Author Archives: Neil

For The Birds

Our early October snow has the birds at my feeders devouring seed at a frantic pace. I’m sure many of these birds are migrators looking to fill the tanks as they move south, and feeding stations become a place of congregation for birds overlapping as they spend a little extra time fueling up.

This year, the finch feeders have been especially heavily used by the migrating goldfinches, and I find myself filling the thistle tubes every day to keep up with them. I’m keeping the hummingbird feeders full and fresh as well, in case any of those little guys haven’t made it through yet. I hear others chatting about migrating hummers still moving through, but I haven’t seen any around my yard for many days now.

Looking out my office window onto my front garden, I’m a little sad to see the wet snow folding the miscanthus and calamagrostis grasses over to the ground with their weight. I’ll hope that they’ll spring back upright when the snow melts from them later in the day, so I can enjoy their structure in the garden over the winter.

While saddened by the drooping grasses, I love the bright sound of the dozens – maybe hundreds – of birds who use my feeders and fill the air around the house with their song and activity. Birds are a perfect compliment to the well-designed perennial garden. If you add no additional feeders at all, you’ll still notice the bird population increase as your garden matures. The addition of feeders just brings that many more in. This time of year especially, migrating birds can use the extra calories from feeders kept full as they move south.

Feeders or not, you’ll want to leave your perennial seed heads standing into the winter. These standing seed heads – particularly of plants like Rudbeckia and Echinacia – are great sources of natural seed for the birds. You’re likely to see finches hanging on these heads to eat well past winter and into early spring.

The other two key ingredients for the birds are water and shelter. Some pine or junipers close-by offer great winter protection as the deciduous trees loose their leaves. I have lots of ponds and running water in my gardens, so the water is all around. If you don’t have that advantage, try and find a way to keep a bird-bath or like feature filled with water, and as the temperatures drop further, think about a small bird-bath heater to make sure the water stays available when other sources are frozen.

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Jade Blooms

I’ve mentioned before that I can get my Jade plants to bloom, and thought this would be a perfect time to share how I do this. I stumbled on it by accident years ago, and have found it to work every year.

With a frost warning here in Parker for tonight, most folks are probably bringing in any Jade plants they have outside. If you want them to bloom, hold on for just a little longer, taking the time to cover them with sheets tonight instead.

The key to getting them to bloom seems to be the combination of shorter days and colder nights. I leave them outside as long as I possibly can – usually into October – then I bring them in and set them by a sunny window. Within a couple weeks, the buds will begin to appear, and soon the plant is covered with delicate white flowers.

I should mention that one prerequisite seems to be the age of the plant. It appears that until a plant is about 5 years old or so, it won’t go through this blooming process. But the older it gets, (I’ve got one 15+ years old), the better they bloom.

Kind of like people, right?

If you have Jade you always keep inside, try putting it outside for these next couple weeks, and see if you can force the bloom. If you do, be sure and keep it out of direct sun, and protect it from frost, as it isn’t hardened off to the outside.

It might seem harsh to keep the plant out, but often we do damage to plants in our effort to be kind to them. Just like the common practice of overwatering gardens in the fall to keep them going, which actually prevents the perennials from hardening off well for the winter. In this case, there must be something in the native climate of Jade that entices them to bloom, and this combination of cold nights and short days seems to mimic that enticement.

Sometimes ya gotta’ be cruel to be kind, right? Why deprive them? Enjoy the blooms!

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Fall Bloomers

Asters and Mums are center-stage in the perennial garden for the next couple months. Pick up mums early in the fall and plant them right into your garden, and there’s a good chance they’ll establish and come back in the spring (assuming you get hardy mums). Check on the kind of Asters you see and like, and think about putting them in next spring.

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Fall Cutbacks

Late summer is an important time in the perennial garden. It’s a time for the garden to prepare itself for the coming winter. The gardener can help this process along, though the help we can provide might seem counter-intuitive.

After the hot weather we’ve had, there’s a natural desire to try and use the cooler weather that seems to have finally arrived as an opportunity to “green up” and “flower up” the garden a bit – to pour on the water and see if we can get the garden really “cookin” again before winter. But for most perennials, this is exactly what they don’t need.

There are exceptions for sure, but in general, perennials need to be “hardening” themselves off for the winter now. They spent energy early in the season building themselves us, and most of them have spent energy throughout the summer flooding our gardens with blooms. Now comes the time when they need to pull their energy back into their root systems in preparation for the winter.

But if we pour water on the garden to try and “green it up”, we just confuse matters or worse. While we should still make sure the garden has sufficient water, we should be starting to cut that water back as the weather cools. That appears to be happening right now, with the highs this next week 10 or 15 degrees below what we had this last week.

For trees, it’s still OK to give them a good deep watering now and again if they’re young, but generally their system needs to go through the same process of hardening off, and reduced water helps them get there. We plant a lot of Honeylocust here along the Front Range, as they adapt so well to our climate and our soils. However, the Honeylocust can suffer tremendously from too much water late in the season. Unless you have a newly planted specimen, I generally recommend holding off on watering after September 1 for these guys. A hint on the Honeylocust is to look for “tip die-back” in the spring. If you notice that the tips of branches appear to have died over the winter, this is a sure sign of too much water in the fall and winter.

For lawns, (though I readily admit I’m not a lawn expert), it’s probably a good idea to reduce our watering schedule as well. I’ll cut my water in half starting this weekend in response to the cooler temperatures, and may cut it more than that once I see my water bill for last month…

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Little Hummers

A common observation of birders in our area this year has been the scarcity of hummingbirds. They’re still around, just not in the numbers we’re used to seeing. Most years my gardens are full of hummers by now, but this year there are only a few.

What you consider that the hummingbird is constantly only hours away from starving to death, I would guess this sort of population anomaly is fairly common. The hummingbird eats its own weight in nectar each day – it has to in order to support the crazy high rate of metabolism that allows it to beat its wings 100 times a second with a heartrate of about 1000 beats per minute. The hummingbird can barely store enough calories in it’s tiny little body to survive overnight.

With that kind of intake requirement, it doesn’t take much of a drop in food source to have a big impact on population. We did have early cold spells last year, and it might be that the early cold caught lots of the hummers before they completed their migration.

Hummingbirds are easy to attract to your garden. Of course, the instant way is with hummingbird feeders. Mix the “nectar” at one part sugar to 4 parts water. Bring it just to a boil, then let it cool (covered). Store it in the fridge. Be sure and wash and change the feeders every 2 or 3 days, since the nectar will ferment and make the hummingbirds sick. Once they learn that a feeder has bad nectar, they won’t return.

While feeders are a good idea as a constant and controllable source of nectar, I highly encourage the gardener to do a bit of gardening for hummingbirds as well. Many of the plants that grow particularly well around here are also plants that hummingbirds love. Penstemon is a great example – they are abundant and native to our area, and the hummers love ‘em. Agastache is another example, with a wide variety of different versions available for the gardener to choose from.

It’s a rare garden we design that doesn’t have both Penstemon and Agastache in it, both for the visual value as well as a bit of help to our hummer friends.

Photo by Russ Thompson - Hummingbird feeding on Mexican Sage

One plant that is particularly loved by hummers is Mexican Sage. You have to be careful about where you plant it, because it’s barely hardy to our area – in fact it’s not really hardy in most locations. However, if you’re down in Denver, you’re likely to have good luck with it. Even out in areas like Parker, you can get it to work if you are sure and plant it with good southern exposure to avoid prolonged and deep ground cold. The first winter is the most risky, so we recommend only trying it if you can get it in early enough to build a strong root system before winter sets in. Mexican Sage wants at least half a day of sun, and is extremely drought tolerant. We find that it likes good rich soil.

The red flower spikes of Mexican Sage began blooming 2 weeks ago in my gardens, and will continue to bloom through the end of the growing season. The stand 3’ to 4’ tall. It’s a rare morning when there aren’t hummingbirds working the many spikes of Mexican Sage outside my office windows.

Below are the plants we regularly plant in gardens that the hummingbirds love:

  • Columbine (we don’t plant often, but it’s a good early season source for the hummers)
  • Bleeding Heart is a good early source as well
  • Coral Bells is a good early source
  • Lilac is a good early source
  • Monarda – especially the red ones.
  • Red Salvia – put some early annuals in planters as they love these!
  • Penstemons
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Lobelia
  • Delphinium
  • Liatris
  • Obedient Plant


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‘tis very silly To gild refined gold, or paint the lily’.

While I love all the seasons of the garden, this little window is surely among my favorites. The daylilies are splendid, as are what I call “summer lilies” (asiatic lilies etc).

I must confess that I’m a bit of a daylily bigot. I love the big bright flowers they’ve bred over the years, and can’t figure out why anyone would plant those anemic looking little ones. But that’s just my preference.

Technically, daylilies aren’t even true lilies. They all share the common “ditch lily” as a common ancestor, but have been bred over the years to a multitude of colors and sizes. some blooming early and some late. They all share the characteristic that each bloom opens in the morning, and fades that night. Most varieties send enough buds and blooms to keep blooming for 2 – 4 weeks, some varieties blooming early and others later.

It’s just a lucky quirk that many of the summer lilies bloom now too, creating a spectacular show of yellows and oranges and reds.

Daylilies and summer lilies can both be divided and propagated, but the process and timing is different. Daylilies are quite hardy and can technically be divided nearly any time. However, I like to divide either quiet early in the spring or just after they bloom. To divide, gently dig the root ball, and separate the plant into small clumps, each one with a bundle of little tubers supporting it. Depending on the variety, a big clump can produce anywhere from a handful to dozens of little transplants. Before planting, use a set of shears to cut back the tops of the plant to about 4” tall. Then plant and water. As with any transplanting or dividing, it’s best to do this in the afternoon in the shade, and keep well watered for the first few weeks.

Summer lilies are much different, and are quite picky about when you should transplant. You can transplant them early in the spring when they first come up – be sure and replant at the same depth as you dug them, and don’t cut the tops back. Or, you can wait until late in the summer – when the tops are dying back. If you divide and move them late in the year, the tops aren’t really important anymore – they’ve done their work of feeding the root during the summer.


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Early Summer Transition

It’s another transition time in the perennial gardens here in the Denver area, as the early summer bloomers start to fade, and the mid-summer bloomers start to show off.

In my yard, the Salvia is starting to fade a bit. The German and Japanese Iris have been done for a couple weeks now. The Delphinium will usually hold over through this transition period and bloom for several more weeks.

In design, it’s usually the “spaces between” things that are most important, and that’s how I feel about these transition periods as well. You can almost feel the garden step back and take a breath, as the big summer bloomers build up for their big show.

One of the nicest things about this little breath between the blooms is the prominence of Lavender. Remember how ratty it looked a couple months ago when you thought about just tearing it up? Now’s the time you get rewarded for your patience with this important part of the visual and olfactory garden, as the spikes stand out in a delicate show against the green of the rest of the garden. I bicycled recently along the California coast, and was amazed at some of the enormous Lavender plants growing out there where they get constant moisture and constant mild temps. I’ll be blogging about that trip here in case you’re interested.

My first daylilies began blooming just the other day, so I should have a steady march of different varieties blooming for the next 6 weeks or so. Also, most of my roses are just starting their summer-long blooming festival as well. And of course, the summer lilies (such as Asiatic Lilies) are starting their show.


Tasks for this transition period:

  • Cut back the Salvia. Don’t wait for it to fade too much, as the plant is already starting to spend energy converting those flowers to seeds. By cutting the flowers back, the plant will bloom again in a few weeks.
  • Fertilize – use a well-balanced fertilizer, not one designed for green grass or annuals. See this post for more information on fertilizers.
  • Pinch the buds from the mums then stop. The little buds that develop as the mum plants get bigger in the early summer should be constantly pinched out up until July 4. By pinching them out early, you ensure that when the plant blooms later in the season, the blooms will explode all together rather than trickling out. It also lets the early plant energy go into building the basic plant, then the later energy build the blooms. Bigger plants AND better blooms! If you haven’t done any pinching yet, do it now, then stop.
  • Divide and multiply – If you’ve got large bunches of plants that need division, it’s not too late to divide them. While it’s always hard to do for plants like daylilies that haven’t bloomed yet, dividing earlier in the year will result in a much more vigorous plant next year – one that will bloom. A little sacrifice this year for a reward next year and beyond…
  • Birds, bath, and beyond – If you have a water feature, you’ll notice the birds love it as the hot summer comes to us. If you don’t but want to attract birds, keep in mind that a water source is one of the key components to attracting birds to the yard. Keep it fresh and full. My feeder activity has finally slowed down, as the breeding activity seems to have slowed. I’ve heard from other birders that the hummingbird activity this year is way down, but I am getting a few. The big activity usually kicks in when the flowers they like most are in big bloom – things like Agastache and Mexican Sage.
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Fertilizer Labels Unmasked

One of the most confusing topics for most gardeners is the topic of fertilizers. Just what do those numbers mean? Why do the numbers matter?

The numbers on a fertilizer package represent the % of different nutrients that particular mix has. The three nutrients measure are:

  • N = Nitrogen
  • P = Phosphorous
  • K = Potassium (sometimes called Potash)

Generally, the value to the plant of these three nutrients is unique.

  • Nitrogen encourages and feeds the production of green plant material – top growth if you will. You’ll notice that many lawn fertilizers are heavy on nitrogen. An example of a heavy “top growth” or “green growth” mix would be 21-3-3, indicating 21% nitrogen, and 3% each of phosphorous and potassium.
  • Phosphorous encourages both root growth and development of flowers, fruits and seeds. It’s an expensive ingredient in the blend, and too much of it is bad for the environment. But it’s critical in the perennial garden.
  • Potassium is a critical component of a plant’s ability to develop vigor to resist stress and withstand changing weather conditions.

A well-established lawn needs a fertilizer heavy in nitrogen to feed that heavy and lush top growth. However, pure nitrogen without sufficient P and K will leave the turf susceptible to stress and disease. In our heavy soils down in Parker, I always apply less N and more P and K, because I care more about the grass plant’s ability to build and maintain a root structure that will penetrate and survive the tough soil.

For perennial gardens, you want a mix that is high on P and K. There are different opinions about how much N you want, but certainly you don’t want the N number to be higher than the other two – the most N you would want would be the same as the P and K – say something like 5-5-5.

You’ll notice also that fertilizers often advertise that they’re “organic”. While we do use synthetic blends depending on the situation, my preference is to use organic blends. An organic blend will always have lower numbers, but for the perennial garden you’re not looking for high numbers anyway. The greatest value to the synthetic blends are to the container plants and lawns (assuming you want a high N lawn fertilizer.)

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Density in Gardening

Redwoods line the road in Big Sur State Park

I just finished a long bicycle tour, riding about 1300 miles from Monterey, CA back to Colorado. I’ll be having several upcoming articles on the ride at my writing website – – and will probably do a couple of articles here on some of the plant and bird life observations.

One of the things that struck me right off the bat about the plant life was the contrast in density that I got to ride through, and how we as gardeners use the notion of density in our garden designs.

Riding through the Big Sur country along the California coast, I was surrounded by deep and dense forest. Giant Redwoods towering above me, and steep hillsides covered in greenery and flowers below me. You’d have to peel back several layers of living matter to reach actual “soil”. It was truly stunning.

Big Sur GardenA week later, I was learning about heat in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California and Arizona. The contrast with the Big Sur coast couldn’t have been greater. Tough and hardy plants spaced well-away from each other cling to life in the wind and scorching sun, surrounded by empty rock and sand as far as the eye can see. While I could see bare ground all around me, my Midwestern notion of “soil” did’t quite fit the rock and sand that made up that bare ground.

Hillsides covered in flowers along the coast

Here in the Front Range region of eastern Colorado, we’re nowhere close to either of those extremes. Our high prairie habitat provides 13” or so of rainfall a year – a veritable rainforest by the standards of the Mojave, but deadly drought by the standards of the Pacific Coast. In future posts, I’ll talk a bit about how we might consider density in garden design, since our climate here in Colorado allows us great flexibility in this area.

Spending time on a bicycle riding through these regions reminded me of an appreciation for a broad range of density of plant life. It’s certainly possible to take a position of liking one extreme and not liking the other, but I prefer to learn to appreciate both for their unique adaptation to the hand they’ve been dealt. Trying to recreate one or the other of these extremes here in my climate would result in heartache for me as the gardener, but adapting what I learn from the extremes can guide design decisions that incorporate the beauty in each.

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Design Basics – The 4th Dimension

Iris close to patios and walkways are perfect

OK, right off the bat, I’m not a mathematician or physicist. If I were, and I started talking about a fourth dimension, I’d be talking about something like “spacetime” or maybe some sort of Euclidian tubal theory thing.

But I’m just a simple gardener. And a designer. That place where the designer in me and the gardener in me comes together knows that there’s more to experiencing a space than the things that can be described in the 3 spacial dimensions that we usually think about.

For example, when I walk through a garden, while my eyes experience the visual spacial layout of the garden, my nose is busy crawling through the scents that the garden dangles at the end of my nostrils. I’ll often stop and close my eyes, and enjoy a olfactory treat dancing in my head.

While my mathematics and physics friends will smile condescendingly and tell me that there is a difference between a “dimension” and a “sense”, I guess I’d like to argue that point when it comes to designing for people – especially designing gardens.

We don’t just see a garden, we experience it. Our eyes are part of that experience, but so are our other senses. In my mind, the first 3 dimensions of experience are visual, after which we move into the other dimensions.

Smell is the 4th dimension in my mind. Scientists tell us that our olfactory sense is the sense that’s the most “persuasive” on our brain. We all know how a smell that we associate with something can transport our mind powerfully to that thing we associate the smell with.

And there’s no palette on earth as rich for the olfactory designer as the garden. Why on earth shouldn’t we be thinking with our noses when we design a garden?

One of the things we like to do is line walkways with lavender when we can. The lavender grows out over the walkway, and get’s brushed against and crushed as people walk by, releasing the strong smell of fresh lavender. Thyme can do the same thing, though it’s not as powerful an odor.

Early June in Colorado is the time for the Iris and the Lilacs, two plants drip sweet smells whenever you get close tot them. Lilac is a big shrub, and we like to plant it next to raised decks, so that as it grows it reaches up into the deck area, and the smell can invade that space. Bearded (or German) Iris are perfect next to patios where there smell will be welcome on those early summer evenings enjoying the end of the day.

Design decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum. Don’t forget that 4th dimension – nose – when working through a garden design.

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