Leaf Season

It is leaf season here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania.

The trees are almost bare, and the grass is covered in fallen gold. And leaves really are like gold for our gardens.

Leaves help lighten up heavy soils, and they help light, sandy soils become more moisture retentive. They are good for every garden.

Rather than see them as a nuisance, here are tips and reminders for harnessing their goodness for your plants:

  • Mow don’t rake

Raking up leaves is hard work, and may not be necessary. Here at Maplehurst, we mow over our leaves with a push or riding lawn mower. Once they have been slightly chopped up and shredded, fallen leaves make a wonderful mulch. A mulch of chopped leaves will eventually break down, feeding the soil and improving its texture. Un-chopped leaves can also be used for mulch, but they could become matted and waterlogged in a way that prevents water from penetrating down into the soil.

  • Store don’t discard

Can’t use your chopped leaves right away? Simply store them in a large container, such as a garbage can, or pile them in a protected place. Over time, they will break down into leaf mould, which makes a wonderful additional to potting soil mixes.

  • Leave them be

It is possible to be too neat as a gardener. The soil in a forest is naturally rich because no one goes in to clear away the leaves. Especially in a woodland garden, it is probably best to “leave your leaves” right where they are. Leaves are also an important winter cover for wildlife.

  • Insulation for tender plants

Each autumn, piles of leaves accumulate in my flower garden especially. And I’m so glad! A thick pile of leaves makes a wonderful protective blanket for shrubs and perennials. I try to make sure that my roses, especially, all have their rootballs well protected by leaves. If you grow strawberries, chopped leaves are a great alternative to straw mulch.

  • Add them to a compost pile

Leaves are a great source of “brown” carbon to balance the “green” nitrogen in a compost pile. You can speed up decomposition by shredding the leaves first, but I generally take a lazy and slow approach to composting, which means I just add them in whole.

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My Favorite Tools and How to Care For Them

The right tool can make all the difference.

I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to learn this. I struggled with certain tasks in my garden for far too long before I accepted that I was making things much harder for myself than they needed to be.

Now I save up for certain tools that I once considered “frivolous,” and I really, really do try to put them away before it rains. Mostly, I succeed at that.

Here are a few of my favorite tools and how I care for them:

  • Bulb planter: I struggled with bulb planting for ages before I watched how easily Monty Don planted bulbs on the British television show Gardener’s World. I ordered my own hand-held bulb planter and used it to sneak bulbs in amongst the perennials in my flower garden. It worked beautifully. This year, I’ve added a stand-up bulb planter, and I’m excited to use it planting daffodils out in the lawn. So far, the only care required for these tools has been hosting the dirt off after use, drying, and storing in my garden shed.

 

  • Japanese hand weeder: This is my favorite weeding tool hands-down. I use it to quickly slice through the soil, churning up weeds from beneath. Unfortunately, I often lose them in the weeds! But these tools are inexpensive and easily replaced. I do however try to wash mine after use. They can also be sharpened with a metal file.

 

  • Light-weight, collapsible water hose: It sounds like hyperbole to say a hose changed my life, but this fabric-covered hose did just that this past year. Our summer was more dry than usual, but in the past I have neglected watering during dry spells because I struggle to move heavy hoses around. This hose stretches unbelievability far and is so easy to move around. I love how quickly it collapses, meaning I no longer have the eyesore of long hoses draped all over my yard or sitting in big, lumpy piles. Here is a review of several garden hoses from Popular Mechanics, including two expandable hoses, which is the kind that works so well for me.

 

  • Terra cotta pot and pot brush: I’ve shared my love for this humble container material before. At the end of the growing season, I empty my pots onto the compost pile, saving the broken bit of pottery at the bottom that I used to cover the drainage hole. Then I wash and scrub out the inside with a pot brush like this one, though I’m sure any stiff, wire brush would work well. Though I don’t personally take the extra step of using bleach or some other disinfectant in my pots, I know some gardeners are careful to do that. Instead, I scrub them out as best as I can and leave them to sit in my garden shed all winter. If left out in the rain and snow, terra cotta is more likely to crack. When these pots do crack or break, I save the pieces to use as filler at the bottom of other pots.

 

Here are some of the items I use to care for all of my garden tools:

  • Rubbing alcohol: I use this to wipe down my pruning shears when I am pruning roses. This cuts down on the chance that I will carry disease from one rose bush to another. Disinfectant wipes are also convenient for this task.

 

 

 

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An Idiosyncratic Guide to Ornamental Grasses

Though I call this guide “idiosyncratic,” I do not apologize for that fact.

Rather, I celebrate it.

The advice and learning I share here in the Black Barn Garden Club is always filtered through the experience of my own garden, but that isn’t a limitation. Rather, it is the way of things.

Plants don’t exist in a vacuum. They don’t live in books. They live in particular places and are formed by particular conditions of soil and climate and care.

Our experiences with the same plants will never be the same, but that is part of what makes gardening so special. When you care for a patch of earth or even just a pot of it, you are creating something utterly unique.

I hope my reflections on ornamental grasses, filtered through my personal experiences with them here at Maplehurst, inspire your own garden dreams!

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Why plant ornamental grasses?

When I first began gardening, I thought grasses were boring. I only had eyes for romantic flowers and delicious, heirloom vegetables.

Perhaps because I grew up in the grassy plains of central Texas, I didn’t see anything especially garden-worthy about a grass. Grass, for me, was what you dug out in order to plant roses.

Fast-forward decades, and I have become an enormous fan of these beautiful plants. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Once established, many grasses are highly drought tolerant
  • Grasses bring beautiful movement to a garden, especially when they flower in the fall; unlike stiff shrubs, they seem to float and dance in the slightest breeze
  • Grasses are absolutely essential for creating a garden style inspired by meadows and prairies; “naturalistic” gardens are very stylish right now, and grasses are essential for that natural look
  • Grasses can provide interesting structure and visual interest even in winter if their dried stems and seeds are left in place till spring
  • They are absolutely glorious when backlit by the sun and provide a new way to play with light in our gardens
  • Grasses are very easy to grow in most gardens and need very little care

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Which grasses should I plant?

There are so many varieties to choose from and their ideal growing conditions can vary so much, that it is well worth doing at least a little research before you plant a grass.

Some ornamental grasses are perennial and some are annuals.

Some need slightly dry soil, and some soak up moisture.

Some form neat “clumps,” and some spread like a mat.

Some can handle the intense winter cold of the upper midwestern prairies in the U.S., and some will only return next year if they are growing in a warm zone 9 or 10. Some grow fastest in cool weather, some only get going when it’s hot out (known as “cool season” versus “warm season” grasses).

Some can be invasive in California or Arizona but very polite and modest in Pennsylvania (Mexican Feathergrass, I’m looking at you!).

Here are some popular varieties to consider:

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis): I grow this beautiful prairie grass here at Maplehurst (see how its flowers catch the light in the photo above)

Pennsylvania sedge (Carex Pensylvanica): I love this U.S. native for its graceful form and ability to tolerate shade; it’s a short, clumping grass and looks wonderful as an underplanting for trees

Japanese forest grass or Hakone grass (Hakonechloa): Another graceful, low-growing grass with a beautiful wave shape; the golden variety ‘Aureola’ is especially beautiful

Maiden Grass, ‘Morning Light’ (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’): one of the most highly regarded of the Miscanthus; this grass makes a tall and striking feature with its variegated (green and white) stems and its feathery mauve flowers in fall

Shenandoah Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’): a beautiful variety of this U.S. native; Shenandoah has burgundy foliage and pink flower spikes; a beautiful medium-sized grass

Hameln Dwarf Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides): I grew this lovely little grass in containers this year. The flower plumes are very pretty.

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How do I plant them and care for them?

Grasses are some of the easiest plants I grow in my garden. They are wonderful for crowding out weeds and never need to be deadheaded. Depending on the variety and how well established they are in your garden, they likely won’t need watering, either.

The only care they do need is an annual haircut. In the past, gardeners often did this in the fall to “neaten up” their gardens for winter. But I think this takes away one of their best features. Dried grasses can be beautiful in winter when the sun hits them or a frost gives them a lacy edge. I leave my grasses alone until late winter or very early spring. Then I cut them back to the ground so that fresh green shoots can grow in.

I have found that ornamental grasses do best for me when planted in spring. I think they need a full summer of spreading their roots before winter in order to survive the wet and cold.

Most ornamental grasses need as much sunshine as you can give them and prefer very well-drained soil. Most grasses don’t like to sit in heavy, wet soil.

If your grass has grown too large or is starting to thin out in the center of the clump, it probably needs dividing. Simply dig it up in spring, cut the root ball into several pieces, and re-plant each piece in a separate spot.

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Christie’s Favorites: Mail-Order Plants

My favorite winter garden “chore” is to curl up in an armchair with a good plant catalog.

I shared some of my favorite online garden sources in this previous library post.

Consider the following an expanded “Part Two.” Part Three (my favorite sources for mail-order seeds) coming soon!

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Trees and shrubs:

  • Hands-down my favorite is Bower&Branch. Their quality, convenience, and selection is incredible. Although they are working to expand their service area, I still recommend their website even for those of you who don’t live in the eastern or midwestern U.S. The descriptions of trees and perennials offered on their website are very helpful.
  • Rare Find is just what it promises! A great source for unusual or hard-to-find trees and shrubs. They are an especially good source for rhododendron.

Perennials:

  • White Flower Farm: This mail-order source is pricier than some, but I have found the quality and selection to be very good.
  • Brent and Becky’s is my favorite source for flowering bulbs, but they also have a small selection of perennials at good prices.
  • I love the small, quick-to-establish plugs offered by Prairie Nursery.

Fruit Trees and Shrubs:

Bulbs and Tubers:

  • I love Swan Island Dahlias for very high quality dahlia tubers
  • These are linked above, but White Flower Farm and Brent&Beckys sell great bulbs and tubers.
  • I have found wonderful antique varieties from Old House Gardens

Roses:

  • For the most part, I order bare root roses in winter. I love to buy my David Austin “English Roses” straight from the source here.
  • An excellent source for heirloom or antique roses is the Antique Rose Emporium located in Texas.
  • Jung Seed offers a wide variety of low cost plants. I have had great success with their bare root roses.

Houseplants:

  • I have loved the hard-to-find scented geraniums and other herbs sold by Renee’s Garden Seeds. They do well indoors on a south-facing windowsill.

 

Do you have a favorite source you would add to this list? Please let us know in the comments!

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My Favorite Houseplant

I first found my favorite houseplant at a neighborhood plant sale in Chicago.

I didn’t know what I was buying, but the seller assured me this plant with fuzzy dark green leaves and pale lavender flowers would do well on my porch all summer and near a window in my apartment the rest of the year.

It wasn’t until I’d had the plant for a few months and learned what a good houseplant it did make that I realized my plant hadn’t come with a label.

This was long before smart phones and plant ID apps, and it would take me years to learn the name of this South African beauty:

Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’

One of my favorite things about this plant is how easy it is to propagate through cuttings.

All I do is snip off a fresh stem with no flowers and drop it into a glass of water. Before long that stem will put out roots of its own, and I can pot it up for a friend.

I have found that this plant is often sold as an autumn “annual,” which is how I recently found it labeled at my local big-box garden center.

The good news is that this beautiful plant is NOT an annual, and will thrive indoors all winter in a bright spot.

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