Fall is here and frost is slipping in to finish off any summer plants but there is still time to add some color to container gardens and planting beds. Winter pansies, hardy mums, late-blooming asters and ornamental cabbage and kale are available now at garden centers for instant color. Buy large size plants in gallon containers, place them on your porch and surround the plastic nursery pots with pumpkins and gourds. Now you have an instant autumn display of color without even picking up a trowel.
Your fall field goals for great yardage should include improving your own home playing field, so if you haven’t yet added lime and a slow release lawn food then this is the week to get into the game and score. If your lawn turned dry and brown this summer you can improve its ability to hold moisture by aerating now and then raking a few inches of compost-rich topsoil over the top. Topdressing a lawn like this will also help to level out any low spots to give the illusion of a more uniform surface after mowing.
Dig in and investigate those brown areas of your lawn before winter sets in. It is often a large boulder or a chunk of cedar buried just below the surface of the soil that is causing a small area of the lawn to dry out quickly in the summer sun. If you hit a patch of clay or sand under the surface of the lawn, dig in compost to improve any soil.
Here’s the other fall field goals for lawn and garden this month:
• Cut back the foliage on peonies all the way to the ground. This will help prevent fungal infections or black spots on the plants next spring.
• Rake up any fallen blueberries around your shrubs to prevent mummy berry, a fungus disease moving into our area that over winters on fallen fruit.
• Buy and plant spring blooming bulbs - you’ll be able to look forward to early color all winter long. My favorite bulbs for low maintenance color with many happy returns are winter-blooming snowdrops and the amazing deer, vole and shade- resistant dwarf daffodils. Look for ‘February Gold’ and ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils. They even bloom in the shade.
• Harvest green tomatoes, summer squash and other frost sensitive crops from the vegetable garden. Over seed empty soil with a cover crop like legumes or vetch to keep down weeds. Then you can till this winter cover crop into the soil in early spring as a green manure.
• Cover tender bulbs of canna and dahlias with a tarp and then a mulch to keep out the winter rain. It is the wet, not the cold that kills these summer blooming bulbs during our rainy winters.
• Move potted plants close to the house under the protection of the eaves. You’ll be surprised at how many plants sold as annuals that can survive our winter weather with just a bit of protection. Geraniums, diascia, alyssum, begonias and fuchsias have all been known to give encore performances for a second summer.
• Don’t forget the slug bait if you want to enjoy the blooms of winter pansies or ornamental cabbage and kale. Wet weather means active slug colonies.
• Rake leaves from your lawn. Big leaves from maples and chestnut are especially heavy and can smother the grass. Harvest the fallen leaves by stuffing them into plastic garbage bags along with some soil. Poke air holes into the bag with a screw driver and store outdoors for the winter. In spring you’ll have bags of leaf mold to use as a weed-blocking mulch around shrubs and trees. Leaf mold is also an excellent soil conditioner but it often harbors tiny slugs. Do be careful using leaf mold around young and tender plants in the spring. Leaf mold is a great soil conditioner when buried into the soil.
• October is still a good month to buy and plant trees, shrubs and perennials.
• Remove any stakes around young trees. New research confirms it is better not to stake young trees because letting them whip around in the wind forces them to grow more stabilizing roots. Sometimes you must put tree stakes around a young tree the first year to make it stand straight but after that, any staking does more harm than good.
• Become a guerrilla gardener. Commit an act of civil disobedience by randomly planting spring bulbs in a public space. Defy the law and poke a few daffodil bulbs in a bed next to the library. Improve your park without permission by planting a patch of crocus. Senior centers and nursing homes might also appreciate the “Occupy Spring” movement of planting bulbs now for a surprise display in the spring.
Marianne Binetti is a syndicated columnist.