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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Autumn Gardening: Projects & 1 Failure!

Autumn is in full swing. Winter is right around the corner..

The weather has been strangely cool this spring and summer (2015) and oddly warm this autumn.  Usually, by early November in Michigan zone 5b, we have had at least one brief snow. Instead, this year we have had a couple of mild frosts, and several 70F (or higher) days.  VERY unusual.

On the plus side, this has given us a longer span of time in which to gather leaves, mulch, plant bushes, and clean up dead plant material.  All the usual tasks of fall.


If you have read any gardening articles this fall, you know how important leaves are to gardeners!  But in case you haven't read any other articles: LEAVES ARE IMPORTANT!  They are high in mineral content and provide essential microscopic fungal organisms for the soil that help your plants grow.  Here are few quick tips on how to make best use of your autumn leaves:

Composting leaves.

1. Compost the leaves.  Leave provide the "brown" or "carbon" component that is essential to making good compost.  Do not burn your leaves!  Throw them in the compost heap! Your plants will love you once the compost breaks down!

2. Make leaf mold.  Leaves are full of fungal organisms and minerals that are great for plants.  These are most concentrated in leaf mold. Making leaf mold is super easy.  Just gather the leaves, pile them up, and let them rot. You can contain the leaves in a bin with air holes poked in it, in a small area fenced with chicken wire,
Perforated bag of leaves to make leaf mold.
or you can do what I did: put them in a black plastic bag, add water to the bag, poke holes in the bag, then stash the entire thing under the deck.  Leaves take some time to break down.  You can expect leaf mold in 1-2 years after collection depending on your climate. If you wish to speed the process try shredding the leaves and/or mixing them with a high nitrogen material such as coffee grounds, manure, urine, or corn gluten meal.

                                                              3. Insulate your roses (or other plants).  Piling
Insulated roses within a burlap wind-break.
leaves up around the base of roses during the winter can help to insulate the roots.  You can further protect the roses, and hold the leaves in place by erecting a barrier made from garden stakes and burlap. This acts as a wind break and keeps the stems from drying out and dying. Be sure to remove the leaves in the spring to avoid causing rot from moisture build up at the base of the rose.

4. Use the leaves as mulch.  Leaves make excellent mulch.  They help to insulate the ground, protect the soil organisms
Mulching with leaves.
and are a favorite food of earthworms.  To mulch with leaves, simply pile them onto your garden bed to a depth of 1-2 inches.  If you wish, you can shred the leaves first, which will make for a cleaner/neater and more uniform look.

5. Leave the leaves alone!  Unless your leaves are extremely thick to the point of shading out your lawn, consider allowing them to stay where they are.  Most of them will break down by spring and will help to fertilize the lawn and garden. They also help to shelter beneficial insects, amphibians, and small mammals.


Please do not go crazy with fall garden clean up! You do not need to cut back all of your perennials. You definitely should NOT prune trees!

Leaving perennial leaves and stems in place is often a GOOD thing to do!  The seed heads help to feed birds and small mammals.  The hollow stems allow beneficial insects to over-winter in the garden.  The leaves and stems act as insulation for the plants own roots through the winter.  So leave them alone now, and clean them up in spring!  I am giving you permission to procrastinate!! :)

There is one exception: clean up diseased material.  If one of your plants had a disease (e.g. black spot, powdery mildew) it is a good idea to clean up their leaves and any debris from the plant and to either send this material to the municipal dump, or burn it. This will help to prevent the diseases from re-emerging next spring.

DO NOT PRUNE TREES OR BUSHES IN THE FALL!  The plants may have lost most of their leaves, but they are not fully dormant yet!  Pruning encourages plant growth. This is not an ideal time of year for a plant to put on new growth. It wastes the plant's energy which is better stored for next spring.  Also, if the plant makes new shoots in fall, they are likely to get damaged over the winter.  So please, save your pruning for when the plant is completely dormant.  Prune in late winter or early spring (January to March in Michigan zone 5b)!


Vacciunium cyanococcus 'jellybean.'
Fall is a great time to plant trees and bushes.  If you plant in fall, the soil is still soft and warm. This allows the plant to establish healthy roots and then to rest through the winter.  By spring, the plant will be so happily situated with regard to its roots that it will put on very healthy spring growth.

This fall, I planted dwarf blueberries, myself.  The varieties I chose were 'jellybean' and 'northcountry'.  The 'jellybean' variety should grow to a maximum size of 3ft tall by 3ft wide and 'northcountry' should grow to a maximum size of 3ft tall by 4 ft wide. I purchased these bushes at a local nursery. They have several nice looking buds on them and the roots appeared to be very healthy in the pot.   I am hoping for berries within a few years of the plants getting establishes! YUM!!

If you are interested in growing blueberries yourself, please remember that they need acid soil with a pH of 4 to5 in order to be able to absorb the nutrients that they need.  If your soil is not acidic enough, you can increase the acid by amending the soil with peat moss and/or sulfur.  But beware!  Maintaining acidity in soil that is not naturally acidic can be difficult.  This will require testing the soil pH yearly and amending it yearly in order to maintain the health of your plant.  Also, be sure to select a plant that is hardy in your USDA growing zone, and one that will grow to a size that you can manage in your landscape. In other words: READ THE TAG (or online growing description)!


Remember to fill your bird feeders and to put out suet. Many birds are flying south and can use the extra energy. Soon, the wild plant seed and fruit will be consumed by a variety of creatures, and winter will be here.  There will be a shortage of food for the birds who need the energy to keep warm.  So please, keep those feeders full until spring!  Also, remember to provide an ice-free water source if you are able.  

NIFTY TIP:  I learned from the "You Bet Your Garden" podcast that hot pepper/chili powder can be mixed with bird seed or can be used to coat suet in order to deter squirrels from eating the bird seed.  Why? Birds like hot peppers. Their beaks do not have mucous membranes, so the spicy-hot capsaicin  does not burn their mouths. However, squirrels do have mucous membranes in their mouths (just as humans do) so the capsaicin burns their mouth. If they get it in their eyes while dangling from the bird feeder, their eyes will sting as well. They will avoid the bird feeder after that sting!

I can't remember where I saw it, but I found what I thought was a cute bird feeder project on the internet.  This involved cutting a pumpkin in half, scooping out the insides, filling it with bird seed as if it were a bowl, and putting it out for the birds to use as a feeder.  The idea was that the birds would eat the seed and also nibble on the pumpkin.  EPIC FAIL!

This project did not work at all.  While the pumpkin did make a cute bowl (see the picture on the left), none of the birds pecked at the pumpkin at all as far as I could tell. Even worse, the moisture from the pumpkin moved in to the seed via osmosis and made for a damp, grainy mess that was unappetizing for the birds, and began to rot rather quickly.  My advice: use a regular bird feeder, and skip the cutesy pumpkin nonsense!

Happy Fall Y'all!  Check in soon for more blog posts!  :)

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