Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

November 2010

This is not a new idea, and I’m not pretending I thought of it. (Just wanted to make that clear up front.) But I’ve started doing this, and it’s one of the  most practical, time- and money-saving ideas I know of. Ready?

When you clean out your beds this fall or winter, pile all the leaves and trimmings on the lawn. Then take your lawn mower out, set it the mowing height to its maximum, and get to it! Go slow, and don’t worry if you stall out the mower a few times. Go back and forth a few times, and you’ll have nicely shredded yard waste.

Rake it into a pile, then you can do one of three things: put it back into your flower beds as a mulch; put it in your compost bin (it will compost much more quickly since it’s already so nicely shredded); or, if you prefer to get rid of it, just put it into a yard waste bag. Shredded, it takes only a fraction of the space and you can fit four or five bags worth into just one. But really, why throw it away? It’s a marvelous mulch or compost. And it doesn’t leave a mess where you mowed it. Nor is it hard on your mower (as long as you don’t try to mow any branches or rocks!).

I’ve long advocated mowing leaves on lawns. Why bother raking, collecting and disposing of them when you don’t need to? So this is just a logical next step. And it WORKS! See the before and after below, taken on the same day (I swear).

Mowing over garden trimmings.

Mowing over garden trimmings.

After mowing trimmings, then raking remains into the bed. See? No mess!

After mowing trimmings, then raking remains into the bed. See? No mess!

DSCF3100 Although we’ve had a few frosty nights here in Des Moines, IA, my veggie garden continues to produce prolifically. I took this shot of some of the home-grown bounty on my dining room table last evening. The center bowl contains a mix of baby lettuces and mesclun (Both were protected from frost in the garden by floating row covers.) and a couple mini cabbage heads–secondary heads that developed after the main crop head was harvested earlier this summer. I use them like large Brussels sprouts or as I would regular cabbage.

Surrounding the bowl (from the center foreground) are purple ‘Graffiti Hybrid’ cauliflower, ‘Golden’ beet, heirloom red tomatoes, Swiss chard, ‘Small Sugar’ and ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkins, collard greens, ‘Red Cored Chantenay’ carrots, ‘Soldier’ beet, and ‘Furry Yellow Hog’ tomato, another heirloom variety.

Shortly after I took this photo, I enjoyed a tasty dinner that included a lettuce-mesclun salad with chopped tomatoes and carrots. Some of the other veggies will make it to the Thanksgiving table–either in the form of a side dish or as part of the centerpiece. They’re so colorful that they’re a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. For more ideas on beautiful vegetable varieties to grow, see our slide show on growing colorful vegetables.

Not sure about where across this country you dig in the dirt, but here in central Iowa we just experienced the longest growing season ever (or at least since they started recording such stuff). It’s almost Thanksgiving and here in Zone 5a I’ve still got roses blooming…and ‘Plentiful Yellow’ pansies and ladybells and purple coneflower.  Vibrant deciduous leaves have held onto their woody hosts far longer than usual. A pair of  ‘Diablo’ ninebark are still draped in a chocolatey russet, my Japanese maple is a dissected crimson-red tapestry, and my witch hazel is burnished a curious color combination of yellow-orange-red. Our unseasonably warm weather has allowed this lakidasical gardener to take far longer with far greater leisure than usual to complete my typical autumn chores: shredding piles of bur oak leaves for winter mulch, cleaning and stacking an out-of-control collection of terra cotta pots in the shed, precariously hand-pulling sodden leaves from the second-story gutters, coiling the hoses and finally shutting off the outside spigot for the season. My most cumbersome cobalt-blue glazed pots—planted with tender variegated bananas and normally long since tucked away in an unheated attached garage for the winter—still sit flanking the front walkway. And how can I compost that pot of pretty purple petunias if it’s still boasting blooms? I even spread out the planting of some 300 or more spring-blooming bulbs—two tulip collections from Colorblends, a bunch of different pink daffodils from Brent & Becky’s Bulbs,  reticulated iris from McClure & Zimmerman, and a handful of the priciest bulbs I’ve ever purchased ($90 for just three Narcissus ‘Color Magic’) from Grant Mitsch—over the luxurious course of three glorious weekends. So with a forecast of freezing rain and snow lurking, allow me to take pause from my holiday preparations and express my sincere thanks for an especially forgiving fall.

With our (relatively) mild autumn weather, we’ve been treated to some later-than-usual color. Here is a coneflower, ‘Tomato Soup’ I think, with a nice ‘Blue Point’ Alberta spruce. Nice to see blooms in mid-November. Interestingly, we’ve already had mid-twenties. It takes more than a light freeze to knock them back for the winter, apparently. And why not? Nothing else seems to kill these beasts, why should cold weather?  That’s not a complaint. It just amazes me how tough coneflowers are.

'Tomato Soup' coneflower in November. Yum!

'Tomato Soup' coneflower in November. Yum!

Asters are among the best autumn performers. The color of the blooms is intense, the plants are rugged and carefree, butterflies love them. So why don’t I love them anymore? Well, I do still, actually. But not quite as much as before. Asters are not like hardy mums, which might last a couple years, then fade away. These suckers get a lot bigger every year, and also reseed pretty aggressively, so before too long, you notice that you suddenly have a bed full of asters threatening to push everything else out. So, I’m pulling most of mine out.

Vibrant Dome aster — better manners than its unruly relatives from New England.

I didn’t specify before, but the offending plants in my beds are mainly New England asters—like many natives, they’re rugged and robust, but sometimes overpowering. There are some nice, more-domesticated asters around that don’t take over, but still offer some of the most fabulous fall color of any perennial bloomer. The Dome series is one example. Purple Dome was the trendsetter. Vibrant Dome, shown in photo, is one of the later in the series. White Flower Farm is one source. They stay nice and contained, a foot and a half tall, if that. And even have better individual blossoms, if not the sheer mass of color, compared to New England aster.

The big asters have their place. But most residential gardens are too small for them. They’re like a Great Dane in a  studio apartment.  Stick to the smaller asters. If you shop for asters this fall, be sure to read the label and choose the more diminutive sorts.

One other thing, while I’m on the topic: Pinch asters back (the way you would mums) at least twice during the summer; I usually do so in June and again in July. It just takes a few minutes and it needn’t be a delicate operation. Just grab as big a handful of stems as you can and cut off the ends with a pruner.

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