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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Safer Gardening (Tools and Tips)

 

Gardening safety.

It may not seem like a fun topic, but it can involve cute boots. Wink, wink.

I had a terrifying encounter with bumblebees in my own garden recently. Bumblebees are normally quite docile, but that changes when you crash into their nest while wearing shorts and flip flop sandals. Oh my.

The whole experience reminded me just how important the right gear and clothing can be.

Here are my favorite tools for a safer gardening experience:

  • Good boots

My search for good gardening footwear has been a long one!

I began gardening at Maplehurst with a pair of tall Hunter rain boots I’d brought with me from our Florida lives. They protected my feet, and they looked cute, but they were HEAVY. I have nearly 5 acres here, and those boots did not make it easy to walk long distances with a wheelbarrow.

When the rain boots finally cracked, I discovered a lightweight pair of rain boots originally designed for Japanese fishermen. I chose them because I was traveling to Alaska and needed boots I could fold into a suitcase. I love those lightweight boots. They never dragged me down, but they also didn’t give a lot of protection.

When those boots finally cracked as well, I went searching for clogs. Tall boots aren’t easy to put on, and I thought slip-ons would be just the thing. I’ve worn a few different brands of gardening clogs, and liked these Sloggers most of all, but I honestly haven’t loved them. If they fit well enough to not fall off then they usually can’t be easily slipped on. I still had to take a seat before my feet could be properly wedged in. And the shoes themselves weren’t always comfortable. Perhaps I simply needed to choose a different size, but those experiences led me to a new choice:

Slip on boots!

The “Sauvie Slip On Boots” from  Bogs have become my holy grail of gardening shoes. Easier to slip on than tall boots, they are super comfortable and very protective. They aren’t as heavy and hot as winter boots would be, and they feel so good on my feet, I actually look forward to wearing them.

Well worth the higher price.

  • Gloves

I have a love/hate relationship with gardening gloves.

While I don’t like dirt under my nails and scratches on my hands, I also find it much harder to pull weeds and tie up twine while wearing gloves. The solution for me has been finding gloves that fit like a second skin. I buy nitrile gloves like these in packs of four or five. I love that I can throw them in the washing machine.

Pruning thorny roses is almost impossible without good protection. I keep these gloves in my garden shed for just this task. The long gauntlet sleeves mean I can really get in there and prune roses that would otherwise tear me to pieces, while the soft, leather fingers allow me to tie my rose canes up with twine.

  • Cotton button-down shirts

Protecting my skin from the sun is an on-going battle. I have sensitive skin that really doesn’t like sunscreen, but I also garden through hot and sticky summers where extra clothing is unwelcome.

My solution has been to steal my husband’s old cotton button-down shirts. They are breathable and lightweight, but they cover my chest and arms well. I don’t even care if they’re stained or the elbows are torn.

  • Tecnu skin cleanser

This is my secret weapon.

I put off buying it for too long because of the high price, but now I won’t begin a gardening season without a huge bottle of it in the house. I actually keep this in my shower at all times and this right by my kitchen sink. When you need it, you need it, and you won’t want to go looking for it.

For North American gardeners, especially here on the east coast, poison ivy is a menace. Because birds drop the seeds, it can pop up anywhere. Even right in the middle of a well-weeded flower bed.

These products are the only thing that works in my experience, especially if you are extra-allergic as I am. The two products are slightly different, and it’s important to read the instructions on the label. That large bottle might feel like overkill, but if you stumble into a patch of poison ivy or poison oak you will need to use a lot of product. I have found that Tecnu prevents rashes if used immediately, but I have also found that it clears up a rash that is starting to appear.

Miracle product, I tell you.

  • A wide sunhat

I have sunhats in canvas and straw. My favorites are made of straw as that seems to be the most breathable on a hot day.

  • Foam cushioned kneeler

I avoided buying one of these for far too long assuming they were for elderly gardening ladies only.

I could not have been more wrong. I used to weed in the most awkward positions, but with a cushioned kneeler, I can protect my knees and weed in a way that doesn’t throw out my back. Win, win!

You can also purchase cushioned knee pads. I have yet to try that, but I might pick up a pair of those next summer.

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T.S. Eliot in the Garden

In late summer, my flower garden becomes a tangle, and I remember these words from a favorite poet:

In my end is my beginning. – Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

I have nearly reached the end I have been aiming at since I ordered seeds last winter.

And in this tangle are seeds I can gather, setting in motion the garden’s next beginning.

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Every garden in every place revolves on a circle of the seasons.

Even in a tropical garden, where the weather seems much the same month after month, plants have their times for blossom and fruit.

We are nearing the equinox (fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern). It is a tipping point, and that is a significant moment in the garden.

It is a moment when we work and plan for NOW and for LATER.

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Here are the tasks I prioritize at the tipping point of the year:

 

  • Bulbs: Enjoy them, plant them. Remember that narcissus are deer and pest resistant and do well planted anywhere, even out in the lawn! I prefer to plant tulips in containers or in beds near the house where deer are less likely to roam.

 

  • Plan: Think ahead. Right now, I’m enjoying the flowering ornamental grasses so much that I’m making notes about which grasses I want to plant more of next spring (because in my zone 6 climate, grasses are more likely to survive the winter if they have spread their roots all summer long). I will definitely be adding more Prairie Dropseed grass. And, I will make planting Purple Fountain grass in containers a priority next spring because right now I wish I had big pots of them!

 

  • Plant: Spring and Fall are the best times of year to plant. Some think shrubs and trees do even better when fall-planted because there is usually enough rain and the soil is already warm.

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Because the garden moves through a circle of seasons, our own thinking, planning, dreaming, and working must follow that same circle.

In the garden, we are always looking back and looking ahead even as our feet are firmly planted in the present.

 

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Garden Math

I was always more comfortable in art class than math class.

How about you?

For better or worse, we need both subjects in the garden. We need the color wheel and sometimes we need a calculator.

Here are some of the numbers I calculate most often:

 

 

  • Average first and last frost dates. Whether you are starting your own seeds or wondering if it’s too early in spring to prune your boxwood or too late in fall to prune a rose, it’s helpful to consult the average first and last dates for freezing temperatures in your area. The internet or a local university or agricultural institution can help you out here. Even better, if you keep a garden journal, you’ll be able to estimate your own average more precisely.

 

  • Date to maturity. This information is usually offered on the back of a seed packet or on a plant label. This is important information if you are growing plants to harvest. For instance, if a fall vegetable needs 90 days to grow from germination to harvest, I do not want those 90 days to extend past the date of my first average freeze. That means there’s a good chance my vegetable plant will be killed by winter weather before I can harvest it. Yes, this math problem requires us to count backwards!

 

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Here are some sample math problems for the garden that are particularly relevant as winter turns to spring and as summer turns to fall:

 

  • When should I start the seeds for my fall garden of cool weather crops like kale or lettuce?

First, check the “days to maturity” information on the seed package.

Then, count backwards that number of days from your average first frost date.

Then add 3 or 4 weeks more to give your seeds time to germinate and grow to a size suitable for transplanting. You’ll have more flexibility with those crops that can tolerate a light freeze (like kale), or if you are covering your plants with fleece or other protective covering.

 

  • When should I start the seeds for my spring and summer garden?

First, consult the average date of last frost for your area or decide when you feel comfortable planting them outdoors (for instance, some plants can tolerate light frost and may be planted out earlier, some, like tomatoes, need to be planted out only after the soil has warmed).

Then, consult the seed packet for information about how many weeks the seeds should be sown before their planting date. The best advice I can give (which I have consistently learned the hard way) is not to start your seeds too early. Strong, healthy seedlings can catch up, but there is little hope for a seedling that has grown leggy while you wait for warmer weather or a seedling that is planted out too soon and killed by a late freeze.

 

  • When should I start the seeds for hardy annuals like snapdragon?

Not all annuals must be completely protected from winter weather. Cool season hardy annuals like snapdragons and sweet peas can be planted in the fall and very early spring. These plants love to get established during cool weather.

In many regions, these flowers can be planted in the fall to winter-over and bloom in spring. Even in colder regions, these flowers should be planted in the earlier spring days, long before the last frost date has arrived.

Consult the growing zone information for the hardy annual you want to grow. For instance, some snapdragons are winter hardy to US zone 4, which means most of us should be planting these cut-flower beauties in fall, not spring.

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Here is a handy online calculator for seed starting dates.

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