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Soil Searching

It’s time for the fall cleanup, so bring on the topsoil.

Soil Searching
By Susan Nienow

Now is the time to create a raised bed for flowers and small shrubs. I have learned the hard way that I can’t garden in the dirt around here. It is like concrete when dry and glue when wet. So I import dirt. Because we have lots of room we ordered a dump-truck load of topsoil that we have been taking dirt from for the last year-and-a-half. If you don’t want that much, order a pickup-truck load or just get several bags of topsoil.

Our raised beds don’t have walls of wood or stone. They are more of a berm with soil mounded in the shape that fits in the location. The soil will settle some but is so much easier to work with.

I can dig with a trowel in a raised bed, though to save the “tennis” elbow, I usually use a shovel. Every spring I top-dress the beds with compost, though sometimes that occurs in the fall if I don’t get to it in the spring. Spreading compost is not a summer job.

The fall chores include dealing with those leaves! You will be happy to know that the current recommendation is to leave the leaves and branches for winter mulch. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include the lawn. Keep the leaves off the grass. Mulch your beds before the first frost, which typically arrives in mid-October.

Take a good look at your yard. Is there anything you don’t like? I have an althea, a small tree or shrub with hibiscuslike blooms that I don’t like. The branches go every which way, and I don’t care for the lavender color of the flowers. I am going to take it out this fall. That will give me space for something I really like.

Divide and replant your bearded iris every three to four years. Pull out the invasive oriental variety of bittersweet that has yellow capsules around red fruit that appears all along the stem. If you love bittersweet, plant the American variety that has orange capsules around red fruit with flowers and fruit that only appear at the ends of the stems.

Perennials can be divided now and replanted elsewhere in the yard or shared with friends and neighbors. Typically as perennials age, the middle of the plant will die, leaving the newer areas around the edge. September is the month to plant peonies or to move them.

Fall is a great time to plant shrubs and perennials and to scatter some bulb groupings through the bed. If you haven’t ordered or bought bulbs, now is the time to do it. My favorites are anything the rodents don’t eat and the deer ignore. That includes all daffodils, grape hyacinths, allium and fritillaria and other bulbs.

If you don’t have the fall color you want, start with perennials like stonecrop, heuchera, which has colorful foliage, or shrubs like beautyberry with its bright magenta berries, red twig dogwood, hydrangeas, repeat bloomers like Guernsey cream clematis and Japanese maple trees.

It may be time to redo one of your containers with fall and winter plants. If you are like me and don’t care for the cushion mums, there are lots of other choices. A hinoki cypress will anchor the arrangement and can be planted in the garden in the spring. Ornamental pepper is an annual but provides an explosion of color. Dwarf cotoneaster has red berries and dark green leaves.

Blue ice cypress is an impressive plant both in the garden and in a container. Add sedum, ornamental kale, pansies and sage and you have a beautiful arrangement that will last until winter. If we have a mild winter, the arrangement may last through the winter. Only the kale and pansies are annuals.

Pansies are favorites around here and for good reason. They are three-season plants lasting from fall until the heat comes at the beginning of summer. They may droop when we have bitter cold weather, but, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, they recover after a few warm days. They don’t seem to pay any attention to snow, sticking their colorful blooms right through it to get to the sun.

Give them a shot of slow-release fertilizer in early spring, and you should have plenty of flowers in a few weeks. When summer heat arrives they suffer, and I just pull mine out and replace them with plants that like the heat.

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer