Shade Gardens

Shade GardenDo you have a shady trouble spot in your yard? Don’t give up hope on these bare patches. Turn these trouble spots into thriving gardens by choosing shade-tolerant plants that are both colorful and easy to maintain.

How much shade?

Categorize your shady spots as light, partial, or dense shade. Partial shade receives some direct sun for a few hours of the day, while dense shade is shaded throughout the entire day.

To add just a little more light, try thinning a tree by pruning a select few branches, bearing in mind that this may need to be repeated every few years.

SoilBeneath Trees

There are additional considerations that complicate shady spots beneath trees. The thick canopy of a tree not only blocks out light, but moisture as well, leaving the soil dry and compacted. If this is the case in your shady spot, spread compost over the area several inches deep. In a year or two, earthworms will move in and help loosen up the compacted subsoil. Wait until you have a loose, crumbly soil before you begin planting. If you don’t have the patience, English ivy (Hedera helix) will grow under such difficult conditions.

Hostas and Heucheras

Design your shade garden

Once you’ve chosen your plants, arrange them from tallest to shortest, with the tallest in the back of the bed. One suggestion is a shade tolerant understory tree such as red or sugar maple or black elder, followed by shrubs like gray dogwood, and filled out with a groundcover of coral bells and hostas.

Hostas and coral bells are particularly well suited to shade gardens as they provide a punch of color to an area that might otherwise be monochromatic and dull.

Plants grown in shade generally are not as dense, have fewer flowers, and their fall colors may not be as vibrant as those grown in full sun. They may also require more supplemental water, but the reward for your efforts is turning a drab, barren patch in your yard into a vibrant and colorful garden bed.


All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors




Watering Your Lawn and Garden

Watering FlowersIs your grass turning brown? Are your garden plants starting to wilt? No rain clouds in sight? Here are the tips and tricks you need to know to keep your trees, lawn and garden beds green and growing through the hot, dry summer.Tree Roots

How often and when?

Water your lawn and garden deeply but infrequently. Watering only briefly but often leads to shallow root growth, so encourage your trees and plants to grow deep, drought-resistant roots by watering thoroughly until the soil is soaked to a depth of four inches. Water in the early morning to minimize evaporation and reduce the risk of fungal diseases, but if your plants appear distressed, water immediately.   Mulch around your plants to retain soil moisture.

Plants with special needs

Plants that you just bought or transplanted need more help to survive the heat of summer than plants that are already established. Water them well at the time of planting and at least once a week for the remainder of the season. Perennials should be watered at planting, again on the next day, then 3 days later, and then weekly for the rest of the summer.

PlantersPlants in containers as well as those within the overhang of your roof also require more frequent watering. The best technique for watering trees is to just allow a hose to run slowly for several hours near the drip line of the tree, uphill if on a slope. For plants, water with a sprayer nozzle or watering wand.

Methods of wateringSprinkler

Automatic irrigation systems may be the best option for those who travel, but they are expensive and often overwater. Drip irrigation systems are also expensive to install, but use water efficiently. Sprinklers work well on level surfaces but cover only short distances.





Dead GrassIs this hot, dry summer turning your once-green lawn into straw? Do you live in a dry climate and find it difficult to maintain the stereotypical immaculate suburban yard? Do you want to do more for the environment by using less water, fewer resources, and incorporating native species into your garden? Try xeriscaping, a style of landscaping that conserves water, relies on native plants, and reduces areas devoted to turf. In regions such as the Western US that are subject to frequent and severe drought, gardeners have been using xeriscaping for years to cope with chronic water shortages.

Xeriscape 2Xeriscapes do not have to be desert gardens. They can be lush and full of color. Use these seven principles in your garden design to not only help the environment, but to turn your dead, brown lawn into an oasis.

Strive to conserve water

Map your yards unique soil types and microclimates, particularly areas that retain water longest, dry fastest, or are hardest to water. Use this map to plan zones of low, moderate, and high water usage. Group plantings by water requirements within these zones. If you must have a few plants that rely heavily on water, place them to maximize your enjoyment of them, such as near an entrance or outdoor living areas such as patios.

Improve your soil

We’ve already discussed many organic methods to improve your soil in our posts Improving Difficult Soils and Soil Improvement Techniques. For a xeriscape that incorporates a few plants with high or moderate water requirements, dig deeply and add a lot of organic matter to the soil before planting. Drought-tolerant species often prefer un-amended soil, so group them together and leave their soil unimproved.

Reduce the amount of your lawn devoted exclusively to grass

An immaculate, healthy green lawn requires large quantities of water. There are estimates that the average family only requires roughly 800 square feet of lawn. Maximize this area by siting it next to a driveway or patio. Keep the shape of your lawn rounded and regularly-shaped to minimize edges that will absorb heat more quickly and accelerate the loss of moisture. Choose native grass species that are drought-tolerant and well-adapted to your local climate.


Mulch areas that will not be planted to a depth of 2 to 3 inches using an organic mulch, gravel, or stone. The rainfall you do receive will pass through these mulches to increase soil moisture.

Drip IrrigationWater efficiently

If you will be incorporating an irrigation system into your xeriscape, plan it for your garden’s different zones of water use. Once plants are established, water them only when the soil is dry several inches beneath the surface. Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation rather than sprinklers.



Choose drought-resistant plants

Choose native species that have evolved to flourish in your local climate and soils. Talk to a local Master Garden, Extension Service, or gardening center to determine what native species are best suited to your area.

Maintaining your xeriscape

Continue to weed, fertilize, prune and patrol for pests in your garden. Regularly inspect irrigation systems for leaks and adjust it to account for dry and wet seasons.

Learning more

Many state and local governments offer guides on water conservation and xeriscaping. To learn about plants native to your area, check out, with its Recommended Species page that is searchable by US state. They also have a Drought Resource Center with useful information on helping your lawn and garden deal with the stresses of drought. Search the National Xeriscape Council’s web page for more information.


All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors




The Perilous Life of Birds

Cat Caught BirdBirds face an increasing number of threats in the urban landscape. A study published in the journal Nature Communications found that cats, including both domestic and feral, are responsible for the deaths of over one billion birds and over seven billion mammals annually. These findings place domestic cats as possibly the single greatest cause of death for birds and mammals, ranking higher than collisions or poisoning.

There are 84 million domesticated cats in the United States, and roughly 50% of them are let outside. Of those, up to 80% hunt. These numbers make responsible pet ownership more important than ever.

The National Audubon Society reports that populations of common birds have declined by as much as 68% since 1967 due to local and national environmental trends.  Show your support for birds by getting involved in citizen science projects that enable volunteers to observe and count birds through two programs, the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count. Both projects are free and will accept observations from anywhere in North America.

Follow the Audubon’s ten simple steps to protect birds:

1)      Reduce or eliminate pesticides and herbicides in your lawn and garden. Exposure to toxins directly or through the food chain poisons many birds or reduces their ability to reproduce.

2)      Plant native species to provide food in the form of nuts and seeds, as well as the insects they will harbor.

3)      Keep cats indoors to protect birds as well as small mammals safe from predation.

4)      Prevent collisions with windows by closing curtains or blinds when you are away from home or by sticking multiple decals on windows and sliding glass doors.

5)      Provide shelter in your yard in the form of snags for nesting sites, or brush piles as a source of cover during severe weather.

6)      Close your curtains so that you don’t distract migrating birds with lights at night.

7)      Provide sources of water for drinking and bathing.

8)      Landscape for birds, including ground cover, shrubs and trees to offer a diverse canopy for different species and different activities, such as feeding and nesting.

9)      Contact your local chapter of the Audubon Society to learn about opportunities to provide food and shelter for birds throughout your community.

10)   Take the Audubon’s Healthy Yard Pledge, and commit to taking the above steps to protect birds in your yard.




Attract Birds to Your Garden

CardinalBirds are an integral part of any garden. Those that overwinter bring us color and companionship during the drabbest and coldest months of the year. Their arrival in spring heralds the growing season.  They are important allies in the garden with their voracious appetites for insect pests. A house wren, in a single afternoon, can eat 500 beetles, grubs and insect eggs. Sixty percent of a chickadees winter diet consists of aphid eggs. A single swallow will eat more than 1000 leafhoppers in a day. Provide food, water, cover and nesting sites to attract an abundance of birds to your garden.

Bird FeederFood

Bird feeders provide crucial sources of food during winter, droughts, and under other conditions when natural sources of food are low. Provide food at a variety of locations, near cover such as a tree or shrub. For ground feeders such as juncos and mourning doves, place a tray feeder near the ground, while for others that prefer their food higher up, such as finches and chickadees, place hanging feeders or seed tubes in trees or on poles.

Bird seed is widely available from big box home improvement centers, local lawn and garden suppliers, to even grocery stores. All common seed-eating birds will be attracted by either white proso millet, which is preferred by grounder feeders, or black sunflower seeds. For a wider variety of birds, your menu should include niger thistle for finches and peanut kernels for white tufted titmice and chickadees.

Provide suet during the winter months as it fat content helps birds Suet and Woodpeckermaintain their body heat, especially if you want to attract woodpeckers. Hang suet in a specially designed wire trap or a mesh bag, or dip pine cones in rendered beef fat and then hang from branches. Cut fruit in half and place on tree branches to attract robins, tanagers and orioles. Consider growing a row of sunflowers, sorghum or millet as a food source just for birds.

Hummingbird Feeder 2Hummingbirds are a delight to behold. They require special feeders that dispense sugar water. While this syrupy solution provides a quick boost, hummingbirds require a natural source of nectar, such as bee balm, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, or fuchsias. To fill your hummingbird feeders, mix 4 parts boiled water to 1 part sugar. Do not use artificial sweeteners, as they are either harmful or lack nutrients, and don’t use honey, as it can foster fungal growth. Prevent mold from developing in your hummingbird feeders by cleaning them with very hot water, and refill them every 3-4 days.

WaterBird Bathing

In a healthy environment, birds get all the water they need from their food, dew or rain, but a reliable source of water will attract them to your yard, and is vital during drought and the winter months or in arid regions. Provide water in a shallow pan or birdbath, in the open, at least 3 feet off the ground and no deeper than 3 inches, with cover nearby such as shrubs or overhanging branches. Bird Bath 1Birds are drawn to the sound of moving water, so hang a dripping hose or a can or jug with a hole in it over the birdbath, or purchase a fountain. Winter is a particularly difficult time for birds to find fresh drinking water, so include an immersion water heater in your birdbath to keep it from freezing. They are readily available online or from stores that cater to bird watchers.

Bird House 2


Birds need shelter from predators and weather extremes and for nesting. Each species has its own requirements. Mourning doves prefer evergreens, while other species prefer dense and twiggy shrubs. Attract birds by adding nest sites to your garden with the addition of bird houses. Different species have different nesting needs, but a variety of bird houses are readily available for purchase or to construct yourself. Buy or build a bird house that is weather-resistant, with a pitched roof to shed rain, and with holes in the bottom for drainage and in the walls for ventilation. Place bird houses with their entrances facing away from prevailing winds and clean them out after each nesting season.



All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Resource for Every Gardner, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W Ellis, Editors