!


Ricardo Labougle/NYT photo
If you didn't catch this article about an amazing English garden New York Times, check it out now. Can you say gorgeous?

Check out Matt's beautiful vegetable harvest. This is why I want to redo my veggie garden.

Lauren Liess, who is one of the few design bloggers I still like, is getting a show on HGTV and I'm thrilled. I don't have cable since we cut the cord, but occasionally HGTV offers shows on their app even if you don't have cable, and I hope this is one of them.

That's it from here. There is work, work, work to be done in the garden but honestly I'm not sure how much will actually happen as between the weather (rainy) and a lot of other things on the agenda, I don't see that there will be much time for garden chores. When will they all get done, one wonders?

What's on your agenda for the weekend?
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THE HOUSEPLANT SHUFFLE (AKA WINTER IS COMING)

For as much as I love plants, my relationship with houseplants is, as they say on Facebook, complicated. I love having them, because a house devoid of plant life would be depressing. But at the same time I don't love the space they take up nor their neediness. And because of that it is only due to their summer vacation outside that they survive.

It's a good thing houseplants, in general, survive on benign neglect because that's certainly what they get in my house. I water less than I should and start fertilizing later than I should. By the time they are summarily shoved out the door onto the deck in June, they are in a sad state.

Still, I strive to keep them alive during the time they are in the house. That mostly means I water them when I remember and fertilize them starting in late winter, also when I remember. It is, perhaps, not exactly the makings of a how-to book.

But I do have a few personal guidelines I follow for bringing my houseplants back in, which is on my agenda for this coming weekend. Nighttime temperatures haven't dipped much below the low 50s here yet, but they certainly will in coming weeks.

The houseplant corner on the deck is still fully occupied. The split-leaf Philodendron was repotted this summer and seems happy about it. Behind that is the ficus tree I took from my grandmother's house when she died, and the only houseplant I really worry about. Then there are a handful of spider plants (one that I bought the day I moved to college more than 20 years ago) and a few other plants. 

1. I wait as long as I can to bring plants in. This isn't something you should probably do, as the best thing to do for plants is to gradually acclimate them to their new surroundings. But the fact is, there's no way I'm going to haul plants in and out, so when they come in, they stay. Because I don't have a great place for houseplants to live light-wise, I leave them outside for the maximum amount of light they can get.

2. Water them really well, but then let them dry out. That seems counterintuitive, but well-watered plants will manage the stress of the move better than plants that are drought stressed. In a recent podcast with Margaret Roach, Ken Druse said he overwaters all his houseplants before bringing them in to help flush out creepy crawlies that may be camping out. I think it's a good idea. The drying out part means I won't be dripping water all over the house and I'll save my back a little bit.

3. Give them a shower. I give everything a really good spray with the hose the day before I bring things in. This helps get rid of bugs, but also just dirt and pollen that might be laying on the leaves.

4. Clean them up. I prune off any dead or dying leaves before I bring plants inside. This might be a good thing to do for the plant's health but I just do it because it's a lot easier to clean that up outside than inside.

I love my staghorn fern and was happy to see that it shot up several new fronds this summer. That's good, because the less attractive fronds will be cut off before it comes inside. 
After that it's just of finding a spot for everything and making sure I have proper trays under all the pots. I have ruined more floors in my life from houseplants so I've learned that a $2 plastic tray is a much better option than taking chances when watering.

Most of my plants end up in the east-facing office/den and I do close the heat vent in that room unless we happen to be sitting in it because houseplants don't really want to be at the temperature we keep the house. It's still not cool enough or bright enough for them, but it's the best I can do. And, as I said, I underwater out of forgetfulness, but I believe it's better for the plants. Think of winter as a time for houseplants to rest, rather than to force them into active growth.

And that's it. It's hardly houseplant heaven here, but I do the best I can, and sometimes that's enough.

If you're in need of far better houseplant information, check out this article/podcast on A Way to Garden.


What's your houseplant care plan? If you have any great tips, please share them!

ENJOY YOUR GARDEN PATH & THE INEVITABLE MAINTENANCE

Sometimes I am tempted to create more gardens (which I absolutely do not need) simply to create more garden paths. I don’t know why I have a love affair with paths, but I collect pictures of them and ideas for future paths with the same zeal that I collect garden ideas.

My tastes in paths are nondiscriminatory. I love them whether they are made from flagstone, brick, gravel, wood, grass and sometimes concrete. And I particularly like paths that are featured multiple materials. What I’m finding, though, is that other than those made of a solid surface, paths all need maintenance. And the more material mixing you do, the more maintenance they need.

Few kinds of paths have my heart like flagstone paths. I’m particularly a fan of flagstone with moss or another durable, “steppable” ground cover growing between the rocks. In one of the early iterations of the path to the garage (which back then was just a path through the garden opening onto the lawn), I tried this and year after year the ground cover failed. I tried Irish moss, creeping thyme and a handful of other plants and although all of them would thrive in summer, none could handle what our Wisconsin winter had in store for them. That’s really no surprise as we were asking for a Herculean effort from them. This was a path that was regularly trod upon (i.e compaction is a factor), shoveled (no plant wants that) and frozen and thawed (the stones would heat up in the winter sun) repeatedly. 


This is the area of the path that I've already cleaned up this year. Blissfully weed free.

When I extended the path all the way to the garage a few years ago as part of a complete renovation of that part of the yard following the renovation of our house, I embraced a new design: The same flagstones (although mixed with recycled bluestone from my grandmother’s house) with small gravel between the stones. I laid a thick base of limestone screenings (also called road base in some places), set the stones on it and filled in with gravel (you can read about the process here and see what it looked like right after I finished it here). 

Up until now, the maintenance has consisted of just topping off the gravel from time to time and using my weed torch to knock out any small weeds that might pop up. This year, however, the weeds have been healthier and I was somewhat lax about keeping up with frequent weed burning missions. Weed burners are fabulous for a lot of applications, but they work best when you are killing small weeds frequently, rather than trying to take out well-established plants. 

When I resigned myself a few weekends ago to take on the path maintenance project I’ve been putting off for months and started trying to hand pull weeds, I found that the reason they were all growing so well is because there was a lot of soil in all that gravel. And that is the issue with so many paths. Even when you take care to prevent weeds from growing in cracks, dirt gets in there and then you’ve lost the battle.


The areas that I haven't gotten to yet are not nearly so nice. Grass, both from the lawn and nearby ornamental grasses, dandelions and all manor of other weeds have taken a firm hold in what used to be gravel but is now mostly soil.

And as far as I can tell, there is no way to prevent this. Landscape fabric certainly doesn’t work because soil just gathers on top of it. It gets there by wind, messy gardening, blown in by the lawn mower, but mostly, I’m guessing, from plant material getting on the path and breaking down. In other words, it’s basically making compost. 

The story of what happened next with my path isn’t particularly exciting or illuminating, and it’s certainly no “Quick tip for path maintenance.” I flipped up every stone, dug up the all of the gravel/soil mixture surrounding it and reset it (which wasn’t difficult as the limestone screening base seems as good as ever). Then I came back and refilled the cracks. Fortunately we got way too much gravel delivered when I did the paths in the circle garden this spring so I had plenty left. 

I should clarify. I’m only about halfway through this project. It’s boring and laborious, so I’ve been taking it in chunks and hope to finish it up before the end of the month. 

But here are my takeaways about garden paths:

  1. Unless it's a solid surface, such as poured or stamped concrete, all paths will require maintenance, and even those will probably need power washing once or twice a year.
  2. If you do have a path that requires maintenance, do a little bit frequently, rather than waiting until it becomes a big project. Staying on top of my weed burning could have put this big job off a year or more.
  3. Consider your climate and how frequently you'll use the path when you decide what material to use. Maintenance is one thing but completely redoing a path is expensive and time consuming.


If you're curious about my weed torch, which is one of my favorite ways to tackle weeds, here's the setup I use. These are links to the products on Amazon and if you buy from them I may receive a small commission to help support my plant habit! Thanks for your support.





A NEW FOE

There is a school of thought, which I wholeheartedly subscribe to, that the activities we enjoy for a lifetime are those that are difficult to master and that constantly have us striving to know more, or perform better. There's no doubt in my mind that gardening falls under this category. But if I were so blazen as to start thinking I know it all, you can be sure that Mother Nature would put me firmly back in my place. 

No year in the garden is the same as another. And suddenly, almost out of the blue, I find myself facing a new garden menace that I've never found to be a threat before.


A little over a week ago, I posted this photo of my 'Serkan' dahlias looking great on Instagram. One commenter remarked on the cute bug and wanted to know if it was eating the dahlias. My reply was that there's clearly evidence of something munching, but I didn't think it was an issue.

Let me tell you: It's an issue. 

Here's another 'Serkan' just a few days later.


The bug is a spotted cucumber beetle and I've certainly seen them before, but I've never witnessed them either in such quantity or be so damaging.

When I walk near these dahlias—and it's odd because so far they've only done this kind of damage on these dahlias, not the dozen or so other varieties that grow nearby—hundreds, if not thousands, fly up as I interrupt their feeding frenzy.


Of course my first thought was, "What the heck are cucumber beetles doing eating my dahlias?" particularly when my cucumbers seem to be unaffected.

After doing a little digging, it appears that they don't have a problem eating flowers and can be found on the flowers of many ornamental plants. Why this picked this dahlia to harass, I have no idea.

There is some good news. Spotted cucumber beetles (unlike their trendy striped cousins) do not overwinter here. Apparently the adults fly up from the south in mid-summer, lay their eggs in weedy or grassy areas where the larvae hang out until it gets dry and then they fly off to terrorize gardens. We've had a very wet summer until the past very dry few weeks, so the timing seems to make sense.

They even seem to have settled in on a new bud, waiting to lay waste to my beautiful flowers.

In terms of controlling them, none of the options seem particularly useful or helpful. Handpicking is mentioned as an option, and I have no problem with that as I've been squishing sawfly larvae and handpicking Japanese beetles all summer, but I just don't get how that works when the things fly away as soon as I get close. Putting out sticky insect-catching tape by itself or lining the inside of a plastic cup (I knew Red Solo cups would make their way into gardens soon enough, as they seem to have infiltrated every other aspect of society) and perching it upside down on a stake are also said to be options for catching them.

Everything else involves pretty nasty non-selective insecticides that I'm not interested in using in my garden.

To be honest, there's not much chance of saving these dahlias at this point. I could cut them back and maybe get one more bloom out of them if I could get rid of the beetles, but so far that seems unlikely. Soon enough the beetles will either die or move on, and hopefully not in my yard, and the problem will solve itself.

Just one more new challenge in the garden.


More reading on managing spotted cucumber beetles:
University of Minnesota Extension
University of Maryland Extension

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THE BEST PLANTS IN THE EARLY FALL GARDEN

It's an unsettling time in the garden. Part of me looks around, thinks about all the tasks that must get done before it gets too cold out to want to do them and wants to just get on with it, and the other part of me realizes that the garden is still looking fantastic. 

And a walk around the garden shows that the best looking plants right now are also, in general, among the easiest to care for. In fact, with one exception, the most I have deal with any of these plants is once a year. That's it. One tiny little bit of attention paid to them once.

Anything that requires that little care and provides this much pleasure is surely an all-star.

Korean feather reed grass is full of the most lovely fluffy flowerheads right now. The only thing I do to it is cut it back in late winter or very early spring. I supposed some day I'll have to divide it, but that's a rarity.


It provides a great backdrop to the thick, ruffly leaves of Gingko biloba 'Gnome'. Or is it the other way around?


Hydrangeas are the gift that keeps on giving. I can't imagine a garden without them. The panicle hydrangeas in particular shine at this time of year. This is 'Bobo', which is now in its fourth month of bloom (seriously, it started in June) and is now showing almost neon pink coloring.


'Quickfire' hydrangea has been pink for at least a month (hence the name), and is still looking great.


Hakonechloa is a good-doer all around, but 'All Gold' in particular shines in autumn light. Again, all I do to it is cut it back in late winter and I only divide it when I want more of it, which it happily provides.


Hakonechloa macra 'Stripe it Rich' gets great seed heads this time of year.


While all the plants around it are starting to look tattered, especially the slug-damaged hostas and the deer-munched 'Incrediball' hydrangeas, the groundcover Lamium maculatum 'Pink Chablis', seems to always look fresh and lively.


It wouldn't be early fall in the garden without Rudbeckia. It's the standard by which all fall-blooming perennials should be measured. I cut it back in spring, leaving the stems standing for the birds and winter interest.


Sedums just sit back as the unnoticed wallflowers all summer, but come early fall, they are stars. I also leave the standing over winter and I try to cut them back in about June to keep them a little stockier and prevent flopping.


Not all that is beautiful in the early fall garden is foliage or flower. These berries on Viburnun x juddii are so bright and shiny. I will enjoy them until the birds find them. I literally do nothing to this shrub other than admire it. What more can you ask for?


Roses hardly fall under the "low maintenance" category that the rest of these plants fall under, but it would be remiss of me to ignore them in a listing of the best plants in the garden in early fall. Here in zone 5, now is the time when most roses get a stunning second flush of flowers, so long as the gardener has been diligent about deadheading earlier in the year. This is 'The Alnwick Rose', which I planted in late spring.


Nature has a way of reminding us to enjoy every day and not rush to what's coming next. Plants like this are proof.



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THE INVASIVE SPECIES THAT HAS ME FREAKING

I used to dig in my garden, unearth a worm and be delighted. I took it as a pat on the back for my hard work in making good soil that earthworms would want to be in doing their good work. But for the past year or so that delight has been gone. It has been replaced with dread. Dread that one of those worms would be unlike any other worm I'd encountered in my garden before.

A few years ago the first so-called jumping worms (aka Amynthas agrestis) were spotted in Wisconsin. They'd made their way here originally from Asia with stops in many northeastern and Midwest states and now at least Oregon in the Northwest. Call them crazy worms, Alabama jumpers, Jersey wigglers, snake worms or some variation of those, but I'll tell you what I call them: Bad news.

Wisconsin DNR graphic

These worms, which hang out on the upper layers of soil, are massive digesters of soil. This is not a good thing. What they leave behind is loose soil resembling coffee grounds and largely devoid of nutrients. Give them a little time and they destroy the composition of the soil to the point where plants are no longer anchored.

They reproduce without mating, laying impossible-to-find cocoons in the soil that overwinter even in cold areas, and oh, by the way, they mature so quickly that two generations can be produced in one season. They do their damage quickly.

Earlier this year, Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Madison, Wisconsin's Olbrich Botanical Garden, where the worms were found a couple years ago, reported that a 5-year-old stand of Arborvitaes in the garden were all leaning to the east after a strong storm with west winds. These trees, which should have been well rooted, appeared to have been rocked because they aren't properly anchored in the loose soil. And Epping has dealt with them in his own garden. In May he reported on the damage he's noticed.

"I am also living with them in my home garden and have noticed very significant changes in my soil in parts of my garden," he wrote. "My soil structure has changed from typical silt loam soil to a granular, almost sandlike loose structure. The granules are so loose that I can easily scoop my hand into the top 3 to 5 inches of soil with minimal effort. The soil granules also seem to be a bit hydrophobic and certainly not moisture retentive. During periods of drought in the summer the plants in the worst jumping worm areas suffer from lack of moisture, way more than the areas where the worms are less concentrated."

In other words, no way in hell do I want these things in my garden. The odds, however, are not my favor. In fact, it's probably more of a matter of delaying the inevitable, because the worms are close. I knew they had been found in our county, but last week as I was working in a garden maintained by our master gardener group, I found a very suspicious worm. My master gardener training suggests that what I should have done was carefully collect the worm, study it to see if it matched the description of a jumping worm, photograph it, then put it in a Ziploc bag for further identification if needed and to solarize it before disposal (yeah, that means what you think it means: Cook it in a plastic bag in the sun). Instead what I did was scream, jump around, flip it onto the sidewalk, poke it to see how it moved, take a couple videos of it, squish it and throw it in the busy street. Because I'll be honest, I'm grossed out and I'm freaked out.

I'm waiting for positive confirmation from the DNR, but I have no doubt it's a jumping worm. When I went back later I found the distinctive coffee-ground soil and four more worms without looking hard. With my wits about me (and, um, another gardener with gloves) we bagged these.

Sidenote: Literally in the middle of writing this I received a call from my sister-in-law, who lives a couple miles from the garden I was working in and about 10 miles from my house, that she found several jumping worms.

Here's a really gross video from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:




Right now, my focus is on crossing my fingers that I can keep them out of my garden a bit longer and that means that I'm taking a lot of precautions.

Here's what I'm doing:

  1. No more passalong plants (probably). This is sad because this is how I get a lot of plants from family and friends. If I have to get a plant from someone I will root wash it at its garden of origin and then either pot it up in potting mix or take it home and immediately plant it. 
  2. No more plant sales. A lot of plant sales in the area were cancelled last year in order to slow the spread of jumping worms. They don't hatch until about mid-June here, which is after many sales happen, so it would not be difficult to take some eggs home in a pot with a new plant.
  3. Practicing OCD levels of garden cleanliness. When I work at the garden where I believe I spotted the worms I scrub all my tools, removing every speck of dirty. Same for my shoes and I have a pair of gloves I will only use there. All material collected there (weeds, deadheaded flowers, other detritus) is bagged for disposal. This as far as the DNR instructions go, but I'm taking the extra step of sterilizing everything with Lysol as well. I told you: OCD.
  4. I won't bring any commercial mulch onto my property. I'll still use so-called arborist chips from  trees we cut down here, but that's it. It is believed that the worms cannot withstand extreme heat, meaning that most commercial mulch should be OK, but it is believed they are still being transported this way (and I suspect that's how we got them at the garden downtown).
Jumping worms are shiny, even iridescent, and have a white or light collar that is flush with their body. In other words, really gross.

So what do you need to be on the lookout for if you live in an area where jumping worms have been found? Here's how you can identify them:
  • Look for the grainy, coffee-ground like soil at the surface. 
  • The worms will be in the top layer of soil just hanging out waiting to ruin some gardener's day. 
  • When you disturb one, they will behave unlike other worms, thrashing and writhing.
  • There will often be clusters of them.
  • They slither like snakes.
  • (This one is perhaps the most horrifying.) Sometimes when you pick one up their tails will break off and keep wriggling in your hand. You will know if this happens to me if I disappear for several days, having passed out and probably gotten a head injury.
  • They are shiny and almost iridescent. 
  • The band around them (called the clitellum) is white or light and smooth, whereas it is raised on other worms. It also encircles the body of a jumping worm where it is incomplete on other worms.
What to do if you find them:
  • Collect them for positive identification in a sealable plastic bag. Take a picture if need be, then repot them to your state DNR or extension master gardener service.When you're done with the worms, put the bag in the sun to kill the worms, then throw it away intact.
  • Repeat this as you find more. Anything you can do to slow the spread is important.
  • Be vigilant about cleaning your tools, even among areas in your garden if possible. 
  • Don't share plants from your garden. If you must, root wash them and remove all soil before repotting them or passing them on.
  • Try not to scream and freak out like a certain blogger may have.
Invasive species (both flora and fauna) happen, unfortunately. Rarely do we want to deal with them, but they are a fact of life. This one is particularly scary because it can do such serious damage (which goes well beyond the impact on gardeners; it could be catastrophic for agriculture) and as of now, there's no real method of control. 

I'll do my best to delay their arrival in my garden, look suspiciously upon every worm I encounter and yes, I'll probably scream, swear and generally freak out when the day comes that I find them. Some days that's just how it goes in the garden.

More information on jumping worms: