12/22/17: In the garden next year

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Is your garden still full of food for wildlife? If not, consider how you can become a better provider next season.

At this time of year, when we are about to be deluged by garden catalogs, it’s time to take stock of this year’s garden and do some serious planning for next season. What do you want your garden to be, and what steps can you take to move it in that direction? (One of the best things about being a serious gardener, I think, is that a garden is never, ever finished.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably interested in gardening more sustainably, in adding native plants, and in attracting wildlife. So based on those goals, here are some things to consider as you plan for next year:

Are there lots of insects in your garden? Insects are the basis of the animal food chain: lots of insects means lots of birds; lots of pollinating insects means lots of seeds and fruit. The garden should look alive with insects, especially on a warm, sunny day. If it doesn’t look like that, here’s what you can do:

— stop using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. Pesticides kill all insects, bumblebees, ladybugs, and butterflies as well mosquitoes and Japanese beetle larvae. Fungicides kill the most important decomposers in the garden, and herbicides have been shown to be harmful to animals as well as plants. The vast majority of insects are beneficial. There are much less harmful ways to address the very few that aren’t than blasting them with chemicals.

— plant native species instead of alien and hybridized plants. Sure, natives are beautiful and easy to grow, but the real reason for planting them is that they are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Everyone knows about monarchs and milkweed: monarch caterpillars can eat only milkweed. But many, many insects are that specific: skippers need native grasses, fritillaries need violets, spicebush swallowtails need spicebush (no surprise there). The list goes on and one. The best way to ensure a natural, sustainable ecosystem is to plant a wide variety of native plants.

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New England aster flowers supply plentiful late-season pollen, and the plant itself is the host for dozens of species of native insects.

Is the garden lively in all seasons? We tend to be outdoors only in the warm months, but birds and other wild creatures are outside all year, and they need food and shelter. And I’m not referring to bird feeders. Even without them, my garden is full of birds all year round, and we see more birds in winter than in summer. Here’s how to ensure a plentiful supply of food for wild creatures throughout the year:

— plant for all seasons: with planning, you can supply fruit and seed throughout the year and flowers from late March through October or November. Early-fruiting native trees like birches are important food sources for birds and small mammals; trees and shrubs that hold their fruits through the winter, like hollies and some crab apples, fill in the other end of the year. Many birds search for insects in tree bark throughout the winter, not just in the warm months. A row of evergreens supplies shelter from winter storms.

— clean up the garden in spring, not in fall. Standing grasses and perennials supply both food and shelter throughout the winter; if you concentrate on planting pure species rather than cultivars or hybrids, your plants will produce seed for you as well as for wildlife.

— leave the leaves. Ground-feeding birds will energetically sift through the leaf litter beneath my plants all winter. Why? Because many insects overwinter in the leaf litter. If you keep your leaves and use them as mulch, you will see more birds throughout the winter and more butterflies and moths next season.

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If you don’t clean up the garden until spring, native grasses and perennials will supply food and cover to birds and other creatures through the winter.

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12/8/17: In the garden this week

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Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is one of the few bright spots of color remaining in the garden. The best part is that this tough, low-growing shrub will look like this almost all winter. And yes, that’s a blanket of leaves serving as mulch under the shrubbery.

Winter is finally settling in–snow tomorrow, and cold temperatures for most of next week. I always hope for a really cold winter, what I think of as a real winter. Cold weather will kill or slow the spread of harmful insects and control the population of out-of control herbivores like deer and rabbits. The garden will look much better next season if we have a cold winter.

Cold or not, there are always garden chores to address:

— start pruning your shrubs. Winter is the time to do this. We used to recommend that you start around the end of December and stop by the beginning of February, to ensure complete dormancy, but as the climate warms, it’s best to snatch at any period of cold weather. Why prune during cold weather? Most important, because the plants will recover best when they don’t have to expend energy on other important tasks. Also because fungi and other disease-causing organisms are less likely to be spread in the cold.

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds (see the photo above), save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain. And of course you can’t water if the temperature is at or near freezing. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheads–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic states and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.

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Native asters are butterfly magnets. Butterflies will fly right past a nonnative butterfly bush to nectar on a native aster. This Delaware skipper is enjoying a New England aster.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s too late to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis.

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. I bet those dead annuals look pretty terrible now. Plan to replace them with native perennials next year.

The garden catalogs are starting to arrive! Here’s to next year.

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A few aster seeds remain–this is a shade aster planted so long ago I don’t remember which species it is. A diverse native plant garden will feed the birds all winter.

11/17/17: In the garden this week

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Ripe holly berries are a favorite winter food of squirrels, jays, and cardinals.

Seasonally cold weather is finally here, and along with it, almost-adequate precipitation (just under an inch this week, and annual totals back up to normal). Most fall color has faded, and the leaves are finally coming down. But there’s still plenty to do in the garden:

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds, save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain over two different rainfalls. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material (we finally had a killing frost this week). Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheads–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s too late to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis.

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit.

— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.

Enjoy the garden this week! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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Consider joining a CSA next year, and you too might be the proud owner of a beautiful collection of squashed like this one.

 

11/3/17: In the garden this week

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Foliage of Penstemon digitalis has been this beautiful color since September, but I’m not complaining. Those are seed stalks of purple lovegrass, Ergostatis spectabilis.

The weather can only be described as freaky. I am longing for autumn–the two cool days this week were a mere teaser. Most trees are holding their leaves, although most perennials have finished blooming. I am still seeing monarchs almost every day. I wonder what they’re finding to eat.

Most garden chores for this week are the same ones I usually suggest in early September, except for this first one:

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds, save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week because the rainstorm on Tuesday gave us approximately 1 1/2 inches of precipitation. But be vigilant, especially while the weather remains warm: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. When you clean up the garden, throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Fall-planted cool-season crops are not doing well this year!

— because of the warm weather, tomato plants have not died back yet, so keep picking, and keep removing suckers and diseased plant material (and again, don’t compost diseased material). Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Aster seeds are ripening. Milkweed seed is done.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheas–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with native in the spring.

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Most perennials have finished blooming, but sweet black eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) still has a few flowers. Its seeds ripen late and will feed birds all winter. Note the leaves that fall on the garden and remain to insulate the soil and harbor butterflies, moths, and other creatures.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, because of the warm weather, you could fertilize now (and legally you cannot fertilize after November 15). If you reseed bare areas this fall, be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Do not water, or if you feel you absolutely must water, water infrequently and deeply. And always remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit.

— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.

Enjoy the garden this week!

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Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is displaying rather dull fall color this year, and its leaves are handing on much later than usual. The berries are gone–the birds eat them as soon as they ripen. This is one of the best all-around native trees for partial shade.

 

12/9/16: In the garden this week

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The garden is waiting for spring: male catkins of native hazelnut (Corylus americana) are fully formed, ready to release their pollen in early spring.

If you’re like most people, you’re too busy this time of year to do many gardening chores. Lucky it’s a quiet time: leaves are finally gathered, garden cleanup is complete (or should be), it’s too late to work on the lawn and too early to prune. But there are always things you can do in the garden:

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this past week), water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week. This past week we received only about 3/4 inch of rain.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): spread a 3-4” layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is disappearing fast, because the birds love them both. Seeds of all prairie perennials are ripe. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Mixed-species foraging flocks have formed to take advantage of the bounty.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

work to protect the environment. Most Americans want clean air and water, are concerned about climate change, and want the government to work to mitigate it. When something happens in opposition to your basic environmental values, speak out. Write to your elected representatives, donate to an environmental organization, volunteer, march–there are many ways to make your voice heard.

In the rush of holiday preparation, take time to enjoy the garden!

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Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) holds its berries until frost makes them more palatable to birds.

11/25/16: In the garden this week

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To a human, this wintry border looks rather messy. To a bird, it’s a cornucopia of delights.

#GoOutside today! Garden, walk, hike, play a sport. Make it Green Friday, not Black. Avoid the malls. But don’t avoid good deals altogether: Prairie Nursery is offering 10 percent off on gift certificates from now through December 24.

If you feel like gardening, here’s are some suggestions:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

water new plantings: in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain (like this past week), water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease.

— fall is the best time to extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): spread a 3-4” layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is disappearing fast, because the birds love them both. Seeds of asters, joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda are ripe. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Mixed-species foraging flocks have formed to take advantage of the bounty.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring (see the photo above).

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this fall, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow over them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. Established lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

Enjoy this holiday weekend, and enjoy the garden, and nature, now and always.

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Autumn bounty of shade-aster seeds among the leaf mulch and still-green ferns.

 

11/18/16: In the garden this week

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A sustainable garden should be a bountiful buffet for birds and other wildlife throughout the winter and early spring. Don’t clean up your perennial beds until you see new growth in spring.

Finally a good soaking rain came to our area this past week: my rain gauge registered over an inch and a half, and all over northern New Jersey, sluggish streams came to life. It made for good weeding conditions.

The prolonged warm weather we now experience, in fall and also in spring, puts great stress on trees. Trees leaf out earlier and hold their leaves longer; they carry out photosynthesis for a longer season, and as a result, their water needs increase. Remember that our rainfall has been below normal for the past two growing seasons. Many trees, particularly the old and the young, are stressed.

It’s delightful to be outdoors on these warm, sunny fall days. Here are some gardening chores you might attend to while you’re enjoying the golden fall weather:

Leave the Leaves this year: Don’t blow your leaves out to the curb; recycle them on your property. Fallen leaves and grass clippings represent the fertility of your soil, so why give them away? Use your leaves as lawn fertilizer, as mulch, and as the basis for a compost pile. Read more here.

water new plantings: this week we received ample rainfall, but in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water all plants installed this spring or fall. Perennials planted last season should be well-established, but those planted this year need supplemental watering during dry spells. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I total the weekly rainfall and decide whether to water my new trees or my clients’ new plantings this week.

clean up the vegetable garden carefully: remove the spent plants; compost healthy ones, but throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease.

— fall is the best time to extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): spread a 3-4” layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Or use a thick layer of leaves (12″ or more). You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds in the mulch as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is disappearing fast, because the birds love it. I can’t go out the backdoor without disturbing flocks of goldfinches, and the bluejays become quite annoyed. Seeds of asters, joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda are ripe. Right now it’s hard to keep up with the seed collecting. And plenty of seed will remain for the birds to eat this winter.

don’t clean up the perennial garden: leave the plants until spring. The birds will enjoy the seeds all winter, and the dead stalks will be easy to remove in spring.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: it’s too late to fertilize or reseed. If you did reseed this year, keep the seeded area moist until the grass is germinated. But if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. As the leaves fall, mow over them, don’t rake or blow them. Your mower will chop them into small pieces that will quickly disintegrate, returning valuable nutrients to the lawn. Established lawns do not need water now (or ever), but if you do water, do it infrequently and deeply to encourage deep root growth. One inch of water once a week is much better than a few minutes each day. But remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still growing. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. Do you have enough fall color in your garden? If not, plant some colorful native shrubs in the spring.

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Native perennials, like native trees and shrubs, and great for fall color. This is what sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa, looks like in early fall.