12 things to do now to make your garden glorious

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Some of us are born with a talent for gardening; others come to gardening later in life. Whether you are experienced or a novice, there is still much to learn in order to be able to create and maintain a successful garden.

Mastering some basic rules will help lay the groundwork for a garden that rocks.

Successful gardens are healthy and thriving. They lift us up and create joy. They are places where practicality and aesthetics are wedded. A garden must work well within its local conditions and the framework of your life.

Many studies have shown that time spent in nature benefits us by lowering stress levels and making us feel better emotionally. A garden that focuses on plants rather than hardscape like pools, patios and decks can be an extension of nature. Gardens give us the satisfaction of creating and tending a special place with our own hands. They are places where we both give and receive.

Imagine sweet fragrances wafting, soft leaves rustling in the breeze, shade on a hot afternoon and an ever-changing array of flowers embroidering the yard. Imagine, too, the joyful songs and forms of bright yellow goldfinches against the clear blue sky, a velvet upholstered bumblebee on a purple salvia, butterflies like snips of tapestry and hummingbird duels over crimson blooms — all elements of life you have nurtured. Gardens can be your own personal paradise.

As we move into the fall season, there are specific tasks and planning to consider. Here are 12 important seasonal to-dos excerpted from my new book, “Ground Rules: 100 Easy Lessons for Growing a More Glorious Garden,” (Timber Press).

1. Become your own garden designer. Now that the season and plants are declining, this is a great time to consider what worked well structurally in your garden and what did not. Developing a plan is relatively simple.

First consider the necessities of access to the front door, front yard and backyard. Make paths wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Decide where they should begin and end.

Do you like straight lines or curves? The journey should be as beautiful as the destination. Do you want privacy or an open yard that all can see? You can screen or filter the view with plants rather than fences.

Is there a place for a fountain, bird bath or bench? Think about a seating area. Do want a lawn for the kids to play on? Surround it with planter beds. Where should the vegetable garden go? What do you want to see when you look out the window?

Using hoses, landscape flags, lines of flour or spray paint, mock up locations of paths, seating areas and beds — live with them, then make necessary changes before beginning the work.

2. Plan for a long season of interest. When selecting plants for your garden, choose and combine those that bloom early in the season, midseason and late season — for interest and flowers as long as possible in the year. Bulbs are a great, long-lived item to add for very early blooms as well as early blooming shrubs like manzanitas or daphne. Christmas roses (helleborus) bloom for a long time in winter. Summer has too many plants to mention, but late summer and fall still offer many opportunities for a beautiful garden.

Many salvias are at their best in the fall as temperatures cool.

Varieties like S. greggii, “Van Houtei,” “Waverly,” “Amisted,” “Anthony Parker,” “Phyllis Fancy,” “Indigo Spires,” “Mulberry Jam” and Salvia leucantha are all good salvias for the fall among others. Asters are great plants for the fall garden and there are selections for every climate.

A gorgeous white aster is “Monte Cassino,” and “Lady on Black” aster has dark foliage that looks great all season.

3. Plant what works. All plants have evolved in specific climates, soil types and exposures. Of course, many common landscape plants are fairly forgiving about the conditions they grow in — that’s why they are common. But plenty of plants are more particular. The moral is — get to know your site. Look up weather patterns, dig a hole to determine your soil type and watch each part of your garden throughout the day to learn the patterns of sun and shade. If there is a specific plant you want to grow, look up its requirements before you buy it.

4. Don’t buy rootbound plants. Plants that have been in the pot too long will have tightly packed roots, and most do not recover well when planted, especially annuals, trees and shrubs. Don’t buy these plants. Instead select one where the roots just fill the container.

5. Plant at the right time. Fall is the best and an important time for planting in our area. Fall-planted plants will have strong root systems by the spring and grow fast as the soil warms and the days lengthen.

6. Buy local. Large chain stores and nurseries often have a buyer who is not familiar with the local conditions. These plants may not be cold hardy or adapted to your climate of soils. Local nurseries, especially those that propagate their own plants, are usually very knowledgeable about their plants and local conditions.

7. Get on the grid. When you put in a drip irrigation system, create a grid with a consistent distance between the lines. This makes it simple to locate lines under a layer of mulch,

When you find one line, you will know where all the others are. When you add a plant, do so at the existing dripline. You can use a line with no drip emitters (called a blank line) and pop in drippers as needed, or use emitter tubing, which comes with drippers at regularly spaced intervals in the line.

With emitter tubing, you won’t need to pop in any drippers and irrigation coverage will be consistent.

8. For a (relatively) weed-free garden, don’t let a single plant go to seed. With cooling temperatures and fall rains, the winter season or cool season weeds begin to grow. Each weed plant generally produces hundreds of seeds and just one plant can cause many more.

Pull out weeds, root and all, as soon as you can after they appear. Diligent time spent on this task now will pay off for years to come.

9. Cardboard to the rescue. When starting a new garden, or recapturing a weedy existing garden, use sheet mulch with corrugated cardboard to kill the weeds.

It’s easy. Just cover the weeds with a single layer of cardboard, then top the cardboard with 3 to 6 inches of compost.

This will both smother the weeds and build healthy soil. Cardboard needs moisture to break down, so for a weed-free bed, do this in fall or two to three months before planting in spring.

10. Don’t just read about nature — experience it. Reading about nature is very different than watching monarch caterpillars grow. They start out as tiny dashes of greenish-white and soon become fat, brilliantly green-and-yellow-striped eating machines demolishing milkweed leaves. Then they transform into an emerald chrysalis beaded with shimmering gold — a wonder of design.

Ten to 14 days later, the chrysalis turns dark, and a seeming miracle of orange and black merges and unfolds its wings. To witness this process is to experience the essence of life. We just need to invite them into our gardens by including plants that support them. Start with planting native milkweeds.

11. Wake up the garden with spring blooming bulbs you plant now. Spring bulbs are heralds of life. Every year we delight in the first blooms when much else is dormant. Best planted in the fall, they reward us year after year, blooming early then ceding the state to their summer-blooming garden neighbors.

If sited between winter-dormant perennials, their spent leaves will be covered by growing foliage as the season progresses. Some examples of early bloomers are fawn lilies (Erythronium), grape hyacinths (Muscari), crocus scillas, snowdrops (Galanthus), leucojum and reticulated irises.

These are followed by daffodils (Narcissus), fritillaries (Fritillaria) and tulips.

12. Plant a garden to build community. My mother’s front garden was just a small lawn no one paid attention to and required weekly mowing and frequent irrigation. We killed the lawn by sheet mulching it, put in a grid drip irrigation system and in fall topped everything with 6-inches of good compost.

In early spring we planted a cottagey mix of mock orange, California lilacs, magenta old-fashioned roses, blue catmint, dianthus, native deep blue penstemons, white California poppies, teucrium, silver foliage native sages, single peonies, various salvias and perennial geraniums. The first to visit were the hummingbirds and bees.

Then virtually every person who walked by stopped and admired the profuse planting and flitting life active in the garden. They told my mother, who was often sitting on the porch, that they changed their walking routes to see the garden. The garden became a source of community for my mother who, in her later years became increasingly socially isolated. Each garden holds this potential.

Excerpted from “Ground Rules: 100 Easy Lessons for Growing a More Glorious Garden,” (Timber Press, $19.95) by Kate Frey. Her column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey.

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