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Dishin' the dirt from the garden and beyond

Has fall arrived early, or are trees just stressed out?

We've barely turned the corner on September, and already, the maple in my back yard is turning color and dropping leaves. I've noticed a couple other trees in my neighborhood doing the same thing.  

Signs of an early fall? No. More likely a cry for help.   

Most tree species start turning color around the third week of September in the Twin Cities, according to Travis McDonald, a certified arborist in Eden Prairie with Davey Tree (

If your tree is well ahead of schedule this year, it's probably a distress signal. 

"Early fall color can be health-related," he said. "If trees are stressed, they're going to defoliate," especially at the crown.  

Trees can become stressed for a variety of reasons:

1. Lack of water. Even though the Twin Cities is not currently experiencing drought conditions, that's no guarantee individual trees are getting enough moisture. "We've had downpours instead of nice, consistent rains," said McDonald. Urban trees, especially those planted in islands of turf grass, may not be getting much runoff.

The remedy: Keep the hose and sprinkler going well into fall. "Turf grass can go dormant, but trees still need watering up until freezing," McDonald said. That goes for evergreens as well as deciduous trees. 

2. Root girdling. Maples are especially prone to this condition, in which roots wrap around the trunk and pinch off the flow of water and nutrients. "This can stress the canopy on hot days," McDonald said. Look at the base of the trunk, at the root flares. "If one is flared out and another is heading down, dig down to see if one of the roots is wrapping around and strangling the tree," he said.

The remedy: Cutting away the girdled root is a job best left to a professional. "If you can cut too much, you can kill the tree," McDonald said.  

3. Soil compaction. The soil around established trees can become so compacted that it inhibits the uptake of minerals, "If mowing is taking place around the tree, soil compaction is likely," McDonald said.

The remedy: "Soil compaction is hard to correct," McDonald said. Amending the soil can help. So can "vertical mulching" using an air spade, to get more air into the soil.

To troubleshoot stressed-out trees, consult with a certified arborist, McDonald advised.

Now is a great time to fertilize trees, he added. A slow-release fertilizer, used in the fall, can encourage root-system growth that will strengthen the tree's canopy next spring. 

What are you seeing on trees in your own yard and neighborhood? 

Pollinators gear up for fall

Late summer is not usually a time I'd invite anyone into my garden. The more spectacular blooms are spent, so looky flowers are less plentiful, and other aspects of the garden are way too lush.You don't want people to have to hack through a jungle to follow the garden path.
But nonetheless, it's party time in my garden for at least one group: Pollinators have staged a convention in the backyard, suddenly descending in droves.
Just as we gardeners start to focus on capturing as much of the freshness of summer produce as we can before season's end, so too do bees and butterflies. While we're busy preserving produce in everything from jewel-like jams to puckery pickles, our yards are abuzz with bees and butterflies gorging on nectar to prepare for migration or hibernation. I have to paw past bumblebees to get to the cucumbers and dodge waspish-looking things hovering around the basil blooms.

Among the biggest draws for the butterflies are the boring generic phlox that grow in my alley. The monarchs don't seem to care that the phlox are far from trendy, or that my goldenrod flop. To them, it's all just a buffet to belly up to.

Phlox is one of the 12 plants listed in this article ( that butterflies love. Many of them have a long and/or late bloom time, which might also explain why I get so many more pollinators in fall than spring. Of the 12 plants, I've got six: phlox, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, sedum 'Autumn Joy,' goldenrod, and the ultimate bee magnet in my yard: the New England asters that are covered with almost as many bees as blooms.

What brings pollinators to your yard? I'm happy to share my overgrown backyard with the bees and butterflies. They don't judge a garden on its looks.

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