Top Ten Tasks for Fall

Our gardens have had some rain—and a promise for more this season—so we can now pursue “regular” gardening and think other good thoughts!

There are no exciting new developments or flights of imagination in this week’s column. Instead, here’s a review of steps to take in the fall to ensure gardening success in the spring.

  1. Feed your soil. As plants grow, they consume the soil’s nutrients, so the gardener should restore the soil by adding partially decomposed organic material. For an inactive bed, dig in a three-to-four inch layer of compost; for an active bed, provide the same layer as a top dressing.
  2. Mulch your beds. Cover any bare soil in the garden with organic or inorganic mulch to conserve moisture and discourage weed growth. For large areas, call your local tree service for a load of coarse wood chips, which break down slowly and are typically free.
  3. Plant spring flowering bulbs. There’s still time to create a delightful display. Online sources and garden centers are running low, but look for bargains. Even second-choice bulbs produce fine spring flowers.
  4. Wait to do clean up until spring. Leave faded perennials and grasses in place for now to decorate the garden and provide habitats for beneficial insects. Cut them back when you see signs of new growth in the spring.
  5. Plant perennials. Continue adding plants to the garden any time before frost. To avoid compacting the soil, let any rain soak in well before working or walking on the soil .
  6. Sow wildflower seeds. If you have enough garden space for even a patch of wildflowers, sow a small packet of mixed wildflower seeds. If you have a larger space, sow more seeds! This project is easy, inexpensive and very satisfying for the gardener, and great for the wildlife.
  7. Make notes on planting for fall color next spring. A little planning during the quiet days of the fall could support next spring’s installation of plants that will provide fall color and seed heads for the birds. A beautiful garden in the late summer and early fall requires a bit of study to identify and locate plants that will fit well into the landscape and put on a pleasing show.
  8. Control slugs and snails. The fall presents time for defensive action against the brown snail (Cantareus asperses), a significant pest in many gardens. Snails can reproduce on a year-round schedule, so the fall is a good opportunity for control only because other tasks are less pressing, and we want to give the new spring growth a chance to flourish. A reliable approach is picking snails by hand and dropping them into water with a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol. Other methods: lure them into shallow pools of cheap beer, or send your pet duck after them.
  9. Compost your tree leaves. Leaves that fall from your trees are not trash, but “gardener’s gold,” an excellent and free source of pre-compost. You might feel the need to rake your leaves into a pile (not everyone does), so the next steps will define your gardening priorities. One option is to wrestle them into trash bags, which is not a simple step on the way to the landfill. The preferred option is to shred the leaves to speed decomposition and add them to your compost pile. To shred the leaves, use a bagging lawn mower or a purchased or rented leaf shredder.
  10. Collect seeds. Watch for seed heads to form on your favored plants, cut the flowering stems at the base, drop them into a paper grocery sack that you have carefully saved, and let them dry for a week. They are then ready to sow in the garden, with or without the stems. If desired, separate the seeds from the chaff for storage or sharing.

You might know additional tasks that would ready your garden for winter, but these ten steps would be good preparation for a glorious spring season. Gardening is about the future.

Back to the Future Garden (Bulbs)

An important aspect of the art of gardening is working backwards, so let’s begin today by visualizing a stunning display of spring bulbs in your garden next April.

“Bulbs” include all plants that grow from bulbs, tubers, corms, or rhizomes. Plants with underground storage organs are correctly referred to as “geophytes.”

There are a great many plants in this category, with a stunning range of colors and forms. The large majority of geophytes are native to the world’s Mediterranean climate regions, which includes coastal California; they have evolved to thrive in climates like that of the Monterey Bay area.

For your spring vision to become real, you will need to plant your bulbs this year, in the early fall. You could plant as early as August, or as late as November, but a good time to target is September.

To have bulbs to plant in September, order them in July or August. You could buy bulbs later at a local garden center, but retailers necessarily stock mostly the very popular varieties.  Ordering by mail will let you choose from an enormous range of possibilities, and early orders are most likely to secure the largest, most productive bulbs.

If you acquire your bulbs before you are ready to plant, store them in a dry, well-ventilated place.

Before you buy bulbs, you should have a plan for planting. The easy part of planning for a display of spring bulbs is to identify space in your garden that receives—ideally—at least six hours of sunlight daily, and that drains well (no puddles!). There are also a good number of bulbs that will do quite well in partial shade, but if you intend to plant in a shadier area, select bulbs with that condition in mind.

Bulbs also can be grown successfully in containers, given sufficient sun exposure and very well-drained soil. Typical planting mixes are fine, but should be amended with horticultural sand, pumice, crushed lava rock, or other material to promote drainage.

Your design could mass your bulbs for a large display of one or several varieties, or place several small cluster displays among other plants in the landscape. The scale of your display will guide your decision on the number of bulbs to order. Growers usually recommend spacing for specific plants, but three times the width of bulb is generally OK. Wider spacing will provide room for increases.

The more popular species of bulbs that do not require winter chill to perform well include Daffodil, Crocus, Grape Hyacinth, Allium, Crown Imperial and Snowdrop (Galanthus). Others bloom their best after several days of chill: Tulip, Hyacinth, Siberian Squill, Anemone, Freesia (but some varieties will do fine without special handling).

Spring Bulbs

Click to Enlarge

 Good mail-order catalogs indicate which bulbs will grow well in Zone 9, which includes the Monterey Bay area, and offer pre-chilled bulbs.

To benefit from the full range of mail-order options, select some so-called “minor bulbs,” i.e., those not included among the most familiar species. Adventuresome gardeners leave the beaten path to discover the most interesting blossoms.

Yellow Foxtail Lily

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Caption: The Yellow Foxtail Lily (Eremurus stenophyllus) grows 4-5 feet high, with hundreds of star-shaped flowers. Photo: Brecks.com online catalog.

Good preparation of the planting area(s) involves removing weeds, loosening the soil, and digging in a three-inch layer of organic compost. If you have clay soil, dig in six inches of compost. This healthful exercise could be enjoyed after ordering the bulbs.

Bulbs are traditionally planted in random arrangements, following their natural spread. Planting bulbs in rows is so 19th Century.

The actual planting of bulbs in well-prepared beds can be quick and easy. The usual rule for planting depth is three times the height of the bulb. Stab a trowel into the ground, pull it toward you to open a planting hole, drop in the bulb, pointy side up, and cover.

If gophers or deer snack in your garden, put a handful of gravel at the bottom of the hole, and spray your bulbs in a bucket before planting with a repellent like Deer Off, Liquid Fence or Repel. You might need to plant in gopher baskets, which of course slows the process.

Start now to prepare for next spring’s pleasing display of bulb blossoms.

More

Visit Cindi’s Catalog of Garden Catalogs for many mail-order suppliers of bulbs.
The good ones include the following:

  • Breck’s Bulbs: click on “Spring Bulbs” and “Other Spring Bulbs” for minor bulbs;
  • Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, well-established grower, with a good search tool;
  • Bill the Bulb Baron, a local grower, with fields in Moss Landing;
  • Far West Bulb Farm, specializing in California native bulbs;
  • McClure & Zimmerman, offering a variety of uncommon bulbs;
  • Telos Rare Bulbs, species bulbs from exotic places;
  • Van Bourgondien Bros., good prices for larger volume orders.

Finally, visit the website of the Pacific Bulb Society for non-commercial information. Click on the link to “Pacific Bulb Society Wiki” for photos and descriptions by avid growers of geophytes.

Pruning and Moving Plants

Recently, with access to few hours of youthful energy, I pursued my gardening priorities. They were a bit early in the dormant season but too productive to postpone. Here’s a short list to encourage improvements in your own garden for the spring.

An Overgrown Shrub

A Glossy Abelia (Abelia ‘Edward Goucher’) had grown to seven feet, with long gracefully looping branches. It was an attractive, well-placed shrub that was crowding smaller plants. I had it coppiced, i.e., cut to the ground, to promote re-growth in the spring. This severe pruning method renews trees, particularly oak, hazel, ash, willow, field maple and sweet chestnut. It also works well with multi-trunked shrubs.

Plants in the Wrong Places

The Giant White Squill (Urginea maritime), notable for a huge bulb, is common in the Mediterranean basin but rarely seen in the Monterey Bay area. It is easy to grow, and can be moved at almost any time. Years ago, I planted a four-inch bulb where I later decided to reserve for California Natives, so I wanted to move it to the Mediterranean area. The bulb, which had grown to about ten inches in diameter, was easy to transplant.

Another wrongly placed plant was a Twinberry Honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata var. ledebourii), a California native. It had grown to about four by four feet, but in a place I later designated as the South Africa area, so it had to be moved. I learned that it too could be coppiced, so we cut it to six inches high and replanted it in the California Natives area. It could grow up to 10-to-12 feet high, so we placed it toward the back of a bed.

An Unruly Shrub

Wagner’s Sage (Salvia wagneriana) produces my favorite salvia blossom. The pink and white form has white bracts surrounding hot pink flowers, for a unique presentation. My plant grew rampantly to six feet high and ten feet wide. I had placed it in partial shade, where it thrived but didn’t flower very well. I also had failed to prune to maintain a smaller, denser form, so it had become rangy. Fortunately, it had also produced several seedlings. The solution was to shovel-prune the original shrub, transplant a couple seedlings to a sunnier spot for more blossoms, and schedule regular, late summer pruning for a more compact size.

Unwanted Shrubs

I have nothing against the Bigleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), but I needed to move three of these Chinese or Japanese native plants to make room for the Twinberry Honeysuckle and other California natives. Lacking a good place for them, I coppiced and moved them into large nursery pots, for gifting to another gardener.

Consider seasonal improvements for your garden.

More

The Giant White Squill’s large bulb is proportionate to its leaves and its stalk of many florets (blooming in August). The bloom stalk can reach five feet in height.

Giant Squill - bulb

Giant Squill - planted

Giant Squill Blossoms

The Glossy Abelia responds well to severe pruning during the dormant season. The first  photo shows the result of coppicing a Glossy Abelia that had grown to seven or eight feet in height. The following photo shows the renewed growth of another Glossy Abelia that had reached a similar height, about six months after coppicing.

 

Abelia - coppiced

Glossy Abelia - renewed

Growing Gorgeous Geophytes

The fall season invites gardeners to plant bulbs to blossom in the spring and create bright swaths of color for the new gardening year.

Right now is an excellent time to design bulb bed(s) and select spring bulbs for the garden. There is a lot to consider.

One strategy is to favor the most familiar bulbs, choosing either old favorites or recent introductions. The most popular bulbs include Daffodils (Narcissus), Tulips (Tulipa), Hyacinths (Hyacinthus) and Dutch Crocuses (Crocus vernus). Garden centers offer many varieties of these plants: the long popularity of daffodils and tulips in particular has motivated hybridizers to develop a range of colors and interesting forms.

The next most familiar bulbous plants include Lilies of the Valley (Convallaria, from rhizomes), Spanish Bluebells (Scillas), Grecian Windflowers (Anemones, from tubers), Snowdrops (Galanthus), Dwarf Irises (Iris reticulata, from bulbs), and Grape Hyacinths (Muscari). There are many appealing options within these genera, as well.

Adventuresome gardeners can explore a long list of less familiar bulbs, each of which brings unique characteristics. Visit my website, ongardening.com, for links to additional options.

A different group of geophytes are summer-bloomers. This group includes Gladioli, Calla Lilies, Dahlias, Tuberous Begonias, and Crocosmias. They are planted in the early spring about the same time we plant tomato seedlings.

Other geophytes we enjoy are fall-bloomers, which are planted in the late summer: Autumn Crocus, Winter Daffodil, Guernsey Lily, Saffron Crocus, and some species of Snowdrops.

With planning, you could enjoy glamorous geophytes during much of the gardening year.

Some spring-blooming bulbs need a chilling period to bloom their best. Winter in the Monterey Bay area rarely provides a chill that is long enough and cold enough for these plants, so schedule six weeks of cold storage. The kitchen refrigerator will suffice except for larger projects, when gardeners will appreciate the luxury of a second refrigerator. Consider organizing a chilling co-op with gardening friends.

Many mail order bulb sellers offer pre-chilled bulbs to be shipped at the right time for local planting. A welcome service!

Here are the basics of planting bulbs. Choose a site that receives all-day sun, and drains well. Select larger bulbs of the preferred genus. Plant the bulbs at a depth that is about three times the bulb’s diameter, and take care to position them with the pointed end up.

Bulbs can be planted very close together and may be arranged in either formal or informal patterns. Fertilizers are not required, but a small amount of bone meal in the planting hole could help. For clay soil, add compost to improve drainage. Water to settle the soil then let the seasonal rains take over.

Prepare now for a spectacular spring.

More.

Information About Uncommon Geophytes

North Carolina State University

The Plant Expert

Pacific Bulb Society Wiki

Mail-order Suppliers of Uncommon Geophytes

Brent and Beck’s Bulbs

Odyssey Bulbs

Telos Rare Bulbs

African Bulbs

The Bulb Man