Dreaming about — and planning for — next spring’s yard and garden

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published February 9, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — Families once were busy running from school to dance class to basketball practice, and from family parties to hanging out with friends all weekend, but the past months have made for a change of pace that’s affecting how residents feel about the importance of their yard to their peace of mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made people slow down, stay home and reconnect with their yards and landscapes, said Kris Kiser, of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute in Alexandria, Virginia. That helped make 2020 a “banner year” for hardscape, power tools and more, he said.

“People are creating outdoor spaces at home that are functional. We’re seeing a lot of people, even in the winter, put up tents, put up fire pits,” he said.

Winter is the dormant period for the yard, but Kiser said it’s the perfect time to plan.

“What we’ve seen in the marketplace is, there’s a large pull for hardscape materials. Now’s the time to decide what plants do you want, because you’re going to need to buy them early,” he said. “We already know there’s going to be a shortage of a lot of plant material. There’s a big demand.”

He said garden centers across the country also were wiped out of power landscape equipment in 2020, and the industry is working hard to backfill inventory in anticipation of summer 2021.

“They believe this trend is not a trend. They believe a lot of the reconnection is real,” he said.

That has manifested in more people moving out of cities to the country and suburbs, where they want to create oases in their yards.

“This wave now, a lot of these city folks that said, ‘I’m not going out to suburbia’ have, in fact, done that,” he said, which means more homeowners and residents clamoring for flowers, plants, patios and pergolas.

“People are making those big-ticket decisions. Now the challenge becomes finding people to do the work,” Kiser said. “Planning is key. We expect a very strong spring in the outdoor space.”

Growing beyond aesthetics
It’s younger generations that are driving the market by wanting to connect with nature, he said.

“Younger people ... they don’t view the yard as simply aesthetic curb appeal. Nature starts at your back door,” he said. “We certainly see in younger people the desire to know that their yard is serving a purpose higher than themselves.”

Planting the right plants can bring pollinators, migratory birds and insects that will help the environment, Kiser said, and choosing plants that flower at different times of the year will help with that.

The Yardeners of St. Clair Shores focuses on creating outdoor spaces abundant with native plants, and yardener Laurel Fowler said many of those plants survive through the winter.

While traditional gardeners cut back perennials before winter, Fowler said she likes to leave the plants up so birds can eat their seeds.

“Then they have food through the wintertime. That’s the reason we don’t cut it down,” she said. “Most native plants in Michigan will survive (winter), so if you plant natives, there’s not a lot of upkeep except dividing things when they grow.”

Yardener and master gardener trainee Lori Smith said that, in addition to helping birds, leaving plant stalks in the garden can help other species, as well as providing something to look at across the yard instead of just a flat space of snow.

“Bees and the pollinator-type insects will use those stalks to hibernate in,” she said.

Winter is a good time to naturally eliminate weeds and unwanted grass using cardboard or black plastic, Smith added.

“You lay the cardboard down in the area where you want to kill grass or weeds,” she said. Early fall is typically the best time to do this because it can take four to six months to kill everything by smothering, but with patience, it can still be done now.

“Grass will die a lot faster than a lot of the huge weeds that have a large root system. Hopefully, by spring or summer, it will be ready to plant something,” she said.

Black plastic serves the same purpose, but the gardener will have to remember to remove the black plastic after it has done its job, as it won’t just break down and decompose the way cardboard will.

“The sun will heat that plastic and it will burn anything that’s underneath it,” Smith explained.

Ideas can germinate now
Winter is a great time to prepare for spring planting, according to the Yardeners.

“They can use an app or, if they like to draw, they can plan out what kind of plants they want and also the design of the area,” Smith said. “Put tall plants in the back and the lower plants in the front.”

Those living along a lake or other body of water might like to use native plants to prevent fertilizers and other chemicals from seeping into the water. They can help with flooding, too.

“They’re deep-rooted, so if you have a problem with drainage in your yard, the roots can go 2 feet deep. They will soak up all the water,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons that I do the native plants — because that helps. They can last a little longer without watering, too, because they go down to the water level.”

Some garden centers may even let buyers preorder plants to make sure they have what they want, come spring and summer.

“Everybody knows there’s going to be a big pull this year. If you want a certain kind of flowering plant, go to your garden center and say, ‘Can I get on the list for this?’ Because they do one order, usually; that’s it,” Kiser said.

It’s important to use the right plant in the right place, Smith said.

“You need to read the labels if you’re going to buy seeds or buy plants. Make sure they get the type of sun or shade that they need, and also the right type of soil,” she said. “This is a time, if you can get at the soil, you can dig up some soil and get it tested so you know what you have to put in there.”

A soil test kit is available from Michigan State University, she said. Residents provide 10 plugs of soil, and the service will let them know what nutrients are missing from their lawns or gardens.

“If your grass isn’t doing really good, they’ll tell you what you’re missing,” she said. “They will do a lead test, too, at a little bit extra charge.”

To learn more about soil testing, visit www.canr.msu.edu/spnl.

Wintertime care and maintenance
Right now, residents can help their lawns, gardens and pets by making sure salt and snow melt is confined to walkways.

“That’s very hard on your dog’s feet, your carpet, your grass,” Kiser said.

If a branch is already loaded down with ice or snow, now is not the time to be trimming it. Instead, Kiser said, when the snow melts, think about the next storm.

“You’re expecting snow, your snow-thrower is going to find dog toys and sticks, and you don’t want that, so plan for that. Do you see limbs that are bad, that are shot? Take them off in advance of that storm,” he explained.

For other tips on yard safety from the perspective of pets and children, and to learn more about outdoor learning experiences, stewardship of green spaces and caring for landscapes in a way that benefits everyone, visit the Turfmutt Foundation at turfmutt.com.

Kiser also recommends putting fresh gas in the snow-thrower before a storm hits.

“Today, because gasoline has ethanol in it,” it doesn’t last as long. “With today’s gas, buy it and burn it,” he said. “When you’re going to put it up for the season, run it dry. You don’t want it to gum up or stale over the season.”

Gardeners can also prepare for the upcoming season by participating in upcoming programs offered by the Yardeners through Zoom. Kathleen Sexton, director of education for the Clinton River Watershed Council, will speak about the watershed story of the Clinton River in March, and Smith will speak about how to redesign a garden to provide a safe haven for pollinators April 12. For more information and ways to access these and other programs from the group, visit the Facebook page of the Yardeners of St. Clair Shores.