I grew up in Louisiana and spent great chunks of every summer on the MS coast at my great aunt’s home in Gulfport. I love the south, but I hate August and sometimes September – it’s too hot! But I love the fall, and come from a family with long standing tradition of gardening in the fall, especially planting pansies and collard greens. My mama loved them both, and we grew both most every year. I still grow pansies, Johnny jumpups, and voilas everywhere, have pictures and postcards of them – they are quite nearly my favorite flower. Mama’s pansies grew in brick planters in front of the house, and I’ll talk more about them later. But the collards are the story of fall gardening. There’s nothing better than collards picked and cooked right after a cool spell. To have them ready for that day, you plant a bunch of seeds in September. Unfortunately for Mama, that’s exactly when the nearby woods begin to turn from green to brown, forcing wildlife to seek food further from their burrows and dens. We knew there were raccoons, armadillos, field mice, squirrels, and bunnies in the woods, but rarely did they venture past the barn, over the levee and into the yard. When the collards sprouted, some kind of alarm went off and soon the bunnies made the trek to devour the succulent green seedlings. For the next few years, I watched with growing amusement as she tried planting them in different places, put window screen over them and fences around them, all to no avail. One year she decided to plant them everywhere on the theory that there’d be plenty for us and them, too. The backyard looked like a casting call for Watership Down – it was a wildhared convention in every patch. The sweet bunnies we watched in spring as they nibbled the clover and henbit on the levee became the dreaded rabbits when they found her collards. “Rabbits!!” Mama shouted as she ran them out of the yard. She was in fact, a runway model, picture of elegance, and an English teacher. But her demeanor and tone of voice that day reminded me of the Wicked Witch cursing the Scarecrow as she set him afire. “Rabbits!” Mama moaned, surveying the damage just like the Witch watched herself melt in watery defeat. It was one of the few times I ever heard Mama curse, since she maintained that profanity was the province of a poor vocabulary. That’s what her ‘Rabbits’ sounded like to me. Her vocal inflections and obvious passion taught me that any word can be a curse if you say it right.
Let’s talk now about when fall happens to plants and what does work in fall gardening, as well as how to do some important fall chores, hopefully, without cursing. First up the lawn – if it’s in great shape, don’t change what you’ve always done. But if it’s in poor shape – thin, pale, or overgrown with weeds – consider my advice. Fall fertilization of lawns is a good idea, especially if the lawn hasn’t been as lush as you’d like. Their nutrients go primarily to root development, which is one hallmark of the fall season: plants shift their gears, so to speak, from growing leaves and flowers to transferring the nutrition in those plant parts into the stems, branches, and eventually the roots where it is stored to start anew next spring. By the way, that’s what causes fall color in plants: as each nutrient is taken from the leaf to nourish the more permanent parts of the plant, we see what’s left – yellow, purple, red, in various shades and stages. It’s also true that some plants conduct this process quickly, like ginkgo trees. Those duck shaped leaves go bright yellow, then drop in a day all at once. Red oak, though, has a different reputation. Since it absorbs nutrients slowly, the leaves hang on and it’s not unusual to have regular leaf showers that need to be raked for weeks or even months. As we move into late fall, and the best tree planting weather, these can be important things to ask about a variety you’re considering, since maintenance costs time and often money in the garden. The fertilizers called winterizer are best used well in advance of actual fall, like now, but those fall feeding formulas with numbers 0-20-20 can be used into late September, October, and even in preparing new beds for shrubs planted later on. Here’s why: the first number on the fertilizer label is nitrogen – that grows shoots and leaves, the green parts of the plant. The second and third are phosphorus and potassium. You only need to remember that they work together to grow fruits and roots, and flowers, but that doesn’t rhyme. So in fall, when we want to encourage the natural process of root development in lawns, shrubs, trees, and perennials, it makes sense to feed them with the nutrients for that: the second and third numbers on the label. No nitrogen, but phosphorus and potassium.
A second hallmark of the fall garden is dormancy and rest. Lots of plants turn brown, shed some or all of their leaves, and, in the case of annuals, both those we plant and those we weed, death. We cut back many perennials now, rake up leaves, and find ourselves with piles of garden debris. All that decomposing plant material – whether it’s old tomato plants, weeds from the flowerbed, perennials going to sleep, deciduous shrubs – makes a safe haven for every sort of bug and disease you don’t want to spend the winter with. Get rid of it! Or, as they say in the horticulture books, practice good garden sanitation. Set up a compost pile for the materials that aren’t badly infested, or toss the stuff into the leaf pile at the back of the azalea bed. The materials you consider uncompostable – burn them or throw them away, whichever’s more appropriate where you live. Redo your mulches now. If you use your own leaves, work last year’s layer into the soil to make room for this year’s brown harvest. If you use pinestraw, look at it: is it still brown and fluffy, or turning black with white stringy stuff right under the surface? Pinestraw rots very slowly – that makes it good mulch, but lousy compost. The white stringy stuff is mycelium and is a good thing, but can indicate that the mulch is staying wetter than you want. At least rake through the straw, or rake it out and replace it if it’s matted and soggy. In that condition, it makes a great mulch for boggy areas, or for the floor of a thicket habitat. One more point in garden sanitation – it’s a good cultural practice for all year – and is greatly enhanced by the use of light oil sprays on shrubs and roses, especially. The oil, sprayed after leaves fall off, smothers eggs and tiny bugs that can stay safely in bark cracks and crevices all winter.
Third on my list of fall hallmarks is the obvious: changing temperatures and light conditions affect how plants grow, or don’t. I do a bit of garden consulting from time to time and a client of mine told me something important to remember: for two years, she had diligently followed my advice to cut back her tropical hibiscus, withhold water, and keep them overwinter in her dimly lit, not heated but not freezing, garage. Beginning in early March, she’d brought them out again, and they bloomed from July til October. This year, she informed me, she had more fun things to do than worry about the hibiscus, so she was throwing them out, and by the way, new ones arrive at the garden center in April in full bloom for not too much money. Since she uses them for focal point trees in pots next to the pool, she wanted more flowers for more of the season and I cannot disagree with her logic. So what’s the point? When it comes to container plants, especially tropical ones, either make space in your house, build a greenhouse, rig up a place that won’t freeze in the garage, or don’t. It’s your choice and unless it’s a really rare plant, you can get more next year. If it is really rare, call me. I can’t promise I’ll take it, but I have been known to find sunny homes for huge philodendrons. It’s not quite like Alaska, but I maintain we could benefit from one of their ideas: plants are not cheap, especially tropicals, nor easily obtainable, people rent greenhouse space during the winter for their precious plants.
Here's an idea for a young entrepreneur looking for a winter gig, as is this: I personally would pay someone every year to come to my yard, rake and grind the leaves, and spread them in my flowerbeds. Think of it: the leafgrinder is coming this week! The flyers would say. A bit more on helping container plants cope with fall. Now, before it’s time to bring in the ones you just summer outside, give them some attention. Groom them, take off the old and dead leaves and flowers, clean the leaves out of the pot, look to see if roots are coming out the drainhole. Run the lizards off, unless, like me, you like them in the house. Get to the garden center and get a bottle of systemic insecticide granules if you’ve had bug problems this year. Sprinkle some in each pot now so it can go to work before you move them in. Repot any that have cracked their pots, or grow out the holes, or if you water and the roots are so crowded that the water runs straight though. If that weeping fig is too big to bring back into the house, cut it back now, and if needed, prune the roots and repot it in fresh soil in the same pot. Try to get all this done soon enough to move the plants into shadier conditions than they’ve been in for a week or so, then into the house before you turn the heat on. You get the idea: gradually reacclimate them to the house conditions and there’ll be fewer dropped leaves to pick up in October due to the lower light, drier air conditions. A word on watering container plants, since that’s what kills most of them: when the light and humidity are lowered, the whole plant slows down its growth processes. If you continue to water at the same rate you did when they were outside, you’ll overwater them. If you water a little at a time everyday, you’ll concentrate the roots in the part of the soil that gets wet. They’ll be easy to overwater, since there’s so few of them. A good rule of thumb, or in this case forefinger, is that most of the plants we grow in our houses need to be watered once so water goes through to the saucer or bathtub bottom, then allowed to dry out to the point where you stick your forefinger into the soil and it’s dry up to the first knuckle. That’s for a pot about a gallon size or larger – to the middle of your nail if it’s smaller.
One last thing about containers – don’t ever let water sit in the saucer after it’s gone through the soil. Use a turkey baster if the pot’s too large to lift, but get it out. Fourth on my list of the hallmarks of fall is the people factor. One day you just must plant something because – take your pick: there’s a breeze that’s not hot, a rain that’s tiny pellets instead of huge drops, you see a flat of pansies at the garden center, the spider lilies bloom, it’s a combination of things, really, but you find yourself, trowel in hand, ready to plant. And the best news is that in flowerbeds or containers, you can plant any annual you can get your hands on: pansies, violas, and Johnny jump ups, ornamental cabbage and kale, calendula, stock, snapdragons, foxglove, Canterbury bells, hollyhock, poppies, and candytuft top my list, but there are others. Now, not every year is perfect for all of these, but they’re worth a shot most years in most gardens. My best advice is to get them in as soon as possible, don’t let them dry out in the last gasps of summer, and fertilize once a month except when it’s actually freezing. Of course, fall is the time to plant bulbs, too. I’ll try anything when it comes to bulbs, but the best success I have ever had is with these: grape hyacinth, Darwin tulips, and ice capades daffodils. There’s a list in my book of daffodils that I like, but I’ve already learned of more from Loyce McKenzie. That is truly what I love about this path I have chosen. I learn something new everyday that I talk to gardeners like you, and that is a blessing indeed. Plus, as I tell my children and those who ask me garden questions, the best source of new material for my writing. If flowers and bulbs aren’t enough, fall is the time to plant a lot of vegetables. September is the time to plant all the greens you ever want to eat: spinach, mustard, turnips, collards, chard, kale, bok choi, and every sort of lettuce, endive, mesclun, arugula, whatever you like to eat. It's also time to plant garlic and onions, parsley, cilantro, and chives in the herb category. For more flowers, you'll be able to plant any perennials you find for sale, swap, or trade, and fall is the preferred time to dig and divide those that bloom in the spring, like daisies and phlox.
Want more? November through February is the preferred time to plant shrubs and trees, so if you’re planning a redo, or a new landscape, get with your designer now and get it done before Christmas. Whenever I talk about planting, I have to talk about soil drainage. It’s not a pretty topic to most people, but then neither is plumbing and occasionally we all have to talk about that. In fact, if you think of the roots of any plant as its pipes – there to take up water and nutrients and pump them up to the leaves and flowers – I guess soil drainage is plumbing. It’s certainly as important! Whether it’s a container on the windowsill or a huge tree you’ve chosen for the focal point of the front yard, when you plant, think and test for drainage. Fill a pot with potting soil and water it. If it’s slow to drain now, it will be when filled with plant roots, too. Dig a hole for a new perennial, shrub, or tree and fill it with water. If it doesn’t drain in half an hour, you’d better be planting bog plants, or amending the soil with enough organic matter, or sand, or something to avoid the saga of wet, cold roots in the wintertime.