Here are some of your autumn garden and landscape questions.
Q I have three large dogs in a shady yard. What can I have other than dirt and weeds? -- Steve Klein
A Paving would be especially helpful in shade, where plants will not stand up to the paw traffic of three large dogs. Any paving over the roots of shade trees should be porous enough to allow moisture and air to get down to the root systems of the trees, such as pavers laid on a stone base without mortar. These allow storm water to percolate and air to circulate into the root zone.
I have three Ficus benjaminiana trees six to seven feet high, about 15 to 20 years old. They spend the summer outside on a covered porch with lots of light and are brought in during winter. Normally, they drop leaves because of the lack of light indoors. Last year two of them dropped leaves and also had tops and leaves turn brown. Any ideas on what the problem might be and what corrective action that can be taken? -- Bill Klett
It could be typical leaf drop, which can be severe, because of a change in environment or cultural practices. Otherwise, the tree could brown because of disease on the leaves or in the roots, or because of insects, such as a mealybug or scale insect. This year look for a fuzzy or waxy coating on the foliage or wood. Unless the wood is dying, ornamental figs (Ficus benjaminiana) can leaf out again if you keep conditions right for growth, even when they defoliate. Water only as they dry and check thoroughly for mealy bug and scale. Always spray with an insecticidal soap and a horticultural oil before bringing them in for the winter.
We live on five acres. Most of our property is wooded, and much of the original grassy area has been replaced with evergreens, perennials and deciduous seedlings. We have a well and septic system, which is a large grassy field, and would like to replant this area. We know not to install anything with deep roots. We have an increasing herd of deer. Our preference is various grasses, but we're not sure if these grasses provide a habitat for the deer tick. Any suggestions would be helpful. -- Ann Levy
Your septic system drain field is the type of environment that is well suited for a full sun, grassy wildflower style of meadow. These areas can be planted by seed or using container plants that have already started growing. This is best accomplished by removing all competing weeds for one year and managing the wild, native grasses, perennials and annuals as they begin to grow. This open-field type of planting is less of a habitat for deer and their accompanying ticks than you might think. Deer prefer taller edge plantings and woods where they can graze and quickly run and hide, rather than grazing in large expanses of meadows.
If you are more interested in drifts of grasses than wildflowers, there are interesting, deer-tolerant varieties that will colonize an area and will cover a large portion of your drain field. The following grasses can be planted in large groupings, and each will vary in size, character and season of interest:
* Karl Foerster feather reed (Calamagrostis X acutiflora "Karl Foerster") is an easily grown and managed clump-forming grass with a dependable vertical growth habit and inflorescence starting in June, lasting into fall.
* Broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus) will spread over a large area and have ornamental appeal in winter. It presents a drift of grassy meadow that looks good throughout the growing season.
* Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is good to mass plant for its light textural quality and architectural interest into winter.
Deer might browse one or two of these grasses, but they will grow back annually, and offer low maintenance seasonal color and texture.
There is reason to be vigilant about the deer tick. Do what you can to avoid contact.
Cornell University's Extension Insect Diagnostic Laboratory says: "Heavily shaded, damp areas covered with leaf litter are ideal. Deer ticks, therefore, are often found in wood lots or wooded areas between yards, along edge habitats, and unmaintained borders. High-risk areas are also along rock walls, woodpiles, or brush piles. All stages are rare on maintained lawn, and deer ticks are rarely found in open, sunny areas. Most ticks are not infected. The most effective control is a repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). Follow labeled instruction on product."
For more information visit the following Web sites or use the Lyme Disease Foundation national 24-hour hotline at 800-886-5963: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/lyme/index.htm); Lyme Disease Foundation Inc. (www.lyme.org); American Lyme Disease Foundation Inc. (www.aldf.com/Lyme.asp).
I am concerned about the drought's effect on my trees. I have two tulip poplars that have lost a lot of leaves. Leaves on a large oak in a neighbor's yard have turned brown and the tree appears to have died. Leaves on a second tree in his yard now are turning brown, though no oaks in my yard have wilted. Do you think it desirable to water mature trees? -- Alan Eck
The trees are defoliating early because of drought stress. The good news is that mature trees probably had a long enough growing season to winter over and break dormancy with the first signs of spring. But, the trees need water now -- a couple of times a week -- so they go into winter with ample soil moisture. Considering the lack of precipitation and cooler temperatures, I would recommend watering your woods.
Your first efforts can be simply dumping water from your dehumidifier, directing the condensate from your air conditioner to the trees and dumping all gray water into your woods. Using a soaker hose, moisten the soil around the roots. If you don't have a steep slope, run a sprinkler for several hours twice a week and the water will "rain" into the root zone of the trees. A sprinkler is the least efficient because you lose water into the air. Slow soaking rains in the next couple of months will give all plants much-needed water before winter.
I need to have my lawn amended with lots of topsoil and then have it re-seeded. What is the likelihood that an early spring planting will last beyond that season? Can one plant in the spring and expect any degree of success similar to a good fall re-seeding? -- Eric Zanot
It takes a couple of growing seasons to establish a lawn, so you can begin in spring or fall when temperatures are cool, 50 to 70 degrees, and soil moisture is plentiful. If it stays cool, you can water to get germination, because fall is still the best time. All the seed might not germinate, but it will have a head start, and it will begin growing again as soon as soil temperatures reach 50 degrees in spring.
Instead of spreading topsoil for your lawn, try this: Starting with a bare area and tilling it offers the opportunity to incorporate much more compost than when rejuvenating an existing lawn. The only step you can take to get organic material into the soil under established lawn is to punch a lot of holes by aerating it with a plug aerator. Roll over lawn three or four times, more if possible, but never when wet.
Condition the site with compost that's fine-textured enough to fill the aeration holes. Sprinkle half an inch thick over the holes, making sure not to cover healthy turf. Your own compost is best. Otherwise, get a commercial compost, such as Leafgro, from a garden center. Spread four to five pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet on established lawns, twice that amount on new ones. The exact quantity depends on the type of grass. After you aerate and spread compost, fertilizer and seed, ensure proper distribution of these amendments and break up the soil plugs taken from the holes in your lawn. Do this by walking an upside-down wire rake over the surface. Then water. Sprinkle seed with water whenever the surface appears dry. Over-seed the lawn in April to reinforce the work you do now.
Would you give me some suggestions on terrace construction without using blocks or bricks? The area in question has a steep grade that slopes down to woods in back of our home. -- Doug Coleman
Terracing can be done by digging a level area into the slope and creating a steeper slope behind it. The steeper slope is in place of a retaining wall. It would need to be planted with a ground cover other than lawn, such as juniper (numerous low growing choices), mondo-grass, weeping willow-leaf cotoneaster or winter flowering jasmine. Depending on length of the slope, you might consider creating several level spaces on the slope so the steeper spots cut behind them aren't as high. While the steep areas need ground cover, you might be able to mow the level part, if you can access it with a mower. Stairs might be necessary, and you won't pick up the same space that retaining walls can give you. But, there can be a significant savings in dollars.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.