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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Enjoy fall color and winterize your garden

by Carolyn Singer
November 6, 2010

cherryWhen leaves begin to fall, I feel the most content about my garden. I know that a rest is coming, and that the wealth of decomposing materials from this season's growth enriches the soil for the next season. Already the vision of next year's garden is one of health and vitality, with very little effort on my part.

Each year I try to educate as many people as possible about the irresponsibility of burning leaves. Moist piles of leaves and other garden residue will compost. Burning only adds smoke to the air we breathe, and is truly a waste of all this precious material.

CercisBefore leaves begin to fall, take time to enjoy the wide variety of fall color in our foothill landscape and in local nurseries. While the color of a given plant may differ from year to year because of the weather, this week we are enjoying lots of color. Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis, photo right) is exquisite with the lower angle of the sun causing each shrub to glow. Another native with good fall color is the native grape, Vitis californica.

oakleaf hydrangeaWhile I cannot grow oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia, photo left) because of the deer, it is one of the most beautiful shrubs in fall as the color changes with each day. Another striking plant and deer favorite is the burning bush (Euonymus alata) which has two sizes to choose from. If you can protect the tall cultivar in its youth, it will be out of reach as a mature plant. The compact cultivar is perfect for small gardens.

Trees with fall color need to be placed thoughtfully in the landscape. While Liquidambers offer a range of late color from dark red to bright yellow, this tree can damage sidewalks, driveways, and even rock walls if it is planted within thirty feet. Shallow roots grow aggressively. The eastern dogwood is often a better choice with its deep roots.

My country garden is maintained in fall with a weedeater. Ornamental grasses are left standing until a similar maintenance in late winter. Most grasses are beautiful all winter, especially after a snowfall. Evergreen perennials are also left untouched. While their leaves may need some attention when they decline in winter, it's not time-consuming maintenance. For most of the evergreen perennials, new spring growth covers the older growth anyway.

With a weedeater, stalks, spent flowers and foliage are cut down and shredded in the process. My trees add a layer of leaves. And I usually add oyster shell to the mix plus a layer of compost. There's little need to weed in the fall because of the annual mulch that is created with this layering.

In new landscapes, the mulch added after fall planting begins this same layering process. A one-inch layer of compost on the soil surface is adequate. Another of shredded or small bark may also be added on top of the compost. If leaves are falling, remember to keep them as part of the mulch too. Sometimes it's a good idea to mulch with compost first, allow any weeds to germinate with the early rains, then smother the tiny seedlings with the addition of a mulch of bark.

Watch the root zone of all your plants in the weeks ahead. The amazing rain we had two weeks ago may have washed soil and mulch away from the surface roots, so renew mulching materials as needed. A good thick mulch will protect the soil surface from pounding rains, reducing compaction.

Pay attention to the falling leaves. And keep as many as possible on the soil surface. As season builds upon season, soil gets healthier with each passing year. A walk in an undisturbed forest will remind you of the beauty of nature's composting.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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