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Upper Midwest Gardening: 6 Ways to Improve Your Garden

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Beautiful gardens take some planning and work. Lowe's Upper Midwest garden contributor Rebecca Kolls shares some of her strategies.

Ligularia is served up with a twist of lime.

I'm definitely not a perfectionist in the garden, not by a long shot. I figure nature is not perfect, and I love her results, so I have a good teacher. Remember, I'm the lazy gardener! But there is a certain method to my madness. These are things I do time and time again to ensure good things growing in my yard.

1. Trying New Combinations
Every year I try new combinations. In spring I'm always digging, dividing and designing. And to be honest, some of my best combos just happened without much thought. That's nature working through me! One of my favorite "moves" combined the chartreuse Tiger Eyes sumac and 'Beauty of Lisse' astilbe with deep-purple ligularia. I love the sharp contrast among the three and also how the tinges of pink on the leaves and stems of the astilbe blend beautifully with the sumac. Yum! I love this patch of "perfection"!

Lily-of-the-valley makes backyard bouquets, free for the picking.

2. The Gifts of Gardening
I love nothing better than sharing sweet little victories from my garden. Whether it's fresh flowers in a mason jar, honey from the hive, pickled produce or a basket of beets, truly these are gifts of the heart earned with sweat equity and nurtured love. Like a kid on Valentine's Day, I secretly leave blooming goodness somewhere in friends' yards: on the patio table, say, or on a bench. They are sweet surprises grown with love.

3. Mix in the Magic
My recipe for great soil contains three magic ingredients: peat moss (or coir), compost and manure. Whenever I'm planting something new, starting a garden or cleaning one up, I always add these amendments. Good advice from an old gardener, my grandfather, who always said, "Don't forget to feed the garden!"

4. Keeping It Green
When I reach for garden remedies, I most always reach for safe, nontoxic products. My grandfather taught me to be green, and I still am. It seems to have worked beautifully. So part of my success comes from patrolling the garden regularly, looking for invaders such as the Japanese beetle. Their beauty belies their voracious appetite. They can skeletonize a plant overnight. Rather than spraying I hand-pick them off plants and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.

5. Weeding
I am a weed-whacking warrior! I do get carried away with my battery-power weed trimmer. I use it to trim and edge but also to weed. Yep, when I don't have time to get down on all fours, I swiftly chop off the heads of the weeds with one quick, clean pass. I figure I can chop them into submission. It works dandy for annual weeds. The persnickety perennials? Well, that's another story--but at least I don't have to look at them.

Bagging poison ivy is a constant chore

6. Poison Ivy Patrol
I live in the woods, and so does poison ivy. Not bad for me; I'm one of the few who's not allergic to this pest. Unfortunately I can't say that for the rest of the family, who have terrible reactions. So I religiously scout the perimeter of the property looking for babies. They are easy to spot because their bronze-purple, almost glossy leaves contrast sharply among other new emerging plants.

They are easy to pull out, especially after rain. I use grocery bags or bread bags to ensure there's no contact. I put the bag over my hand, like a loose glove, tug at the ivy and pull it out. Then I fold the bag over the ivy so I never have to touch it. Established plants are harder to remove. That's when I pull out the big guns. A shot of Roundup will usually do the trick. But I'm careful because Roundup will kill anything it touches. So to keep overspray contained, I cut off the bottom of a milk jug or 2-liter bottle, place the bottom over the ivy, then spray through the opening on top. This way the herbicide goes directly where I want it. This works great too for thorny thistle in the lawn.

Rudbeckia, coleus and larkspur combine for a fiery fall fiesta of flowers.

Passing on the gift of gardening was a learned behavior from friends and family who love getting their hands dirty throughout the season--which means there's always a growing gift waiting to be given. My favorite backyard bouquets come in late summer and fall, when colors are vibrant and hot.

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