Friday, September 25, 2015

Don't Quit Yet.

Don’t quit now! Even though there’s been a little frost about, September and October are perfect gardening months. Cooler temperatures and no bugs make working in the garden a pleasure.

Gardening is fun — really, and the benefits are endless. It’s obviously a source of joy and satisfaction given the way people flock to garden centres in spring, but then spring gives way to summer and the concept of gardening for fun is set aside. It’s too hot and buggy, and the beach or cottage beckons. Then fall arrives; the grass turns green again and begins to grow, which means more mowing, and before you know it, there are leaves to rake.

But there are lots of other things to accomplish at this time of year. Fall is just as good as spring is for planting, even better in some cases, especially for trees and shrubs. They love this season, yet I’d hazard a guess that 70 – 80 percent are planted in spring compared to fall. Part of the reason is the natural inclination for gardeners to get out and do something in the garden, but it’s also because of the strong marketing that goes on, plus the plants look alive. They have green leaves and plenty of flowers, whereas at this time of year they might look dead.

Don’t be fooled. Trees and shrubs — and perennials, are going into dormancy rather than coming out — perfect for planting, whereas in May, just as the poor tree or shrub at the garden centre pops a few leaves, it’s tossed in a trunk or truck, shipped across town, dumped from the pot and stuffed into a hole in the ground. Someone runs the hose on it — when they remember — or they drown it, then it’s left to survive on its own while it bakes under a blazing sun. The poor plant has used what energy it had to pop those leaves, and now it’s supposed to grow new roots to support itself, with precious little help? For a tree, it’s the worst time to begin multi-tasking.

Plant a tree in early fall and what happens? Soon as it’s in the ground, the leaves fall off. But that’s okay. It’s not dead; it’s not even dying. Despite its appearance, it’s probably flourishing. Since it doesn't have to shove out leaves and impress the planter, it can focus on what plants do best in fall — they grow roots. The soil is warm, the sun is kinder, and there’s usually more moisture available.

With the help of a layer of mulch, the soil will stay warm enough to encourage roots to grow for months, even as late as December. Come spring, after a good spell of root growth, the tree or shrub will be bursting to produce leaves. One important note here, evergreens, unlike deciduous trees, lose moisture over winter, so they need to be well watered before freeze-up.

What’s even better about planting in fall is the price. Plant material is always less expensive. There’s a good reason for this. It costs money to store plants at a garden centres or nurseries due to the huge amount of work required to prepare containers for winter. In some cases, it’s necessary to provide heating. They’d much rather sell the stuff and restock in spring.

Everything I've said about trees and shrubs goes for perennials. They’re cheaper too and most will appreciate fall planting. If there’s an exception, it’s plants that flower in early spring. They may be reluctant, but then they probably won’t flower much in the first year anyway.

So, take a trip to the garden centre where deceptively dead looking plants and great deals are waiting, then get out in the garden and have a little fun. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Get Your Mums, Kids

It’s impossible to avoid them. Chrysanthemums are ubiquitous to the point I try to avoid them. I don’t have a single one in my garden. It is a mum free zone, except for the better half. I don’t mind them, but I can view mums any time. One trip to the grocery store, two minutes staring at their glowing heads and I'm mummed out, but I’ll admit they do look a lot better than bags of softener salt. 

Don’t get me wrong; I've no objection to others buying these plants. In fact I encourage it. There’s nothing finer than a pair of simulated headlights at the head of every driveway. I guess my mild aversion to them matches the feelings I have towards poinsettias and Easter lilies. They’re all plants — kind of. That is they’re all grown in greenhouses, but that’s where the similarity ends. They barely qualify as house plants. They’re really just decorations with a half life of a few weeks; then they’re done.

Regardless, however nebulous the connection with gardening might be, I have a responsibility to provide advice on the care of mums. Here it is: Simply place them in a sunny spot — or shady, and water them regularly until it’s time to replace them with pumpkins.

If you’re beginning to get the feeling that it would be a better idea if they grew in your garden as fall blooming perennials, there is no reason this can’t be so, but not with the ones that you buy at the grocery store. Okay, maybe, just maybe, depending on the quality of the plant, the time of planting, and winter weather, it might just be possible to have one survive and flower again in your garden. I've done it, but the odds of success are slim. Alternatively you could try wintering the pot over in a cool, non-freezing location such as an insulated garage or porch. Cut back the foliage as it dies down then keep the soil barely moist until spring. If it survives and shows new growth, plant it out in the garden.

The reason fall mums don’t adapt to planting in the garden is they’re greenhouse grown. Sure, they can withstand frost, but they've been forced into bloom for the season. They don’t have good root systems and are often pot-bound. The flowering stage, which is the selling feature, occurs at the end of the growth period, not the beginning. The plant is confused. Under normal conditions in the garden, mums grow through summer, flower in September, then shut down for the winter. Stick it in the ground now and it won’t even consider rooting out as the ground is freezing up.

The answer is to plant mums in spring. They’re available at most garden centres but guess what — they’re often ignored because they don’t have flowers. Few people think about mums in spring, probably because they don’t look anything like the glorious monsters that are presently reigning over every front porch in the city.  

But buy and plant them in spring and you’ll have the pleasure of watching them grow. They won’t need much care — a sunny location in reasonable soil, regular watering, and they’ll grow well. For best blooming, they can be pinched or pruned back up until July to create a bushier plant with more blooms for fall. Mulch around the plant in late fall and they’ll be with you for years.  

Think of the anticipation as the plant sprouts new leaves in spring and those little buds begin to form. Imagine the pleasure when the first one opens. That’s gardening, not decorating.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Don't Panic

The question keeps coming up. Should I cut back the dead foliage on my perennials in fall or wait until spring? This is an important question and deserves a lot of research before I can answer it emphatically. Research done. The answer is . . . please yourself. I say please yourself because the benefits or drawbacks are more relevant to how you feel about your own garden. 
Picture this: You have party at your house; it's 3 a.m. and you've just slammed the door on the last guest. Are you the type that washes all the dishes, tidies up, and then vacuums before going to bed, or do you simply collapse in the squalor? Of course, the answer is probably somewhere in between, depending on how the party went and whether you feel like holding another.
It's much the same in the garden. Whether you cut back the perennials or not largely depends on how you feel about the way things look, or whether it's the front garden or the back. Cut back or don't cut back? More than likely it won't make much of a difference. No one has ever come by my garden in summer and said, Ah, I see you didn't cut back your veronica last fall.
There are practical reasons for cleaning up immediately after a party and there are practical reasons to tidy up the spent foliage of perennials in the garden, but there will always be an opposing opinion, regardless.
In the garden, the pros and cons usually go like this: leaving all the stalks and seed heads on plants will provide food for birds during winter, meanwhile snow will collect and build up on the flowerbed, protecting the tender crowns of plants below. The mounded snow will also be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. On the other hand, insects and disease can remain with the foliage allowing them to be on site in spring ready to have another go at the plant.
Is the latter a concern? I'm not convinced. If you have plants that have obviously been afflicted with disease this year, then by all means remove and destroy the foliage, maybe the whole plant, but accept that many fungal and viral diseases are caused by organisms that winter over in the soil. Finding a needle in a haystack is a breeze compared to picking fungus spores from soil, and if you don't get every last one of the little devils, the problem will be back. The severity, however, is more apt to depend on weather conditions, rather than your diligence.
Remember the tar spot fungus that was plaguing maple trees the last year or so? It caused unsightly black spots on the leaves and we were warned to clean up every last leaf around the garden (I composted mine regardless). There's not much sign of tar spot this fall, but I'm sure it isn't because every leaf with a black spot on it was conscientiously removed from the province. More likely, it was a dry spring that disrupted the spread of spores. This is the cyclical nature of insects and diseases.
I'm afraid I still haven't answered the real question, so if it helps, here's what I do. On my roses, I cut back any extra long canes that will whip about in the wind, but leave pruning until next spring. I will also leave woody or evergreen perennials alone, but I might, if I'm in the mood, remove the mushy dead leaves of herbaceous plants like day lilies or hostas as these can provide hiding places for slugs to hide out. Unlike woody perennials which sprout from their stems, these plants sprout anew from their roots. I will wait, however, until frost has finished them off. Ornamental grasses sprout from their roots, too, but I wouldn't dream of cutting them back until spring. They are a highlight of my winter garden.

If you're still not sure about which perennials to cut back, take a clue from Mother Nature. After the party is over, she throws a blanket of leaves over the whole mess and doesn't worry about a thing. Don't you worry so much, either.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

To the Rescue Again

I feel a moderate sense of pride when I reflect on my current success story. It began almost a year ago when I stopped by a large local hardware store. I was only there to purchase a light bulb. Of course, it's almost impossible to purchase one light bulb thanks to multiple packaging. And thanks to psychologically effective display patterns and subconscious messaging, it's practically impossible to walk out of a large hardware store without a shopping cart full of things one isn't aware one needs when one enters the store.

However, I consider myself immune to advertising and subliminal messages and I managed to leave the store with only a two-pack of light bulbs. I did have a weak moment, though, just outside the door where I had to pass by the rejects from the attached garden centre.

They were mainly evergreen shrubs and half dead perennials, none of which I needed. I did give them the once over, but since I was in a hurry to get home and restore light to the bathroom, I didn't linger. The following day I went back to pick up a light bulb for the outside light over the front door. Since it was a sunny Saturday morning, there was no rush for the light bulb, so I was able to look over the plants a little more carefully.

I focussed on the perennials, hoping there might be something unique that I could scoop for next to nothing, but typically, these plants are ones that arrived at the store by the thousand and are only stacked at the door for a quick sale because it's closer than the dumpster.

It was then that I spotted it, almost hidden among the abundant spireas going for $3.99. At first, I thought it was a discarded support cane stuck in a pot, except it had a few yellow leaves hanging from it. There was a tag attached, though a faded one. I could just make out the words — Caryopteris 'Sunshine Blue', a small shrub. No Caryopteris had ever been grown in my garden. I'd never thought of planting one as they're barely hardy here. But, at $3.99, I'd nothing to loose.

I took my new plant home and sat on the bench while I figured out where I was going to plant it. These days, a new addition inevitably means replacing something else I'm tired of, or something that's performing miserably. The rose mallow (perennial hibiscus) that's been growing against the shed for years qualified on both counts — out it came (ironically, it was probably in better shape than many of the plants I'd seen crowding the door to the hardware store).

I then did a major refurbishing of the soil before planting the caryopteris, digging deeply, adding compost. I watered well then stood back. Nothing happened, other than the two leaves falling off. Later in fall, I mulched seriously all around the plant, hoping to ensure it would survive its first winter, more in hope than anticipation. 

It did indeed survive, although I had my doubts as it was the middle of June this year before it so much as sprouted a leaf. These were yellow, the same colour as the ones that fell off in fall. I've since learned that they're supposed to be a golden yellow, so it had not been quite so sick as it looked when I brought it home.

Right now, I'm feeling pretty good because over the summer the plant has flourished. Small blue flowers are appearing and it looks perfect in it's location beside the shed. Hmm, I just noticed the bulb is out on the table lamp. I'm off to buy a new one.