Ten Plus Ways to Improve Your Yard in the Fall

Ten Plus Ways to Improve Your Yard in the Fall

By Stephen Shelton

“Fall is for Planting” is the old nurseryman’s slogan. It gives new plants time to get adjusted to their new location. Whither you are planting new shrubs and trees or transplanting from one location in the yard to another, water all new plantings by sticking the hose end into the dirt around the plant when planting to eliminate any air pockets in the soil so the plant can establish new roots before winter.

  1. Since my wife and I moved into our present home, I have removed over 25 trees and shrubs that had to be trimmed every couple of months because they were shaped like big balls all over the yard or were overgrown in the space they were planted in. Fall is a great time to do this! Don’t be afraid of removing plants that are to big or overgrown in your landscape. Fewer plants with room to grow to their mature sizes look better and are less work than lots of bushes that have to be trimmed regularly. And, did I say, it’s less work?

2.  I recommend two fertilizations a year (Spring & Fall). Labor Day is a good time for
fall. Options are: organic fertilizer like Milorganite or a 3-1-2 ratio balanced

3.  Continue your twice a week water schedule. I run my sprinkler system at 4 A.M. for
ten minutes, then again at 5:15 A.M. for ten minutes and again at 6:30 A.M. for ten
minutes. This allows for deeper water penetration during hot weather. Once the
temperature drops below 90, I will set my system to run twice instead of three time.

4.  Before the leaves begin to fall, get out that ladder and clean out your gutters.

5.  I hope you are composting. My wife and I have cut out about 60%of our garbage
by composting and recycling. We compost all fruit and vegetable waste, grass
clippings and cardboard packaging. By turning it at least twice a week and adding
water when dry, we make beautiful black dirt for our plants.

6.  Flower beds need your attention in the fall as your summer flowers begin to
decline. Add compost to your soil and plant Mums, Alyssum, Pansies and winter
vegetables like spinach, kale, and lettuces in your beds for homegrown produce.
You can also plant onions, turnips, beets and other root crops in the fall.

7. A great time to prune your trees is after they lose their leaves.  (See my blog post
on proper pruning techniques at )

This is a common mistake when pruning with loppers. You want a flush cut along the main branch.Enter a caption


8. Always collect your leaves in the fall and add them to your compost pile or leave the          bags at the curb for your neighbors who compost.

9. Fall is a great time to wash your windows. You will be surprised at how much
brighter  your outlook on life will be through clean windows. (Best window cleaning
solution is equal parts denatured alcohol and water, in my opinion.)

10. I love to cook out in the fall. Make sure your grill is in good working order and
replace  any worn out parts.

11. With cooler weather and shorter days, consider stringing clear LED lights in and
around your patio or terrace for evening entertainment.

12. Finally, check out your fire pit, gas heater and chimeneas to make sure they are in              good working order.

Always have a hose or fire extinguisher handy in case of an accident.

This may sound like a lot, but many of these projects take less that a day to accomplish. Spread out over the next three or four months, and you can do the work and still have time to enjoy your yard. If you have questions or comments go to

Don’t be afraid to play in the dirt.

Featured post

Secret Garden Patio Phases


My newest work in progress at home is a secret garden patio. The site is located behind the house, more precisely behind the master bath, at the back of the house. When we moved in, it was nothing more than a shrub border leading to the side yard, leading to the front of the house next to the driveway, nothing but grass and Elyangnus and Abelia shrubs. Boring! It stayed that way for the first five years we were here while I redesigned the main beds in the front and back yards.

This year I finally decided on a plan and tore out the shrubs, killed the grass, and leveled the space. My overall vision is for a secluded space where my wife and I can sit in the shade and have our morning coffee or a late afternoon drink and watch the birds at the feeder or enjoy butterflies and dragonflies flying among the flowers. Now tThat we are retired, it will be a place we can go to relax.

Once the space was leveled and grass free, I took large cardboard boxes and tore them apart and laid them out on top of the dirt and covered it with 1 cubic yard of decomposed granite. This was going to be my base layer for the patio I was constructing. The cardboard is supposed to suppress the growth of weed seeds and encourage earthworms. The decomposed granite forms a semi permeable base for the flagstones I wanted to use for the patio. This would not change the water flow already in place around the house.

Next I bought 1.7 tons of flagstone. When you buy a pallet of flagstone, it comes with large, medium, and small stones. I bought inch thick flagstone that I could walk on as well as set chairs and potted plants without breaking the stones. That part was easy. Designing the pattern and color of the stones was challenging.

When I finally decided on the pattern, I had to level the stones by adding and subtracting granite under the stones and using two different levels to make sure each stone was level on its own and that it was level with the stones around it.

Finally, I bought a cubic yard of pea gravel to fill in around the flagstones.

I am now in the process of painting the house, so the rest of the secret garden is on hold. My plans include an archway entrance from the main part of the backyard and three planters under the pine tree to block part of the view of the main yard. I will also build a trellis to espalier my two olive trees on and then make a panel or trellis to hide the water barrel and grapevine. I’m considering a low fence of about two feet on top of the retaining wall for more privacy from the ally.

Once the painting is done I’ll be back with a final report on the project.

Until then,

Have fun playing in the dirt.

Dog Days of Summer

Dog Days of Summer

When it is so hot all you want to do is get in out of the heat, yard work is a four letter word. Noone wants to be outside in triple degree heat if they can help it, but this is the perfect time to grab your favorite cold beverage, and in the late afternoon or early morning stroll through your yard and take some pictures. Take pictures of what you like best about your yard and what you like least. Take pictures of that part of the yard you avoid the most and take pictures of your favorite areas. Take pictures of the front, the back and the sides of your house. Is it what you want it to be? Chances are there are some areas that you avoid because they are just ugly. We all have them. Even some of the nicest yards in the neighborhood have problem areas that need work.

What to do? What to do?

This is the time of year to sit down and do a little daydreaming about what you want to change about your yard. Maybe, you’re tired of all the shrubs you have to keep trimmed. Maybe, you’re tired of looking at that bare spot under your trees in the front yard. Maybe you’re just tired of trying to keep all the green, green.

Make a list of everything you love and hate about your yard. Everything you love highlight in yellow or green and everything you hate underline in blue or black. Everything you have in blue or black needs to be transferred to a to do list. If your ‘to do’ list has more than five items on it, rank each item in order of importance starting with one as most important. If number one is “hate the backyard”, spend some time thinking about what it is about the back yard that you hate. This may generate a new list that needs to be prioritized.

Following the “hate the backyard” example, go inside your home and look out your windows and see what part of the yard is most visible. Concentrate on that portion of the yard for your first project. If all you see is grass and weeds and a wooden fence that needs repair, don’t despair.

The point of all of this is to create a ‘to do’ list that is manageable. Start small. Now is a good time to apply weed killer. Be careful to follow package instructions. Check with a local nursery for what will work with the grass you have. In September fertilize your grass. Water according to your city’s schedule and water in the early morning. It’s amazing how good a well kept lawn looks. Make plans to repair or replace your fence. An attractive fence and well kept lawn is a great starting point for turning an eyesore into a pleasant view.

If you still have no idea how to proceed, find a landscape specialist, consultant, coach or architect to work with. Find someone with experience that is familiar with the area and who is willing to work with you to create a plan. If you want to learn how to do it yourself, look for a consultant or coach who will teach you what you need to know to be successful.

Maintenance projects for August and September


  • Treat for grub worms immediately . (Consider beneficial nematodes as an organic way to treat for grubs.)
  • Prepare beds for fall vegetables if you have a garden. Begin planting.


  • Buy spring bulbs when available. Refrigerate tulip bulbs until time to plant.
  • Fertilize your lawn
  • Begin pruning trees and shrubs to improve shape.
  • Divide Irises beginning mid September
  • Watch for fall army worms and treat if needed.
  • Begin preparing houseplants to be brought in when the weather begins to cool down for fall.
  • Divide or transplant perennials that are not blooming

Creating an Eco-Friendly Garden and Landscape

Let me begin by saying “I am not a tree hugger.” I have been involved with landscaping in one way or another for over 50 years since I started mowing neighbor’s yards when I was twelve until now as a landscape coach/consultant many years latter. I have seen many gardening trends from trying to eliminate all bugs in the garden to full blown organic gardening. Eco-friendly gardening is a sensible approach of encouraging sustainable gardening practices that encourages healthy plant growth with minimal insecticides and less chemical fertilizers.

Eco-friendly gardening strives to:

  1. Eliminate wasting water. Not all plants need the same amount of water. Turf grasses that we use for our lawns take far more water than most trees and shrubs. Thanks to the use of automatic sprinkler systems, we can control the amount of water we put on our lawns. Most sprinkler systems can be set to run on the days that local municipalities allow for watering. You can also set the number of minutes each station runs. Lawns do better with shorter run times than you might suspect. Try running your system for ten minutes on each station about four o’clock in the morning. Once all the stations run, set the system to run again for ten minutes on each station. More water will soak into the ground and your lawn will get more water than running your system for 30 to 45 minutes at a time, reducing water usage, saving you money, and reducing runoff.
  2. Protect watersheds from runoff. The less water that runs into our streets and storm sewers, the less water runs into our watershed. More pollutants enter our waterways from our homes than you might think. Fertilizers that aren’t absorbed by our lawns wash into the waterways. Chemicals we use such as weed killers, insecticides and cleansers that are not used properly wash into our watersheds. How much pollution do you think a city of 100,000 or more ends up in storm water overflow?
  3. Healthy plants are not chemically dependent. All plants have certain needs in order to thrive. Some plants need more sun than others and some need more shade. Some need more iron and others more phosphate. Plants planted where they will perform well don’t need chemicals to thrive. If you are constantly having to treat a plant to get it to grow, you probably have it planted in the wrong place.
  4. If you resort to chemicals, use them responsibly. Enough said.
  5. Compost and recycle to reduce waste. Cities everywhere are starting to offer recycling on a regular basis. Many have begun composting programs where their citizens can get compost in bulk. But every household can reduce their waste by making a compost pile and recycling their vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds and tea bag with their yard clippings, junk mail and Amazon boxes. Every bit of compost you make will improve your soil and your plants’ health, and reduce waste in our landfills.
  6.  Landscape to protect biodiversity and Eco-friendly systems. The United Nations just released a report stating one million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction. Whither you believe it or not, we can see the changes in our own communities as new neighborhoods and businesses continue to grow. We as individuals can’t change the world, but we can effect our own neighborhoods, communities, and cities by encouraging biodiversity and eco-friendly systems.
  7.  Garden to protect air quality and reduce energy. Plant a tree. It doesn’t have to be in your own garden. Many community HOAs require a certain number of trees in the front yard. It looks great and helps the environment until the trees get so big they shade the yard so the grass won’t grow. Support reforestation projects to replace harvested trees elsewhere. Trees do more to produce oxygen and reduce energy consumption than any other plant in the garden. You might also consider reducing the size of your lawn. Lawn maintenance is a thriving business because we don’t have the time, energy or even the desire to do it ourselves. Reduce the size of you lawn and reduce your carbon footprint.

Don’t be afraid to play in the dirt.

Last Minute Gift Ideas for the DIY Home Gardener

It’s one week till Christmas, and if you have a home gardener or DIYer on your list of people you would like to bless in this season of giving, I would like to offer a few simple suggestions. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on fancy tools or expensive flowers or bushes. A clay pot with several spring or summer bulbs and a hand trowel or bulb planter is a thoughtful gift that will bring joy when spring comes.

Knee pads and a pair of gloves ease the pain of planting or weeding.

A bird house, a feeder with a bag of seed, or a hummingbird feeder are always appreciated by those who love to see wildlife in their gardens.

Packages of seeds and starting trays help to get a head start on flowers, herbs and vegetables for the garden. A watering can for watering potted plants on the porch or patio is always helpful.


DIY gifts you can make yourself are fun to make and fun to give. If you have seeds of a rare or unusual plant that you collect, package a handful and put them in a small zip lock bag and staple it to a card with a picture of the plant with planting instruction on the back. As perennials multiply in your garden, dig up a small clump of your favorite plant or of some that are in need of thinning and share them with a neighbor or friend.

Small 4” pots of herbs can be grown indoors through the winter months and planted in the yard come spring.

As with any gift, it is the thought that counts not the price. Remember, keep it simple.

10 Tools Every DIY Gardener Should Own

10 Tools Every DIY Gardener Should Own

I grew up with hand tools, not power tools. Of course those were the days of gasoline powered mowers and edgers, not weed eaters, or any other power tool for that matter. Never mind the thought of battery powered tools other than a flashlight. Gone are the good old days, and thank goodness. I enjoy my little lightweight rototiller, electric hedge trimmers, battery operated weed eater, and battery powered reciprocating saw. However, there are certain garden tools every DIY homeowner should have in their garage, shed, or tool box other than a lawn mower, weed eater, and blower.

  1. Hand pruners – A good sharp pair of hand pruners comes in very handy when doing yard work. I wear mine in a holster on my belt most of the time when working outside. There always seems to be a tree sprouting, a branch sticking out, or a sucker sprouting up in the flower beds. Maybe you need to repair a hose by cutting off an end and replacing a damaged connector. Hand pruners come in two types, the anvil blade and the scissor blade. I prefer the scissor blade because they cut closer to the end where the portion being removed is located. They also cut smoothly and are less likely to crush or tear the plant.
  1. A good, strong, leaf rake – This is one tool I have to replace every couple of years because I wear them out. I like the metal adjustable type with a telescoping handle so you can get under and between shrubs, along metal edging, and rake leaves in the yard, not to mention getting debris out of gravel and smoothing out flower beds after tilling and planting.

3. A drain spade – You may not be familiar with a drain spade. It is a long bladed, narrow shovel that is, in my opinion the best tool for removing/transplanting trees and shrubs in a yard. I highly recommend paying a little extra and getting a fiberglass handled one. I have broken several wooden handled spades but never a fiberglass handled one.

4. A squared off, straight edged shovel – Unlike the drain spade, a good squared off straight edged shovel belongs in every tool collection for moving dirt and debris from one location to another. You can pick up everything from dirt, gravel, and leaves, to trash and pet presents easily, and move them or dispose of them quickly and easily around the yard.

5. A wheelbarrow – There are many types of wheelbarrows with one or two wheels, made from metal or plastic, light or heavy duty, that are available almost anywhere yard tools are sold. I have owned heavy duty metal with inflatable tires to light weigh plastic ones meant to only last a season. Each one has its place, but for this tool, I prefer a lightweight easy to maneuver one that I can get rid of without feeling guilty when it is no longer useful. I found one I really liked at Home Depot.

6. Hedge trimmers – (Manual vs. mechanical) To tell you the truth I use both. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. For the best looking hedges you actually need both. Electric or powered trimmers are great for lots of shrubs planted in rows where they are seen more in the background than at the front door or stepping out into the backyard by the patio. Ragged leaves chewed up by mechanical trimmers are less likely to be noticed under these circumstances. If you are looking for a neat, tidy, formal look, you can’t beat a good sharp pair of manual trimmers. If you are trimming a specimen shrub, I would always use manual trimmers for a neat even shape or a nice natural look.

7.Hoe or potato fork – I should probably list these two tools separately. They both are used for cultivating a bed, but the hoe cuts or chops weeds at the ground’s surface. The potato fork breaks the surface of the ground and helps aerate the soil allowing water to penetrate the surface easily. If I had to choose one over the other, I would definitely choose the potato fork, also called a cultivator.

8. Loppers – Loppers work like hand pruners but are intended for much larger branches, up to an inch in diameter. They are great for major pruning of shrubs and small ornamental trees.

9. Pruning saw – Pruning saws come in several shapes and sizes such as hand saws, bow saws, extension saws, and power saws with pruning blades and chainsaws. The type, size and number of saws needed depends on how many trees you have and their sizes, growth patterns and the size of the limbs that need pruning.

  1. Anything up to the size of a pencil can be pruned with hand pruners (see #1)
  2. Anything up to an inch in diameter use loppers ( See #8) or a pole saw (if it is located up high)

c. Anything over an inch up to three inches can be handled with a pruning bow saw. If out of reach, use an telescoping extension saw.

d. Anything over three inches really needs a power saw. Reciprocating saws with pruning blades or chain saws work well.*FOOTNOTE: Footnote

10. A good strong broom – No matter how good you are at blowing debris off hard surfaces, nothing beats a good broom for a neat clean look when finishing up a job.

In my experience, these tools should be part of any homeowners tool collection when dealing with the lawn and garden. These recommendations do not cover other gardening tools like trowels, hammers, dikes, drills, ladders, hoses, nozzles, watering cans or any other tools that may be useful around the house and yard. As a final note, since I can’t seem to keep my recommendations to ten, I need to mention the oscillating hoe also called a loop hoe, the garden spading fork and the garden rake. These three tools may not be essential, but they do make many jobs in the yard much easier.

Proper Pruning Techniques

Proper Pruning Techniques

A tree is a great thing of beauty that lives for years, decades and in some cases for centuries. It hurts my soul to see one trimmed improperly. It’s hard to believe, but improperly trimming a tree can actually shorten its lifespan, or kill it outright. I’m no arborist, but I am an experienced tree trimmer. So, as summer gives way to autumn I want to encourage you to take the time to trim your trees properly. It will save you time and money in the long run.

Tree trimming is as much an art as it is a science. Stand away from the tree and look at its overall form. Different species of trees grow in different shapes with different structures. The best time to prune is when a tree is dormant, but it isn’t the only time you can prune. Trees damaged by strong winds need to be cleaned up and pruned as soon as possible to prevent further damage and stress to the tree.

When trimming trees, the thing to remember is restraint is good. Start by cutting off less than you think you need. Use a sharp saw with a clean blade. When removing limbs from any tree, always cut the limb off at the trunk or joint where it is attached. Never leave a stub sticking out from the tree at the cut. This will create problems that will look unsightly, invite decay and attract unwanted insects that can damage the tree.

prunning 1

Review safety procedures and wear appropriate clothing. Check your surrounding for any exposed electrical cords and nearby power lines. When you begin pruning look for damaged or diseased limbs first and remove them. Next, look for limbs that are rubbing against each other and remove the smaller or most damaged of the two. Once this is done stand back and reevaluate the tree.

Some trees like Live Oaks tend to grow thick with small branches that prevent sunlight from reaching the ground. These small limbs that are less than an inch in diameter can be removed just about anytime. This allows the lateral limbs to spread out and grow stronger. On young trees that are still growing, you will need to remove lower limbs as the tree grows until you can walk comfortably under the canopy of the tree. As the tree ages, new branches will continue to grow from older branches and sag toward the ground which will need to be removed to allow clearance under the tree. Other evergreens like pines and magnolias can be pruned as needed throughout the year.

Deciduous trees, that lose their leaves in the fall, usually need less pruning. Unless damaged by a storm or accident, pruning should be done when dormant. Again, look for branches that are dead, damaged or diseased and remove them first. Some trees have sprouts, or suckers, that come up at the base of the tree or along the drip line. These can be removed at any time.

One last word of caution, never, ever top a tree! With that said, there are exceptions to this and every other rule. When the top is broken out of a tree you can still save the tree, but it will never grow like it should and will always be scarred. Fruit trees are often topped to make it easier to harvest the fruit, but here again, it doesn’t benefit the tree to top it. It just makes it more convenient for harvesting the fruit.

Parable of the Hibiscus Seed

Parable of the Hibiscus Seed

I am what many would consider an avid gardener. I have been at it for over 50 years. I started mowing yards when I was about 12, worked for City of Dallas Park Department during the summers in high school, and I have owned a plant nursery, or maybe it owned me. I worked my way through college and seminary doing landscaping. All the while making cuttings, collecting unusual plants by division and over the last several years collecting seeds from not so common plants in our area.

I received a packet of 10 seeds of perennial hibiscus as a bonus when I ordered some coleus seeds online a couple of years ago. I had never grown hibiscus before so I planted the seeds and got three viable plants from the lot. One had pure white blooms and two had white blooms with red throats. The plants grew to approximately four feet tall the first year. They died back to the ground and I transplanted the roots to a new bed the following year and all three plants grew to about five feet with blooms the size of dinner plates. So far so good. I moved them again this past winter. My wife accuses me of moving plants around the yard like my mother use to re-arrange furniture in the house. This time I planted the two red throated plants together and moved the white one to a different bed. This year the two planted together are six feet tall have bloomed for three months so far, and started producing flowers, about the size of dessert plates, and so far I have gathered five seed pods off the plants.

I collected 445 seeds from the five seed pods pictured.

I wonder how many might sprout if all were planted and how many more seeds might be harvested from those seeds? It reminded me of a biblical parable know as “The Parable of the Soils”. In the parable the sower of the seed cast his seed so that some falls on the path where it was trampled under foot and the birds ate the seed before it sprouted. Some fell on rocky soil where the seed sprouted and withered in the heat because their roots are shallow and weak. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with the seed and choked it out, and no harvest was produced. The rest fell on good, fertile soil and produced a crop of 30, 60 and 100 fold.

So, If I were to sow 400 seeds and 3/4ths failed to grow, and I had 100 fall on good soil where they could produce a harvest of new seeds, how many seeds might I end up producing?FOOTNOTE: Footnote

If my math is correct the first year’s production of seed would be approximately 5,700 seeds. (30 X 30 = 900, 30 X 60 = 1800, 30 X 100 = 3000, 900 + 1800 + 3000 = 5700) Year two using the same approximate ratios you would have 297,580 seeds.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

And using the same formula for the third year the harvest would be 270,000 seeds.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

As a landscape/nursery/gardener, I know that too many things can happen to reduce the yield of seeds from any single plant of crop. Living in North Texas we deal with drought, flood, tornados, searing heat, bone chilling cold, urban sprawl and climate change to name a few. It could cause some to hoard what they produce, fearing failure. It could also cause some to not even try because it’s too hard. It can also cause some of us to share what we have with others to encourage ever increasing production for the future.

I fall into the last category. I believe we can all share from out of surplus to bless others and make our community, state, country and world a better place in which to live. I can only do what I can do, but together we can do so much more. Together, we can live our lives out of a vision of plenty and work toward more for all rather than more for the few. How we steward our land, water, seeds and produce is meant to benefit our fellow man. People are what matter.

It’s a good lesson from a small seed pod.

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