Episode 9 – Autumn Aromas, Gatsby Pink, and Understanding IPM

Ground Breaking Banter

We get started talking composting, with a quote from Bette Midler:

My whole life has been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that let’s you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.

Stacey and Rick share thoughts on using the leaves falling from the trees and food scraps. Successful compost (i.e., one that actually breaks down into a usable soil amendment) depends on having approximately a 2:1 ratio of “browns,” aka carbons (dried leaves, old grass, even torn up black and white newspaper) to “greens,” aka nitrogen (food scraps or fresh, green material). Generating those greens all winter is easy, but your compost won’t actually decompose without balancing it out with some browns, so it’s a good idea to stockpile autumn leaves and layer them on as needed. As you build your treasure trove of leaves, bear in mind that some decompose more easily than others. Maple leaves are tops on the list for leaves that are great for composting, as are any small leaves like from honey locust. Avoid walnut or horse chestnut leaves, which some believe release chemicals that can inhibit plant growth. Oak leaves break down slowly so not ideal for composting, but they are great for mulching. Oak leaves have a lot of lignin, a natural polymer, which exists in plants. 

A couple of final compost tips: to actually get compost, you need to stop adding to your pile at some point and let it rot. To continue composting, start a new pile, and alternate between the two so you have one active pile and one rotting. And don’t forget the moisture! Stacey shares that her biggest composting mistake has always been assuming the pile was wet enough. A good amount of moisture – a “just wrung-out sponge” is the most common frame of reference – will get you nice, usable compost in no time. Here’s a good resource for getting started composting if you need more information.

We move on to the smell of autumn: in the fall, scents can be clearer and more prominent due crisp clear days. Decomposing vegetation can smell sweet, and some trees, like Cercidiphyllum japonicum, also known as katsura tree, which makes your whole yard smell like fresh-baked cookies when its leaves fall. It’s a smell you have to sniff to believe!

Finally, our word of the day is Frim. Frim is an archaic word used to describe soil that is in ideal condition for sowing or planting. English poets in the Tudor age used it to describe “frim pastures” as being flourishing, thriving and fresh.

Why? Well, we haven’t done a hydrangea yet in plants on trial, and they’re kind of our specialty. Of course, fall isn’t exactly hydrangea season, but oakleaf hydrangeas are an exception because they have excellent fall color. Gatsby Pink oakleaf hydrangea is even an exception to that, as the flowers also turn a vivid pink – not common for oakleaf hydrangeas. Between their unique, oak-shaped leaves, football sized early summer flowers, outstanding fall color, and beautiful cinnamon-colored peeling bark in winter, it is truly a hydrangea for all seasons. And as much as we love hydrangeas, they aren’t normally plants that are interesting all year round, and oakleaf hydrangeas are really the outlier there. And, they’re native to North America.

The story behind Gatsby Pink: This plant came to us from Powell Gardens, a public garden just southeast of Kansas City, Missouri. It was selected by Alan Branhagan, who was at the time the director of horticulture there. He selected it from an open pollination – just letting the bees do their business and sowing out the seed to see what you get. And found that the flowers on this particular seedling develop a true, pure pink color. Other oakleaf hydrangea varieties, like Ruby Slippers, also change color, but are more of a deep red, not the bright, vivid pink of Gatsby Pink.

How to grow: Like all oakleaf hydrangeas, Gatsby Pink is hardy to USDA zone 5. It blooms on old wood – in other words, it has its flower buds for the following summer all winter long – but unlike other hydrangeas that bloom on old wood, its flower buds are not susceptible to cold damage like big leaf hydrangea flower buds are. So it’s a great choice for cold climates. I recommend at least some sun each day for this plant, though it is quite shade tolerant. But if you grow it in shade, you will need to manage your expectations a bit, because it won’t flower as much, the color the flowers develop won’t be clear and vivid, and the fall color will be kind of muddy as well. So, if you can, four hours of sun or filtered light all day are fine. It’s even a bit drought tolerant if you grow it in full sun.

It’s best to avoid pruning oakleaf hydrangeas. They naturally develop a striking habit that’s really best left to do its own thing, so they should not be trimmed or pruned to take on a specific shape. You can selectively remove branches to develop a more dramatic framework, but avoid regular pruning. A final note about deer – Gatsby Pink is the only hydrangea that I can grow well in my deer-ridden garden. They do eat some of the flowers, which is less of a big deal on oakleaf hydrangeas than on other hydrangeas because they contribute more to the landscape than just flowers. But another great thing about them is that they get to be quite tall – 6-8’ – so they start flowering where the deer can’t reach them. And, in general, they don’t seem to be as drawn to them as other hydrangeas – perhaps it’s the fuzziness of the leaves.

Ready to add Gatsby Pink oakleaf hydrangea to your landscape or garden? Ask for this Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrub at your favorite local garden center.

Gardening Mail Bag

Do you have a question for us? Click “contact us” above, or send us an email

Shannon asks: Lately, there has been a lot of rain and I have not been able to mow my yard.  Typically, I mow my yard extremely short before the first snowfall.  However, as the first snowfall nears, I am not sure that I will have enough time to cut the lawn short before the snow falls and the grass becomes dormant.  Will the grass grow as well next spring if I don’t get a chance to give it a very short cut this fall?

No worries at all! You can easily mow your lawn up until the ground freezes, as long as it’s not wet or icy or anything. Having a short lawn going into winter is an excellent idea, because long grass leads to disease in spring, like snow mold. With the warm, rainy autumn we’re having here in West Michigan, who even knows how much longer lawns will continue to grow, so you may find you still have another mowing in your future.

Susan has a question about garlic: I think I may have planted my garlic (in a 4×4 foot raised bed) too early; there are shoots about 4″ tall. I plan to cover it with straw; will that keep it alive through the winter?

Beginning growth is a risk of planting garlic too early, but it will likely be okay. It’s really impossible to predict the right time, since it depends on when our ground freezes, and that date can vary so much. So, yes, mulch it with straw, and it’s likely to be okay. You might also wish to hedge your bets a little and make a second planting of garlic – it’s likely to be perfectly safe to plant it until the end of November at least, and that would be a very interesting experience come harvest time next July. 

Rhonda writes: I am looking for good ground cover plant options for sandy soil. I don’t want to mow the area next to my new cement driveway.

Ground covers are a great solution for spaces like this! They aren’t exactly no maintenance, but overall, you’ll definitely spend less time maintaining a well-chosen ground cover than you would a lawn. Rick suggests one of his favorites, liriope, also known as lilyturf. Not only is it tough and easy to grow, it also resembles grass, so it blends in easily, except when it’s covered in beautiful purple-blue flower spikes in late spring. Stacey first recommends sedum, which loves sandy soil. You can plant a bunch of different types together for a unique under water look, you just need to be careful to manage the more aggressive types so they don’t overtake the less aggressive ones. You’ll find lots more good ideas here.

Branching News

We’re turning the clocks back DST ends for Stacey’s favorite…..Standard Time!  We spend about 5 months in Standard Time and and spend 7 months on DST.  As we welcome back a longer night’s sleep, here’s a good word to chew on: nyctinasty. Derived from nycta-, the Ancient Greek prefix for things related to night, it describes the nastic movement of plant parts such as leaves and petals in response to darkness. Nyctinasty refers to the nastic movement of leaves or petals of higher plants in response to darkness (or the alternation of day and night). The closing of a flower at dusk, for instance, is a biological rhythmic event. 

We review a survey that has ridiculous results and really “bugs” us: one in three people have considered burning down their own home after experiencing a bug infestation. Really? Apparently so, as the study of 2,000 adults found that 66% are willing to do “nearly anything” to get rid of bugs at home — including fumigating their entire home (51%), putting glue traps in every corner (46%) or even using a whole can of bug spray all at once (43%).

Over half of respondents (52%) have considered moving because of bug infestations — 69% of people who considered that option actually followed through and packed up their things.

When asked what they would rather put up with instead of bugs, respondents said they would prefer dealing with broken appliances (29%), creaky floors (26%), broken windows (26%), not having television connections (25%) and rodents (24%).

We have fun talking about a news story from Japan. Remembering names at a party is never easy, except at a gathering in Tokyo on Saturday where all 178 guests were called Hirokazu Tanaka — breaking a record previously held by 164 Martha Stewarts.

We’re not “lion” – a mountain lion was actually spotted in a backyard in Springfield, Illinois. It was safely captured and taken to a big cat refuge in Indiana. Phew!