Tag Archives: plants

Be a Smarty Plants

Recently I asked my friends on Facebook what their word of advice would be for someone new to gardening and just starting out. Many offered some well rooted advice to mulch or water or be open to change. Having a vision, a good foundation of organic soil and to start small were other popular words of well grounded wisdom. One of my Facebook friends suggested that frozen berries in wine was a good pain reliever. Another suggested buying Motrin along with a lot of plants. Those who had thrown in the “trowel” suggested the new gardener give up before their backs and hips, have a drink and hire someone to do it for them. I liked the fact some felt variety was important and that gardening is good therapy.
In the spirit of turnabout is fair play, I asked myself the question. If left with suggesting one thing, I would recommend that a “smarty plants” invests time in their garden in September and October. Along with great deals on plants, the fall climate is perfect for plant establishment. In fall the soil cools down after a hot summer but is still warm and rainfall is more plentiful. Plants put in the ground focus on root establishment instead of top growth. Plants put in the ground in fall are well rooted and take off quicker in spring. This applies to woody landscape plants, trees, perennials, bulbs and even annuals like pansies. Frost tolerant pansies provide color in fall and then overwinter under the snow to outperform spring planted pansies the following spring.

These Pansies are waking up in spring after their winter nap. We're beautiful in the fall and now doing it again!

These Pansies are waking up in spring after their winter nap. We’re beautiful in the fall and now doing it again!

The weather in fall is enjoyable for yard work, even mundane work such as the lawn. Feeding your lawn in fall is important to develop a thick well rooted lawn. Grass seed grows well in the fall for patching or starting a new lawn, September is arguably the best month of the year to start a lawn in Michigan. And when it comes to weeds, well “weed” need to talk. Perennial weeds send their food reserves to the roots in fall just like the trees. If you apply weed killer you’re getting good translocation of the herbicide into the roots instead of just top kill. Also many annual weeds like Henbit germinate in the fall to become rampant and blooming in the spring. Fall applications of weed control keep these weeds from becoming a problem in spring.
If you “plant”-asize about gorgeous flowers in spring, September is the perfect month to plant flowering bulbs. It can be as easy as dig, drop, done. Bulb selections go way beyond tulips with many of the “minor bulbs” like Scilla, Fritillaria and Alliums or Dutch Iris to name a few. Planted in a well drained soil these miracle orbs will pop up and surprise you next spring.

These fall planted Pansies are reblooming in spring with the Pink Tulips that were planted at the same time.

These fall planted Pansies are reblooming in spring with the Pink Tulips that were planted at the same time.

September planted Mums provide brilliant fall color. Mum-Ma-Mia! Hardy Mums and Asters can be displayed in pots for fall color and then if planted in the ground before winter with a light mulch covering should come back next year.
Be a “smarty plants” and make a date with your yard and garden this September.


Not tonight Deer

Those who listen to my radio show or watch my television segments have asked me for a list of MY favorite deer resistant plants. I live in an area with a fair amount of deer pressure. I use repellants, however I have found that incorporating deer resistant plants in my landscape helps minimize the browsing. Bambi’s appetite can cost me “deerly” as in “bucks” not to mention the frustration of spring foliage munched just as they were putting on a show. That’s why in my landscape I incorporate plants from my “Not tonight Deer” list of favorites to discourage the deer from using my yard as a buffet.

Rick’s “Not tonight Deer” favorite plants (Note: this is not a complete list of rarely damaged plants but are plants I try to work in throughout my landscape to reduce deer browsing)

  • Alliums
  • Achillea
  • Ornamental Chives
  • Anemone
  • Bergenia
  • Brunnera
  • Carex
  • Cimicifuga
  • Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)
  • Fritillaria
  • Sweet Woodruff
  • Lamium
  • Myosotis
  • Echinacea or Rudbeckia
  • Hellebores
  • Perovskia or Russian Sage
  • Nepeta
  • Narcissus
  • Iris
  • Stachys byzantina Lambs Ears
  • Thyme and Oregano
  • Hakonechloa
  • Heuchera and Tiarella
  • Gomphrena
  • Nicotiana
  • Ornamental Grasses (Calamagrostis to Miscanthus to Pennisetum)
  • Viburnum
  • Spruce
  • Beech
  • Dogwood
  • Lilac
  • Wisteria
  • Hydrangea
  • Deciduous Azaleas
  • Rosa Rugosa

The Topic of Tropics

When the snow starts flying and the Christmas decorations are packed away most of us need a little pick-me-up in the home or office. Tropical plants are just the ticket. Take a trip to my January Women’s Lifestyle article where the topic is tropics as in foliage for your indoor living space! Visit this link and flip on over to page 34!

January issue Women’s Lifestyle

Living on the “Hedge”

I remember the summer of 1988. Built an above ground pool that summer. A very hot and dry summer just like this year. I remember coming home from work one afternoon and there were so many people in the pool I wouldn’t have been able to fit a leg in the water if I tried. The summer of 2012 feels like 1988 to me.

A little water will provide “Lawn”-gevity

The lawns are just like they were then, a toasty golden brown with shrubs and trees living on the “hedge” looking stressed.


Trees and shrubs need your attention right now with some trickle or deep watering. This is especially true for spring plantings this year without well established root systems. Be watching for wilting or curling leaves. Some older established trees are showing leaf scorch just like they did in the summer of 1988. It’s not just the heat and drought, but wind adds to the problems increasing the rate of transpiration in foliage.

Trees showing leaf scorch

Remember the ability of your trees and shrubs to endure the stress of this season’s weather hinges in part on how healthy they were going into the season and your willingness to deep water them at the base now.

Looks like it may be too late for these Arborvitae

An impulse sprinkler or the hose nozzle you use to water your car isn’t going to work. You need to lay the hose at the base of the landscape plant and soak the soil for any beneficial effect.

Ironic that this appropriately named “Burning Bush” is showing the strain of weeks without water








I’ve had a lot of people lately ask me if their lawn is going to survive the heat and drought. Turfgrass dormancy is a survival mechanism allowing survival up to 4-8 weeks without irrigation or precipitation without significant thinning upon recovery from dormancy. This would be under ideal conditions of no traffic, good sub or parent soil, moderate temperatures, minimal root competition from trees, etc. Survival can be affected by species, age, shade, maintenance, the quality of feeding you have done in the past, the deck height on the mower, traffic, heatand other factors. Raise the deck on your mower and if you can, park the mower until the drought is over.



A shaggy lawn is better than a scalped stressed turf. Remember that dormancy is reversible but death is not. If the lawn goes too long without any water or if it was unhealthy and stressed going into the drought the roots my die causing thinning of the turf. Cool season turf can survive summer dormancy but cannot survive root death.

Cool season lawn dormancy. Remember dormancy is reversible, death is not.

Turfgrasses that are trafficked during drought conditions must be irrigated regularly to maintain performance and prevent widespread turf damage. Lawn areas established in spring or previous fall should be irrigated because they have not yet developed extensive root systems.

Check irrigation systems for improperly aimed sprinklers, defective heads and evenness of distribution, etc. Water in the early morning hours to improve efficiency because of less evaporation from sun and wind. Watering at sunset encourages disease issues.

Limit traffic on your lawn (including mowing) to minimize crushing of the turfgrass leaves and crowns. Avoid the temptation to apply herbicides even though weeds become more obvious in a dormant lawn because they may be the only thing left that is green! Wait until fall to control lawn weeds, a perfect time for weed control.
Remember the fall season is a perfect time for overseeding and feeding thinned lawns. Turf establishment in Michigan is best done between August 15 and October 15 so don’t lose your “composture” if things are looking bleak right now. Your window of opportunity to improve the green green grass of home is coming soon!


Arid on the side of caution

Not even the official first day of summer yet and we’ve already experienced summer in West Michigan…….twice! In March unusually warm weather got everyone thinking shorts and tank tops. Then hot dry weather the first half of June has toasted lawns and made it feel like it has been summer for months. The process has been tough on plants and lawns. Some trees and shrubs are still trying to play catch up and rebound from hard April frosts. Minimizing stress with some deep watering as they attempt to bounce back will be essential.  One to two inch deep mulch at the base and some deep soakings will help, especially for plants put in the ground last year or this spring.

How dry I am

Remember sprinklers are for turf and hoses are for landscape plants. Morning is the best and most efficient time to water. For lawns don’t worry about weed control during hot dry periods. Save the weed control for less stressful times. They might be the only green some have in their lawns. Raise the deck on your lawnmower and if you have to mow do it during the coolest parts of the day. You don’t want grass expending energy in trying to grow leaf surface for photosynthesis. If possible park the lawnmower until we get through this period of heat and drought. Taller leaf blades help shade the crown of the plant. If your cool season turf goes brown don’t panic. Turf can endure a few weeks of dormancy and bounce back when weather conditions normalize.

“Arid” on the side of caution and get that sprinkler out!

If heat and drought persist longer than 3 to 4 weeks then you’ll have to get serious about “lawn-gevity” and whet the lawn’s appetite for a drink. In general lawns and plants should get 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches of water per week. Last I checked a number of areas in West Michigan have only had between a 1/2 to 1 inch of natural rainfall in the past 4 weeks! If you’re irrigating set out some coffee cans to measure how you’re doing.

New USDA Hardiness Zone Map

Back in 2003 I was on the cover of the Grand Rapids Press when a draft version and rumblings of a new plant hardiness zone map were being discussed. The map was pulled from circulation which showed dramatic northward movement of hardiness zones. Some of this vacillation may have been over disagreements on the political hot button of global warming.

In 2006 the Arbor Day Foundation issued a map showing climate zones had shifted. The USDA with their new map release confirms these trends today. http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

Plant hardiness zones represent the average extreme minimum temperatures at a location. They don’t reflect the coldest a location has gotten or will get, but rather the average lowest winter temperature. The updated map, the first update since 1990, moves from a static map to an interactive map allowing the user to zero in on their neighborhood. This is very similar to what you would do when using Google maps. This is far better than the  bottom half of Michigan being painted with a broad brush stroke and considered to be “zone 5” in the old static map. The new interactive map gives credit for pockets or “micro-climates” due to unique circumstances. For example in West Michigan closer to the lake shore the lake “warms” the average minimum temperature and lake effect snows provide plant insulation.

Michigan Hardiness Zones

As you “zone” in it’s not unusual to find different hardiness zones within a community. In my area we have micro-climate variation from 6B (minimum of -5 to 0), 6A (minimum of -10 to -5), 5 B (minimum of -15 t0 -10) and 5A (minimum of -20 to -15) all in the same county.

As an “entre-manure” I’ve always pushed the envelope and tried plants not considered hardy to my zone. For years I’ve planted zone 6 plants even though my area was considered zone 5. With the new map and my move to zone 6 A, don’t be surprised if I’m tempted to experiment with overwintering some zone 7 plants!

“Bush” Ups

We’re in the middle of hot and steamy weather. Have you thought about how plants perspire (called transpiration) like people in the heat? While the stomata or “pores” of a leaf are open for the passage of carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange, they may just decide to close up shop if things get too hot and stressful for the plant.

Hot Hot Hot!

If that happens loss of turgor occurs and the plant wilts. If the roots fail to keep up with the rate of transpiration decline or death occurs or as I call it “involuntary plant slaughter”. Actually humid weather can be our friend. There is less transpiration when the air is still and both the foliage and the air are humid. Dry windy air speeds transpiration as the air and leaf surface contrast in condition. Plants of course do transpire more rapidly when the temperatures are high and the days are long. That’s why plant conditioning is so important both before and after a stressful event. I call the conditioning “bush ups” simply meaning pay attention to proper soil preparation, mulching, feeding and care so that when the stressful event arrives like a week of hot weather, your plants can stay grounded, survive the heat wave and weather the stress.