Swan song

Swan song

Summer ends Sunday, September 23, with the autumn equinox as the sun crosses the equator and everywhere day and night are of equal length. Days continue to shorten until the winter solstice when Earth turns back from her farthest loop around our great star. Shadows become longer and evenings in the garden more precious.

Many plants respond to changes in day length and begin preparations for shedding leaves and storing food. It’s optimal time for root growth in trees, shrubs and perennials, thus timely soakings (with the gray water you’ve been saving from dishes and laundry, right?) and applications of compost and mulch are in order.

This is also prime time for renovating the lawn. If you’ve been having problems establishing a healthy stand of turf, it’s most likely a matter of poor soil—compaction, lack of organic material or a need for lime. If water restrictions remain in place, you might have to put off seeding a new lawn or over-seeding patchy places until the spring when we can hope rainfall will be more plentiful, but there are plenty of nonwater-dependent things you can do now to grow good grass.

September in the garden
Tune up the turf.
Plant fall greens.
Plan for bulbs.

Test the soil (call the Extension Service at 872-4580) to find out how much lime you need to apply. Most of our soil is clay and needs to have its acidity raised closer to neutral to sustain turf grasses. Pelletized lime is better than powdered because it doesn’t blow away.

Lime takes a while to work its way into the soil, so whatever recommendation you get from the soil test, divide it into two or three applications over the coming seasons. Freezing and thawing over winter will help.

Once you get the pH right, begin a regimen of adding compost every fall instead of chemical fertilizers. Nearly neutral in pH, compost will counteract the natural acidity of clay and add organic material with all its lively microorganisms which are the best food for every growing thing.

Aeration is also best suited to the fall. Rent an aerating machine that pulls plugs of soil up out of the ground, or hire a landscaper to do this for you. This will counteract compacted soils, allowing oxygen and subsequent applications of compost and lime to filter down.

With your soil suitably fluffed up and amended, you can look forward to autumn rains and sleep well during winter snows as they meld together a ripe medium for next year’s greensward.

It’s not too late to order bulbs and just the right time to begin looking for them at garden centers. Daffodils, tulips, crocus, alliums, hyacinths, snowdrops and myriad other minor bulbs will make a splendid spring show just a few months after planting this fall. Plant through December as long as the soil can be worked, but it’s best to get them in by November. Thanksgiving is a good goal and a nice time for a family project.

In the vegetable garden, sow spinach and winter greens like kale, collards and mustard. Acquire a bale or two of straw to have on hand for mulching once the weather turns cold.

As time winds down, these tawny days take on a special beauty. The new slant of the sun smolders summer’s green into a hazy gold. Switch grass and joe pye weed, coreopsis and ironweed come into their glory and offer sustenance to every passing butterfly. The chickadees and finches eat the thistles and sunflowers and the coneflowers’ cones and those of us who have something in the ground can look up and see some semblance of balance in this crazy world.