Garden Tip: Direct Sow Perennial Seeds in Fall


Most of us are familiar with the idea of direct sowing annuals such as marigolds and sunflowers. But did you know that you can also direct sow perennials in your garden?

The best time to direct sow perennial seeds in your garden is in fall. Many of these seeds need a period of cold weather followed by warm before they’ll germinate (this is called “cold stratification.”) Here in Michigan, planting your perennial seeds in your garden now (October is a great time to direct sow perennials) will result in lots of new little perennial seedlings popping up next spring!

To direct sow your perennial seeds, simply follow the instructions for seed spacing and depth on your seed packet. Try to mark where you planted them in the garden, so you don’t mistake your baby perennials as weeds next spring.

Some great options for fall direct sowing include:
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)
Milkweed (Asclepias)
Columbine (Aquilegia)
Bee balm (Monarda)
Foxglove (Digitalis)
Globe Thistle (Echinops)
Pinks (Dianthus)
Shasta daisy

All through October, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite gardening tips. To check out other “31 Days of…” bloggers, check out this post.

Garden Tip: Hoard Your Autumn Leaves!

I have a slight obsession (that’s like being “a little bit pregnant,” isn’t it?) with autumn leaves. They’re beautiful, of course. Fall is my favorite season, in large part due to the fact that looking out my window and seeing the trees ablaze in orange, yellow, and red just makes me happy.


But even more, fall leaves are just so darn useful. And FREE. I watch my neighbors rake their leaves into the street for pickup, and I just can’t understand why you would throw away something so useful. Here are a few things I do with autumn leaves:

1. Use them for mulch.
2. Make a lasagna garden.
3. Make leaf mold.
4. Fill a new raised bed with them. In spring, simply fill the bed the rest of the way with soil and composted manure, and mix well — this gives you absolutely beautiful soil. You can also add them to an existing garden bed and mix or till them in to improve your soil.
5. Keep some on hand to add as “browns” to your compost pile.

In general, it’s best to chop your leaves if you can. We have a leaf vac that shreds them as it sucks the leaves up, and it’s super convenient. Before we had the leaf vac, we’d rake the leaves into piles and run over the piles a few times with a lawnmower. I’ve also heard people say that they add the leaves to a garbage can, then use their weed whacker like a giant immersion blender to chop them up right in the can. Use whatever method works for you!

To save leaves to add to your compost pile throughout the year, simply store your chopped leaves in a clean garbage can, plastic storage bin, or sealed garbage bag. Then it’s easy to grab a handful or two whenever you need to add leaves to your compost bin.

Fall leaves are a great, FREE way to improve your soil. Start hoarding them!

All through October, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite gardening tips. To check out other “31 Days of…” bloggers, check out this post.

My Favorite Groundcover for Shade: Sweet Woodruff

When you think of groundcovers for shady areas of your garden, you probably think of either ivy or pachysandra. And both of those are nice, reliable choices. But for my money, I’ll take a fragrant carpet of sweet woodruff instead.

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is an herb that spreads via runners and seed, forming a dense green carpet. It’s not overly aggressive, but will spread nicely within a few years. It does best in areas that get partial to full shade and have moderately moist soil. I have a few clumps of sweet woodruff in my front garden, on the north side of my house, beneath a large birch tree and right near the gutter downspout. They absolutely thrive in that area. So if you’re dealing with an area in which other plants just seem to rot due to moisture, try sweet woodruff there. It’s also a great plant for the front of a garden bed, where it will provide a very pretty, low-maintenance edging.

Sweet woodruff grows to about a foot tall, tops, but usually stays around six to eight inches tall. In spring (mid-May in the Detroit area) you can expect to see plenty of delicate, four-petaled blooms dotting the plants, held slightly aloft on thin stems. The foliage is arranged in whorls of six to eight leaves. While the flowers are attractive, the leaves are the real treasures on this plant. They contain the most fragrance, and provide a nice groundcover and backdrop for other plantings.

Uses for Sweet Woodruff

The leaves of sweet woodruff are at their most fragrant when they’re dried. They have a clean, hay-like, slightly sweet scent that is popular in potpourri, and has even been used in perfumes. It’s also an effective insect repellent — you can place it in furniture, closets, under rugs, or in cabinets to keep bugs away and make your home smell fresh at the same time. You can also make a tea from sweet woodruff by steeping a tablespoon of fresh leaves in a cup of boiling water. This tea is said to help soothe upset stomachs, but it’s a refreshing drink whether you have an upset stomach or not.

Perhaps the best use of all for sweet woodruff: May Wine! Joey of The Village Voice, who is one of my favorite Michigan garden bloggers, has shared a great recipe for May Wine Champagne Punch over at her blog. It sounds delicious!

Propagating Sweet Woodruff

You can propagate sweet woodruff by dividing existing plants and transplanting the divisions, or by sowing seed in early spring, after your last frost date.

I love getting more than one use out of a plant. I appreciate that sweet woodruff is not only an attractive groundcover, but fragrant and useful as well.

Now Blooming: Lilacs

The lilacs in my garden are just starting to bloom, and their scent never fails to remind me that I really should plant more of them. These old-fashioned beauties are well-deserving of a place in your yard. Aside from the fragrant blooms in late spring, lilacs have very attractive, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. You can let your lilac grow tall and wild, or you can prune it to keep it more manageable. And if you’re looking for varieties that require little care, there are lilacs available for you, too.

Lilacs take me back to my grandmother’s back yard on Detroit’s East Side, where a row of them stood sentry on her alley fence line. They were huge, overgrown, and wild — and I loved them! You could crawl inside the hedge and sit in the shade. In late May, when the weather was warm and the lilacs were blooming, that was the best place in the entire world to spend a lazy afternoon.

Lilacs require very little care after they’re established. Regular pruning will keep them from taking over your garden, and deadheading the flowers after they have finished blooming will increase the number of blooms you get next year. Lilacs can develop powdery mildew if they’re planted in an area without much air circulation. To improve conditions if mildew becomes a problem, try pruning out some of the branches to increase air flow, and consider moving any plants that are encroaching on your lilac’s space. You can also spray once a week or so with a baking soda spray to prevent powdery mildew. This is not something I’ve had to do in my garden, but if you have issues with powdery mildew most years, it may be worth doing just to nip the problem in the bud.

The best way to ensure that your lilac will be happy (and make you happy in return!) is to select the right variety.

Favorite Lilacs for Michigan Gardens

  • Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) — These are the lilacs that grew along my grandmother’s fence, and are most likely the one most people think of when they think “lilac.” They can get quite large, but make a magnificent hedge, and their light purple (lilac…) flowers are very fragrant.
  • ‘President Lincoln’ — If you’re looking for a fragrant shrub that has bluish colored blossoms, ‘President Lincoln’ might be a good fit for you. This is another classic lilac variety that gets quite large — about eight feet wide by ten feet tall.
  • ‘Palibin’ — Also known as ‘Dwarf Korean Lilac,’ ‘Palibin’ is a great option for those of us who have small gardens, or who are unable to devote a large amount of space to a lilac. With very little pruning (I prune mine maybe once every three years or so, tops), ‘Palibin’ maintains its compact form, growing roughly three feet wide by about three feet tall. The best thing about this lilac: it is a proficient bloomer. ‘Palibin’ is loaded with fragrant, pinkish-purple blossoms every year. Its small leaves are much more round than traditional lilac leaves, and, as a bonus, turn a pretty coppery color in autumn.
  • ‘Mt. Baker’ — If you’re looking for a lilac that blooms white, look for ‘Mt. Baker,’ a large lilac (eight by ten feet, roughly) that blooms in mid to late May. Note, however, that the white lilacs tend to be less fragrant than the purple ones.

Lilacs are best planted in fall, but early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, will do as well. Be forewarned, though: once you’ve experienced the fragrance of a lilac in full bloom, it may be hard to limit yourself to just one!

For more about lilac care and propagation, check out my Lilac Plant Profile on In the Garden Online.