Category Archives: advice

“A Season Of Shivers” Predicted For The U.S.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold winter for the 2021-2022 season.

Brrr! The 2022 Old Farmer’s Almanac comes with a winter warning: Prepare for a “Season of Shivers.” This winter will be punctuated by positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.

“This coming winter could well be one of the longest and coldest that we’ve seen in years,” says Janice Stillman, editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. For 230 years, the Almanac has been helping readers to prepare for winter’s worst with its 80 percent–accurate weather forecasts.

In some places, the super cold of the coming winter will also bring lots of snow. This extreme wintry mix is expected in areas of New England as well as throughout the Ohio Valley, in northern portions of the Deep South, and in southeast New Mexico.

Above-average snowfall is also in the forecast along a track from eastern Montana southward through the western halves of the Dakotas and into northeastern Colorado. While temperatures in this midcountry strip will be relatively normal, snowfall will be abundant, with several storms predicted throughout the winter.

Meanwhile, most western areas will remain relatively dry, with all but the Pacific Coast itself and portions of the Southwest experiencing the frigid cold predicted for much of the rest of the country.


How To Put Lights On A Christmas Tree Like A Pro

Emily VanSchmus takes the guess work out of adding lights to your Christmas tree for Better Homes & Gardens.

This handy guide will teach you how to hang lights on your Christmas tree. Get our editor-tested tips on how to light artificial Christmas trees and find how many strands you need to decorate your tree.

Are you stumped when it comes to how to artfully drape Christmas lights on a tree? These easy-to-follow tips will show you how to put lights on your Christmas tree, whether it’s a real tree (here’s how to pick the best one) or an artificial tree. We’ll help you create your best holiday tree yet, effortlessly and beautifully.

How to Hang Lights on a Fresh Christmas Tree

When hanging Christmas tree lights on a tree, you should plan on using 100 lights for every foot of your tree’s height. So for a six-foot tree, you’ll need about 600 lights. We’ll show you how to hang lights on a real Christmas tree—it just requires a little patience.

  1. Instead of wrapping the lights around the tree in a maypole style, mentally divide the tree into three triangular sections, from top to bottom, around the tree’s cone.
  2. Plug in the first string of lights, and nestle the last bulb on the string at the top of the tree next to the trunk. Weave the tree lights back and forth across the triangle, being careful not to cross the cord over itself. When you reach the end of the first string, plug in the next set and continue weaving the lights back and forth until you reach the bottom, connecting no more than 300 Christmas lights end to end. Repeat this procedure for the remaining triangles.
  3. Step back from the tree and look at it with your eyes crossed, or squint until the tree is blurry. Wherever you see dark holes on the tree, rearrange the lights as necessary to fill in. To remove the lights without tangling them, work in reverse.

Reasons to Opt for an Artificial Christmas Tree

There is good debate over real versus artificial Christmas trees. While some people find the piney, wintry scent of the branches puts them right in the holiday spirit, others find the real evergreens can create a mess. The fullness of a fresh cut tree is hard to replicate in an artificial tree, but one could complain about the regular waterings. Allergies can also prevent you from having a live tree, so if these reasons or others get in your way, perhaps choosing an artificial Christmas tree for your holiday decorating is in the cards for your household. Creating a magical glow of lights on an artificial tree isn’t difficult, but it demands patience. Below are three different ways to put lights on an artificial Christmas tree.

How to Hang Tree Lights on an Artificial Tree

Many artificial Christmas trees come in sections that open like umbrellas. If you use miniature tree lights ($8, Target), you can wrap them around the branches and leave them on permanently—just be sure to light each section separately! We like to use 100-light strands because they are easy to work with as you wrap the tree branches.

1. For Minimalist Lighting

This is a great technique to put lights on a sparse Christmas tree. Instead of using 100 lights per foot of tree, we’re using about 50 per foot. To maximize the impact of this technique, we like to use large lights like these globe string lights ($34, Overstock) or retro-inspired bubble lights.

  • Use about three boxes of 100-light strands ($14, Walmart) for a 6-foot tree and about five boxes for an 8-foot tree.
  • Begin at the bottom of the tree close to the trunk. Allowing some slack or leader cord in the first strand of lights, separate the cord near the first bulb so it forms a loop. Slip the loop over one of the branchlets or greens near the trunk, and wrap the cord a few times around the green to secure it.
  • Pull the string of Christmas lights taut to the tip of the branch, then work back toward the trunk, wrapping the cord over itself and the branch.
  • Separate the cord again when you reach the trunk, and slip the cord over a branchlet to secure it. Carry the cord over to the next branch, wrap it around a green near the trunk, and pull it out to the tip. Wrap the cord over itself and the branch as before.
  • Continue wrapping branches in this manner until you come to the end of the string. Plug in the next set, and keep going until you reach the point where the tree comes apart. Work any extra lights back along the branch rather than crossing the section. When you wrap the top section of the Christmas tree, don’t wrap the lights around as many branches so the tree will look evenly lit from top to bottom.

2. For Moderate Lighting

For a classic but bright look, we like to use LED lights like these warm clear LED mini Christmas lights ($13, Target). They don’t produce heat and are completely safe to decorate your tree.

  • Use six boxes of 100-light strands for a 6-foot Christmas tree and eight boxes for an 8-foot tree.
  • Follow the same procedure as for subdued lighting, but add dimension to your tree’s sparkle by looping the strings a couple of times around on each branch, getting some of the lights closer to the trunk. Work your way from the bottom of the tree to top.
  • Cover more tree in sparkle with fewer lights by working the string of lights under and over each branch. Follow this pattern all around the tree, working from the bottom to the top. It’s simple, but it makes a lot of difference by actually covering your tree in lights instead of lassoing it.

3. For Showcase Lighting

If you want the effect of a Rockefeller tree in your living room, you’ll need extra light. To make your tree really wow, double the number of lights to 200 per foot of tree. Here’s how to string lights on a Christmas tree that dazzles.

  • Use 12 boxes of 100-light strands for a 6-foot tree and 16 boxes for an 8-foot tree ($119, The Home Depot).
  • Wrap the cord around every green as you work back along the branch.
  • Try pairing different-size bulbs with different stringing techniques. We like to string larger lights on first using the weaving technique, then layer in the smaller LED lights closer to the trunk using the branch-wrapping technique. It covers your entire tree and shines bright for all to see.

4. For Lights You Can Control from Your Phone

If you’re the tech-savvy type who likes to control everything with an app, you’re in luck. Now, you can easily program your Christmas tree lights to display whatever colors and patterns you like, all from a simple app on your smartphone. Pick up a set of Twinkly multicolor LED lights ($130, Amazon) and use the lights to decorate your tree as normal—then, wow your family members by changing up your holiday display with a few taps on your phone screen. Twinkly also offers music-syncing lights ($18, Amazon) so you can program your tree to change colors in time to your favorite Christmas songs.

How To Hang Christmas Tree Lights Vertically

Horizontal is traditional, sure, but this small change in orientation makes a big difference in presentation. Instead of wrapping the lights around the tree from top to bottom, hang Christmas tree lights vertically.

Mentally divide the tree into three triangular sections. String lights by starting the string at the bottom of the tree and pulling it up to the top, then back down like a mountain. Continue to zigzag up and down the tree. Once you’ve wrapped the tree, tuck the strands farther in on the branches to make room for ornaments.

How to Hang Christmas Tree Lights Outdoors

When you’re looking to add a bit of seasonal cheer to your house or the trees and shrubs in your front yard, follow these guidelines for lighting outdoor areas.

  • If you use floodlights ($38, The Home Depot) to show off outdoor evergreens, use white, blue, or green lamps. Red, yellow, amber, and pink lamps will make the trees look a muddy brown.
  • Don’t try to hang strings of Christmas lights from the eaves with cup hooks—in a strong wind, the wires may swing loose. Instead, use plastic gutter clips ($4, Walmart) that hook onto the gutter and hold the wire tightly in place. Look for packages of gutter clips in crafts stores and hardware stores near the tree lights and supplies.
  • Be sure you have outdoor electrical sockets to plug into when you use outdoor Christmas lights. Don’t worry about hiding the electrical cords—just keep them organized neatly, and no one will notice them.

Tips and Considerations to Safely Hang Tree Lights

  • Christmas tree lights can either be end-to-end—aka string-to-string—or stacked. Before buying your tree lights, check the boxes to make sure they’re all compatible. By using stacked plugs, you can join more strands than you can with end-to-end plugs.
  • To maximize safety, never plug more than two extension cords together. Instead, buy them in the lengths you need, and make sure they can handle the wattage of the bulbs.
  • The wattages of all the lights you use should be the same. This prevents power surges while prolonging the life of the bulbs.
  • Plug in the lights before you remove them from the box so you can see if they work before you put them on the tree.
  • Consider using miniature clear (white) lights for your base lighting, then add strands of the new cool-burning large bulbs for color and variety. Alternatively, add sets of novelty lights, such as flicker-flames, flashing lights, bubble lights, or other shapes.




Holly’s big plant family includes hundreds of varieties that range from 70-foot-tall trees to petite shrubs less than a foot tall. Nearly all of these variations can be sorted into four basic groups: English holly (glossy, spiny foliage); American holly (similar to its English cousin, but with duller leaves); Chinese holly (large glossy, spineless varieties); and hybrid holly. In other words, there is probably a holly in this diverse plant group that suits your landscape.

Colorful Combinations

The diverse holly family includes trees and shrubs that come in a variety of forms: columnar, pyramidal, rounded, or weeping. Their foliage varies, too, ranging from large, spiny leaves to smooth, small leaves that resemble boxwood. Even holly’s berries come in a variety of hues that include red, pink, blue, orange, yellow, and white.

Holly provides year-round interest while serving as part of a hedge or perennial border, or in foundation plantings. Evergreen varieties take center stage in winter when they anchor leafless garden beds. Tall evergreen hollies are good for creating a dense hedge or screen. When used as barrier plants, holly varieties with spiny leaves are nearly impenetrable. No matter where you plant holly, if pollinated its colorful berries add splashes of winter color and food for birds.

Berry Production

Many holly plants will produce colorful fruit that remains in place for three to six months of the year, depending on the density of the wildlife population. Whether you want to showcase these colorful berries in the yard or use them to perk up holly branches in an arrangement, you need to have separate male and female plants near each other in the landscape.

Female plants depend upon the males for pollination in order to produce berries. Check plant tags carefully when purchasing holly to ensure you buy at least one male plant to pollinate 10 to 20 female cultivars. Choosing a male and female of the same variety helps make sure the plants bloom at the same time—a key factor if you expect bees and other pollinators to work their magic. Be careful about the resulting berries; if eaten by humans or pets, gastrointestinal distress may follow.

Holly Care Must-Knows

The best time to plant holly is in the spring, with plenty of warm weather on the horizon. Read plant tags carefully when selecting a planting site for holly. Some hollies prefer full sun, while there are evergreen varieties that grow best in areas where they receive part shade in winter. Most varieties prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil that is slightly acidic. Winterberry, on the other hand, grows well in boggy soil. This plant appreciates a moderate amount of water; usually rain will do the trick. Provide supplemental waterings on a weekly basis during times of drought. Fertilize in spring and fall to keep plants at their best.

Holly shrubs don’t typically require pruning unless they become unwieldy or you want to create a hedge or geometric shape. On the question of whether or not (and when) to prune, the holly family is so diverse that it’s impossible to give one answer that will work for all varieties. In general, wait until dormancy for most hollies. Pruning in late fall or early winter means you can use the clippings in holiday arrangements or wreaths. On the other hand, if you prune in late winter you can enjoy seeing the berries outside. Either way, the trade-off is you’ll be removing old wood required for blooming—and therefore future berries. There is no single right answer. Just don’t prune in late summer when the plant will put out new growth that will die when frosts arrive. Worth noting: Late spring is a good time to prune holly bushes into hedges.

10 Popular Plants For Winter Landscapes

Here’s some good advice from David Beaulieu on best plants for winter landscape for The Spruce.

Ideas for Turning Humdrum Yards Into Winter Scenes Worth Painting

What makes a plant popular for winter landscapes in the snowy regions of the globe? Are conifers the sole contestants? Which landscaping plants are automatically disqualified? Which shrubs are best for attracting wild birds? Answering such questions should help generate landscaping ideas for dealing with that Scrooge of the seasons, horticulturally speaking: winter. Our goal is to turn a drab yard into a winter scene worth painting—for that matter, worth looking at while you’re snow shoveling.

While evergreen shrubs (including shrubs with golden foliage) and conifer trees undeniably add visual interest to winter landscapes, so do many other plants, such as red osier dogwoods. About the only plants that are disqualified right at the outset are those that lack any appreciable height: no matter how pretty a plant may be, it will add no visual interest to the winter landscape if it lies buried all winter, dwarfed by a blanket of snow. Based on this premise, let’s explore ideas to enhance the winter landscape. And let’s keep in mind that many landscaping enthusiasts are also bird watchers; so that a plant’s ability to attract wild birds will be a consideration.


Characteristics to Look For

A winning plant for winter landscapes will have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Contains colorful berries that attract birds for bird watching
  • Readily catches snow in its branches
  • Exhibits a delicate structure
  • Is clad in a bark that is colorful or that has an unusual texture
  • Bears evergreen foliage
  • Has an interesting branching pattern

Let’s look at some popular plants exhibiting these characteristics. Conifers take a back seat; their value to winter landscapes goes without saying, so we’re limiting their representation to two entries here. The following is a list of popular plants for adding visual interest in winter.

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  • Christmas Holly Shrubs

    • Evergreen holly is popular due to its striking, year-round foliage and bright berries that attract many bird species. Sprigs of cut holly have long been used in winter holiday decorations. Many evergreen hollies are not hardy enough for far Northern climes, but two of the hardier varieties are:

      • China holly (Ilex meserveae): This is a rounded holly, 8′ high by 8′ wide, and it is also drought tolerant.
      • Compact inkberry holly (Ilex glabra ‘Compacta’): This plant has dark green foliage that resembles that of boxwood shrubs. Its berry is black, not the usual red that we associate with hollies. It reaches a height of 4′ to 8′; its width is a bit less than that. You can also grow the similar Ilex glabra ‘Densa’.


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Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Allemans’)

Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Allemans’) is another extremely hardy plant (zones 3 to 8). The May flowering of red osier dogwoods yields white blooms that are followed by white fruit. But red osier dogwood makes this list because of its bark, which ranges in color from red to burgundy. Reaching a height of 6′ to 10′, the spread of red osier dogwoods is 5′ to 10′. A patch of fiery red osier dogwood against a backdrop of pristine snow makes for an unforgettable winter scene.

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Plume Grass (Erianthus ravennae)

When planning the winter landscape, don’t forget to include at least one tall perennial grass. An ornamental grass with a stately, thin shaft and fluffy coiffure exhibits such a delicate structure that it will doubtless lend a touch of charm to any winter landscape, however, barren otherwise. Plume grass (Erianthus ravennae), which can grow to be as tall as 11 feet (by about 4 feet wide), is hardy as far north as zone 4 (for those of you in hotter climates, it is listed for as high as zone 9).

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Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a shrub with a spreading habit (4′ to 6′ X 4′ to 6′), grown in zones 2 to 8. It’s glossy, aromatic foliage complements its waxy, gray fruit. In fact, these unusual berries are widely used to scent candles—if you can get to the berries before the birds do, that is. It is also a drought-tolerant shrub. The birds may like bayberry, but the deer don’t, as it’s one of the deer-resistant plants.

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Cranberry bush Viburnum (Viburnum trilobum ‘Compactum’)

Compact American cranberry bush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum ‘Compactum’) yields masses of red berries that serve as a source of food for birds on the winter landscape. A rounded shrub, it bears white flowers in May and June that are followed by red fruit. As a bonus, the shrub offers foliage ranging from red to purple in fall. American cranberry bush viburnum is hardy to zone 2. It grows 4′ to 5′ high, with a spread of 3′ to 4′.

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Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata)

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly bush indigenous to wetlands in the eastern half of Canada and the U.S. As stated above, usefulness for attracting wild birds in winter is one of the criteria considered for this list, and the fruit of winterberry will certainly attract birds to your property. Far from being a drawback, its deciduous nature is actually a benefit for the winter landscape. Why would you want leaves to be in the way when you have such gorgeous berries to behold?

A dioecious shrub (as are bayberry and evergreen holly), to ensure fruit production it is best to plant several shrubs together, to increase your chances of finding a male plant to accompany the females.

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Yew Shrubs (Taxus spp.)

Yews are renowned for being plants in our Christmas traditions. These conifers bear evergreen needles and bright red berries. But keep children away from both the foliage and the berries of these plants; the seeds and needles are quite toxic.

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Canadian Hemlocks (Tsuga canadenesis)

Are you surprised to see eastern hemlock trees (Tsuga canadenesis) included in a list of landscaping plants? You may think of them first and foremost as tall trees (60′ or more) that you encounter out in the woods. But plant developers have bred cultivars that are more shrub-like, which are well-suited for use in hedges, etc. Shear them to keep them at the desired height. Whether used in hedges or as specimens, these evergreen conifers will help give your winter landscape some much-needed visual interest.

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Viking black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’)

Like winterberry holly, Viking black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’) tolerates poorly-drained soils. Like American cranberrybush viburnum and barberry, this shrub provides foliage that ranges from red to purple in fall, making it a two-season standout. Viking black chokeberry is hardy to zone 3. As with all the berries mentioned in this article, chokeberry berries serve as emergency food for wild birds. They’re not the birds’ first choice—they are astringent or otherwise unpalatable, which is why they stick around so long—but when the birds get desperate, these plants are their salvation. Its white flowers in May yield to purplish-black berry clusters. It grows to a height of 3′ to 5′, with a spread of 3′ to 5′.

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Birch Trees (Betula spp.)

Three varieties of birch trees lend considerable interest to the winter landscape, two of them (the second and third entries below) because of their bark.

  • Young’s weeping birch (Betula pendula ‘Youngii’)
  • Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
  • Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

What Is Garden Lime And How To Use It To Help Your Plants Thrive

Megan Hughes on garden lime and how it can help your plants for Better Homes & Gardens.

If you’ve got acidic soil, this inexpensive crushed rock product is your friend. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of it.

In an ideal world, all soil would be perfect for growing every kind of plant. But garden soil often needs to be adjusted, depending on what you want to grow, and garden lime is a common amendment that can give your plants a boost. However, lime isn’t something to mix into your soil on a whim or based on the promises on the package at the garden store. Lime actually changes the chemistry of the soil in ways that can help certain plants grow better, but could harm other plants. Here’s what you need to know about using garden lime to ensure all your plants thrive.

What Is Garden Lime?

There are different types of lime, and not all are meant for landscaping purposes. Lime intended for garden use is labeled as “garden lime” or “dolomitic lime.” Made from ground-up rock, limestone, or dolomite, lime is high in calcium. Dolomitic lime differs from garden lime in that it contains magnesium, in addition to calcium. Lime makes soils less acidic, raising the pH level.

Does My Soil Need Lime?

The short answer is maybe. It all depends on the existing pH of your soil and the kinds of plants you want to grow. Most veggies, fruits, and ornamental plants thrive in soil that has a pH level between 5.5 and 6.5. If your soil’s pH is above or below that range, your plants likely won’t grow as well, no matter how much fertilizer you add, how diligent you are about watering, or any other way you try to help the plant. You may also want to adjust soil pH when growing bigleaf hydrangeas, which have blooms that can turn pink, purple, or blue depending on pH.

Soil with a pH of 5.5 or below is considered acidic. These are the soils that can benefit from garden lime. As the lime raises the soil’s pH level, plant roots are better able to absorb nutrients from the soil. But adding lime to soil with a pH of 6.5 or higher is not a good idea. Increasing the soil pH even more with lime will make important nutrients even harder for plants to get a hold of. Plants growing in soil that has a high pH are often stunted, have yellow leaves, and no fruit.

Test Your Soil pH

The best way to know if your soil will benefit from lime, and how much lime to add to your garden, is to get a soil test that reports the pH level of your soil. Generally, state Cooperative Extension offices provide comprehensive soil tests at reasonable prices. Follow their soil-sample collection directions to get the best results. You could also use a pH meter to get a ballpark number, but the advantage to going with a full soil test is then you’ll also get recommendations for the amounts of lime as well as other amendments and nutrients you may want to consider adding at the same time.

How Much Lime Should I Add?

Your soil test should tell you exactly how much (if any) lime to add to your soil. If the soil test indicates an acidic pH and reveals low magnesium levels, add dolomitic lime. If magnesium levels are in the acceptable range, add garden lime. Lime recommendations are often given in number of pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet, so you may want to do some measuring of the area you want to cover before you go shopping for lime.

When Is the Best Time to Add Lime?

If possible, add lime in the fall. It takes time to change the pH of soil so applying lime in fall takes advantage of the winter months prior to the next growing season. In addition, the freeze/thaw cycle helps mix lime into the soil. When adding lime to bare soil, such as a vegetable garden or new lawn, till it into the top 6 inches of soil. Use pelletized lime and a fertilizer spreader to add it to an established garden bed or a lawn. Water the garden or lawn well to move the lime into the soil.


7 Essential Leaf-Raking Tips to Make Your Fall Cleanup So Much Easier

Megan Hughes offers some tips to ease fall yard cleanup for Better Homes & Gardens.

This autumn chore is a breeze when you know how to do it right.

Trees and shrubs in all their brilliant fall finery are an amazing sight to behold. Those color-drenched leaves eventually make their way to the ground, where you may find them much less welcome. Raking leaves is at the top of most fall garden to-do lists, and it can be a rather labor-intensive and time-consuming chore. But dealing with fallen leaves doesn’t have to be a pain (sometimes literally). When you know how to rake properly, or even how to avoid raking altogether, you’ll have more time to enjoy a final bonfire of the season or one last backyard football game before the snow flies. Use these leaf-raking tips to make quick work of your fall cleanup.

1. Do you really need to rake?

Leaves have nutrients, which can be recycled into your soil. The problem arises when they’re piled too thick, which can smother your lawn and smaller garden plants. But how many is too many? University researchers developed guidelines to make it easy to know if you need to rake or not. If less than 50% of your lawn is blanketed with leaves, you don’t need to rake, but it’s recommended that you run your lawn mower over the leaves to shred them. More than 50% leaf coverage? Time to get out the rake!

2. Run your lawn mower.

For lawns with 50% leaf coverage or less, use your lawn mower to help break down the leaves and return nutrients and organic matter to the lawn. Simply run your mower over the leaves. A couple of passes might be necessary to get a fine chop, especially if you have larger leaves like those of maples, oaks, and sycamores. Small leaf pieces will settle between grass blades, where they’ll decompose over time. If your mower has a bagging attachment, you can use it to easily collect the leaves instead. Then add them to a compost pile, use them as garden mulch around plants that need winter protection, or dispose of them through your area’s yard waste channel.

3. Wait for all the leaves to fall.

It might be tempting to get a jump start on raking and begin as soon as leaves start to drop. But remember, a few leaves on the lawn aren’t going to hurt anything. Instead, save yourself some time by waiting until most leaves from your trees and shrubs are on the ground. Then break up the work into segments by raking one section of the lawn at a time.

4. Pick the right raking tools.

Comfort and ease of use is top of the list when choosing a leaf rake. The handle should be long enough for you to stand upright while raking. Rakes with durable steel tines are often preferred over rakes with plastic tines. Look for leaf rakes labeled “no clog” to avoid the chore of having to remove leaves stuck in the tines every few strokes. And a pair of gloves will help protect your hands from blisters as you work.

5. Stretch first.

While raking may seem simple, it can be physically stressful, even for healthy people. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) recommends stretching to warm up your muscles for 10 minutes before moderately strenuous activities such as raking. Take time to stretch your shoulders, arms, and neck; do a few squats; and take a brisk walk. Stretching before raking can help stave off aches and pains after the chore is complete.

6. Make small movements and take breaks.

Raking can be a good way to get a little exercise, but it will feel a whole lot more pleasant if you don’t overdo it. Taking big, sweeping swipes with your rake will tire you out fast. Instead, use short strokes, making sure to keep your back straight. Switch the rake from the left and right sides of your body every few minutes to give your dominant arm and shoulder a rest. And every once in a while, put down your rake and take a break. Catch your breath, get a drink of water, and enjoy the brisk autumn weather.

7. Use wind power to your advantage.

Wrangling leaves when there’s a strong breeze can be comedic and maddening. Of course, calm weather is best for raking, but Mother Nature might not always cooperate with your weekend plans. When you can’t avoid raking on a blustery day, instead of fighting the wind, try harnessing it. If the wind is pushing leaves to the south, you and your rake do the same. Shorter rake strokes and small piles are most efficient on windy days.


Margaret Boyles for The Old Farmer’s Almanac on planning for a vegetable garden in the Spring.


Perhaps you’ve been eyeing beautiful vegetables all summer long at farm stands. Maybe you have a patch of lawn or weeds in a sunny backyard. Fall is a great time to start a new garden area for spring—without having to dig up the grass. So, if you’ve started thinking, “Hey, what about that garden next spring?,” here is some advice!

If you’ve long dreamed about having a small food garden, the fall is a great time to start thinking about it.

Small is beautiful
Every crop you decide to grow has specific requirements for space, sunlight, water, nutrition, and frost-free days to maturity. Every crop may encounter a variety of insect and mammal pests, as well as plant diseases that may attack roots, foliage, flowers, fruit—or the entire plant.

That’s why it’s important for new gardeners to learn as much as possible in advance, consult experienced gardeners, and start small, with a few easy-to-grow crops that are likely to succeed.

Some examples of easy-to-grow crops: green beans, summer squash/zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and perhaps some other salad greens. Here’s a great article on the best vegetables for a beginner’s garden.

Build on your successes by moving onto the more exotic crops another year.

Prepare your planting area
If you’re starting from scratch—a lawn or a patch of weeds—begin creating that garden space now. Fall is a great time to start a new garden area for spring (without having to dig up the grass).

Choose a spot that receives full sun most or all of the day. Start by mowing or weed-whacking the grass and weeds in the area of your planting bed.

The easiest (and most expensive) way to begin gardening: a raised bed or two. Although there are hundreds of commercial designs and DIY plans available, you don’t need an elaborate construction, just an enclosure that will hold about eight inches or more of soil. (Don’t use pressure-treated or painted wood or old railroad ties.)

Then arrange your materials or construct the bed(s) to enclose the planting area you’ve chosen, and spread a thick layer of newspaper over the mowed planting area. You can wait until spring to create and add soil to your bed.

If you’ll be planting directly into the ground, buy enough high quality compost to spread an inch or two deep over the entire mowed planting area. Then cover the compost layer with two or three layers of cardboard or old newspapers. Top off the paper with a thick layer of straw, hay, or leaves. Alternatively, (see photo) you may find an area livestock farm that will give you some cast-off sheets of the heavy plastic mulch used to cover their silage piles during the winter. Keep the plastic from blowing away by securing it with cement blocks, bricks, or large rocks.

Either mulch will exclude light to smother existing vegetation and prevent new weeds from growing, as well as allowing heat to build up to begin decomposing the old plant material and give you a clean planting bed next spring.

When you’re ready to plant in April or May, you can either cut holes through the plastic or paper mulch, or remove the mulch entirely. Either way, dig in your fertilizer and soil amendments, water well, and plant.

Begin imagining your garden
Order some seed catalogs, which will start arriving in late December, and begin dreaming. You could also consult with neighbors, friends, and family members about varieties that have done well for them.

As you browse seed catalogs or seed company web sites, pay attention to the different varieties of vegetables. Promising words in a variety description that may indicate a crop suitable for beginners: easy to grow, widely adaptableslow to bolthighly productivedisease/insect/drought resistantearly maturing, long harvest seasoncompact growth habit.

Unless you have a greenhouse or a good indoor grow-lighting system, note that some vegetables are started from small plants (not seed), including: tomato, pepper, and broccoli plants. Look for a local nursery outlet that’s grown their own plants, and can tell you about each variety—its growth habit, days to maturity, color, shape, and flavor of the mature crop.

Another excellent source of local gardening information: your county Cooperative Extension office. These branches of each state’s land-grant university system may have a toll-free information line, a long list of fact sheets on various gardening issues, or a series of workshops or mini-courses that offer hands-on training.

5 Easy Ways To Prepare All The Plants In Your Garden For Winter Weather

Viveka Neveln gives some good advice on preparing your garden for winter for Better Homes & Gardens.

Use these tips to help your perennials, trees, shrubs, and more survive the colder months. Your plants will come back stronger in the spring.

As temperatures drop in autumn, it’s time to get your garden ready for the winter. It may seem like not much is happening in your yard as the weather cools. However, there’s a lot going on in the soil until it freezes. This is especially true for newly planted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy spring bulbs. All of these plants are busily growing roots to anchor themselves in the ground. And earthworms and soil microbes are also still at work, processing organic material into nutrients plants need. While nature has its own ways of coping with the colder months, there are a few things you can do to help prepare your plants for winter.

1. Mulch Your Perennials

Perennials return year after year, as long as they are hardy where you live. Hardy plants won’t require much effort from you to prepare them for winter. But if your area gets a lot of freezing and thawing through the season, watch out for frost heaving. This means the soil actually pushes plants out of the ground, especially new plants that don’t have a lot of roots  yet. To prevent this, add a 6-inch-thick layer of chopped leaves, straw, or other mulch around your perennials once the ground has frozen. This will help even out the soil temperature, especially if your area doesn’t always have snow covering the ground throughout winter.

Sometimes the plant’s own dead leaves help protect its crown and roots from the cold, so go ahead and leave them in place until next spring. Many perennials (such as sedums, purple coneflowers, and ornamental grasses) have forms that look pretty through winter. Plus, their seeds help feed birds and other wildlife. But if you prefer a tidier garden, it’s fine to cut your perennials to the ground after frost has withered their leaves. Just make sure to add a layer of mulch to help protect them.

2. Protect Annuals from Frost

Unlike perennials that return each year, annuals live only one season in the garden and can’t survive freezing temperatures. Some are known as cool-season annuals, meaning they prefer to grow and bloom when temperatures are cooler. These include ornamental kale, blue lobelia, and snapdragons. Warm-season annuals, on the other hand, like it hot. Zinnias, French marigolds, and impatiens fall into this category.

You can extend the life of both types of annuals by keeping old sheets or floating row covers ($12, The Home Depot) handy to cover them during light frosts. Continue to water annuals until freezing temperatures kill them. If your annuals are in containers, move them into a garage or other protected space when temperatures are forecast to dip into the 40s overnight. You can do this until daytime temperatures no longer rise above that threshold.

3. Dig Up Tender Bulbs

Fall is the time to plant hardy spring-blooming bulbs, but there are other types of plants known as tender bulbs. These include popular summer-bloomers like gladiolus, cannas, and dahlias. If you live where the ground freezes, these tropical plants won’t survive the winter. But, you can bring them indoors if you want to save these plants for another year.

Wait until after frost has turned the leaves brown, then gently dig up the bulbs or tubers. Cut away the leaves and brush off as much soil as possible. Avoid washing with water because the dampness can cause the bulbs to rot during storage. Let them dry out in the open n a cool spot for about a week. Label them so you’ll remember what they are. One trick is to write the name right on them with a permanent marker ($2, The Home Depot), as shown here with dahlia tubers. Then, pack them in a breathable container, such as a cardboard box. Cover them in sawdust or old newspapers so bulbs don’t touch, and place in a garage, basement, or other location that’ll stay below 45°F but not freeze.

4. Pamper Trees and Shrubs

Your trees and shrubs will have an easier time getting through winter if you make sure they are in good shape. For both evergreen and deciduous species, one of the most important things is to give them plenty of water before the ground freezes, especially if autumn has been dry. After the ground freezes, spread organic material such as chopped leaves up to 6 inches thick. This helps keep moisture in the soil (plants need water even during winter) and protect roots from freezing and thawing. Trim away any damaged or diseased limbs to prevent snow and wind from making these problems worse. For young evergreens in exposed locations, shield them from drying winter wind with burlap screens or shade cloth shelters.

5. Bundle Up Your Roses

Roses are so beautiful that it’s difficult to begrudge them the attention they require over the growing season. As cool weather brings on their dormant period, one final job remains for you: getting them ready for winter. Some types of roses are hardier than others, so it’s important to know which kinds you have. As a group, hybrid tea roses are the most vulnerable to winter cold and need the most preparation; the easiest roses to grow and care for are shrub roses. Make sure to give all your roses plenty of water before the ground freezes, but do not fertilize or cut them back. To protect the root balls from frost heaving, pile up extra soil around their base. In Zone 6 and colder, add a 6- to 12-inch layer of straw, leaves, or other mulch on top of the soil mound, secured with a circle of chicken wire.





Robin Sweetser gives some advice on how to avoid rodents in your flower bulbs for The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Are you tired of planting tulips and crocus bulbs only to have them disappear because mice and squirrels find them to be a tasty snack?

There are plenty of other bulbs that are less attractive to rodents and by planting early, mid-season, and late bloomers we can stretch the show into summer. Here are just a few, in order of their appearance in the garden:

  • Galanthus nivalis – Snowdrops are a welcome sight in spring.

‘Flore Pleno’ is a double-flowering variety that signals the end of winter, even if it has to push up through a covering of snow and ice to do it.

  • Eranthus hymenalis– Winter aconite is one of the earliest bulbs to bloom, sending up its ferny green leaves and bright yellow buttercup flowers just after the snowdrops are done.
  • Chionodoxa – Glory of the Snowgrows about 6 inches tall and has sprays of star-shaped blossoms in shades of pink, blue, lavender, or white.

Although it is considered a “minor” bulb, it gives maximum effort, forming large colorful drifts that are a sight to behold! Best of all, squirrels won’t touch it!

Its nodding checkered blossoms come in varying shades of purple and white.

  • Alliums are in the onion family and the sharp smell and flavor of their bulbs repels voles, chipmunks, and squirrels. There are many types to choose from ranging in size from  molywith its 10 inch tall clusters of yellow, star-like flowers to A. schubertii the 3 foot tall drumstick allium that looks like a purple fireworks explosion.
  • Camassia is native to marshy northwestern meadows. The tubers, called quamash by Native Americans, are edible when cooked. Lewis and Clark are reported to have dined on them during their exploration of the Pacific Northwest. Though we can eat the tubers, rodents are not attracted to them. If you have a soggy spot where other bulbs refuse to grow, give camassia a try. It is perfect for naturalizing along a stream or at pondside.
  • Scilla siberica – Wood Squill is very hardy and easy to grow. Their clustered, bell-shaped flowers are white or sky blue and lightly scented. Growing 4-6 inches tall, they make a stunning display when combined with early daffodils.
  • Narcissi – Daffodils are pest-resistant, reliable bloomers and there are so many different ones to choose from that you could easily devote your entire spring garden to them. For something unique try a multi-blooming variety like ‘Spring Cheer’ which has 15-20 small, fragrant, double blossoms per stem – an instant bouquet!
  • Fritillaria are cold hardy members of the lily family. The skunky odor of their bulbs repels rodents. Plants range in size from 3 foot tall ‘Crown Imperials’ to 6 inch tall  pudica. My favorite is F. meleagris the Guinea-hen flower.

In the lily family, it grows 24-32 inches tall bearing lavender flowers high above its long narrow leaves.

Before the ground gets too frozen to dig, pick some new spots for spring-flowering bulbs. After a long cold winter, you will certainly appreciate seeing their cheerful blossoms and early color. The best blooms of April and May need to be planted today!



Robin Sweetser gives good tips on the best succulents to grow for The Old Farmer’s Almanac.


When the weather gets cold, the inside air can get desert-dry. That’s fine for the succulents. They are survivors. As long as they have a warm sunny spot they love the dry conditions. See top succulent plants for those home.

Succulents are not one plant family but a wide variety of plants from many families that have the ability to store water for long periods of time. You probably already grow many of them.


Cacti, aloe, sedum, kalanchoe, hens-and-chicks, and jade plant are all considered succulents. Some have thick leaves for storing water, those with no leaves store water in their stems, while others store water underground in their roots. Native to arid regions around the globe where often the only moisture they receive is in the form of dew, mist, or fog, they have evolved to withstand periods of drought.

As houseplants all they need is a place on a warm sunny windowsill and a bit of water—never more than once a week. Some need even less water in winter if they are dormant. You can go on vacation and not worry about them dying from neglect. They won’t miss you!

Since succulents are about 90% water, they can skip a few waterings with no ill effects. Soggy roots are deadly to them so clay pots are best. Use a fast draining potting soil like a mix specific for cacti or make your own from equal parts potting soil, sharp sand, and perlite. Many succulents have fibrous root systems and prefer a shallow pot to a deeper one.

Some of these plants are truly bizarre looking while others are quite beautiful. Succulents are a great starter plant for kids who appreciate their weird appearance.

Many succulents are readily available at your local greenhouse or garden center. The big box stores can’t even kill them!


Here are some more interesting succulents to look for:

  • Lithops give new meaning to the term “pet rock”. Often called living stones, they have 2 fat leaves that are fused together with a slight crack between them. In late summer a yellow or white daisy-like flower emerges from the crack. After blossoming the old leaves will die off and new ones will take their place.
  • Aloinopsis is another rock-like succulent with smooth, rounded leaves. Easy to grow, its flowers appear in late winter.
  • Faucaria gets its common name “tiger jaws” from the white spines along the edges of the leaves. It needs a dry period in winter but will reward you with yellow blossoms in the summer.
  • Echeveria is a large genus of plants, mostly hailing from Mexico. Their rosettes of fleshy leaves are similar to the hardy hens-and-chicks we grow outdoors. They offer a wide range of leaf colors from dusty gray to bright green, red, purple, pinkish, blue-green, and even black. They bloom in the summer.
  • Senecio is another large genus of plants but not all of them are succulents. One called blue fingers has long, pencil-shaped silvery leaves. Another called string of beads has tiny round leaves growing on long stems – perfect for a hanging basket.
  • Trichodiadema grows only 6 inches tall and looks like little bonsai tree. It has a thick above ground root with fleshy gray-green leaves on top and will produce magenta flowers in the spring and summer.

If you can’t decide which one to buy, get several and group them together in a dish garden or strawberry pot.