garden maintenance

Too Many Leaves!

I spent this morning wading through masses of fallen leaves, overloading my compost pile with them, fishing them out of my pond and in the end cursing them.

There seem to be way more leaves than usual this fall, most likely because we have had fewer windy days and the leaves stayed close to home, rather than being blown to other people’s yards. Anyone who has read the garden-related posts on this blog must know that I often complain about the trees (Norway maples and a Tree of Heaven) that make my garden drier and shadier than I would like. I have also muttered about too much wind. Now that I’ve had to deal with the results of a windless autumn, I may appreciate windy days more, at least while leaves are falling.

In The Essential Earthman, gardener Henry Mitchell commented wryly on people’s zest for raking up fallen leaves, “as if the fate of the garden depended on raking them immediately.” It’s true that raking leaves is a fairly simple-minded chore and perhaps more fun than cutting down peony and daylily stalks, planting bulbs and pruning roses. A big pile of leaves with bare lawn around it surely does show that a gardener has been industrious.

Never mind that I, like the improvident gardener Mr. Mitchell speaks of, haven’t as yet cut down my peony stalks, or, for that matter, those of asters or the trailing stems of Geranium “Anne Folkard,” which wrap themselves around the rake like tentacles when I try to rake leaves from the perennial beds. Wouldn’t it be much easier to rake if I took the time to cut down those stalks and stems first? Of course, but then who says a gardener is always rational?

Tidiness aside, there are a few good reasons to rake leaves. First, thick mats of leaves on the crowns of perennials can lead to rot and slug attacks when the plants sprout in spring. Second, leaves blur the edges of garden features such as lawns and paths, imparting an instant air of neglect. That might not bother some gardeners, but it bothers me.

Having dug up the stepping stones of this path last summer, I would prefer to keep it leaf-free. “What path?” you say. “What stones?” Exactly. Which is why I raked it (yet again) this morning.

Finally, I will mention leaves and ponds. Now I know that installing a pond in the proximity of several large trees is not a good idea, but it’s too late. Every year I spend a considerable amount of energy removing fallen leaves from my pond, and every year quite a few of them sink to the bottom and add to the sludge layer down there. Unlike Henry Mitchell, I do not drain, clean and refill my pond once a year. More like once a decade, so all those sunken leaves are a cause for occasional fretting. Because the pond is the lowest spot in the garden, any nearby leaves tend to end up in it, so it’s important to rake them up.

The trees are finally bare and the majority of leaves corralled in a huge, messy pile (it can’t really be called a compost heap) that will eventually break down into leaf mold, which is always useful in the garden. But the wind has picked up and it promises to be a windy night. I just know there will be leaves in the pond again, and also in the basement stairwell, another popular low spot. I’ll be kept busy chasing leaves until next spring.

Peach-Leaf Bellflower: Garden Enemy #2

I was out in the garden on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, doing what I expected to be routine cleanup — cutting down old perennial stalks, removing the odd overgrown specimen, etc. But I realized I had a bigger problem on my hands — peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), entrenched and spreading all over one of my sunnier and tree-root-free perennial beds. A planting of variegated irises and a specimen of Eryngium yuccifolium were threatened with oblivion as the peach-leaf pest sent out new offsets and and an ever-thickening mat of roots.

I happily included this plant in my post called Tough Plants for Dry Shade, and I still think it belongs there, but now I issue a warning:  do not plant Campanula persicifolia in places other than dry shade, especially if you garden on light, sandy soil. In hospitable, sunny spots, it becomes a rampant thug. Plant delphiniums there instead.

In a hasty attempt to get rid of the unwanted bellflowers, I went from hand-pulling (useless except for seedlings or brand-new offsets), to stabbing with a trowel, to deploying the gardener’s big gun — a digging fork. That did the trick, except that I dug up a bunch of tulip and crocus bulbs along with the bellflower mats, and, worst of all, sliced off a nice hyacinth bud that was awaiting spring under the soil surface.

That’s the really awful thing about spreading plants — they cover up other plants and, unless the gardener has a really good memory and/or really meticulous records, render them invisible. The busy gardener glances over a bed and sees nice, healthy plants of peach-leaf bellflower, totally forgetting about the irises, eryngiums and bulbs that were planted there in the first place. When the truth finally dawns and Something Must Be Done Right Now, havoc and destruction ensue.

Some may say I’m being unfair to Campanula persicifolia. Just because I was too lazy to keep an eye on things, I need not vilify the bellflower, which is an attractive and reliable plant. Maybe so, but gardeners should know about a plant’s bad habits before they introduce it into their premises, so I think this screed is justified. (And of course I’m still upset about that hyacinth).

On a related topic, following my post on Plant ID, in which I made observations about different kinds of plant labels, I actually received as a Christmas gift a couple of dozen rather nice permanent metal labels with solid plastic stakes to hold and display them. I’ve decided to use them to mark valued plants that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the rambunctious “tough plants” that I have allowed to proliferate here. The idea is that the labels will remind me to check on the well-being of the plants they represent, thus ensuring that the markers will not be of the RIP sort.

Oh yes — and what is Garden Enemy #1? In my garden, it’s those maple trees, of course. I’ve ranted about them before, and will likely do so again.

What to do in August

Every year since I began this garden, my daily weather-and-garden notes have an entry around August 20 that says “Garden looks like Hell.” That includes this summer, which has been quite cool — perfect, actually, with highs consistently in the low 20s (C, not F). But there has been no rain for the last 31 days, and it shows.

Coming home from work and looking at the garden is a disheartening experience these days. Often, my first impulse is to go inside, close the door and ignore the mess outside. Often I give into that impulse, but eventually (on weekends) I get to the point of Something Must Be Done.

So what can be done to improve the garden in August, if escape is impossible?

It comes down to two things: removal and definition. First, get rid of the stuff that offends the eye. Then clean up the edges. After that, it may be worthwhile to do some watering.

Start by deadheading and cutting down withered stems. Especially cut back anything that has zillions of seeds ripening, such as good old toadflax (Linaria purpurea), campion (Lychnis coronaria) and mullein (Verbascum). A bonus of doing this is that these plants sometimes rebloom in early fall, after the first rains. In the meantime, their old, seedy remains are no longer giving that tired, unkempt look to the scene. Get rid of anything that looks dead (or is dead). Colour is a clue — brown, khaki and white are often indications of deadness.

Some raking is also in order. Raking? In summer? Most definitely. I get the rake out regularly, at all times of the gardening season. In this windy climate, there is always stuff to be raked up. In late summer, along with the usual blow-downs and blow-ins there are plenty of tired green leaves and prematurely brown ones, as trees thin their leaf burdens in response to drought. Once on the ground, these leaves are certainly no asset to the garden. Removing them instantly improves the look of the place.

Once the scurf has been removed, clarify the edges of the beds and borders by clipping the verges of the lawns; or even edge them, if that hasn’t been done for a while and it’s hard to distinguish beds from lawn. I guarantee that this will make any garden look 100% better, without doing anything else. The whole process is the garden equivalent of a bath, shave and haircut — it doesn’t change the fundamentals but improves the presentation.

Clipped and raked, not too bad for late August

Finally, embrace the season. Maximum growth and flowering has been achieved by many plants, and they are simply past their best. As a reminder of this, all I need to do is visit a nearby park that preserves a remnant of the natural flora of the place in which I garden. At this time of year, it’s a vista of faded greens, browns and bleached white. In contrast to the springtime display of wildflowers and the lush grass of early summer, there isn’t much going on. The place is waiting for rain, for fall and the turn of the year.

The Last Dance of the Garden Year

This giant pile of leaves will be compost by next summer. Having raked and  piled them, I don’t need to do much more besides rearrange the heap after it settles a bit, and (most important) poke several holes right through it once the leaves start to decompose and pack down. The holes will allow air and water into the middle of the pile, to keep the breakdown process going.

Damp leaves are much easier to handle than dry ones, which fly around and slither down the pile. Raking and leaf management are much easier after a rain. When you build the heap, sprinkle a little soil or finished compost between layers of leaves, which should be from six inches to one foot thick.

My leaves come from the trees I am always complaining about in this blog — three big Norway maples, one giant red maple (just over the fence in my neighbour’s yard), a weeping birch and a tree of heaven (or, as I think of it, tree from hell). During the gardening year, deadheads, old stalks and other debris of the perennial border and vegetable patch go into the heap, as well as a comparatively minute amount of vegetable kitchen scraps. One might think, looking at this leaf pile, and at the crumbly, black compost that I distribute around the garden every spring, that trees are the thing to have if you want compost. It is true that leaf-based compost is free of weed seeds and evil root fragments that can propagate weeds to spots that don’t have them. But you have to remember that trees suck both water and nutrients from the soil, so if you don’t have trees you don’t need as much compost or anything else to feed your gardens. Nature’s budget usually balances.

Which is why some people would argue that you really don’t need to rake leaves at all. If you leave them alone, they will eventually break down and release their nutrients, as they do in forests. No need to rake, pile or distribute compost. This lazy approach is preferable to stuffing leaves into orange plastic bags and putting them out for garbage collection, a practice that does mess with the natural nutrient budget. Whatever was extracted from your soil to grow those leaves will need to be replenished somehow, to grow lawn or petunias or tomatoes next summer. The fertilizer bag is the consequence of the leaf bag.

Free compost aside, there are other benefits to leaf-raking, similar to those of edging (see Setting the Edge, Oct. 25). A few brightly-coloured leaves decorate the garden. Loads of brown leaves make it look sad and neglected, and are apt to smother plants or cause rot. Raking reveals the edges between beds and lawns, an instantaneous visual improvement. Like edging, it can induce a meditative state. There is an artfulness to it as well — you have to develop a repertoire of techniques to tease leaves out from perennial beds without damage, move them down narrow garden paths, and herd huge masses of them to their final resting place. Big piles of leaves acquire a nearly liquid quality and can be moved quite quickly with authoritative strokes of the rake. (Don’t even think of using a leaf-blower, an abomination of noise and fossil fuel consumption).

Finally, raking leaves is good exercise for the upper body. It’s a kind of dance — the last tango of the garden year.


Almost finished compost


Setting the Edge

If your garden includes both grass (i.e. a lawn) and something that isn’t grass, like perennial beds, a shrub border, a mixed border or an area to grow vegetables or herbs, you probably know about edging. If you don’t, you should.

Lawns necessitate some of the more tedious tasks in gardening, the major one being mowing. Some gardeners would contend that lawn maintenance really isn’t gardening at all, being more akin to vacuuming or cleaning out the eavestroughs. I’m not going to get into that argument, because what I want to focus on here is edging, which I consider to be a fundamental gardening task.

I don’t have “a lawn.” I have lawns. That sounds pretty grand, but what I mean is that the grass plots in my garden do not form one large expanse. Rather, they are discrete areas among beds, borders and walkways, ranging in size from 15 x 15 feet (roughly speaking) to perhaps 15 x 30 feet. Just about all of them adjoin planted areas in which grass is not welcome. In order to keep it out, I edge two or three times in a growing season.

Like many other garden jobs, edging may be done with a machine or with hand tools. The machine is either a gas-powered or electric string trimmer. The hand tool is a half-moon-shaped blade with a handle and “footsteps” or treads that make it easy to push the tool into the sod using one’s foot. I admit that string trimmers are faster, especially for cutting the turf that often impinges on concrete sidewalks, but I don’t recommend using them near plants that you want to keep. The foot-powered edger is the tool of choice in places where grass is next to soil.

If you edge at regular intervals it need not be a major project. You don’t even need to stretch a string or lay out a hose for accuracy, because the turf edge will be easily found, and only the tentative incursions of grass that have grown since the last edging session will need to be removed. On the other hand, if you’re carving out a new bed or restoring a nearly obliterated edge, setting up a guide is a good idea.

Using the edger is actually kind of fun. There is a great description of the process in Sara B. Stein’s delightful book, My Weeds : a gardener’s botany. The tedious part of edging is dealing with the chunks of turf you cut off, which is why it’s best to edge regularly.  In any case, you will have to get down on your knees and remove the unwanted grass, be it small clumps or big chunks. Large pieces of turf are best turned over and allowed to dry, after which you can shake out some of the soil. As you work your way along the edge, you can check out what’s going on in the bed or border — plants needing division or getting too pushy, or surprises such as desirable seedlings or plants that you thought were dead, but aren’t.

Once you’ve removed the unwanted grass and fluffed up the soil along the edge, you can, if perfection is your goal, get out your grass shears and trim the grass along the newly cut edge.  This, in fact, is routine maintenance between edging sessions. Lawn grass has a tendency to grow sideways, so every two or three mowings, you should trim the edge with grass shears. There are different models, including some that allow one to do the job while standing upright. I can’t comment on their effectiveness because my shears are a simple, hand-held type. Three tips: number one, wear gloves; a lengthy trimming session can cause blisters.  Number two, use a kneeling pad, especially if the grass is damp.  Number three, don’t rush.

Some may be appalled by now at the prospect of grubbing around on your knees, using primitive hand tools, snipping grass blades with what are really just oversized scissors. But I have found that an edge-trimming session, if conducted at leisure without interruptions, is a kind of meditation. The task is simple enough that you can let your mind idle and drift. Ideas float up from who knows where. It’s sort of like fishing. If nothing else, you develop a better relationship with some of your plants while vastly improving the look of your garden.

That’s the main reason for edging, as far as I’m concerned. Almost nothing else has such an immediately beneficial effect on the look of a garden as refreshing the edges. Fuzzy, overgrown edges with long grass lying over the plants in a border make a garden look sloppy and uncared-for, no matter how well the plants are growing. If you spend an hour or two trimming the edges, without doing anything else, there will be a 100% improvement. I know because I’ve done it many times. My “lawns” are nothing special — mixed grass of dubious pedigree — and my borders contend with light, sandy soil full of invading tree roots. My garden is not exactly paradise, but when the beds are freshly edged and clipped, and the sunlight filters through the leaves of the maples at just the right angle, and you view the vista from just the right spot, there is a resemblance.

Hell Month Begins

Looking back at the weather notes I have kept for the past decade, I see it every year — “Garden looks like Hell.” The early bloomers have gone to seed, have been cut down or withered. The roses have black spot and more spent flowers than fresh ones. There are dry green leaves and twigs all over the ground, pulled from the trees by the latest windstorm. A scurf of withered leaves and faded rose petals covers the pond, in which the water lily leaves are starting to die and blacken from lack of light.  It’s Hell Month again.

It actually lasts more than a month, most years, from mid-July well into August, ending when we finally get rain, some years as early as mid-August, others not until September.

Remember re-enchantment? It’s really hard to achieve right now. There are days I’d rather go to the beach or stay in the house and work on this blog than venture into the blasted garden.

But I did spend a couple of hours this morning cutting things down and edging.

Results of a heavy deadheading session

Remember this: when in doubt, edge. A fresh edge to the lawn adjoining a perennial border will make that border look better, even if you do nothing else. And if you manage to whack down or pull up the seedy and weedy, the results may very well stave off Hell Month for another week or so.


This spring I decided to be a better deadheader. Now it’s summer and all the tough, self-sufficient plants that do so well on my dry soil are in bloom.  The garden is full of colour and buzzing bees busy pollinating. Before you can say “Go forth and multiply,” there will be seeds.

Bee on Mullein

Many of those tough, self-sufficient plants are prolific seeders.  They share this quality with weeds; in fact, some wouldn’t hesitate to call plants such as toadflax (Linaria), lamb’s ears (Stachys) and campion (Lychnis) weeds and treat them accordingly.

For me it’s too late.  I welcomed these and others of their type into my dry garden with open arms and discovered their seedy tendencies by experience. Since about mid-June I have made weekly rounds of my garden, secateurs in hand, snipping and clipping any blooms that are past their best, before the seeds can ripen and scatter.



Many years I wasn’t persistent enough.  Seeds develop with astonishing speed, and in late August or September I would find myself creeping up to certain plants and shaking the stalks gently to hear if they rattled (which they inevitably did), then trying to cut and trap them in a bucket before they showered seeds all over.  Almost always the snip of the blades was followed by the peppering sound of seeds bouncing off neighbouring foliage as they fell earthward.  At this point I would tell myself that a certain amount of seeding is necessary for continuity, and that the seedlings won’t be that hard to remove next spring. Not strictly true, which is why this year I resolve to keep up with deadheading.

Deadheading need not be viewed as a tedious chore.  There is another aspect to it.  Think of it as perennial pruning.  There is a whole book about this — The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  The author discusses different techniques for removing spent blooms from plants, or cutting plants back to delay bloom and reduce size for better appearance.  The book includes many before and after photos illustrating the techniques, as well as a plant-by-plant section.

It’s all a matter of attitude — think of shaping and managing your plants throughout their season, rather than frantically trying to keep up with their fiendish seed-producing tendencies.  Think of deadheading as sculpture rather than housecleaning. Consider that removing the first flush of blooms often leads to another round of bloom rather than seediness.

Be brutal. Don’t fuss with snipping off individual dead flowers, even though that may be optimal for some plants, Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia, to name two. But if you have a lot of plants, trying to do it right soon means you won’t do it at all. Once most of the blooms on a stalk are past their best, cut off the whole thing. The tough plants will cheerfully send up new bloom stalks, and if they don’t at least you will avoid excessive seeding. You can experiment, in the spirit of Ms. DiSabato-Aust. Do the flower-by-flower thing on one plant and the crude but effective cut-the-whole-stalk treatment on others, leaving a few alone as a control. That’s the beauty of these slightly weedy plants — having so many, you can treat them harshly without fear of losing them.


The thing about a garden is that it changes, whether the gardener is involved with it or not. On a Sunday evening the garden is enchanting. Everything is orderly and peaceful. Weeds are eliminated, or at least not evident. Tall plants are staked, lawns are trim. It’s hard to leave it all and go in the house.

Over the course of the working week, visits to the garden may be hurried — quick sessions of watering, picking a lettuce or two or some herbs. Then comes Saturday. The gardener anticipates a return to enchantment.

The garden is fuzzy around the edges. Plants flop and lean; some have collapsed. Twigs and other debris from the midweek windstorm litter the grass. Bloom have become a mass of ugly deadheads. Everything looks like hell. And maybe the sun is hot and glaring or it’s one of those cold, windy days (so common here on the West Coast in summer). Suddenly a trip to the mall seems like the best option.

But you can’t just put a garden aside like a piece of knitting, to be picked up someday when you have more time or interest. There comes a moment when you have to decide to keep going or give up rip out all those plants and sod it over. Even giving up requires action.

The gardener needs re-enchantment. The only way to get it is to go out and start doing something, anything, however small. Pull that weed, set that stake and tie up the sagging plant. Get the watering can and go to the aid of the wilting. Clip that edge. Strangely, clipping the verges of the lawn next to perennial beds makes an astonishing difference. The garden becomes a garden again, instead of just a mess. Suddenly you want to be out there, working in it.  (Of course, it helps if it’s early evening, with the light coming in at the flattering angle, if the wind has dropped and coolness wells up around plants revived by dew or the attentions of the hose and sprinkler).

It comes down to this — a garden must be gardened in. That’s its real purpose — to be a place in which to garden. Have you ever tried just sitting in your garden, doing nothing? How long is it before you notice something — deadheads to snip, a leaner to prop up, or something that simply must be admired at close range? You get up and do it, and then the next thing and the next. By that time, it’s getting hard to see because it’s almost dark and you have to tear yourself away from your little Paradise.