Don't Burn those Leaves, Please!
Instead of burning or hauling leaves every autumn, put them to work in your garden. Your flowers (and veggies) will thank you next summer. Here are four simple ways to use nature's rich organic material.
Rich, Leafy Compost
Leaves are a perfect addition to compost. They provide carbon (brown waste), and they break down rapidly. Balance brown waste with nitrogen-rich (green) waste such as grass clippings, coffee grounds and kitchen scraps. As a general rule, compost should consist of approximately two-thirds brown waste and one-third green waste.
To keep things simple, keep a bag of chopped leaves near your compost pile and toss on a handful every time you add kitchen waste. Don't add too many at one time or you'll have a soggy mess. Cover the pile loosely with a tarp or plastic sheeting to protect it from the weather.
Stir or turn the pile occasionally to keep it aerated and the compost will be ready to use in four to six months.
If your compost pile isn't large enough to accommodate a large pile of leaves, stuff the extra leaves into burlap bags and store them in your shed. Use the leaves when brown material is difficult to find during spring and summer.
Let the Leaves Take Care of the Composting
If you don't have a compost pile, you can still compost the leaves. The resulting leaf mold doesn't have enough nutrients to be an effective fertilizer, but it makes a great soil amendment or mulch.
Make the pile about 4 feet wide and 3 feet high; if it is too large or too small, the leaves won't build up enough heat to decompose effectively. Put a thin layer of plain ol' garden soil between every 12 inches of leaves.
Cover the pile to protect it from the elements, but don't compress the pile because compacted clumps of leaves won't decompose.The leaves will be dark, crumbly and ready to use in about a year.
Hate to Rake? Who Doesn't?
There is no rule that leaves must be raked. Instead, chop the leaves with your mower on the highest setting. Leave the chopped leaves where they lay and let them work their magic as they decompose into your lawn throughout the winter.
Keep up with leaves by mowing weekly; knee-deep leaves are difficult to mow.
Dust to Dust and All That Stuff
If a compost pile isn't your thing, dig 2 or 3 inches of chopped leaves directly into the soil. Earthworms and microorganisms in the soil will break down the leaves by spring planting time.
Annuals are plants that live for a single growing season. If you’re brand new to gardening, you’ll love annuals. If you’re an old-hand at gardening, you already love these dependable plants. It doesn’t matter if your garden is the size of a high school football field or a couple of pots in your front step -- nothing provides instant color like annuals. Annuals are easy to get along with, and with a few minutes of regular care, they will reward your attention with color from spring until frosts nips the plants in the fall.
It’s certainly possible to plant annual seeds indoors ahead of time and for some people, nurturing the little seeds and seedlings is part of the fun. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space, time, or patience -- I prefer to buy annuals as small bedding plants.
One word of advice when it comes to buying bedding plants – don’t buy cheap plants! It just isn’t worth it because almost always, you get what you pay for. Inexpensive plants sitting on the sidewalk in front of your local drugstore usually aren’t the best quality and all the care and nurturing you give them won’t make them much better. As a result, you end up with spindly, forlorn, unhealthy, disappointing plants. Spend a little more and get good quality plants.
Watch for sales and look for deals. Often, flats are available at great prices, but the problem is that flats usually hold a large number of a single type of flower in a single color. If you love masses of pink petunias or purple pansies, you’re in luck! If not, consider mixing and matching flats with your friends.
Marigolds are just the ticket if you’re looking for a bright spark of color. Not surprisingly, these cheerful flowers are members of the sunflower family. They come in various shades of yellow, gold, brass, copper, orange, and rust, and in sizes from dainty signet marigolds to gigantic 3- to 5-foot African marigolds. The blooms are edible but I’ve never eaten one so I can’t attest to the flavor.
A few petals added to a tossed salad would definitely jazz things up, but be sure the flowers aren’t sprayed with any chemicals. Marigolds also have a long-standing reputation for being a major buzz-kill for unwanted pests, and many vegetable gardeners depend on them. However, a lot of so-called experts say this is nothing more than an old wives’ tale, so the best way to find out is to plant a few marigolds next to your tomatoes or cucumbers and see what happens. It certainly won’t hurt!
My only complaint about marigolds is that sometimes they look like lone solders standing with one bloom on top of each sturdy stem. There are a few ways to get around this. One way is to pinch the first few blooms. This may sound painful and it does delay blooming, but not for long. Every time you pinch those new blooms, the plant branches out and gets bushier. Remember to remove wilted blooms. If you don’t, the plants think it’s time to make seeds instead blooms.
I like to plant marigolds mixed up with other plants so they don’t look so lonely, but that’s my own personal gardening style – a mix of bright colors and textures without a lot of advance planning.
Who can resist petunias? They may be a bit overused, but that doesn’t bother me. I love the versatility and color petunias offer. If you’re a plan-ahead type of person, petunias give you an opportunity to put your color wheel to best advantage. These low-maintenance plants come in nearly every color of the rainbow, from white, yellow, and pale pastels to lime green, bright pinks, reds and every shade of purple; including one so intense it looks almost black.
If you find plain old solid colors a bit of a bore, you can choose multi-colored varieties such as pale pink fringed in deep violet, or candy-cane types with bright red and white stripes. Petunias come in both double and single varieties with blooms of varying sizes, and in upright forms or trailing types perfect for a hanging basket.
Petunias need regular deadheading throughout the season, but this takes only a few minutes a day and gives you a chance to, you know – commune with nature and that sort of thing. If that idea doesn’t appeal to you, self-cleaning varieties are available. One example of a self-cleaning variety is the Wave petunia – tough, disease-resistant plants that are really, really beautiful but a little more expensive.
If you aren’t familiar with nasturtiums, they are old-fashioned flowers with bright green, rounded leaves and delicate, ruffled blooms. Although your grandma’s nasturtiums were probably limited to bright orange, gold and red, newer varieties come in yellow, cream, mahogany, salmon, apricot, and even cream with purple spots or a red so deep it looks black.
I usually don't like planting seeds (I love instant gratification with bedding plants) but nasturtiums are an exception. There’s no need to plant seeds indoors ahead of time. In fact, nasturtiums don’t like it when their roots are disturbed so it’s best to plant the seeds exactly where you want the plants to grow. This can be just about any sunny spot in your garden because nasturtiums aren’t choosy about soil as long as it isn’t soggy.
Nasturtiums have a flowing growth style that works in the ground or in containers. The seeds germinate quickly, and if you want them to sprout even faster, soak the seeds in a bowl of water overnight.
These colorful bloomers are great for budget gardening because a packet of seeds grows a lot of flowers.If you have little kids, give them their own patch of dirt and let them plant nasturtiums. The big, wrinkled, pea-sized seeds are easy for little fingers, and the plants provide instant (okay, almost instant) gratification. Nasturtiums are definitely edible. The blossoms are sweet and spicy, and the zesty leaves are packed with vitamin C.
I think zinnia blooms look a little like marigolds. I’m not sure why one reminds me of the other, because they are completely different flowers. I like instant color so I purchase zinnias as bedding plants. It’s much easier that way! If you’re a patient gardener, you can plant seeds directly in the garden for color two or three months down the road.
With their showy, elegant blooms, zinnias look good just about anywhere in the garden. Plant them in formal flower beds, casual plantings, borders, or containers. Zinnias are versatile plants that come in single, daisy-like varieties, as well as semi-double or double forms, and in petite varieties as small as 8 inches to back-of-the-flowerbed varieties that grow as tall as 3 feet.
The range of colors is huge, ranging from delicate pastels to bold orange and red. In fact, the rainbow of colors includes everything but brown, black, or blue.Zinnias are easy to care for, but they do need fairly consistent moisture and regular deadheading. Zinnias are beautiful in bouquets, and cutting the flowers just encourages the plant to make more blooms.
I love geraniums! I love the bright green, lacy leaves and the big, bold blooms. I also love that geraniums provide bright color all season with very little effort on my part. I water them regularly, give them a handful of general-purpose fertilizer every so often, and they’re happy. Another good thing? Slugs don’t like them!
I’m partial to old-fashioned garden geraniums in pure, bright red and I look forward to growing several in pots on my patio every spring. If red isn’t your color, geraniums come in various shades of coral, pink, salmon, orange, and white. You can also get garden geraniums with variegated leaves marked with silver, green, and white.
I’m a lazy gardener by the time autumn rolls around. When I think we’re getting close to the first frost, I shove the pots in the garage. I don’t trim them. I don’t feed or water them. I totally neglect them until spring when I bring them back into the sunlight and fresh air. I water and feed them and in no time, they’re blooming like crazy.
Don’t forget about ivy geraniums. Ivy geraniums cascade and overflow, filling hanging baskets with plump, ivy-like leaves and blooms in shades of lavender, red, pink, and white.
There’s a reason why calibrachoa are known as “million bell petunias.” I discovered these gems a few years ago and now they’re a mainstay in my patio containers. Each plant produces masses of bright little petunia-like, bell-shaped flowers that grow on trailing, tumbling stems.
These bright, colorful annuals have actually replaced petunias as my favorite dependable, “go-to” annual. I still love petunias, but calibrachoa are self-cleaning and require no deadheading. They love bright sunlight and drought. They are truly tough, low-maintenance plants, and they're sooo pretty!
Calibrachoas tend to be a little more expensive than most annuals. This is apparently because the plants aren’t good seed-producers, so growers have to propagate them by planting cuttings, which is a more involved process. The extra expense limits how many I buy every year, but they’re so worth it!
Here in Portland, (USDA zone 8), calibrachoa often survive for a second year. I’m sure that winter would nip the plants in cooler climates, but they do fairly well wintered over in my garage, along with my geraniums.
Snapdragons are old-fashioned flowers, and they're just as charming as ever. Unfortunately, these versatile bloomers often gets passed by and I’m not sure why. Snapdragons have plenty to offer and because they come in three sizes – dwarf, medium and large – they are at home nearly anyplace in the garden.
Snapdragons like cool weather best, and they put on a show in spring when marigolds and petunias have barely started. Although they produce spiky blooms all season, flowering slows down a bit when the weather gets hot, then peps up again in autumn. The plants bloom more if you keep them deadheaded, but if you leave a few blooms on the plants in autumn, they nearly always reseed themselves for a return performance in spring.
Growers are coming up with vibrant new colors every year. The variety is almost endless and includes numerous shades and variations of pink, yellow, white, lavender, salmon, purple, bronze, red, red-violet, and orange, as well as mixed color and bi-color varieties.
I love cosmos with their tall stems and daisy-like blooms. Cosmos look like wildflowers and look best (at least to me), when they have plenty of room to spread out into big, crazy masses of color. Cosmos like sunshine and poor, dry soil. In fact, rich soil causes weak, spindly plants.Cosmos is an excellent addition to a cutting garden or meadow. However, cosmos may not be the best choice if you like a neat, well-manicured garden because the plants tend to reseed themselves, (sometimes generously).
You can plant cosmos fairly close together and the plants provide their own support. Otherwise, you may have to stake the plants to keep them from blowing over, as some varieties tower at 4 to 6 feet. If tall plants don’t appeal to you, dwarf varieties are available and just right for the front of a flower bed.
The traditional cosmos color is a delicate pastel-lavender, but cosmos also come in yellow, orange, pink, white, red, and even picotee – meaning the flowers have edges of darker, contrasting colors. Although you can buy bedding plants, cosmos are extremely easy to grow by seed.