October horticultural hints
by Betty Sanders
Cleaning up the perennial bed doesn’t mean cutting to the ground. I used to cut down all my perennials in October, but no longer. I now leave up the flower stalks with seed heads for the birds. Migrating birds appreciate the food. And it is vital for those species that over-winter in New England. In addition to less work for you, the birds make your garden a more interesting place throughout the winter. Always vigorously clean up any plant that has battled disease this year. Again, you’ll save yourself work and enjoying your garden more in the spring. Bulbs. October is the ideal time to put in new spring bulbs. If you plant daffodil and hyacinth bulbs in the middle of the flower border, new growth from perennials will hide the yellowing foliage next spring. Your tulips should be in the ground now, and small bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops, and grape hyacinth should be going into the ground by mid-month. Hold off planting daffodils until later in the month. Remember large bulbs need to be 8 to 12 inches deep, small bulbs six inches. To keep squirrels and other varmints from digging up and eating your bulbs, dust them with lime as you put them into the ground, and then add a layer of lime on top of the planted area. The lime interferes with smelling the bulbs, and is an important in ‘sweetening’ the soil for these plants that come from a part of the world with much less acidic soil. If you have very aggressive rodents, add hot pepper or chili powder to bulb coating. Don’t count on rainy weather. A look at past gardens notes tells me that we have had some level of drought every year in the last decade. And 2020 has been no exception. If your soil feels dry down several inches, water any trees and shrubs that will need the water over the winter. So as not to waste water, set your hose up to slowly deliver the right amount (one to five gallons depending on the size of the plant) rather than spraying the entire garden. You can also use a bucket or other container to slowly deliver the right amount of water to the plant’s roots. Think critically about your plantings to see if you have any water hogs that could be replaced with less demanding plants next spring.
Finish harvesting the vegetable garden. Many inland areas of eastern Massachusetts saw a freak, mid-September frost that put an end to tomatoes, peppers and other warm-weather crops. If you were spared, complete your harvest of these tender vegetables now. Then, turn your attention to harvesting, cleaning and storing your remining cool-weather fresh produce. Remove potatoes before there’s a hard frost. Dig them out carefully and then brush off soil, but do not wash them before storing. And keep them out of the light. Potatoes do best if allowed to cure for a couple of weeks in a cool, dark place. Place newspapers under them while the skin hardens. Do not try to store any that have nicks or bruises, use them immediately. Begin to harvest your final round of root crops. Carrots, beets, kale, spinach and radishes that you sowed as the warm weather crops were removed in August and early September should be ready for the dinner table now. They are generally frost hardy and usually can be left in the ground into November. Cover them with light cloths if a subfreezing night is forecast. Serving fresh vegetables from your own garden is one more thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. Lime time. Lime your lawn and garden this month. Rain, freezing and thawing, and snow melt all help to get the lime down into the soil before the spring growing season begins.
Previous years hints: 2019
Dig and divide overgrown summer bloomers. Siberian iris with dead centers will benefit from the division. On bearded iris, look for any pinholes in the tubers. These indicate iris borers and mean a quick trip to the garbage. Healthy plants can be divided and replanted either in your garden or as gifts for friends. For tubers (dahlias), bulbs (caladiums), rhizomes (cannas) or corms gladiolus), they need to be gently lifted, then allowed to dry out of the sun. Carefully remove most of the dirt and check for insect or disease damage. Store healthy ones in paper bags in a cool dry place.
Re-potting season. October is the month to re-pot any house plants that have outgrown their container. Never go up more than one or two inches (for very large plants) in pot size when repotting. Remove any rotten or mushy roots. Pry apart matted or circling roots, and cut off those that are too compacted. Doing this ensures so the remaining roots will reach out into the new soil. When re-potting, start with a coffee filter (or similar) over the pot’s drain hole to contain the soil, then add a layer of soil. Hold the plant at the level you want it to sit and add soil around it to stand it upright (with large plants you may need an assistant). Firm the soil but do not pack it down. Water thoroughly until it runs out the bottom. Set the container aside and add more water until you are certain the entire pot is wet. Use a pot saucer to catch any overflow and place the plant in its new home. Plant seeds that need winter chilling like bachelor buttons and milkweed now. Would you like more butterflies? Plant swamp milkweed now. That dismal name disguises a plant with a lovely pink flower with a wonderful scent. And, later in the season, swamp plant will be visited by many butterflies, including our endangered Monarchs for which the milkweed is required to produce the next generation.
Autumn leaves are spring nutrients. Mow leaves into the lawn this fall and be rewarded with healthier soil for the lawn next spring. If you use a bag attached to the mower to catch the chopped leaves, spread those chopped leaves as a mulch around trees and shrubs, and also in your perennial beds. The leaf-grass mix can also be added to the vegetable garden or, of course, your compost pile. Healthy leaves in garden beds can be left in place now, or, if you are a neatnik, rake leaves off beds, chip them up by running over the leaves repeatedly with your mulching mower, and return them to the beds. They will return the nutrients to the soil over the winter. If you are into neither mowing nor raking, spread a layer of compost over the garden beds and let Mother Nature do all the work of breaking down your leaves. Avoid using ‘weed and feed’ now more than ever. The fertilizer (the ‘feed’) won’t be used by grass, which is no longer growing rapidly, and the herbicide (the ‘weed’) is pointless because weed seeds are no longer germinating. Instead of improving your lawn, these chemicals will find their way to local waters, kill beneficial microbes in the soil and feed overwintering weeds. Keep mowing, with the mower set to two inches for as long as your grass keeps growing. Mow leaves into the lawn. Mowing saves you the task of raking and, by chopping leaves into small pieces, they will break down over the winter. It’s a virtuous cycle – putting vital nutrients back into the soil, for the grass and surrounding trees for the coming season. Do NOT rake leaves from under shrubs. Those leaves act as a mulch protecting the bush’s root over the winter. Moreover, a number of beneficial insects winter over in those leaves. Once you rake them, cart them away or chip them, you’ve removed insect friends from your garden.
You can read more of Betty's horticultural advise on her website, www.BettyOnGardening.com. She is a lifetime Master Gardener.
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