Garden Wars:  Dealing with Deer


IMG_0681When it comes to garden pests, deer have long been Public Enemy No.1 here in central Jersey. Their unrelenting browsing disfigures trees, reduces shrubs to nubs, and obliterates our lovingly-tended beds and borders. With deer populations soaring and native habitats shrinking, deer have become a source of constant frustration for many gardeners.

So what’s a Garden State gardener to do about this gnawing problem?

While there is no simple formula for battling deer damage, don’t raise the white flag just yet.  Try some of these deer defying tactics instead.  They might be all you need to make peace with the local herd.

Don’t give up on gardening just because deer have been snacking on your landscaping.  While nothing is foolproof, there are strategies that can moderate deer damage.

Dine or Dash? It Pays to Plant Smart

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As a general rule, deer tend to avoid anything in the onion family, which includes these allium. (Photo by David Byers)

To help New Jersey residents make smarter choices about the plants they install in their gardens, the folks at Rutgers Agricultural Experiment station have put together the ultimate tool for gardening in deer territory.

They’ve indexed hundreds of popular plants—all of which grow and thrive in our area– and rated them by deer resistance.  But the best part is: you can tailor their list to unearth exactly the type of plants your garden needs!  Were your annuals annihilated?  Your perennials pulverized? Using the Rutgers online tool, just search for “annuals” (or perennials, trees, shrubs, etc.) and voila: a list of deerly-detested plants pops up.  Or maybe you’re considering adding a certain plant to your garden and are wondering if it is destined to be deer fodder?  You can search for it by name (using either the common name or the Latin name) and see its degree of deer delectability.

So why not do a little “browsing” of your own for a change!  Click the link below to delve into Rutgers’ deer diet database:

Plants Rated by Deer Resistance

For a printable, quick-reference list of the Rutgers info, download: Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance


Zinnia, are among the plants rated as “Seldom Severely Damaged” by deer. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)


Azalea  are listed among plants rated “Frequently Severely Damaged” by deer.  (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Now that you’re armed with an arsenal of deer-distained plants, does that mean any plants tagged with the dreaded “Frequently Severely Damaged” designation are off limits?  Hardly. It just means they’re best planted with a little “additional protection.”  What kind of protection?  Read on…

On Guard: Fencing 101

The most effective, long-term solution for thwarting Bambi and his plant-munching kin is definitely fencing. No other tactic is as successful at eliminating deer from the garden.  That said, fences only work if properly built and maintained.


Fear the Fence: Even though deer can easily jump fences under 8 feet tall, they are normally hesitant to jump into small plots, or spaces that don’t allow them to see their landing spot–for fear they won’t be able to get out. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

To successfully thwart deer incursions, fences should be at least 8 feet high, kept taut, and have no gaps.  And it goes without saying that the fence must completely enclose the area you are trying to shield. Forget about fencing only one side of the property or thinking a small or remote break will go unnoticed. If there are any open sections, rest assured deer will find a way through.


An obvious–though commonly missed– component of effective deer fencing is to make sure gates are always kept securely closed. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

On the Fence About Which Enclosure You Need?

There are many types of deer fencing available–from solid stockade barriers to nearly invisible plastic mesh screens.


Wire fencing is long lasting and highly resistant to damage. It is also expensive to purchase and install, but can be a cost effective way to protect valuable plantings. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

Which style you choose depends on: your budget, the size of the area you are trying to protect, and the level of deer damage in your area.  Also, if your property is in any way hilly, preventing gaps can be a challenging but necessary issue to address.

Regardless of the type you select, deer fencing must be properly anchored to the ground. Unlikely as it may seem, given the choice, deer are more likely to crawl under a fence than to jump over it.

Deer are opportunists and will push through any breach they find, so it’s important to examine fences frequently and fix any holes or gaps.


Fencing made of plastic netting is generally less expensive, and less visually obtrusive. (Photo by Anne Zeman)

There are some types of deer fencing that you can install yourself, but others–like high-tensile wire fences—require special skills and might be best left in the hands of experienced contractors.

While deer fencing can be expensive, you may find that the one-time cost of a permanent 8-ft. fence is well worth the price given the peace of mind and years of damage-free gardening it can provide.

To learn more about deer fencing, see:

High-Tensile Woven Wire Fences for Reducing Wildlife Damage

How to Build a Plastic Mesh Deer Exclusion Fence

Low-Cost Slant Fence Excludes Deer from Plantings


Amping up Deer Deterrence

Another type of deer exclusion is electric fencing. Built specifically to handle deer, high voltage electric fences can prove very effective in keeping them out. As with any fencing, proper installation and maintenance are key.

Before you consider this type of exclusion, you should know that the use of electric fencing is generally not an option in residential areas, although it is often permitted in rural locales.


Portable electric fencing consists of conductive strands of stainless steel and nylon cord which are kept separated by plastic supports (b) a foot apart to form a “mesh-like” barrier. Fiberglass posts (c) are coupled with 5-inch steel spikes to allow them to be hand pushed into the ground to support the fence. (Illustration from Rutgers’ Portable Electric Fencing Fact Sheet #888)

Under the right circumstances, electric fences can be both effective and cost-efficient.  But for safety and effectiveness, it’s best to have electric fences constructed by an experienced contractor.  The price of electric fencing can vary widely depending on the style of fencing used and the size of the area that needs protecting, so it pays to shop around.

For best results, electrify the fence immediately after installation and keep it electrified at all times. If an electric fence is turned off for several days, deer may learn to go through it.

Stop Gap Measures: Portable Electrics 

In addition to permanent electrified fencing, there are also portable electric fencing systems that can provide temporary protection for crops, gardens and landscaping. Most often used in smaller areas, they offer the advantage of being easy to move around, dismantle, and reassemble as needed.

For more information, download Rutgers factsheet FS888, Portable Electric Fencing for Preventing Wildlife Damage


Deer fences of any design must be checked regularly. Repairs to damaged or broken fencing should be made promptly to prevent any gaps that might allow deer to squeeze through. (Photo by Calleen Parson)

Net Gains: Protecting Individual Plants

Electrified or not, the biggest drawback to full-on deer fencing is cost. But in areas where deer density is less intense, a more cost-efficient approach might be to only “fence in” those plants that tend to get hit the hardest. Young trees, for example, are particularly sensitive to deer damage and often do not survive intensive deer browsing.  Individual trees can be protected from damage by surrounding them with tree shelters or wire cages that keep vulnerable trunks and lower branches out of the DMZ (Deer Mutilation Zone.)


Young trees are particularly sensitive to deer damage. Protect trees below “browse line,” from ground to lower limbs.

You can remove this type of fencing once trees have branched beyond the reach of deer, or you can leave it in place to keep bucks from using young trees as their personal scratching posts when removing the felt from their antlers in the fall.

Admittedly, tree shelters and wire cages are not the most attractive additions to a home landscape, but if the damage you’re experiencing is extensive enough, and the plant you are shielding is important enough, you may be able to “look past” the wiring in order to keep your prized plant alive.

For the Birds: Help for Low Growing Plants

Another low-investment way to protect vulnerable plants and shrubs is through the use of flexible plastic or “bird” netting. Like wire caging, it too provides temporary protection for vulnerable plants but it is often less noticeable (especially from a distance) than enclosures made of hefty metal wire.

Lightweight and less substantial than wire mesh, plastic netting tends to works best in areas where deer browsing is relatively light.  It is typically used to cover low-growing shrubs, groups of plants, or seasonally-harvested berries and fruit.  To keep netting from blowing away and to avoid gaps, use wooden stakes or zip ties to anchor the netting over plants.

For additional information on  the use of bird netting, as well as other types of deer fencing, see: Deer Damage Management Techniques —  Exclusion Methods.

Scent-sible Solutions: Using Deer Repellents

If exclusion is not a viable option for you, repellents can be a comparatively low-cost way to steer deer from your prized plants.  Repellents basically use either an unpleasant taste or odor to teach deer to avoid the yucky stuff in your yard and search out less noxious noshes elsewhere.

Repellents come in a variety of forms –from homemade concoctions to commercial ready-to-use sprays. Some are applied directly to plants and repel deer by taste. Others deter deer by scent, and are meant to keep deer from a specific area rather than a specific plant.


One deer repelling technique used by Master Gardeners at Mercer Educational Gardens, is to string absorbent barrier tape around the perimeter of each garden. The tape is then sprayed with deer repellents. Stakes ensure that the tape stays taut and is held right about deer nose level –30 inches from the ground.

Regardless, of the type or technique you use, repellents are most effective when applied before damage occurs. They also work best over relatively small areas when deer populations are on the low side.

Re-application is key for all repellents, since they tend to wear off over time and wash off quickly with rain and snow.  But even with good upkeep, deer tend to get used to repellents over time, so it’s a good idea to switch to a different type of repellent — or at least one with a different active ingredient–at least once a year.

Many gardeners find that a combination of odor- and taste-based repellents provide the best benefit.  For more information see:

Deer Control in Home Gardens – Repellents

Using commercial deer repellents

Repellents can reduce damage, but will not entirely eliminate damage. Deer will eat just about anything when food sources are limited.

Scare Tactics

Another strategy that might be worth a try involves devices that attempt to spook deer.  Things like motion-activated sprinklers, strobe lights, and even radios have been known to send deer high-tailing for more peaceful parts.


Skittish by nature, deer will often turn tail and bolt when faced with loud or startling sights and sounds.

But more often than not, scare tactics only work for a short period of time.  After that, deer become accustomed to them and don’t even flinch. Sometimes though, scare tactics can give you just enough protection to allow a young plant to become established or a specific crop to be harvested.

A word to the wise: When it comes to using noise-makers, permits may be required in some areas. Check with local ordinances before installing them and–at the very least–clear it with any near-by neighbors.

 Yelp Help: Using Dogs to Control Deer

Deer prefer calm, quiet areas for grazing– so a loud, barking dog in the yard can sometimes be enough to drive them off. Dog deterrence is most effective when combined with those “invisible” dog fences that allow pups to freely patrol an area and harass  intruders as they attempt to move through.

Of course, dogs are only effective at discouraging deer when they are out and about at the same time as the deer. Given that deer often feed during the wee hours, in order to successfully ward off any late-night intrusions, dogs must have access to the yard at all hours.

Good as dogs can be at sending deer packing, in practice, a combination of deterrents might be more effective than relying on Fido alone.


Dogs can be very effective at repelling deer, provided they spend most of their time outdoors– and are actually interested in driving off deer. (Some dogs are more “vigilant” than others.)

Committing to Co-existing with Deer


Deer are a fact of life here in New Jersey, but by experimenting with different deer deterring strategies, you can enjoy your garden AND co-exist with any doe-eyed visitors that may wander your way.

Regardless, of the type of deterrence you deploy, when it comes to dealing with deer there are no quick fixes.  So it pays to pick your battles.

Reconsidering how much damage you can live may be the first step in deciding which of the above methods will work best for your yard.  It may be worth approaching deer damage with the same attitude you adopt when addressing other garden challenges– like weeds, insects or even noisy neighbors.  Sometimes just changing your level of tolerance can go a long way toward a more peaceful gardening experience.

It may also help to know that things aren’t always as grim as they sometimes appear:

  • Even though deer damage can look devastating in mid-winter and early spring–when browsing is at its most intense–in many instances, plants will eventually rebound.
  • Corrective pruning can often minimize tree distortion; and, in the case of antler damage, as long as the bark has not been rubbed off around the entire trunk, there’s still a chance that the plant will be able to heal itself.
  • In the spirit of live and let live, there may be some circumstances in which you can plant some “extras” that you wouldn’t mind “sharing”

 Balancing Those Near and Deer

In the heat of “the battle for the backyard,” we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that deer are appearing more frequently in our yards because we have taken over much of their territory and removed many of the native plants that they need to survive.


Photo courtesy of Mercer County Wildlife Center

To be responsible gardeners, it’s important that we strive to balance the environmental consequences of what we do in the garden with the needs of the larger ecosystem—always seeking to do the most good while inflicting the least harm.


Photo Mercer County Wildlife Center

To learn more, see:  Responsible Gardening.

For additional info  about deer in New Jersey, download: An Overview of White-Tailed Deer Status and Management in New Jersey


Divas of December: Winter Blooming Plants

By the time December rolls around, many gardeners are already starting to feel a void now that their gardens have gone to sleep.  Luckily, there is a dazzling array of winter flowering plants that are available at this time of year – each guaranteed to wake up indoor landscapes and lift the spirits of any furloughed gardener.


From garden centers to big box stores to grocery stores — winter blooming plants seem to be everywhere in December.  But not all offerings are equal.  Since most winter flowers have been brought into bloom under tropical conditions closer to their native habitats, plants that didn’t receive the best of care along the way won’t last as long as those that were treated more protectively.

When buying winter flowering plants, keep the following in mind:


Examine holiday plants before purchasing. Well cared for specimens will last longer and bloom better.

  • Look for healthy, robust, insect-free plants.
  • To keep plants flowering for the maximum amount of time, be sure to pick out a plant with a few buds that are still closed or are just starting to open. If a plant is fully bloomed out when you first pick it up, there won’t be any buds left to sustain future flowering. While still beautiful, expect bloom times for these plants to be shorter.
  • When transporting plants on cold days, be sure to protect them from the weather. Make sure plants are shielded with plastic or paper plant sleeves or paper bags. Tropical winter bloomers are subject to chilling injury when hit with temperatures much below 60°F.
  • Avoid carrying them outside for any longer than the quick trip from the store to the car. And never leave plants in the car or trunk for any length of time in cold weather.
  • One you’ve gotten your plants home, unwrap them right away and be sure to keep them out of the chilly path of opening doors or from touching frozen windowpanes. Plants kept in drafty areas may experience early leaf drop. Equally important is shielding them from heat as well as cold. So keep plants away from fireplaces, appliances, radiators, and ventilation ducts too.

For maximum bloom time, many winter flowering plants do best with cooler night temperatures. You can either move your plants to a cooler spot at night (like away from leaky windows) or turn down room temps at night (and save some energy to boot!)  A drop of only 5 degrees –from a daytime 70°F to a somewhat brisker 65°F at night– has been shown to extend flowering time.

Florally Festive: Holiday Poinsettias

December’s most recognizable flowering plant would have to be the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima).  A surefire source of vibrant indoor color, this true Christmas plant now comes in hundreds of different varieties.

Poinsettias are very sensitive to hot or cold drafts. Even a brief zap of cold are can cause the leaves to drop prematurely. (Photo by Linda Park)

Aside from the ever-popular red, colors now include burgundy, pink, salmon, yellow, cream, and white; as well as speckled and marbled varieties.  And plant breeders continue to develop spectacular new varieties every year. (To see some of this year’s new introductions take a peek inside Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse: Poinsettia’s Fill Rutgers Floriculture Greenhouse)


The showy, colored parts of poinsettias are not actually “flowers” but are in fact modified leaves or “bracts.” The true flowers, are the little yellow centers of the plant. (Photo by Linda Park)

Care and Feeding: A Poinsettia Primer

If cared for properly, poinsettias will hold on to their cheerful beauty for at least 3 months. Here are a few poinsettia pointers:

Light: Poinsettias prefer 4 hours of direct sun daily. Once in bloom, they tolerate bright, indirect light.

Temperature: At night: 50-60°F. During the day: 65°F and up.

Water: Poinsettias need to be kept consistently moist –which means soil should not allowed to become too soggy or too parched. Never allow soil to dry out completely but it’s OK to allow the surface to of the soil to dry a little before giving them a thorough watering. Never leave poinsettias in standing in water, leaves can rapidly yellow and drop.

Soil: A lightweight, peaty mix.

Fertilizer: No need to feed plants if you plan to discard them after they finish blooming. But if you’re planning to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant afterward, feed it monthly with an all-purpose house plant fertilizer.



Since most poinsettias come in a plastic pot a good way to judge when they need water is to use the weight of the pot as an indicator: A well-watered pot will be noticeably heavier than one that is too dry. (Photo by Linda Park)

Are they “poison”–settias?

There has been much discrepancy surrounding the toxicity of poinsettias.  For many years, they were considered to be “poisonous” plants.  But over the years, studies have shown that no deaths or serious injuries have been attributed to poinsettia ingestion.  That said, poinsettias–like numerous ornamental plants– are not intended for human consumption and swallowing the leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Best to use commons sense and steer kids and pets away from houseplants in general. For more information on the toxicity of houseplants, including poinsettias, refer to the Rutgers Harmful Plants Gallery.


Getting Poinsettias to Rebloom

Among the most frequently asked questions regarding poinsettias is: “Can I get them to bloom again next year?”  The short answer is yes. If you want to keep the plant for next year, maintain the poinsettia as you would any other houseplant throughout the winter: give it good light, regular watering and a monthly treatment of fertilizer. In very early spring, cut it back by about 2/3 to promote bushy new growth. Then either grow as houseplant or move it outdoors during the summer.


Although maintaining poinsettias through a second season can be done, most people tend to discard or compost them after the holidays and start with fresh plants the following year. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

Poinsettias are photoperiod (day-length) dependent, so in order to recolor the following winter, they need a period of long (about 14-hour) nights to trigger color development in the bracts. So starting in mid-September, bring plants inside and put them in a room where no lights will be turned on at night, that –combined with naturally decreasing daylight during the fall –should be enough to promote good holiday color the following year.

Cascading Tubes of Color: Holiday Cacti

Although normally quiet, mild-mannered plants, a holiday cactus can really make a splash once the weather turns cold—offering floods of 3-inch, tubular flowers in saturated shades of red, fuchsia, pink, salmon and white.


Holiday cacti come in a dazzling array of colors. They are easy to care for and often very long lived. Whether Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter cacti, these winter bloomers are among the few holiday plants suitable for growing all year long.

Although often referred to simply as a “Christmas cactus,” the fall- and winter-blooming succulent you see on the shelf could actually be one of three different types of holiday cacti: Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) or Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri.)

What’s the difference?

  • Christmas cacti have flattened leaves with rounded teeth
  • Thanksgiving cacti have pointed teeth
  • Easter cacti have pointed teeth with fibrous hairs in the leaf joints

Under normal conditions, each type will bloom closest to the holiday suggested in its name. And while they generally thrive under similar growing conditions, Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti need short day lengths and cool temperatures to set their flower buds, while Easter cacti will bloom just fine during normal length days.

Going with the Flow: Flowering Cactus Care

Here’s what you need to know to keep the cactus color coming:


The flowers on holiday cacti are formed on the tips of the flat, leaf-like stem segments.

Light: Keep your cactus in bright indirect or curtain filtered sunlight. Full sun is acceptable from September to May inside, but be sure to place plants in partial shade if you put them outdoors in summer.

Temperature: At night: 60°-65°F (unless setting buds, then 55°F or lower at night.) During the day: 70°F and up.

Water: Although a member of the cactus family, a holiday cactus should not be kept dry like its relatives. It is especially important not to let soil dry out too much during flowering. Keep plants evenly moist while budded and blooming, but allow it to dry out between watering during its “rest period” between bloom times. Water only enough to keep stems from shriveling while buds are setting in fall.

Soil: Equal parts potting soil, peat, and coarse sand or vermiculite or an African violet mix.

Fertilizer: Apply monthly from March to November. Do not fertilize while resting.

Figuring out Flower Failure


Although a member of the cactus family, a holiday cactus should not be kept dry like its relatives but should be watered whenever the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch.

A somewhat common but highly disappointing problem is the tendency of holiday cacti to drop unopened flower buds.  Possible causes include:

  • Allowing the plant to dry out
  • Soil that is compacted or poorly drained
  • Low light
  • Low humidity
  • Drafts or other sudden changes in temperature
  • A change in the way the plant is facing (a change in its orientation to light)

The most common disease of holiday cacti is stem and root rot, in which plants appear wilted and dull gray-green; stem leaves may also fall off.  The best way to prevent your cactus from succumbing is to avoid over watering.

Keep it Growing: Supporting Next Year’s  Flowers

Holiday cacti are not demanding plants, and pretty much “thrive on neglect,” which may be partly responsible for their reputation as long-lived plants.  To ensure they bloom around Thanksgiving or Christmas next year, keep plants evenly moist and fertilize monthly with a 15-30-15 houseplant fertilizer during the growing season.  In late spring, move them outdoors to a partly shaded location.  In the fall, when frost threatens, bring them back indoors.  Since day length and temperature regulate the flowering of Christmas and Thanksgiving cacti (Easter cactus does not need a cool winter rest period) keep them in a cool room during the fall (below 70°F) where they will receive no artificial light (too much light and too high a temperature at this time will prevent buds from forming.)  Once buds are set, keep night temperature between 60-70°F and day temps around 70°F.


Amaryllis require some care and attention throughout the year, but those beautiful trumpet shaped flowers are a great reward in the long months of winter. (Photo by Theodora Wang)

Brilliance from Bulbs: Growing Amaryllis

The tall trumpeted flowers of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) are truly regal and their ability to burst into bloom in mid- winter make them a natural for banishing winter blahs.  Flowering on 1 to 2 foot stalks (scapes) amaryllis produce giant, 6 to 10-inch trumpet-shaped flowers. Although red and scarlet are the most popular colors, flowers may be pink, white, salmon, apricot, rose, bicolor or picotee (petals with a different edge color) and come in both single and double varieties.

Bring on the Bloom: Amaryllis Care


When grown indoors,  bulbs will bloom in about 8 weeks.  After they go dormant, they can be brought out every winter to bloom again.

Amaryllis can be purchased as bulbs or plants, in or near bloom. If purchasing bulbs, be sure to leave 1/2 of the bulb above soil when potting. Bulbs should bloom about 1 month after planting.  Once the large bud emerges from the bulb, here’s what they need to flourish:

Light: Bright, direct light: East, west or south window.

Temperature: At night: 55-60°F. During the day: up to 75°F.

Soil: All-purpose mix.

Water: Keep evenly moist from November to August, then let dry for at least a month or two until the foliage yellows and dies. Resume watering after a dormant period of 2-3 months.

Fertilizer: Feed monthly from January to August with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.


Plant amaryllis so the top inch of the bulb is above the soil.

Post Bloom Care

To ensure years of repeat blooms, keep the plants actively growing after they have finished flowering.  Once the flower fades, cut back the flower stalk to about two inches above bulb. Then keep the plant moist and fertilized throughout the winter.  Allow it to dry down between watering to prevent root and bulb rot.

If desired, plants can be moved to a bright location outdoors from May to August.  At the end of the summer, let plants dry for at least a month or two until the foliage yellows and dies. Resume watering after a dormant period of 2-3 months (this dormant period is essential for bulbs to rebloom.)

Often the bulb will signal that it is coming out of dormancy by sending up the very tip of a flower stalk or leaf at the cut neck of the bulb. Then it’s time to place it back in a sunny window and resume watering.


Houseplants make great holiday gifts! Why not include some of our care instructions along with your present and keep both the gift plant and newly gifted recipient happy and healthy.

Grow a Winter Garden

Just because winter winds are howling outside, it doesn’t mean the pleasure of watching flowers break into bloom has to be put on pause until spring.  The plants described here are just a few of the fiery florals that are available to warm up the cold, dark days ahead. So why not add a little flower power to your interior plantscapes this year?


Poinsettia, Christmas cactus and amaryllis are just a few of the plants that offer spectacular indoor blooms. Consider the  vivid hues offered by orchids (pictured above) or the softer shades of camillia, and violets . See our links below for more details. (Photo by Linda Park)

For more information on these and other winter flowers, see :

African Violet Care

Orchids on the Windowsill


Falling into Place: Fall Tasks to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter


Photo by Betty Scarlatta

Another gardening season has come to a close, but there are still a few things left to do before it’s time to hang up your trugs and trowels till spring.  And while it may be tempting to just call it quits, getting around to some of these tasks now will make your gardening life easier in the spring –when your list of garden to-do’s will be even longer than it is at this time of year. So grab a sweatshirt, pull on your warm hat – -and get on out there!

Check out our checklist for what needs to be done now to help your garden weather the winter ahead:

green-ckConstruct a compost bin or pile

Things are piling up –in a good way! A compost bin not only makes fall cleanup easier by corralling yard debris, it offers a big garden payoff once these materials break down. A win-win! Recycling fallen leaves and other garden waste into compost yields “garden gold” aka, compost: a rich dark,  soil amendment that improves soil and helps plants grow.  If you don’t already have one, fall is a great time to start a compost pile. For how-tos, see: Composting at Home.


Not sure which type of composter is right for you?  More than 20 different composting methods are on display at Mercer Educational Gardens. Each bin is maintained by a Master Gardener team and displays advantages and disadvantages right next to it. The site is open dawn to dusk, and offers self-guided tours so would-be  compost creators can determine which type best suits their needs. Photo by Joe Scarlata.


green-ckCompost backyard leaves.

Leave the leaves on the lawn: Why not skip the rake altogether this year and instead, use the mulching blade on your lawnmower to grind up a thin (up to 4”) layer of leaves and leave them on the lawn? If the layer of leaves is too thick, you can remove most of them from the grass and compost them separately. (They will decompose more quickly if you put them through a shredder or run them over with a lawn mower first.)  Oak leaves or other non-packing leaves can be used as mulch around roses and other shrubs.  For more, see: Using Leaf Compost, or download  Backyard Leaf Composting.


Skip the rake and leave the leaves! Mowing over fallen leaves with a mulching mower or a mulching attachment, chops leaves into smaller pieces that break down easier. Photo by Catherine Horgan


Destroy any plants in poor condition.


When cutting back plants in the fall, avoid adding plants with known diseases or pest problems to the compost pile. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir

Banish the blight: Get rid of any plants that are are diseased, insect-infested, or in otherwise poor condition. Prune back any perennials prone to disease, and pull out any weeds you find so weed seeds don’t get a chance to germinate and take over any open ground in spring. Chop up any healthy garden residue and add it to the compost pile.

Just remember to destroy, and not compost, any diseased or infested plant material.

green-ckLeave some spent plant material for wildlife.

Welcome winter visitors:  Support a wholesome ecosystem by not doing too good of a job “cleaning” this fall. Leave healthy stems and grasses in place for wildlife. Perennial stalks and ornamental grasses not only add interest to the winter landscape but also serve as hiding places for insect-eating toads and loads of over-wintering beneficial insects.


Leaving some grasses and stems not only provides winter interest, but can also serve as additional winter mulch, and help trap blowing snow and leaves. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

And don’t forget the birds! Birds love to feast on the seeds of certain common flowers like coneflowers and black-eyed Susan. So why not leave them a wintertime treat and give yourself something to look at in the garden during the winter months?


Overwintering birds rely on the seedheads of dried perennials, like these black-eyed Susans. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson.

While you’re at it, consider hanging up a bird house or two, and setting out some feeders to provide food and shelter for overwintering flocks.


Residents of this bird house will be sitting pretty this winter, snugly surrounded by plenty of native trees, plants and grasses. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

Keeping a heated birdbath or other water source filled and thawed will be a boon to birds when other water sources are frozen solid.

green-ckStore tender bulbs, plants, and seeds.


In the fall, dig up canna rhizomes, cut the stems back to 2-3 inches, and let them dry. Leave them in a box in a cool part of the house where they will not freeze, such as a basement where the temperatures range between 40-50 degrees.

Annual retreat: Hold on to a little bit of summer by bringing less-than-hardy plants inside.  Store summer-blooming bulbs like dahlia, gladiolus, and canna (see also: Cannas )  in ventilated plastic bags in a cool, above-freezing spot.

You can also pot up your geraniums, wax begonias, lantana, rosemary, and other warm weather bloomers and grow them indoors. (See Keeping Geraniums Over Winter.)


Many summer bloomers like geraniums can be potted up in the fall, overwintered indoors and then replanted in the spring. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir.

Tender annual flower seeds from this year’s garden can be collected, stored, and used next year. (For more info, download: Grow Your Own Vegetable and Flower Seedlings.)

Don’t bother saving seeds from hybrid varieties of annuals, perennials or vegetables though. Hybrid plants grown from seed might not have the characteristics of the original plant.

green-ckMow lawns until growth stops.

Before the lawn starts to yawn:  Keep on mowing until around Thanksgiving. This final mowing can be 2” to 2 ½” high. Don’t remove the clippings unless the mower is also used to pick up fallen leaves.

Give the lawn its final fertilization in November or early December and eliminate the need for spring fertilizing until May. This also helps reduce the incidence of lawn diseases that are influenced by heavy nitrogen applications in early spring. Many fall turf fertilizers contain a higher level of potassium, which is important for winter hardiness and disease resistance.


green-ckPull away any mulch around trunks of trees and shrubs.

Stop the (mulch) madness:  Mulch that touches the trunks of trees invites fungus and insect problems, causes abnormal root growth, and may harbor “varmints,” such as voles, which eat tender bark and roots in winter. Maintain a “doughnut of mulch” around trees by keeping at least 4 inches between the mulch and the trunk. For more info, see: Problems with Over-Mulching Trees and Shrubs and Mulch for the Home Grounds.

Planning on buying a potted or balled and burlapped Christmas tree and planting it outdoors after the holidays? Be sure to dig the hole before the ground freezes. Place the soil in a box and store it where it won’t freeze. Then cover the hole with a plywood sheet or fill the hole with leaves or mulch until after the holidays when you’re ready to plant it.

green-ckProtect small or marginally hardy plants


Winter injury can occur on a broad range of evergreen and deciduous plants like these arborvitae. To prevent breakage, wrap them with soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape. Photo by Betty Scarlata.

Support your local trees and shrubs:  Protect any plants or broadleaved evergreens that might be prone to winter burn. Try using a burlap screen supported by stakes to surround and protect them. Just be sure to put the stakes in the ground before the ground freezes in November. The burlap can be tacked to the stakes when the weather takes its inevitable turn in late December.

Multi-trunked or multi-stemmed evergreens, such as tall juniper, arborvitae, boxwood, and yews may split under the weight of wet snow or ice.  Lend them some support by wrapping soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape around them.  Board shelters (a-frame structures like the sandwich boards used to advertise local delis) can be used to cover shrubs that are prone to snow damage–especially plants sited under the eaves of the house where they can get clobbered by snow sliding off the roof.

green-ckTest garden soil

Time to get testy:  Fall is a great time to have soil tests run. (Just be sure to collect soil samples before the ground gets too hard to dig.) Test results will arm you with important information like the proper pH and nutrient levels for lawns and gardens and since the recommendations are customized to your yard, will spell out exactly how to amend your soil for a better garden next year.  Word to the wise: If test results indicate that your lawn needs lime, do not apply when the ground is frozen or snow covered.  (See: Soil Testing for more information.)


Properly storing tools and equipment, like garden hoses, will make them easier to work with next year and last longer.

green-ckClean and store garden tools

Tool time: Clean, oil and repair garden tools and store them indoors. Drain the gas tank of the lawn mower and other gas-powered equipment after the last use or run the mower until it runs out of gas. Drain and store garden hoses and watering equipment. Turn on older outdoor faucets, then turn off the water from the inside line to prevent pipes from freezing. (Some hose bibs turn off inside the house, so water drains out and pipes are not in danger of freezing.)


green-ckStart planning for next year

Sweet dreams for a long winter’s nap:  Once you’ve put your garden to bed, it’s time to cozy up inside and…start thinking about next year!  When winter winds are howling outside, gardeners can nurture  budding garden dreams by digging into some wonderful garden books and lingering over plant and seed catalogs, (a place to start: Mail Order Vegetable Seed Sources for the New Jersey Gardener)


Looking to up your garden game? Check out some gardening seminars and workshops over the winter and expand your gardening know-how for the season to come. (A great one one to try from Rutgers Master Gardeners:  Refresh. Renew. Restore. A Garden Symposium)


Winter reading can provide just the inspiration you need to get through the frosty days ahead. Need a recommendation? Call the Master Gardener Helpline or join us for our annual garden Symposium in March where you can peruse the book sale for our garden must-reads. Photo by David Byers.

There are lots of other horticultural events and workshops throughout the winter that can fill you with inspiration and help you get through those long gray months when spring seems so far away. Browse our Upcoming Events section for a look at what’s next.

Ready to take your gardening skills to the next level? 

Why not become a Master Gardener and share your love of gardening with your whole community?

Find out how here:  Become a Master Gardener


Join us! Master Gardeners volunteer their time, talent and passion for gardening to make the world a greener place. Among our labors of love is maintenance of Mercer County Educational Gardens, (above) a living affirmation of the beauty of  responsible gardening. Photo by Joe Scarlata.



Preparing the Garden for Winter 


Falling for Bulbs: The time to plant for spring is now!

With Autumn barely beginning to hit its crimson and gold stride, it may be hard to think about Spring–but to enjoy those tulips, daffodils, and other beautiful bulbs next year, it’s time to get growing!


For a brilliant spring display, tulip and other spring flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall.

Chilling out:

Spring-blooming bulbs need to be planted in Autumn so they will have time to form strong roots before the ground freezes.  The best time to plant them is mid-September through late October when the soil temperature falls below 60°F. This allows roots enough time to develop.

Bulbs need time to get established before winter’s freezing weather sets in, and they need to spend enough time in cool soil temperatures to be properly chilled.”

Good bulbs gone bad…

When buying bulbs, look for ones that are plump and firm; avoid any that are soft, rotted, moldy, dented or nicked.

Although the ideal time for planting bulbs is September and October,
technically bulbs can be planted right up until the ground freezes.

Once purchased, it’s important to get bulbs in the ground as soon as possible to prevent them from drying out.  If you can’t plant them right away, be sure to store the bulbs in a cool, dark place and plant them as soon as conditions permit.

Keeping bulbs cool is important: if temperatures during storage exceed 80°F for too long, flower buds can be killed, especially heat sensitive bulbs like tulips.

Well grounded:

Many winter hardy bulbs are left in the ground year after year and can provide years of seasonal color in your landscape.  To make the most of your time and money investments be sure to give them a good start.  To that end, it’s always best to have a soil test done before adding bulbs to your garden. A pH of 6.0 to 7.0 is optimal for most bulbs. Adding limestone or wood ash can raise pH if needed, while additional sulfur or aluminum sulphate can help lower a too-high pH.  Your soil test results will tell you what amendments you need (if any), and give you detailed information on recommended amounts.  (See  Soil Testing for more information on how to have a soil test done.)

Photo by Catherine Horgan

Daffodils benefit from being periodically dug up and divided. Clumps that become overcrowded end up being full of lots of small, undersized bulbs, because the area has become too crowded for bulbs to expand. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)

Fall planted bulbs must be well rooted before the ground freezes, so timing and preparation is key for a successful design.

Where, oh where?

Spring flowering bulbs can cover a lot of ground–literally.  They not only bloom in a fabulous range of colors, shapes and sizes, they also thrive in a wide variety of conditions. For a list of bulbs that grow well in our area along with their bloom times, see our Spring Blooming Bulb List.


Consider planting groups of bulbs near entrances and along walkways where they can be enjoyed by visitors and passers by.

As a rule, bulbs grow best when planted in areas that have well-drained soil, where they will receive full sun to light shade. When deciding where to place them, keep in mind that it’s often still cold and bleak when the first spring bulbs break through.  Consider planting them where they can be seen from inside the house–that way you can enjoy their sunny disposition without having to experience winter’s lingering chill first hand.  Some other prime viewing areas: next to walkways and entry doors, under deciduous trees, in front of evergreens and in open flower beds.

Photo by Betty Scarlata

Tall alliums can make a dramatic statement. Planting them behind later sprouting perennials will help hide yellowing foliage. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

When it comes to color, spring bulbs come in every shade imaginable, from vibrant primary hues to soft pastels–so countless combinations are possible. And since most bulbs only bloom for about 2 weeks, they don’t compete color-wise with flowers that bloom in summer or fall so design away!

For more garden design ideas, see our fact sheet on the Basics of Flower Gardening.

Most bulbs bloom for about 2 weeks or so depending on temperature.

Drift away:

Regardless of where they are sited, bulbs tend to look best when planted in masses or large drifts, not one here and one there.  Planting in natural looking clumps also looks better than setting flowers in thin, straight lines. Try planting large numbers of bulbs (200 or more) in those areas that are more than 30 feet from windows and walkways for added punch.

Photo by Margaret

For the best display, plant bulbs in large numbers rather than individually or in straight rows. Buying in bulk can save money and excavating larger areas saves time. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

When planting large numbers of bulbs of the same size, it’s easier to excavate the whole area to the proper depth, instead of trying to dig individual holes.  Bulbs can then be laid out more easily, and the soil (and any amendments) can simply be filled in around them. But when planting bulbs in between other plants, or when planting bulbs of different sizes, it might be easier to plant them individually rather than disturbing established plantings.

Faded glory:

One of the biggest consideration when deciding where to plant spring bulbs is how to deal with the yellowing foliage. However, it’s very important that leaves remain on the plant after flowers have finished blooming and not be removed or mowed off until they turn yellow and die back naturally.  Those decaying leaves manufacture nutrients which are stored for next year’s growth and bloom and are essential to the plant’s survival. If the foliage is removed too early, the plant loses its ability to “recharge” itself, weakening it, and causing it to eventually die off.

Bulbs like these snow drops can  be “naturalized” or planted outside of bed areas. But be sure to plant them in areas that won’t need mowing late spring. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)

While the foliage on smaller bulbs such as snowdrops and squill will fade fairly quickly, the leaves of larger bulbs –like tulips and daffodils — can take several weeks to die back.

Here are some strategies for coping with yellowing bulb foliage:

  • Interplant spring-blooming bulbs with cold-tolerant annuals, such as pansies
  • Use groundcovers such as periwinkle or pachysandra
  • Plant bulbs in between perennials like hostas, daylilies, and ferns
  • Locate bulbs behind taller perennials or shrubs
  • Plant bulbs under low-growing groundcover shrubs like junipers, cotoneasters, or roses

Depth Perception:

Making sure bulbs are planted at the proper depth is key to bulb success, so be sure to check the instructions that comes with each variety of bulb you have purchased. Proper planting depth for each species should be clearly specified.

As a general rule, bulbs are planted 2 1/2  to 3 times the diameter of the bulb itself.  This estimate should be adjusted based on the type of soil they are being planted in however, with bulbs set somewhat deeper in sandy soil and somewhat shallower in heavy soils.

Photo by Betty Scarlata

Bulbs need time to get established before winter’s freezing weather sets in, and need to spend enough time in cool soil temperatures to be properly chilled. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Correct planting depth is key. Shallow planting of tulips and daffodils is a common cause of failure to thrive or return to bloom a second year.

Cold Comfort:

Spring blooming bulbs are hardy and generally do not require protection from the cold. However, 2″ of mulch can be applied after the ground is frozen to protect bulbs from heaving caused by alternate freezing and thawing; and to prevent premature emergence during warm spells in winter. For more info, see MULCH for the HOME GROUNDS


Fritillaria (Photo by Theodora Wang)

Be sure the soil doesn’t dry out during the drought spells that can occur in fall and early winter –since this is the time when bulbs’ roots are forming.
(Photo by Theodora Wang)

Once your bulbs are tucked snugly into their beds, be sure to water them thoroughly. Watering will help settle the soil and provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting.

Be sure the soil doesn’t dry out during the drought spells that can occur in fall and early winter –since this is the time when bulbs’ roots are forming. Avoid over-watering though, which can cause bulbs to rot.

Bulb Bandits:

Unfortunately, it’s not only winter-weary humans who find spring flowering bulbs highly attractive. Deer, rabbits, voles and other animals love them too and enjoy to dining on the foliage, flowers, and bulbs of many spring bloomers. If critters are a problem in your area, try covering susceptible bulbs with wire mesh screening.  This allows the shoots to grow through the holes, while keeping pests out.


Crocus are among the bulbs most likely to be eaten by animals. Other critter favorites include tulips and grape hyacinth; but adding a little protection in the fall and spring can increase your chances for success. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

There are a number of repellents on the market which can also be effective.  Consult your local Cooperative Extension office/Master Gardener Helpline for up-to-date pest control advice.

Daffodils, which are poisonous, are generally left alone by deer and rodents. Other bulbs that are less likely to be damaged by animals include ornamental onion and squill.  Bulbs that are most likely to be eaten by animals include tulips, crocus, and grape hyacinths.  To learn the susceptibility of each bulb type, download Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance.

Forcing the issue

Many of the bulbs that are planted outdoors can be made to flower indoors weeks earlier by potting them up in the fall and “forcing” them. The process involves placing newly potted bulbs in a cool (35°-50°F) location for 10 to 15 weeks to allow for root development.

Photo by Catherine Horgan

Many bulbs can be potted up and “forced” to bloom earlier. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)

They can then be “forced” or induced to bloom early by bringing them into a warm room where they can begin to grow well ahead of the spring thaw. The most popular spring bulbs for indoor flowering are hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other narcissi, and crocuses. Others, such as Siberian squill, star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, grape hyacinth, and Dutch and reticulata iris are also attractive and force well. For how to’s, check out FORCING BULBS FOR INDOOR BLOOM

Plant it forward:

Even though spring may seem a long way off right now, a little planning this fall can bring sunny drifts of daffodils and sweeping swaths of crocus to your yard to brighten those chilly spring mornings. So plant yourself –and the rest of us – a sweet spring surprise this fall. You’ll be glad you did!


Few plants are as eagerly anticipated as the flowers that bloom in the spring! Daffodils, tulips, crocus, and the other early bulbs are a welcome change from winter dreariness. To be able to enjoy these blooms in your garden next spring, fall is the time to plant!


For more on planting and caring for Spring Bulbs see:

Spring Flowering Bulbs