Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October Notes

Every year at this time I scramble to see what other gardeners are doing for fall color.  I am particularly taken this year with the variations of the Cutleaf japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum), sure to be glowing orange and yellow for another a week or so.
Cutleaf japanese maple in Greenwich Village dooryard garden
If you are not satisfied with the brilliant display offered by deciduous shrubs and trees and want something closer to the ground, there a few plants worth trying.  My favorites are the Japanese anemones  (Anemone japonica).  The cup-shaped flowers are a flawless pink or luminous white and are carried high on stems that dance in the breeze.  Sweet autumn clematis (Clematis paniculata) will grow 20-30 feet in a season and cover a multitude of sins.  Asters are also reliable standards, and blue salvias hold their own well into the cold weather.

Japanese anemones
Ornamental grasses are not a favorite of mine but the rest of the world seems to love them.  Japanese Silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis) sports showy pale pink to copper plumes in fall.  Plume grass (Erianthus ravenae) has large feathery plumes that look like pampas grass.  Closer to the ground Blue oat grass (Helictrotrichon sempervirins) combines beautifully with Sedum ‘Autumn Gold.’

If you had any foresight, your bulbs should have arrived by now. Even if you are not in the market for new materials, you should always plant a few bulbs in the fall; you will be amply rewarded next spring. 

Spring bulbs, like almost all plants, require a well-drained soil.  Most gardeners will recommend using manure in a bulb bed, but if the soil is good I would advise against it.  Although I do recommend manure for most plantings, with bulbs it has to be well below the level of the bulb with not a chance of touching it.  This means you will have to dig down about a foot-and-a-half, which is more than strictly necessary for bulb plantings.   

Clematis masking damaged stone pier
For new plantings, I add a fertilizer specifically designed for bulbs.  For old plantings, I use a top-dressing of fertilizer in the fall.  Fall is also the time of year when you can use well–rotted manure as a top-dressing, if you have it available.  In the spring, a dusting of bulb fertilizer on an established planting will encourage growth for the coming season.

Bulbs vary in their planting depth.  They usually arrive with planting instructions.  If not, a good rule of thumb to follow is to plant them twice as deep as their diameter.  Make sure you are measuring from the top of the bulb to the soil surface, and not from the bottom of the hole. 

Bulbs look best when planted in clusters.  A good technique if you want to naturalize your bulbs, as we do with daffodils, is to toss a handful on the ground and plant them where they land.  Long drifts of a single variety are more graceful than spotty clusters.  To plant you can use a special long-handled bulb planter, or an ordinary garden spade.  Just make sure the ground is firmed up over and around the bulbs, and that they are well-watered before the ground freezes.

Bulb planting is one of the most enjoyable tasks.  October is a lovely month to work in the garden; the days are cool enough for heavy work, and there is something very satisfying about planting for an early spring show.  The bulbs will rest quietly underground through the winter, having done all their work the previous summer and spring.

Looking ahead, if you are planning to move woody plants in the spring root-prune them now.  Use your spade as though you were going to dig the plant, but only disturb about a third of the root mass.  This will give the young tree or shrub time to set new roots and will ease the relocation.  If you are planning on moving a sizeable tree or shrub, root prune the preceding spring and give the plant a full year to grow a tighter root ball.

Autumn windowbox with cabbage
If you want to move a deciduous tree or shrub now, it’s safe to do so once the leaves have fallen.  Just don’t try it with thin-barked trees like dogwoods.  Save this work for next spring. 

The end of October signals the time to start thinking about putting the garden to bed. There are gardeners who greet the first frost with dread, dashing out to throw protective covers over the most tender plants, hoping to get another few days of bloom.  Sometimes this works.  In mild autumns, you can still see an occasional weak rose throwing some blooms at Thanksgiving.  For me, the season officially ends with the first frost, which I am quite content to welcome.  The inevitable blackening of the plants signals the moment when we come indoors and start planning for next year.

1 comment:

  1. Always good advice! One little piece I would like to add...Don't forget to tuck in a little garlic in your edible borders and gardens too! Hardneck varieties do best in the northeast. The local farmer's market is your best source.