Ground Rules: The big freeze

Ground Rules: The big freeze

Albemarle County straddles the foothills and the piedmont, from the soft blue mounds of Afton to the mellow plains east of Charlottesville. This tricky topography makes many different pockets to catch first frosts. City folk retain more heat than those of us in the country and can eke out a longer season, but sooner or later the big one will come. If the garden has gotten a bit out of hand, don’t worry about serious clean-up until nature does some of your work for you.

Once there’s a good freeze, the ground will be ready for bulbs. Plant through November all the way to Christmas if the weather’s mild.

Look toward the end of October, between the 19th and 29th, for the first killing frosts to do away with the last of the morning glories, petunias, peppers and tomato vines. Get those summering house plants back inside now. If you’re not in a mad rush you might have time to give them a good strong shower to dislodge unwanted critters and perhaps a dunk in a mixture of soap or oil for good measure.

By now you’ve had a good month to institute water saving measures and surely are recovering sink water, dehumidifier/AC dew and any stray drippings off the roof. If you have husbanded your moisture wisely you may have enough left over to plant oriental poppies, peonies, sweet Williams, pansies and violas, but until we are out of the current drought, put off new plantings you can’t sustain, especially larger trees and shrubs.

Once there’s a good freeze, the ground will be ready for bulbs. Plant through November all the way to Christmas if the weather’s mild. Now is the time to plan for spring. The lazy grasshoppers among us will gaze upon a barren landscape in March while the prudent ones will see early bulbs poking through the rime.

I fell in love with daffodils after purchasing a mixture of miniatures from Van Engelen Nurseries ( and began puzzling out the different ones using Brent and Becky Heath’s indispensable Daffodils for American Gardens (1995, Elliott & Clark). Their color photographs and clear organization make it easy to identify almost any daffodil you’re likely to come across, including heirloom varieties like “Twin Sisters” and “Butter and Eggs.”

The charming Southern habit of referring to all Narcissus as jonquils becomes even more confusing when you try to figure out where daffodils come in. For those who care (I once had a friend plaintively ask, “Do I have to know their names?”), Narcissus is the botanical name for the genus of bulbs commonly known as daffodils.

Narcissus jonquila thrives in the south, with distinct narrow grass-like foliage, late-blooming sweetly fragrant flowers and a thirst for heat. A southwest-facing wall or other heat trap (think brick retaining wall along an asphalt driveway) is the perfect place to establish a colony of jonquils that will increase for generations.

Within the species jonquila are a number of named varieties: “Sun Disc” (like golden coins), “Pipit” (yellow petals, white trumpet) and “Quail” (dark yolky yellow). Look for these special daffodils at Van Engelen’s or the Heaths’ generations-old nursery in Gloucester at Deer and other rodents don’t eat daffodils, much preferring to munch on candy-colored tulips. If they have good drainage and adequate sun, these bulbs naturalize happily in lawns, meadow edges and beneath shrubbery and trees.

Here in the hollow first frosts come later each year, giving us a week or two more of moon vines and nicotiana to scent the night air, a bit more time to get fall greens in and the wood stacked, but the age-old calendar remains the same: Whenever it may come, after the first big freeze, plant bulbs.

October in the garden

Bring houseplants in.
Save water.
Plant daffs.

Garden questions? Send them to Cathy Clary at