Consider site conditions before selecting woody ornamentals based upon their brilliant fall colors

Smart gardeners make use of falling leaves to add organic matter back to their lawns or gardens.

As brilliant colors of fall cover Michigan’s landscape, gardeners may be tempted to seek out a particular tree or shrub for its spectacular red, orange or yellow color. While the seasonal interest of a tree or shrub’s fall color may prompt a gardener to purchase it, smart gardeners will determine the plant’s site requirements before impulse buying. Matching a plant’s growing requirements to the intended planting site will help insure the plant’s future success.

Make sure you determine the existing site conditions: soil, light, hardiness zone and space. Do you know what type of soil you have? Its drainage capability? Its pH? Getting a soil test completed through Michigan State University Soil Testing Lab will provide you with this information. What amount of light is available? Do you have existing trees that provide some shade? Or is it in full sun or full shade? Use the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine your site’s zone. Be sure you measure the space available for a tree or shrub. Make sure you match the available space with the mature size of your intended plant. Often times, a tree or shrub is planted too close to a building or other ornamental because it was planted based upon its smaller container size. Determine the mature size of a tree or shrub before planting.

Check out “Smart trees and shrubs for Michigan landscapes”  from Michigan State University Extension for possible native woody ornamentals that may be better suited to a site. Matching a native plant’s site requirements to your existing planting site is also crucial to its future success. Some natives will prefer wet soils versus others that prefer well drained sites. “Smart trees and shrubs for Michigan landscapes” also provides information on other seasonal interests, such as flowers, bark color and fruit, that you should consider for additional landscape interests in spring, summer and winter.

As the fall leaf colors settle upon your lawns, you can mulch them back into your turf as a source of organic matter. Read the smart gardening tip sheet “Mulch leaves into turf for a smart lawn” to learn more about the benefits of this practice. If you have lots of leaves, alternate mulching leaves into the turf with mulching and composting or placing mulched leaves on your garden beds. The leaves will cover the exposed soil, thus decreasing erosion. The leaves will also be adding organic matter that will break down over time, adding nutrients to the soil as well as improving soil structure.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website at or contact MSU’s toll-free garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464.

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