Weather comes at us fast—immediate as a hurricane—but it doesn’t last long. A month ago, we were on the verge of severe drought after an encouraging spring and early summer; yet as of this writing we’ve had several good soakings from northbound tropical storms, and all of a sudden the idea of adding something new to your landscape doesn’t seem quite so harebrained.
If you don’t like current conditions, just hang around.
Here in the hollow where I live, our little spot soaked up 5 1/2" of rain in 24 hours and yet the creek hardly rose, so don’t think all of a sudden we’re rolling in water. But as long as drought is not actively wicking away groundwater, fall is an ideal time to put woody plants in the ground. Just don’t plant anything now that you can’t water through a dry spring or summer next year.
Mums color your world ’til winter.
With shorter days and cooler air, plants don’t dry out as fast. Soil temperatures are at the Goldilocks ideal, neither too hot nor too cold, the best time for root growth. If you have any boxwood to move, now’s the time to do it. Plant shallowly and don’t over-mulch. One inch is the max. Don’t let them dry out and don’t let them sit in water.
Moist, diggable soil is a treat for the bulb planter who must get his or her bulbs in the ground by November for best results. If you didn’t mail-order ahead of time, cruise garden centers now for sales of daffodils or snowdrops (safe from deer), tulips (deer food) and crocus (pale purple C. tommasinianus is said to be squirrel resistant). Plant larger bulbs like daffodils 6-8" deep; small bulbs like crocus, 2-3" deep.
While you’re shopping for bargain bulbs, pick up a couple of flats of pansies (deer food) or pots of chrysanthemums (deer resistant) to pop in prominent beds or pots. Planted in the fall, they’ll add color until winter and be set to go first thing in the spring.
Brent Heath, legendary Virginia bulb grower in Gloucester, never fertilizes with chemicals or bone meal (which can attract critters) but relies instead on compost as an amendment and shredded leaves for mulch.
As we’re focusing beneath the ground this time of year, hold off on any nitrogen which promotes vegetative growth. Cold wood ashes are a good source of root-promoting phosphorous. A transplant solution of liquid fertilizer like “Roots,” a concentrate diluted with water, also high in phosphorous, gives a little boost to new transplants, but is used just once at planting.
Though the weather has given us a window of planting opportunity, considering the pattern we’ve seen developing over the past years, ranging from very dry to merely moderate, it’s wise to seek out plants that can withstand prolonged dry periods once they get established.
Azaleas, daphnes, inkberry, boxwood, bee balm, and most hostas won’t thrive without constant, even moisture. They can survive without it, as can we all without some necessary thing, but it’s not a pretty sight. On the other hand, butterfly bushes, some hollies, sedums, Russian sage, herbs and many ornamental grasses do fine in dry soil as long as they’re watered regularly for six months to a year while they grow their roots outside the original planting hole—i.e., “get established.”
Keeping an eye on the soil and the sky is a boon to the gardener. Check out Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide for a revealing appreciation of the beauty of weather and clues to foretelling it.—Cathy Clary
African violets are pretty little things, but when it comes to lifestyle, they’re pure divas.
They want very bright natural or artificial light, but not direct sunlight. (Ideally, place them within 3′ of a southwest- or southeast-facing window.) To bloom, they need eight to 12 hours of light and eight hours of darkness per day. Weak light for a longer period is preferable to correct light level for a too-short period. They also like high humidity, but not high heat or being placed directly in water. Sheesh!
Pre-packaged African violet soil mix is available with a ready-mixed slightly acidic pH. Violets’ only easy aspect: their propagation, which can be done simply by taking cuttings and re-planting leaves.—Lily Robertson
October in the garden
-Plant shrubs, trees, pansies.
-Shop for bulbs.
-Watch the skies.