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Soil — The Final Frontier

We know less about life in the earth under our feet than we do about the far side of the moon. Yet every plant and animal you can think of depends on this vast hidden ecosystem.

Each shovel of soil holds more living things than all the human beings ever born. Lots of species are still waiting for scientists to identify and name them. This is a world where fungi lay traps for thread-like worms. Bacteria dine on toxic chemicals. The smaller the creature, the stranger are its habits.

Dig into this underground universe and meet its tiny but helpful residents.

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5 Frugal Fall Gardening Tips

Spring fever is for spendthrifts. For cheapskates, Fall’s the time to garden.

Sure, everybody’s green thumb seems to blossom with the first warmish day of Spring, just about the same day the green blades of the daffodils pop up in the flowerbed. But by Autumn, most fair weather gardeners have long ago hung up their hoes for the season and planted their butts firmly in front of the TV to watch football.

That’s a shame, because in most parts of the country the Fall is the best time of year for all kinds of garden activities, including planting and transplanting my types of plants. It’s also the time of year when you can save a bushel of cash on gardening equipment and nursery stock, and save even more by properly tucking in your garden and equipment for its long winter’s nap. Here’s how:

Great deals on end of season nursery stock:

In most climate zones, Fall is actually a better time of year than even spring to plant or transplant trees, shrubs, and many other perennial plants. The soil tends to be warmer which promotes root growth, and — unlike with Spring planting — there’s not the potential of a long, hot, dry summer facing the young upstarts. And, if you’re going to put down sod, Fall is also generally the best – and cheapest – time to do it. Many nurseries dramatically discount their remaining container-grown plants and other nursery stock, both to avoid over-wintering them and to make room for the soon-to-arrive Halloween pumpkins and Christmas trees. I’ve found it’s a great time to negotiate an even better deal by simply asking for an additional reduction on already discounted nursery stock.

Best prices on garden tools and equipment:

By shopping around, in the Fall you’ll likely find the best deals of the year on all types of gardening tools, equipment and other supplies – with the possible exception of snow blowers, chain saws, and snow shovels. It’s also a great time to go hunting for used lawn mowers, weed trimmers, and other lawn and garden equipment, since many people dump their used equipment at thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales at the end of the season. And if you’re in the market for something major – like a lawn or garden tractor – it’s worth calling some area landscaping companies to see if they plan on selling off any of their used equipment now that their busy season is over; a few years ago, I bought a heavy-duty (and lightly used) weed trimmer from a local landscaper at the end of the season for about ten cents on the dollar compared to what he’d paid for it new six months earlier.

Time to put away and tune-up equipment and tools:

Lawn and garden tools can cost a bundle, even when they’re on sale at the end of the season. It pays to take care of the equipment you own, and Fall is the perfect time to give then a little TLC. One of many great uses for aluminum foil: it makes a great scrub pad to remove dirt and rust from shovels, hoes, and other metal gardening tools. And when you’re done scrubbing them, sharpen your pruners and other gardening sheers by simply cutting through the aluminum foil scouring pad a few times. Oil all metal surfaces on your tools – used motor oil works fine for that – and put the business ends of your gardening tools in a plastic bag along with a couple of pieces of leftover summer charcoal to keep tools from rusting. Lawnmowers and other gas powered garden equipment should be thoroughly cleaned. Air and fuel filters should be changed (along with the oil). And, most experts agree, the gas tank should be kept filled with gasoline that has been treated with a stabilizer; this keeps the gas fresh and prevents condensation and deposits from developing in the engine (run the engine for about 10 minutes after adding the stabilized gasoline).

Build a compost pile and mulch:

If you don’t already have one, you definitely want to start a compost pile in the Fall to provide a receptacle for all the leaves, pumpkins and other yard debris you should rake up before winter sets in. Building a compost pile can be as simple as staking up a hoop of three-foot-high “chicken wire” or other mesh fencing; just so long as it allows for air circulation from the sides and is deep enough for leaves and other organic matter to compress itself thanks to the law of gravity. Also, keep your eyes open after Halloween and Thanksgiving for leftover bales of straw that might be discounted – or even put out for the garbage man – now that they’ve served their decorating purposes; straw makes great mulch or can be added to the compost pile. Mulching garden beds in the Fall with wood chips, compost, or other suitable organic matter helps to retain ground moisture and protect plants sleeping underneath. Check with local landscaping and tree removal services in the Fall for some of the best prices of the year on mulch.

Divide and multiply:

In addition to being the best time to plant most Springtime flowering bulbs (e.g. tulips, daffodils, crocuses, irises, etc.) as well as trees and shrubs, many perennial plants and vegetables can be divided in the Fall. Dividing most perennials – once they’re sufficiently mature – will both make them healthier and create multiple plants out of a single one, all for the cost of nothing more than a little light labor. Do your research in advance to determine which types of perennials should be divided in the Fall and the best methods for doing so. In general, perennials should first be thoroughly watered and the entire plant dug out of the ground, with its root ball intact. The root ball should then be separated into smaller plants by pulling it apart with a pitch fork or, in some cases, even cutting it apart with a shovel or other sharp tool. The smaller plants should then be immediately replanted in the ground and watered again.

Once I’ve buttoned down my garden and yard for the season, I’m reminded of a quote from author Stanley Crawford:

Winter is the time of promise because there is so little to do – or because you can now and then permit yourself the luxury of thinking so.”

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How to Create a Successful Hardscape

Hardscaping is an attractive feature and offers many appealing options, from a rustic stacked wall to a fully developed outdoor living room and kitchen. Once you’ve decided to create an outdoor space, you must plan carefully to meet your hardscaping goals.

“Research really pays off, especially when you consider that a fixed object in the landscape is not going to move easily — and you don’t want to put in a lot of effort and then have your materials or design fail within a couple of years,” says Samuel Salsbury, a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and partner with Sabrena Schweyer, APLD, in Salsbury-Schweyer, an Akron, Ohio-based landscape design group.

By following these simple tips and avoiding some common mistakes, you can create hardscaping you’ll love for years to come.

Consider the Landscaping

As much as you can, consider the entire area available to you for hardscaping before you design an element, even if you’re just tackling one space for now.

“At the bare minimum you should plan a design for the whole area, or consult a professional to create a design for you,” Samuel says. “If you don’t consider the site comprehensively, it’s like building one room of a house, and then a year or so later, a second room. You may decide to plop down a patio, and then decide you want a barbecue, pond or walkway and the patio blocks your plan.”

Delve Into Draining Issues

Samuel says he’s seen more hardscapes messed up by people ignoring drainage requirements than by all the other errors combined.

“You must plan how the drainage will be affected when you place, say, a wall or a patio,” Samuel says.

There’s also an environmental consideration, says Weston, Wisc. landscape designer Susan Murphy. “You should plan runoff so you can capture the water and use it on site, instead of letting it hit that concrete and go down the drainage pipe.”

Develop a Focal Point

“You want the eye to travel toward a destination, and one or two visual elements that make you pause, either visually or literally, like a weeping evergreen with an Oriental lantern,” Susan says.

Choose Balanced Elements

Susan’s pet peeve? “Boulders that are supposed to be helping to naturalize an area, but instead have been dropped right on top of the ground and are sitting there like dinosaur eggs,” she says. “To successfully use boulders in hardscape, you need to make sure they’re large enough to fit with the scale of the landscape, and bury them deep enough so they look like a naturally-occurring element.”

Too-linear elements can create the same unnatural feel, says Sabrena, a certified landscape designer. “I see way too many people plop in a straight or L-shaped sidewalk, or stick a linear or rectangular patio or deck on the back of the house without giving further thought to the natural lines of the space,” she says. “You should try to include curves and shapes in a way that the hardscape elements transition gracefully into the rest of the landscape.”

Keep the Greenery

Sure, you see all-stone or concrete areas in the Southwest, says Susan, but there the focus on hardscapes can be a matter of necessity, not a trend to follow. “Southwesterners sometimes have to have a hardscape without greenery due to the strong sun and too little water,” she says. Everyone else, she says, should definitely include ample vegetation in relationship to hard surfaces.

Barbara Pleasant, author of “Garden Stone: Creative Landscaping with Plants and Stone” takes the idea even further. “You can have a beautiful backyard comprised of a hardscape framed by shrub and flowerbeds, but keeping a small swath of lawn is a good idea,” she says. “Grass is a safer playing surface for children, and a patch of turf will help cool down the landscape on hot, sunny days.”

Choose Proper Materials for Your Style

“Hardscapes can be relaxed or formal, but the best ones show a well-defined style,” Barbara says. “Think of a two- or three-word phrase that describes your vision and stick with it. An intimate courtyard, for example, has little in common with a Grecian garden when it comes to style.”

After selecting your style, choose a few materials that complement your home’s interior and exterior. You don’t want to have to look at a hardscape with all one color or material, Samuel says.

“The idea is to find two or three materials that are visually creative and coordinate not just with each other but with the interior and exterior of the house,” says Susan.

Textural variety is important, too, Barbara says. “In most hardscapes, it’s OK to have two textures going, for example flagstone underfoot and landscape blocks for low walls, but more than two textures tends to look messy. If a wood deck is part of the picture, try to stick with a single type of stone or brick for your hardscape,” she adds.

Call In the Experts

Hire a designer or landscape consultant who knows your style. If you do opt for a hired designer or contractor, get recommendations and check portfolios and references, says Samuel.

Samuel insists that anyone embarking on a project that involves a structural wall or a hill with stability issues first contact — or have their builder contact — a geotechnical engineer to discuss the implications.

“They can prevent really serious damage, or you get the best case scenario, which is when they come out and say, ‘I don’t see an issue.'”

Buy More Than You Need

“Whether you’re working with brick, stone or another material, buy a little more than you need for the project,” Barbara says. “Later on, you can use the extra materials to accent pretty beds with temporary edgings, or to add steppingstones or landings, knowing these little features will match the dominant hardscape.”

“It’s rarely a cost-effective strategy just to purchase the least expensive materials or services for a hardscape design — too often you get what you pay for,” says Sabrena. “There are a lot of considerations besides price, including how long a material will last and whether it will suit the architecture of your site. It makes more sense to economize by scaling back a project or the number of design elements, with the help of a cost-conscious professional, then to always buy the least expensive materials.”

Properly Prepare the Site

“The most common mistake I see people make is putting in a hardscape element without preparing the site appropriately, which is a sure formula for future failure,” says Susan. “If you don’t put the correct amount of base material down, or compact it well enough, you risk having a wall sink or settle or a patio settle and heave in frost.”

Not everyone needs the 4-foot frost footing that’s required to withstand Wisconsin winters, but you can determine the specifications in your area by talking to an inspector at your local building authority or contacting the American Landscape and Nursery Association (ALNA) or your state landscaping association.

Samuel says, “People who aren’t skilled tradespeople think, ‘If I can’t see it, it’s not worth spending the money,’ but a level surface to build on and the proper depth for the freeze line are everything in hardscaping. If you don’t have them, five years out, your project will be breaking up.”

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