Ask a Master Gardener: How can I ensure fall color in my new garden?

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 9, 2013 

Ask a Master Gardener

"Winged euonymous," which got its name from the strange ridge shape of the stems, is also known as "burning bush" for the stunning color it turns in autumn. It is commonly used along the Interstate 5 corridor, as it's a low-maintenance plant with good qualities, like having few insect or disease problems.

COURTESY TO THE HERALD

Question: I know that summer will be here for at least a few more weeks, but I want to make sure I have some fall color in my newish garden. Any suggestions?

Answer: Timing is everything. Nurseries are gearing up for their fall sales, as keeping too many plants over the winter is both dicey and pricey. So if you want some plants, there may be bargains ahead. However, if you buy plants before the fall rains begin, you must be vigilant about watering regularly. Remember, Western Washington gets little rain in the summer - some even call it a drought condition.

Here are a few stellar plants to consider. One is the tough but beautiful "winged euonymous," which got its name from the strange ridge shape of the stems. Another moniker is "burning bush," which describes the stunning color it turns in autumn. It is commonly used along the Interstate 5 corridor, as it's a low-maintenance plant with good qualities, like having few insect or disease problems.

A lovely plant not widely seen is the fothergilla. In fall it caters to all color aficionados with its leaves of orange, red and yellow - all at the same time! Different species grow to different sizes, say anywhere from 3 to 10 feet high. Fothergilla spring flowers are shaped like bottlebrushes. Like the euonymous, it has few insect or disease problems.

Ask your local nursery person for additional fall plants they carry. Do it now, and you might find those plants soon on sale.

Q: I don't like purchasing and using artificial fertilizers. So what are my choices in the more organic direction?

A: Too often artificial fertilizers get into our ponds, lakes, streams and water sources, affecting both wildlife and human life. Given that good alternatives exist, it makes sense to head in that direction.

Recycle yard "waste" like grass clippings, whole or shredded leaves, pine needles, chipped woody debris or even old shredded newspaper by using it as mulch that will retain soil moisture, protect plant roots and prevent erosion, and maybe even provide some nutritive value. And leave fallen leaves where they fall; that's nature's way of returning nutrition to the soil.

Create a compost pile and add kitchen scraps along with layers of nonwoody plant debris. An equal amount of "browns" like dead leaves and "greens" like grassy clippings will provide a balance of nutrients. Be sure to visit your local coffee shop and ask for their spent grounds, as they're a good addition to your compost.

Grow worms. Or more exactly, start vermicomposting, or composting with worms. Put purchased worms (they're red, unlike those you find in your garden) in a plastic bin with moistened, shredded newspaper. Add kitchen waste, including eggshells, and you'll soon have compost enriched with nutrient-rich worm castings.

Plants love compost. You can use it when you plant, or as a mulch.

Q: What can I do to attract more wildlife to my yard?

A: All wildlife needs help these days, so good for you for thinking of them. First, like us they need the essentials: food, water and housing. Caring humans can help provide all of these for wildlife.

Every wild animal has specific food needs. Different birds, for example, can eat a variety of things: seeds, insects, nectar and pollen. Wildlife likes the cover and food provided by a wide variety of plants. Some eat a narrow variety of foodstuffs, such as the hummingbird that eats nectar, with only an accidental insect or two. But you'd never expect woodpeckers to go after nectar: They're strictly insectivores.

It's the same thing with housing. Each animal has different needs. Some species of bat will roost only in old growth, exfoliating trees. And large tree-dwelling animals need large trees in which to live. Depending on the species, frogs can live in water or in trees, or in both. Salamanders need dark, damp, undisturbed places. And birds, well, each species seems to prefer a different type of home.

The one thing that all wildlife has in common is the need for water. In your yard that can be as simple as a bird bath (change the water and keep full at all times). Or it can be a small pool, or even a pond, if you have the space.

You might be getting the idea that there's a lot to learn, and there certainly is. The good news is that there are books and information aplenty, all brimming with good advice about making your yard attractive to wildlife. With even a few improvements, you'll vastly improve your chance of seeing (and helping) wildlife.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

Ask a Master Gardener will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you'd like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

Master Gardener Kathleen Bander is a resident of Bellingham and life-long gardener.

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