Fall Clean-Up–What NOT to Do

Fall Clean up–What not to do.

It’s pretty late to be talking about fall clean up, but today it’s still sunny, and pretty cold for coastal BC (-1 right now), and it’s Sunday. So there might be a feeling that it’s now or never to clean up the garden.

Make it “never”–or at least make it “minimal” until late winter (andI’ll get to that in late winter).

When you look outside, you see fallen leaves, dead flower stalks, faded (or rotting) flowers,  and all manner of “unattractiveness”. You want to clear it all away. Have a fresh canvas for spring growth. You want it tidy. Neat.

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

Octavia Hall Rose looking the worse for wear

But nature is never tidy, never neat, so I’m going to try to relieve you of the need to make it “nice”.

Dead flower stalks.

There are a few reasons to leave them where they are:

1. If they have seed heads on them, they are food for our local over-wintering birds. Chickadees, juncos, sparrows, towhees, bushtits, house finches… The more you can provide them the better they’ll survive the season. Coneflowers (Echinacea), Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), Shasta Daisies (Leucothemum), even sunflowers (Helianthus)–leave them all.

Rudbeckia seed head

Rudbeckia seed head

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They're probably 3-4 mm diameter.

Crocosmia seeds. Beautiful to look at, but I wonder what bird has a big enough beak to crush these. They’re probably ~3 mm diameter.

2. They are a reminder of what you have planted so that in spring, when you HAVE to get back out again, and nothing is sprouting yet, you’ll know NOT to dig in that bare spot that Oh, has a flower stalk in the middle of it. You may think you’ll remember where your beloved plants are, but trust me, you won’t!

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it's all bare and inviting that something is really there.

Daylily (Hemerocallis) flower stalk reminding me when it’s all bare and inviting that something is really there.

3. Hollow stemmed flower stalks provide a nesting place for cavity-nesting native bees like Mason bees. That’s a very good thing in our bee-challenged but bee-dependent environment.


Mostly let them lie where they fall.

Leaves will not only compost-in-place, they also provide habitat for a lot of beneficial critters in the meantime.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they're a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis) leaves will stay there until they compost. Besides, they’re a vivid rich brown, quite pretty close-up.

There are a few exceptions to this however. If the leaves had any disease–powdery mildew, black spot, rust, etc– get rid of them. I’ll be cleaning up all the rose leaves today because they are full of black spot. The disease will overwinter because it’s not cold enough here to kill it. And will still be there next year to re-infect. Now having said that, these disease-causing organisms are all around anyway, and if a plant is susceptible, will be affected to some degree, given the right conditions. So is there really any benefit in clearing away the disease-bearing leaves now? Maybe I’ll do a barely-controlled experiment in my “research lab”–aka garden…

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable  from surrounding wood chip mulch. maybe I'll leave then there after all...

Rose leaves kind of indistinguishable from surrounding wood chip mulch. Maybe I’ll leave then there after all…

Another exception is large leaves. Especially the larger maple leaves. They can create an almost impenetrable mat over the ground potentially causing damage to turf grass, and hindering water movement. But an easy solution is to rake them onto the lawn, and mow over them with your mulching mower. The small leaf bits will provide nutrition to the lawn just like the grass clippings have done (and I know you leave your grass clippings on the grass).


All that decaying matter is habitat for beneficial insects, birds, bees, all the things you want to encourage in your garden. It’s true, you are also providing habitat for some things you’d rather not support–like slugs– but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And if the odd toad or frog turns up, it’ll deal with your slugs anyway. Win-Win.

If you  feel the need to tidy things up despite all this, maybe just neaten the edges a bit. Take off those rotting rose blooms, the daylily and hosta leaves that are turning to mush, and of course weeds–getting them now will save some work in March. But keep it simple, and remember, there’s always Spring cleaning soon enough.

5 Design Tips for Your Hummingbird Garden

5 design tips for your hummingbird garden

I’m obsessed.

And like all obsessors, I’d love to drag other suckers into the vortex!

Six years ago, when I moved into this house, I saw a hummingbird hovering around my Princess Alexandra rose.

Princess Alexandra.

Princess Alexandra.

I went right out a bought a campsis radicans (red Trumpet Vine) reading that it was a popular food source. Of course it didn’t bloom that year, or the next, or the next.

Campsis radicans

Campsis radicans

For 5 more years I never saw another hummingbird–until last summer, when I  saw one hovering around a pre-blooming garden mum–for about a second!

So obviously, 2 sightings in 5 years constitutes some kind of an active colony, so I ran out and got a hummingbird feeder, attached by suction cups to the kitchen window (why there? I’m never looking out that particular window…) and used my giant Christmas bow (at the Wild Birds Unlimited proprietor’s suggestion) attached to the nearby railing as an attractor. I hoped that the  campsis would do a better job (than the bow) once it bloomed in late summer (–it did finally decide to bloom, and this year was quite prolific). Nope. Nothing. Nada. No hummers.

This spring I moved the feeder to my front window. My neighbour had planted a red current in the front, and apparently being the most preferred food source, maybe now the hummingbirds that would inevitably swarm there would approach my pretty red feeder. Lots of blooms on the current, nary a hummer in sight. Woe.

Until November 9 2013: what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature bird (… no tiny reindeer…).

Hummingbird at the feeder.

Hummingbird at the feeder.

Well, since that time, there has been no end of activity, and not just at the feeder. They have found a bunch of still blooming flowers, and even seem to enjoy hanging out in colourful shrubs that have no flowers.

Hence the topic of today’s post (since now I’m an expert): How to design your garden so the hummingbirds will hang out at your house, and not just the one down the street. Some of my information comes from my (6 days!) observation, but most from World of Hummingbirds.

5 Things

Like any living creature, hummingbirds will need food and water, and because of their amazing wing speed, they use a lot of calories.

1. Food

So your hummingbird feeder will supply carbs. Plain white sugar (sorry, haven’t heard of an organic substitute, and playing around with different substances is a recipe for hummingbird-death) mixed 1:4 with warm water (see Wild Birds Unlimited ) gives them a similar concentration to what they get from flower nectar.

And it’s when they come to your feeder that you’ll actually get to see them.

But you also want them to enjoy your garden so they’ll come more often than just for a drink; flowers that will provide nectar, in a selection that will provide near-year-round blooms, is optimal. WBU points out that the more hybridized a plant is, the less nectar it produces, so when there are options (and they fit in with your garden scheme) choose species.

For early bloomers, lilac, lupines and honeysuckle are good.

For summer, snapdragons, penstemon, weigela.

For fall bloomers I can definitely recommend tricyrtis (toad lily), hardy fuchsia, fall asters, schizostylis (Kaffir lily). They’re all still in bloom in my garden, and I’ve seen the hummers visiting them all.

Shizostylis (Kaffir lily)

Shizostylis (Kaffir lily)

Hardy fuchsia

Hardy fuchsia

fall Asters

Fall Asters–Aster novae-angliae



For winter, I’m told by The Seattle Times that Oregon Grape Mahonia x media ‘Arthur Menzies’ is a great favourite, and fragrant winter bloomer. (Incidentally, hummingbirds  don’t  have much of a sense of smell. They look for visual clues, hence the need for highly coloured flowers. ) And of course, our native late winter-blooming Ribes sanguineum–Red Flowering Current– is supposed to be their all-time favourite food, and will especially attract the Rufous Hummingbird on its way back from winter migration.

Ribes sanguineum, Red-Flowering Current. Native to BC coast.

Ribes sanguineum, Red-Flowering Current. Native to BC coast.

2. Another Thing About Food

The sugary content of  your feeder- or flower-nectar is only one small portion of the hummingbirds’ diet. As important is a source of protein–and that source is bugs. If you spray your plants with some kind of pesticide to rid them of “pests”, all the native pest eaters will have no reason to frequent your site. Even “natural” pesticides still kill bugs. So if you want any birds to call your garden home, you’ll have to tolerate an adequate “load” of bugs.

Which leads us to…

3. Shelter.

Did you know that hummingbirds use spider webs to glue their nests together. If there aren’t any spiders, there aren’t any spider webs, and the hummers will go somewhere else to nest. But if you have a tree or good sized shrub, and let the spiders hang around, you’ve just provided habitat for hummingbirds to nest. Which means you’ve given them a potential home.

4. Water

Birds like to bathe, and hummingbirds are no exception. And most prefer moving water. If you can locate a basin at the drip line of a tree or shrub, they will appreciate the water/rain dripping from the leaves of the tree, which also gives the collecting basin the ripples of moving water.

And finally…

5. Provide separate rooms for the squabblers.

Both male and female hummingbirds prefer their privacy. They aren’t “flockers” like bush tits, they usually live along until it’s time to mate. A male will fight off (usually not violently, altho apparently they can bump their bodies and grab each other’s beaks) another male to preserve the ownership of a  feeding spot. So you might want to set up a second feeder at some distance from the first –unless you want to watch the show.

Click on the video for full screen.

As always, look forward to your comments, questions (I’m the expert, remember?), critiques. Click on the Follow button to receive posts regularly.

Where To Look For Ideas–Houzz

I often look to Houzz for ideas when I’m creating a design or just thinking about a type of property. Since I’m in an urban setting, most of our local properties are less than 8,000 s.f.

Here then is my Houzz Ideabook on “Small Back Yards”–amazing things that you can build into very small spaces. Most pictures have a comment associated, so I’d love to hear feedback. These are all yards I can see myself designing for local conditions (Metro Vancouver), so don’t be surprised to see nothing with aloes or Joshua trees or date palms.

5 Design Tips–Pruning Small Trees

5 Design Tips–Pruning Small Trees

We usually think the beauty of trees is either their foliage or their flowers. But let’s not forget structure, shape, limbs and bark. IMHO some of the most beautiful trees are the ones with interesting trunk or limb shape (such as this Acer dissectum from a previous post), or beautiful bark. (Who doesn’t love our native Arbutus menziesii?)

Picture courtesy of Up on Haliburton Hill

Arbutus menziesii. Picture courtesy of Up on Haliburton Hill

In order to appreciate the these features, you have to be able to see them, which often requires  pruning.

1. Thinning

Here are two Acer palmatums ‘Crimson Queen’. The first is allowed to weep right down to the ground, and with shrubs all around, all you see is a mound of burgundy leaves. Some obviously like that look.

Acer palmatum 'Crimson Queen', thanks to Monrovia

Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’, thanks to Monrovia

Same tree, courtesy of Your Garden Sanctuary

Same tree (Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’), courtesy of Your Garden Sanctuary

2. And Limbing Up

The second–still Crimson Queen–is pruned (not “trimmed”) from the bottom (“limbing up”) and through the crown. There are fewer branches altogether, and branches that were weighing down the look of the tree, or lower branches, were pruned to their origin–the trunk– so that there is a more “airy” look to this tree (“thinning”). Here’s a VERY wordy (detailed and comprehensive) tutorial  on pruning and staking  Japanese.

3. Stake


Acer dissectum ‘Inaba Shidare’

Another way to “prune” or train a JM, or any weeping specimen, is to stake it upright until it achieves the ultimate height you want. Again, going back to the Acer dissectum of an earlier post, the leader (most upright branch, or dominant branch) was staked with a curve in it, then allowed to grow a bit, and curved back again. This was done very young, when the branch was pliable. We removed the stake on planting up the container, because we now want the tree to adopt a more natural weeping habit. We’ll keep the lowest branches thinned, and when there is more canopy growth, will probably remove most of the lowest branches so its decorative trunk will always be visible.

Usually staking keeps the leader upright and straight.

4. Multi-stemmed trees

Hamamelis is just one example of multi-stemmed trees. In the winter it blooms and is delightfully fragrant:

In the summer it can have a nice wide vase shape, or just be a little… blah.

Slightly underwhelming Hamamelis virginiana at A Garden for the House

Slightly underwhelming Hamamelis virginiana at A Garden for the House
(Sorry Kevin Lee Jacobs 😦

I can’t cay that my ‘Diane’ Witch Hazel is any better than Kevin Lee Jacobs’, but here it is today, about one-and-a half years since planting:

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Now, I’m a complete novice at this video thing, and have a rather puny camera with crummy sound. But listen closely and you’ll get the gist of pruning out extraneous branches so you can see the attractive multi-stem structure.

5. Choose the Right Trees

Finally, choose the right trees for the available space–“Right Plant, Right Spot”. You’ve heard me say this before, but make sure you check not only the plant tag, but other sources of information about your proposed tree. The tag might include words such as “dwarf”, “nana“, “compacta”, or any “small” words (mini, little…), yet still be bigger than your space can accommodate. Do a quick google search to find out how big–in height and width–your specimen gets in local gardens–forums are the best for that. I love gardenweb.com and the UBC Botanical Garden forums.

There you have it, 5 quick tips for making the best of your small trees. I’d love to hear about your pruning adventures. Leave a comment, question, critique. I’m very keen to learn for others with different experiences.

Like. Share. Follow.


Acer griseum. Thanks to Henriette’s Herbal Homepage