Fall Containers


In the past, I haven’t done much with containers in the fall. There’s no point, really. “Fall” is a very short season for us. Our first frost comes early in October and much of what goes into a container would be killed by that.

But this year, I have two lectures in October that needed containers. One was a lecture on container gardening itself and the other was a lecture on house plants.

In both my house plants and container lectures, I always like to talk about–and feature–both house plants and succulents. Why? First, because you can’t go anywhere without seeing them. Next, because I like them and I think that, despite the fact that they’re so popular, they are very versatile and great plants for a lot of gardeners in many situations (provided you have sun). So showing them–and talking about how to care for them–is important. Lots of beginning gardeners think that succulents and cactus are the same–because they are sold together. So a little education there is necessary too.


This is my “house plant” container, where I play off the colors in the croton with the color of the flowers in the kalanchoe and the color of the sedum foliage. This type of planting is called “complementary.” It’s the same design principle as using throw pillows to pick up the color from a painting or a rug, say.


And this is a late season herb planter with primarily tender perennials. The golden oregano at the front (my “spiller”) is hardy, even in my climate. The tallest plant, the variegated basil is ‘Pesto Perpetuo,’ a tender perennial basil, although I have never successfully over-wintered it without it succumbing to scale. The rosemary (the “filler plant”) will generally winter in my unheated sun porch unless we get a very cold winter–in which case I bring it into the house.

All of these, along with Wednesday’s show stopper ornamental container, will be traveling with me to my lectures in the next few weeks to illustrate some container design principles (as well as some fun fall containers).

I hate the see this year’s gardening season end!

Wordless Wednesday–Summertime Blues and Yellows!

Seaside Garden Sculpture

As summer winds down, the Spoiler and I took a day trip to the Connecticut shore. This sculpture was in a garden just off a sidewalk. It caught my eye as we were talking and walking.

We debated whether of not it moved. I didn’t think so but he thought it must. Either way, I loved the way it was framed by the sunflowers and grasses.

March Is The Cruelest Month, Really

TS Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland opens with the following lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Now of course Eliot lived in England and wasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, much of a gardener despite his reference to lilacs.  But here in the “temperate” Northeast, I’ve always felt that March was the cruelest month for gardeners anyway, tempting us out of our homes with occasional gentle breezes and then dumping snow (or worse, ice) on us the next day (or even the same night)

What’s a gardener to do?  Well, there are a few things that it’s perfectly safe to do this time of year.  And there are some things that could ruin–and yes, I absolutely mean ruin!–your gardening for the rest of the season , if not for several seasons to come.

In this post I’ll talk about the things that it’s safe to do out of doors on those lovely balmy false spring days (because although March first begins meteorological spring, many of us know that “actual”–or gardening” spring isn’t going to begin until much later).

For those of you fortunate enough to be living at latitudes warmer than mine,  you can just tuck these ideas away until you need them next year in February (or even mid-January if you’re lucky enough to live that far South!)

One of the best things to do in the early spring is to prune deciduous trees and shrubs.  A caution here–prune only things that flower in the summer or later if you don’t want to lose the current year’s bloom (save the pruning of lilacs, azaleas and rhododendrons until later in the season.)  And only prune the blue or pink hydrangeas after bloom–most, unless they are newer varieties, flower on last year’s wood.

But this is a great time to prune later blooming shrubs, ‘Annabelle’ and panicle type hydrangeas, and to take dead wood and suckers off  trees.

It’s much easier to add new mulch or to refresh your mulch if the plants haven’t leafed out. Also, the sooner you complete this task, the more weeds seeds you smother.  An ideal mulch depth is 2-3″.  Remember to keep mulch away from the root flare of trees.  No “mulch volcanoes” going up the trunks of trees, please.

Cut back any ornamental grasses that were left standing wintered over.  This task is easier before they resume growth.  Larger clumps can be tied up and cut off with a hedge trimmer about 4-6″ from the ground.

Remember to stay off soggy ground, whether it’s the lawn or your perennial and shrub beds.  Walking on soggy soil–or working in it–can compact the soil.  To test if it’s safe to work in the garden, squeeze a handful of soil in your fist.  If it sticks together like a snowball, the soil is too wet to work in or walk on safely.  Once the soil crumbles in your hand, you’re good to go.

On Monday I’ll talk about cutting back perennials, making new garden beds and selecting plants for those beds.

Putting the Garden To Bed

Last week I mentioned “Putting the Garden to Bed.”   As with so many things in gardening, this too has changed considerably, even over the years that I’ve been doing it and speaking about it.

Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods, this information hasn’t filtered down to folks–or to the lawn care companies.  But our neighbors to the west in New York state have taken on a new initiative with respect to leaves called “Love “Em & Leave “Em” or “Leave Leaves Alone” that keeps leaves out of landfills and municipal yards and saves towns tens of thousands in manpower because the leaves are not picked up curbside.  Even better, because the leaves are “mulched in place” on the homeowner’s property, fossil fuel (the $4.00+ gallon gasoline or diesel) is saved by not driving those trucks to get the leaves.  It’s already the law in Scarsdale and Irvington NY and it’s suggested practice in all of Westchester County, NY,  Ohio, and the Bay area of California.

It’s certainly not a carbon neutral program: the homeowner or landscape company still will most likely be using gasoline to mulch the leaves.  But it’s a far better program for the Earth and the individual yard because mulching the leaves on the lawn–or mulching them in the bagging part of the lawnmower and spreading them in the garden beds–will help improve soil fertility without any extra work on the homeowner’s part (other than running the mower, which one would most likely do this time of year anyway).

If one were not running a mower, one would be running a leaf blower (as far too many of my neighbors already are in the quest for perfection).

Other sustainable practices include

  • not cutting back ornamental grasses until springtime (but cutting off the tips, or seedheads so that they do not self-sow, if that has been a problem for you) so that they provide cover and shelter for the birds–and so that you can enjoy their beauty in winter
  • leaving stems of sturdy perennials standing throughout winter to provide structure and interest in the garden (but do not leave any diseased stems to over-winter)
  • leaving stems of perennials with seedheads like echinacea and rudbeckia standing to provide interest and to feed the birds
  • leave stems of wildflowers like woodland asters in place if you want them to self-sow
  • do not worry about winter protection for any hardy (shrub or floribunda) roses in zones 6 or higher.  Hybrid teas and grandifloras will still need winter protection and the base–but mulch with about a foot of new mulch only.  That way, it will be available to you for spring mulching
  • don’t cut back rose canes–it’s not necessary, and with our uneven winters, it may only promote new growth
  • prune in the spring, not in the fall for the same reason.  Prune early spring bloomers right after flowering.

Many of these practices are the exact opposite of what we’ve been doing for years–but with the crazy weather and 70 degree January days, this is the way to get the garden safely through the winter and to another spring to enjoy!

Sustainable Garden Clean-up

On Tuesday I posted about the traditional garden clean-up–done mostly by the “mow and blow” guys and by homeowners who are still gardening the old fashioned way, not realizing there is an easier way.

Over the last few years the gardening community has come to realize that fall clean-up is largely a waste, and partly destructive as well.  It destroys habitat for overwintering insects, butterfly larva and otherwise beneficial insects, it creates more work than it needs to in moving and destroying tons of leaves with fossil fuels when those leaves could be put to good use enriching our gardens, and it is largely duplicative–the same clean-up at least in part needs to be done in the spring as well.

Savvy and eco-friendly gardeners also leave many of their non-diseased perennials standing for the winter.  They realize that this creates winter interest for the garden, in some cases it provides seed heads for the birds, and it also in some cases protects the crowns of more delicate perennials so that they do not freeze as easily.

A few years ago, Henry Homeyer, writing in the now defunct People, Places and Plants, went so far as to suggest that annuals should not be removed from the soil each fall; rather they should be severed at the soil line with a blade.  I’ve been trying this approach over the past few years and it seems to be a good one.  I find that when I uproot the annuals it loosens my soil and in so doing, creates fluffy soil that blows right to the curb when “the Spoiler” goes after the leaves with our 10 hp leaf blower (I know–do as I say, not as I do.  We do compost an amazing number of leaves but we cannot compost everything).

Composting leaves–or better yet, mowing over them with a mower and putting the shredded leaves in your garden beds–is about the best thing you can do for the garden.  Whether you compost them and use the compost or whether you use the leaf mould (that’s the “technical term” for the mown up leaves) enriches the soil without resorting to imported mulch.  It saves you time, money and the problems that imported mulch can cause: insects and fungus among them (and we won’t go into the other less environmentally friendly issues like where it was transported from and how much fossil fuel was used, whether it was made from environmentally friendly sources or something un-sustainable like cypress, whether it was carrying the eggs of invasive species or artillary fungus–mulch can be a hotbed of problems!)

Just like in traditional garden clean-up, you will still remove weed seeds and diseased leaves–but that’s about all there is to it.  This is a much easier approach for both the garden and the gardener!

Traditional Garden Clean-up

As any regular reader of this blog over the past year has been able to tell, I live in suburbia.  I don’t live in a rural area, or on a farm–and yet, my neighbors are gracious enough to permit me latitude when it comes to gardening and how and where I garden.  I am the only one in the neighborhood with a vegetable garden in full view of the neighbors and until I came, no one did ornamental (i.e. flower) gardening by the street (we don’t have sidewalks).

But most of my neighbors have lawn care companies and most of the “mow and blow” guys insist on doing what I call the “traditional” fall clean-up.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach–it’s been practiced in suburbia for probably 50 years or so now–but it’s probably more work than it needs to be (because after all, the mow and blow guys do need to make a living) and it doesn’t allow the “good guys” to over-winter as easily as they might–but more on that tomorrow.

The traditional approach consists of cleaning up and removing leaves from the lawn (which should be done in either case) and from the flower beds, cutting back all perennials and in some cases shrubs (whether or not it is appropriate to cut them back). 

Certain perennials, known  as woody sub-shrubs should be left standing in certain climates to give them extra protection over the winter.  They then should be pruned back to an appropriate height in the spring.  The best known of these shrubs is the butterfly bush (buddleia sp) but others such as russian sage (perovskia), lavender and caryopteris benefit from this treatment as well.

Other shrubs that bloom on old wood such as lilac, the rhododendron and azalea species and mop-headed hydrangeas should also never be cut in the fall.

Traditionalists like to cut their roses in the fall, if for no other reason than to make winter protection easier.  Many of the newer roses need no winter protection and therefore should need no cutting, but if you have a landscaper doing the work, he may not know this.  It is usually only hybrid teas–and those derived from hybrid teas (some climbers and grandifloras, for example)–that need winter protection.

Finally, there is no reason to cut ornamental grasses to the ground in the fall–in fact, in many cases it is almost a sacrilege to do so!  These grasses were designed for movement and color in the winter–and their seed heads feed the birds.  Leave them alone for heck’s sake!

By doing a minimal amount of work on the fall clean-up, you permit yourself time to putter in the garden on those lovely early spring days when the ground is too wet to be worked and there’s really nothing else to do.  A traditional clean-up still removes diseased leaves (and never composts them) and all weeds (or at least the seed heads)–let’s not make more work for ourselves than we need to in the spring.

But none of us is getting any younger–let’s learn to garden smarter for a change!

A Dramatic Tropical for the Pond

You last saw me post about this back on August 16–Foliage Follow-Up day.  But the picture I had there didn’t really give a sense of the scale of this tropical grass.  And since I’ve just repotted it for the third time (it was continuing to blow over in the slightest breeze because it had become too top-heavy in its last pot) I thought I’d post about what a remarkable plant it was.  It’s definitely one I’ll over-winter again for next year!

The tall plant in the background is the plant I’m really talking about–it’s cyperus papyrus King Tut, a Proven Winners plant that really has become a standout in the pond.  The frog adores it–it is his favorite basking place.  And the fish seem to enjoy nibbling around the pot and the roots too.

Its smaller cousin in the foreground, the umbrella plant, cyperus alternifolius, is one that I’ve wintered over 2 or 3 years now.  It gets pretty scraggly by the end of the winter and looks rather pathetic when it first hits the pond in the spring.

Water plants really need warm water to get going so I usually don’t even put them in until June or so but once the water warms they take off–and they can stay in the pond for quite some time in the fall because the water stays warm.  I leave them in until there’s a threat of a freeze, usually.

While these marginals are not great at filtering the water or preventing algae, their roots do provide some food for the fish–and King Tut’s pot has always been “Freddy,” the resident frog’s favorite basking and hunting spot, regardless of its size or position.  Even when it kept flipping on its side because the plant was top-heavy, I’d find Freddy perched on the plastic, astride the pot as if it were a mountain.

When a plant provides that much eye appeal (never mind entertainment for both me and the resident aquatic life) how can I not save it over for next year?