Autumn arrived in our area almost two weeks ago with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 30s and 40s. This feels an awfully lot like the April article I wrote trying to predict when it would be safe to plant. Let’s assume that weather in the spring and fall is and always has been uncertain. I love being outside when the air has a bite to it but the sun manages to highlight the warm colors starting to show in our trees and shrubs.
Last month, my husband and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, for the Country Living Fall Festival. The display of homemade crafts, jams and jellies really made our three-day trip a shopping addict’s high. Everywhere we looked, the colors of fall made us giddy. This time of year there are fall festivals everywhere. Take the time to find one and go. I found my treasure in a ceramic frog. When I see his smiling face, it takes me back to the day I found him.
This month’s gardening activities include cleaning up beds or establishing new ones, planting spring bulbs and cutting back perennials that have started looking tired.
I have found that my Annabelle Hydrangeas get overgrown if I don’t cut them down. The blooms bend the weak stems if they get too tall. They look much better if cut them 12-15 inches from the ground in the fall. They will come back healthy next spring and tend to stand a little straighter during the summer months.
The newer varieties of hydrangea, like Endless Summer and Blushing Bride, are better behaved, so I just trim them to shape the bushes neatly. Oak Leaf Hydrangeas have stronger branches and can be cut back severely to the height you want. They will shoot out and bloom next year. I trim them randomly, branch by branch, instead of straight across like the Annabelle or old fashioned hydrangea.
Most of the flowering evergreen shrubs like azaleas and rhododendron should be cut in the spring after they finish blooming. Never trim them in fall because their blooms have already set and if you trim them now you will not have spring blossoms. You can trim other shrubs now for shape and size. Just be sure all your trimming is done before temperatures drop to the low 30s so you won’t damage your plants. Liriope and decorative grasses are better left for winter interest and cut back in springtime.
Bulbs go into the ground starting in September and going through October, even later if you don’t get around to it this month. The guide for how deep to plant them and when best to plant should be on the container for the type you are planting.
Something to realize if putting in bulbs for the first time is a lesson I learned several years ago. I wanted daffodils to cover most of a newly prepared bed, so I planted 200 bulbs, only to be disappointed the following spring when the flowers were not the mass I had imagined. They looked sparse and were too evenly spaced with one flower per bulb. Now, I plant them in groupings of three or four per hole for a better show. Be patient with your bulbs as they will multiply and produce better the second and third year.
When planting tulips, I have found some varieties to be better than others at coming back and multiplying. I have the best luck with the Darwin tulips. One last tip on bulbs: you will be better off if you plant at least 25-50 of one variety. Always make a note of the type or name you planted and their locations. When people admire your handiwork you can tell them the secret.
Trees and shrubs also are planted in the fall, giving them more time to get their roots established before facing the dry summer. You still will need to water the new transplants if there is no rain, at least once a week for the first month or so. When deciding the types of trees to plant, ask yourself what you need the tree to do. Is it for shade or privacy to block an area from view? Do you want blooms, berries, fall colors or an evergreen, like magnolia or holly?
Don’t forget that some trees also are interesting for the bark on their trunks. Crepe Myrtle has beautiful smooth bark and blooms all through summer. River birch has multicolored ruffled trunks with year round interest. They all become part of the seasonal garden.
My garden tends to look good year round because I have purposefully thought all this out. Now, I have a four season look, with spring bulbs, blooming trees like dogwood and pear, flowering quince and azaleas. There are maple and birch trees for shade in the summer and evergreen arborvitae and holly for privacy. We enjoy fall colors from the maple leaves, and winter interest from the barren river birch. Winter contrast is provided by dark evergreens.
Some folks think all this comes easy or is natural for me. The truth is, it has been a matter of reading, asking questions, studying other gardens, and not giving up. I want to say thanks to the readers who have come up to me and asked questions or shared how much they enjoy this column. Whether you have a large or small garden of your own or simply love remembering gardens of the past, in the end, we all continue to grow.
If you or someone you know has a garden that I might feature, please let me know. I invite your questions and comments, including gardening tips you have found helpful. Send your questions, comments or tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Wiltsee is the president of the Garden Club of Danville.