Sunday, November 11, 2012

Late Fall Gardening

Dear Gardening Friends,

September and October have come and gone, as has Thanksgiving, and here we are three weeks before the Winter's Solstice (after which the days get longer and we begin to anticipate Spring), and then of course Christmas. I think of this time period in Columbia as being late fall regardless of the official definitions of the seasons. And late fall is a wonderful time for gardening.

Before I go on, please do remember to water. Despite recent rains I have rarely seen the ground so dry around here, and it is easy to forget to water when it is so much cooler outside.

  Leopard Plant - Oct blooms

This fall has been beautiful as far as fall flowers go - ageratum, plumbago, Russian and Mexican sage, Mexican petunia, autumn clematis, leopard plant, sunflowers, day lilies, zinnias, vinca lasting all the way until mid November, knock out roses and so forth. And now we have camellia sasanqua and early/fall blooming camellia japonica! I wonder what has been blooming in your yard this fall that may not be on my list?

The other day I enjoyed listening to the high pitched scree of a hawk pair flying all around the Forest Hills area. I don't know if hawks are more abundant in winter here, or just more noticeable. Lot's of reptiles are already in hibernation or partial hibernation. I'm always digging up skinks and ground snakes this time of year.

Some days after work is done I take a a few pictures of flowers and such - and you can check them out on my Flickr site in a set called Scenes from Work.

I suspect with all the stuff to do for Christmas, and given the cold purported to be descending upon us soon, that a lot of us take a break from thinking about our gardens. But there are actually some useful things to do in the garden in the late fall.

Late fall is a super time to transplant. Now that the nighttime temps are approaching freezing plants are falling to sleep and going into dormancy (kind of like animal hibernation) - which means first that there is less transpiration going on (none in deciduous trees and shrubs obviously) and that much less demand being put on the roots by the leaves to get water (for photosynthesis), and second, that the plant is not going to sprout new shoots and buds if it is cut back somewhat. This means that when we transplant at this time of year it is much less traumatic for the plant. But plant roots do grow slowly over the winter and so that when the weather does heat up in the Spring and the plant comes out of dormancy it has had a chance for its roots to set and is in better shape to survive its first summer.

Late fall is also a very good time to plant shrubs and trees, many fruit trees, some hardy perennials, and a good time to dig, divide and transplant some bulbs.

Late fall is a good time to get rid of vines and tree saplings that have been taking over the garden. Even with deciduous vines it is actually quite easy to see them this time of year, and much easier to see some evergreen vines.

Now is a perfect time to take out English ivy. English ivy is an ongoing maintenance challenge and it also competes with shrubs for water and nutrients. It is also one of the most damaging invasive plants in southern forests. Pulling ivy is good to do any time - but is less stressful on the plants around it when the pulling is done in cooler weather.

I have noticed more and more how leaves and straw accumulate in the crowns of azaleas. Azaleas do not like this and this time of year affords and good time to clean out the dead wood and accumulated debris around the azalea plant. The same is true of hydrangeas.

Late fall is a good time to apply mulch to boxwood, azaleas, camellias and many other shrubs, especially after cleaning out old plant litter and dead wood. Since it also a good time to apply a light feeding to many shrubs (to help root growth over the winter), some folks like to use a mulch like Dixie Mix, or to sprinkle a slow release granular fertilizer in with say shredded hardwood bark (my favorite mulch for around here).

Late fall can be the right time to prune or cut back unsightly overgrown foundation plants, especially those whose flowering buds are not already set. One could argue that February is better, but if you just don't want to look at an overgrown or unsightly bush or row of bushes all winter it won't do any harm to prune them now since the plant is dormant. Boxwood too can be selectively pruned now to allow in more light and air which will stimulate bud growth in early Spring.

Late fall is a good time to start to get the ground ready for a spring planting of vegetables. Bacteria and worms don't stop working in our mild winters when the soil rarely freezes, and late fall is an active time for worms and bacteria to work on decomposing leaves and enriching soil. Turning the soil in a planting bed, especially if it has some leaves or leaf litter can be a good way to prep the soil for an early spring planting.

And did I mention collards?

Late fall is a good time to get that compost pile going! We tend to take a large amount of plant material out to the street, much of which would be super for a compost bin.There is nothing quite as rewarding as homegrown compost!

So many of you have plants and shrubs that are easy to propagate via rooting and grafting (especially the former), and these could easily fill out your yards over time with new plantings from your own stock. All that is needed is a good rooting bed and/or rooting pots. This was my grandmother's way and it is a good one. I think for example of many of the old camellias and azaleas that many of us love and which are getting harder to find these days. And what a wonderful way to share our special plants with friends!

A word about my suppliers...As you know I primarily use Cooper's Nursery for trees and shrubs and many perennials. I go WAY back with Coopers and very much enjoy working with them. If Cooper's cannot get a certain plant in a needed time frame I have no problem getting plants elsewhere, but Cooper's is my go to supplier.  For a lot of my work in the Forest Acres area I use Forest Lake Gardens at the back of the old Forest Lake Shopping Center for pine straw and annuals and bagged soil amendment products. I am attached to the locale as I grew up working right across the street where my grandmother's Norge Village and my dad's Gillespie Cleaners used to be. In fact, the building that is the office of Forest Lake Gardens used to be the drive through building for my very first bank - the old First Citizens. And for jobs in the Heathwood or Shandon/Hollywood-Rose Hill areas I may also use Southern Vistas in a similar manner. Of course there are other really excellent locally owned and operated garden centers and nurseries such as Hay Hill, Woodley's and Mill Creek to name a few, and I wish them every success. I've just sort of settled into the folks I "trade" with, to use the phrase my grandmother used to use.

In addition, more and more I am trying to buy basic supplies from local businesses rather than Lowe's or Wal-Mart or Home Depot. I have nothing against these places - I just want to try to support local businesses. I buy a lot of things from Cedar Terrace Hardware across from the VA Hospital and more recently the Ace Hardware on Beltline as well.

My biggest joy in this work is seeing so many folks enjoying their yards and gardens more, and anxiety eased by taking care of often overwhelming tasks. We live in a special place with beautiful pine-hardwood forests and a rich history of gardening, reaching well back into the 18th century. I find it fascinating the continuity between then and now, a continuity that often runs right through the gardens of our parents and grandparents. In fact this continuity extends back to the time of our indigenous forbears! We know this from the earliest European explorers of our area (like Hernando DeSoto, and the later naturalist explorers like Mark Catesby and John Lawson and William Bartram) who chronicled native plants and the way which they were used by indigenous peoples. It's cool to think of the history of human enjoyment of that very plant sitting there in our yard, as well as the place of that plant in the ecosystem going way back eons of time. Kind of cool really.

I hope you enjoy and have a blessed late fall season! Joel