What to Do with Those Leaves, Leaves, Leaves.

The other day I was driving through town and really noticed the changing leaves for the first time this fall.  They are looking particularly colorful this year.  The Maple tree varieties like ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’ and Oaks like Red Oak and Shingle Oak put on quite a show.  My favorite tree at the arboretum is the Sugar Maple called ‘Table Rock’.  It has consistent orange-red fall color.

 

Table Rock Maple

Table Rock Maple

 

These leaves, no matter how beautiful, will eventually fall.  Then we need to decide what to do with them.  Here at the arboretum we compost them.  Leaf compost makes excellent plant food and humus that can be incorporated into your garden or flower bed.  Leaf compost is high in valuable minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and other trace elements.  Analysis shows that leaves from most trees can contain up to twice as many minerals as aged manure.

 

Gingko biloba

Gingko biloba, ‘Autumn Gold’

 

Why wouldn’t you want to make your own compost from leaves?  Good compost developed from leaves also adds organic matter to the soil.  This organic matter is great for aerating heavy clay soils or increasing water holding in sandy soils.  Take advantage of these free gifts.

Steps for composting leaves:

  1. Collect leaves. Shred them into small pieces to speed decomposition. Place leaves on the ground, which will make it easier to turn them and allow beneficial organisms such as worms to infiltrate the pile.
  2. To start your compost pile, your first layer should be several inches of leaves on the bare ground. This helps aerate the entire pile.
  3. Layer with alternating green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) material. Green material can be grass clippings, food scraps, algae, tea bags or any nitrogen source.  These green ingredients speed the decomposition of the brown material.  Brown material can be leaves, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, or straw.  These ingredients are generally slow to decompose and clump together.  They need time and moisture for optimum breakdown.  As a general rule, try to have one-third green and two-thirds brown.  The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.  Too much green makes a smelly, anaerobic mess.  More brown is better than too much green.
  4. Keep pile moist by either manually watering or allowing rain to infiltrate compost, but don’t go overboard.
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks. This incorporates and mixes all the elements together while aerating the pile.  If the pile is never turned, oxygen, which is an essential component in the process of decomposition, will be excluded.  Allow the compost pile to reach an internal temperature of 140-160 degrees to kill weed seeds.  If your compost pile is not reaching these temperatures, add more green material.
  6. In 4-6 months (next spring) the composting process will be complete.
Leaf House

Leaf house at the Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 

If you don’t have need of fresh compost, the arboretum is willing to take your bagged leaves.  We are again filling our leaf house with our leaves, but we can take more.  Just drop your bags of leaves in the bus parking area at the arboretum.  We will take them back to the leaf house.  The leaf house is a great example of decomposition in action.

Five Things You Should Do Now to Prepare for Winter

This is my favorite time of the year.  I love autumn.  You can see and feel the changes of the seasons.  Prairies turn from green to brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow.  Trees light up the landscape with vibrant fall color.  Asters dot the landscape as pollinators search for the last remaining nectar in the garden.  There is so much to enjoy this time of the year.  We don’t want to think about the real big change coming when winter arrives, but that change is coming all too soon.

I like to spend some time in the fall preparing our landscapes for winter.  By dedicating some time now to your landscape, you will be rewarded with healthier, more beautiful plants next spring.

Here are some things on my checklist for the fall:

#1 Mulch

Fall is a great time to mulch all your plants.  Mulching now will help protect roots from extreme temperatures while also helping the soils to retain moisture in a typically cold, dry winter.  We apply 2-3 inches of new mulch around perennials, trees and shrubs.  Be careful!  Don’t allow mulch to contact the stem or trunk.  We leave a halo around the plants to aid in air exchange and drying.  Too much mulch can cause more harm than good.

Table Rock Maple

Table Rock Maple

#2 Lawn Care

This is the best time of the year to plant a new fescue lawn or overseed an existing fescue lawn.  I overseeded my back yard last week.  It is just starting to germinate.  I used clean, weed free seed and watered it daily.  I applied 3-5 lbs. per 1000 square feet.  If you are planting a new lawn, apply 5-10 lbs. per 1000 square feet.  You have until October 15 to get your seeding finished.  It is usually too late to seed after October 31.  The cool nights, warm days, beneficial rains and less weed competition make this time of year ideal for seeding grass.

Seeded Grass

It is also the best time to fertilize your fescue lawn.  We apply one pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.  Fall fertilization promotes root growth.  The roots of the fescue absorb and store the nutrients for the winter.  This stored energy will make for a thicker, healthier lawn next spring.

Remove leaves from lawn and place in compost pile.  Falling leaves block sunlight to the grass inhibiting growth.  Leaves can be shredded and composted into the lawn, but often this causes more problems.  It is usually best to completely remove them.

#3 Fall Clean-up

Remove Annuals and Cut Perennials: After the first frost, annuals can be removed from the landscape.  Prior to the first hard freeze, tender annuals need to be dug up and stored for the winter (i.e. cannas and elephant ears).

Coneflower Seedhead

In certain gardens, we deadhead spent blooms on plants such as gray-headed coneflower and coneflowers to prevent seeding.  Other seedheads are left through the winter as food sources for birds.  We leave ornamental grasses through the winter.  They provide texture and movement in the winter landscape.  These beds will be cleaned up in the spring.

Keep in mind that fall is NOT the best time to prune trees and shrubs.  It encourages new growth that will not get hardened off before winter, making it susceptible to damage.  Prune trees in the winter after they have gone dormant.  Shrubs can be pruned in the winter as well but only if they bloom on new growth.  Pruning spring blooming shrubs in the winter will remove next year’s blooms.  Prune these after they have finished blooming in the spring.

#4 Water

It is vital that perennials, trees and shrubs are adequately watered throughout the fall.  Newly installed plants don’t have a fully established root system and would benefit from periodic watering.  If the top 1-2 inches of soil is dry, the plants need water.  Evergreen trees continue to need moisture in winter, so irrigate thoroughly before the ground freezes.

Arizona Cypress

Arizona Cypress

#5 Take inventory and Think Spring

In the fall, I analyze the landscape.  This is the best time to determine what your needs will be next spring.  What plants did well in the landscape?  What plants need help or need to be moved next spring?  Are there any plants that would benefit from dividing such as grasses?  What areas need to be filled next spring?  Does the canopy of the trees need to be thinned to allow more light into the landscape?  Install spring blooming bulbs before the ground freezes.

This is a great season of the year.  Take some time to appreciate the beauty of fall.  There is so much to enjoy, but set aside some time to prepare for the winter.  A little work now on your landscape will pay big dividends in the spring.

Five Elegant Perennials for the Summer Landscape

Lately, I have been watching old Western films.  John Wayne always looks so calm and collected.  He never sweats, even though he is wearing five layers of clothing.  Have you ever wondered why they wear so much when it is so hot?

Right now, I wish I had a sprinkler to run through or a bucket of ice water to dump on myself.  Those movie characters who ride through the desert unscathed remind me of some tough plants blooming right now in the arboretum.  It is a true testament to the toughness of some perennials that thrive in adverse conditions.

Try these sun-loving perennials – you will be rewarded year after year by these resilient plants:


Letterman’s Ironplant-Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterfly’

While walking through the gardens this morning, I noticed the vibrant purple blooms of this iron-clad wildflower.  We should be tooting the horn for more natives like these.  The plants were alive with activity-like a pollinator magnet!  Each stem has slender leaves radiating outward, similar to Amsonia hubrichtii.  This is a more refined ironweed, but just as tenacious as the pasture type.  I use them in groupings with switch grass and goldenrods but they would be a nice addition to any landscape.

Vernonia Iron Butterfly

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 


Russian Sage-Perovskia atriplicifolia

On my recent trip to Denver, Russian Sage was ubiquitous.  That’s a fancy word for everywhere.  It was in the street medians, parks, store fronts, and in front of most homes, but for good reason.  The soft lavender blooms are eye-catching.  The cloud of colorful flowers above the finely textured aromatic foliage is a wonderful combination.  Did I mention that Russian Sage is tough?  It shines in any full to part sun location.  It can survive drought conditions, but appreciates weekly watering.  They are best displayed in mass plantings or with native grasses.

Russian Sage-Photo Courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens

 


Button Blazing Star-Liatris aspera

Blazing stars have put on quite a show this year and button blazing star is no exception.  It is in full bloom right now in 100 degree heat and loving it.  The entire plant matures to 3′ in height, but the real show is the purple button flowers that develop along the stem.  It is happiest in medium to dry soil conditions and will become unhappy with too much moisture.  Pollinators flock to it, including butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.  Plant them in mass, 8-12 inches apart for the ultimate display.  I like to integrate several grasses like Little Bluestem or switch grass to give interest later in the season.

Liatris aspera

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 


Hummingbird Mint- Agastache ‘Blue Boa’

This plant has been one of my biggest surprises over the last several years.  It is almost always in bloom.  It loves the heat and humidity.  The deep violet-blue blooms lure many different pollinators and ‘Blue boa’ requires very little care once established in a medium to dry location.  If you want to help the pollinators, try a few in your landscape. You will be surprised by them, too.

Agastache Blue Boa-Photo Courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

 


Aromatic Aster-Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies’

We have been growing this great form of our native aromatic aster for several years.  It is not rambunctious in the landscape.  In fact, it develops into a nice bush that is covered with glowing lavender flowers.  When the whole plant is in bloom it looks like a mum on steroids.  Flowers begin to open in late September and last into October.  During the warm days of autumn, pollinators congregate on these beauties, seeking to collect the last pollen of the season.  We have used them in borders and native groupings with ornamental grasses.

Aster October Skies

Photo taken at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

 

Notice the theme?  They all have lavender blooms.  These are a few plants that are doing well in the arboretum.  What plants have you had success with this year?