Friday, September 28, 2012

Pick Up Fall Color!

     The intense summer heat is finally easing off.  We no longer are having to worry about every day that we go through without rain and I find myself no longer praying for every odd thunderstorm that might remotely pass by.  In fact, we are getting rain and have morning dew again!  Something that happens every year about this time but that always amazes me because it is such a complete reversal.
     Unfortunately, the garden always shows the effects of a long hot summer by this time of year.  Leaves begin to thin on the trees - even though they have not really begun to change color, some begin to fall.  Grass gets a bit ragged looking unless you have a cool season grass.  More noticeably, flowers reach their seasonal blooming period end and the garden becomes one of stalks and green leaves.  The weather is beautiful and we naturally want to see color in the garden to match the weather, but many plants are just simply worn out by this time of year and are winding down toward a time of future dormancy.
     There is, of course, always the choice of the big three - the 'go to' flowers that you see everywhere for fall color.  These are in universal use and are highly dependable.  These include roses, chrysanthemum and  sasanqua.  Roses are especially pretty when the temperatures lower.  For fall color make sure that you are using roses that bloom more than once a year as those tend to only bloom in the late spring or early summer.  Most of these will bloom right up to the first killing frost and often the colors and scents become more intense later into the fall.  Chrysanthemums are a herbaceous perennial.  They suddenly appear at home improvement and grocery stores in pots and many people use them as a fall annual - planting them for their blooms and then pulling them out after they finish blooming.  They can actually be left and will bloom faithfully every fall for years.  Sasanqua is actually a camellia and produces lovely flowers beginning in early fall and often blooming right into December.  They make a lovely evergreen shrub with glossy green leaves and a nice oval shape, but the flowers in the fall are their special bonus.
     I like to use a few other flowering plants as well.  Two lovely perennials will go through the summer and well into the fall, often right up to the first killing frost.  One is the black-eyed Susan otherwise known as Rudbeckia.  It has lovely daisy-like yellow flowers and is amazingly hardy.  The other is the aster which, like Rudbeckia prefers full sun and can take hot dry soil.  Asters are also daisy-like and bloom in a number of colors ranging from blue to pink and purple.  Both of these flowers are easily available in any garden center.
     A bit less known but definitely worth planting are a handful of fall blooming natives.  Look in open fields and other odd bits of open land and you will most likely see tickseed (Bidens aristosa) blooming at this time of year.  It is a lovely annual that reaches three to four feet in height and becomes a solid yellow when it reaches full bloom.  Flowers have eight petals and are delicate but reach two inches across.  Also in these kinds of open and disturbed areas you are likely to see partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata).  I has a delicate compound leaf and a yellow pea shaped flower with red stamens.  It also is an annual and will actually begin blooming in July but will continue to flower into October.  If your soil holds water, Lobelia - either the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) which blooms red or the great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) which blooms blue are a great choice.  Both are perennials that will bloom well into the fall but begin in mid summer, and both shoot up flower spikes.  Individual flowers are held horizontally along the spike.  Finally, ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) is a lovely fall blooming perennial.  It can reach nine feet in height and will bloom an intense purple.  These natives are not necessarily available in the local plant store, but you can get them to grow on your site by seeding them.   They also do not easily lend themselves to neat, tended beds, but they are gorgeous in large rambling plots of mixed flowers.
     One last trick for fall color is to use a nice ornamental grass.  These can sometimes be found in plant stores but can also be grown from seed.  For great fall color, try pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris).  It is a very drought tolerant grass that reaches three feet in height.  It normally has a blue-green foliage, but sends out a profusion of pink fluffy plumes in September which it holds until Dec.
     So, go out and enjoy the cooler weather!  While you're outside, plant some great late blooming color to help you to enjoy the season.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Which - Ryegrass or Rye Grain?

     I frequently have sites that are under construction through the summer and then ready for planting in the fall.  A fall planting means that certain kinds of seeds, if planted when the rest of the planting is done, will not germinate until spring.  This can alter the type of grass that I specify or how it is planted and it can alter the way in which other seedings are done as well.
     For a fall grass seeding, I can either ensure that a cool season grass is planted or that the planting regimen is modified to meet the demands of the season.  Cool season grasses for American lawns generally include fescue, bluegrass, bentgrass, and perennial ryegrass.  For most of the country now is a good time to plant them.  They will generally germinate at temperatures in the mid 70's and go dormant at temperatures below 50.  So, time your planting accordingly.  Immature seedlings can be damaged or killed by freezing temperatures.  Perennial ryegrass will take five to ten days to germinate, fescue  - seven to twelve, bentgrass - ten to fourteen days, and bluegrass fourteen to thirty.
     There are cases though where the site really dictates that I use a warm season grass for the long term cover.  Ideally, warm season grasses should be planted in the late spring or early summer.  For a fall planting, they should be planted at least sixty days prior to the anticipated first frost.  Under extreme circumstances, I will specify the planting of a bermudagrass in the late fall with the intention that it not germinate until spring.  In this case a late planting can occur as long as the seed in unhulled and a good cover of clean grain straw is used.
     With somewhat off season timing of seeding or with the planting of a bermudagrass in the fall, I can get a nice instant green lawn with the use of ryegrass seed (Lolium multiflorum).  This can be planted with the bermuda or other grass seed and will germinate in five to ten days.  It literally is the solution to instant green.  Later the intended grass can fill in.  This is an annual grass so the plants will not live for a second season, but it is being planted in this case as a temporary plant.  It will need to be mowed throughout the winter and can produce seed that will germinate the following year if mowing is not done in a timely fashion, but you will reap the benefit of a green lawn that holds the soil in place until the intended grass has a chance to germinate.
     For those lawns that are warm season and plugged or sprigged, annual ryegrass can help to hold the soil until the holes have filled in.  It can also be planted when those lawns go dormant to keep a green lawn throughout the winter.
     I often have other areas that are seeded on a site that are not grass.  These might be wildflower plantings or seed mixes intended for a specific use like that used in the bowl of a bioretention area or mixes used for dry sites that will not support a good lawn.  Most of the seed in these mixes will not germinate in the fall, but often fall planting is desirable.  For many of the seed used, being subjected to the freezing and thawing of winter actually triggers germination.  For others, fall seeding might be desirable simply because of timing.  For these fall seed mix areas, I recommend that a seeding of rye grain (Secale cereale) be spread either with the seed mix or on top of it.  Rye grain, sometimes called cereal rye, will germinate in temperatures as low as 34 degrees and will help to hold the seed and soil in place until spring.  It also will act to enhance the soil by capturing nitrogen and recycling potassium.  Ryegrass should never be used in these situations because of the possibility of re-seeding.  Make sure that you get the right kind of seed, or you may end up with a grass that becomes a pest.
     Regardless of what options you take, fall seeding is possible and even in many cases desirable.  Just make sure that you keep in mind the ultimate goal of the seeding, and that you utilize the seed that will provide you with that need.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fall Seeding Considerations

     It is mid September and seeding season in upon us.  That means that it is the prime time of the year to be putting down fall germinating seed.  This is seed for things that grow primarily in the cooler seasons of the year or seed that fair well on the ground for an early spring germination.
     The first fall seed choices that come to mind to most homeowners are the cool season grasses.  People in this area of the country look to plant fescue, bluegrass and rye grass (both annual and perennial) in the fall.  They are looking for a nice green lawn throughout the winter.  Even people who have warm season grasses like zoysia often choose to over-seed them with an annual ryegrass in the fall.  This gives them a nice green lawn throughout the winter.
     A chance conversation earlier today has me once again asking the question.  Why?
     Why do you need or want to have large areas of grass that requires a great deal of water and maintenance?  Are you using that grass for sports?  Do you do a lot of entertaining on your lawn?  Or is it like the majority of lawns in the country merely a green foreground.
     Why does all of that grass have to be green - regardless of the season.  Does green grass in January really look great or does it actually look kind of out of place?  Would that natural wheat color of a dormant warm season grass be just as pretty?  It most certainly would be a lot less work!  Do you really enjoy mowing that green grass in January?
     For the majority of homeowners, a green grass lawn is something that they feel they must have.  It has been drilled into their brains for several generations.  The idea of a green grass lawn actually traces back to the idea of a manor house.  Large estates had green pastures in front of the grouping of buildings that made up the estate with maintained gardens placed between the buildings and the pasture.  These large expanses of grass were kept short by the presence of sheep and cattle and were actually a working part of the estate.  Suburbia does not have these large expansive estates, but we still have the vestige of their imprint in the grass lawns that seem to be a prerequisite to every acceptable home.
     Very few people who live in suburbia actually raise sheep or cattle and very few use their grass lawns for sports or entertaining.  So, again I ask why?  If that area out of your property is going to take some but not a great deal of foot traffic, do you really want or need grass?  Some people like to mow and fuss with grass; so for them grass is therapeutic.  For the rest of us, there are other choices.
     Fall is a wonderful time for planting clover.  It can be seeded alone or in with a grass mix.  By planting it in the fall, you get a stronger and healthier stand of clover in the spring.  White clove can take some foot traffic, and some mowing, but should not be fertilized.  It is a legume and fixes nitrogen from the air.  Adding fertilizer will often kill it.  The advantage in having a white clover "lawn " is that it typically only grows a couple of inches (4-8" so if you do not plan to walk in it much you could simply not mow) and does not need to be mowed often, it blooms in the spring and summer providing pretty flowers and a nice scent and it does not need to be fertilized.  It does attract bees and this does need to be considered when thinking of planting it.  Clover will be dormant when the temperatures fall below freezing, but so will your grass.
     Another possibility is to replace that grass lawn with wildflowers.  If your current lawn is mostly dead, or in the case of my friend from earlier today mostly gone due to erosion, you might want to consider wildflowers.  There are innumerable mixes available to you - some with plant varieties selected that do not get taller than 8 - 12 inches if you still want that manicured look.  These can readily be sown in the fall and will germinate in the spring.  If this option is what you decide upon, I recommend that you plant rye grain and your wildflower seed mix so that you get an immediate green soil cover.  In the spring the rye will die off and the flowers will take over.  Make sure that your mix has annuals and perennials unless you plan to re-seed every fall.  Once your wildflowers are established, plan to mow them once a year in the fall after the seed heads are ripe to keep the tree seedlings down.
     Fall is a great time to think about your yard and what you might want to plant in it that requires seeding.  If grass is not something that you need to have, consider other options.  You might just find that you like your yard better when you are enjoying flowers blooming there or are no longer a slave to it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

"Mother Earth's Intestines"

     Yesterday we got a heavy rain that led to some urban flooding.  This was actually a very welcome event for our area as it has been locally very dry and the trees were beginning to wilt.  I am always amazed when I walk past people's yards after a heavy rain like that.  Some people have tons of earthworms that suddenly emerge seemingly out of nowhere.  Others do not have a single one.  This may not be something that you normally look for, but I see it as a sign of the health of the soil for each individual site.
     A healthy soil is teaming with organisms.  Among the most prevalent and obvious are earthworms.  These blind miracle workers are literally what my Dad used to call "Mother Earth's Intestines".  They are more digestion system that they are anything else.
     Earthworms are essential for a healthy soil.  First of all, they hugely act to reduce the amount of organic litter on a site.  A worm can literally consume half its own weight each day.  That means that all those leaves, blades of cut grass, dead insects and whatever other organic stuff ends up on the soil  can be eaten and removed by worms as food.  In the process, the worms remove this stuff from the surface and carry it underground.  There they grind it up and digest it.  Eventually the undigested matter is deposited into the soil as worm castings which act to greatly enrich the soil for plant growth.
     Worms also move through the soil.  When they do, they create tiny tunnels which are reinforced by a slimy mucus that they use to aid in their forward motion.  These tunnels are hugely important to a healthy soil in that they allow for both air and water to move into the soil.  This is a much more effective method of aeration of a planted soil than by physically, mechanically aerating it.
     Without worms, we would have massive amounts of organic matter piling up and hard, infertile soil that provides a poor host for plants.  So, they should be welcomed and encouraged.  Worms are actually quite prevalent - poor soil may have as many as 250,000 earthworms / acre but a rich fertile soil may have up to 1,750,000 / acre.  That's a lot of little creatures all working to make your site better by making your soil better.
     So why do I look for worm numbers after a rain?  There are a number of theories for why they come to the surface.  One theory is that they are surfacing because the soil is saturated and no longer has enough oxygen for them to breath.  Another theory is that they are using the wet surface conditions to move more quickly to another location than they could have had they stayed underground.  Yet another has to do with the carbon dioxide from all the soil organisms dissolving in the rainwater to create carbonic acid which irritates the worms.  Regardless of why they come up, their presence is a good indicator of soil health.
     The more worms the better!  They keep their numbers in check depending on the amount of space and organic matter available.  A site that has lots of worms most probably has good numbers of other soil organisms as well and therefore good fertility and aeration.  It also probably has good rainwater infiltration.
     What about those sites with few or no worms?  They might have been killed off by insecticides or their numbers might have declined because of a lack of organic matter or a poor, hard, dry soil.
     So, go out and look for worms.  If you don't see any, you might try encouraging them with a nice meal of grass cuttings and shredded leaves.  They love compost and will reward you with great soil.