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Running out of time

November 07, 2004|by Dorry Norris

Throughout spring and summer, gardeners plug along in their plots - digging, planting, weeding and watering. Come October, we're vulnerable to that moment when Mother Nature lets loose her color palette on the hillsides and turns them into an unbelievable tapestry of red and gold and orange.

This glorious display tends to distract us from the dreary task of putting the garden to bed for the winter. But in what seems a mere blink of an eye or with a bit of wind, the trees are bare - the only reminders of their glory are bright rings of color on the ground circling the tree trunks.

Disconsolate, we finally heed the call of the geese flying south - "work to be done, work to be done, work to be done" - and turn out attention once again to the fading garden.

Since I always transplant a few things in autumn, the hose is still connected when the time falls back. Unhooking, draining and storing it in the garage for the winter is my way of welcoming November.

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Still fresh in my mind is one Sunday night in January when we came home from a short trip to the sound of running water in the crawl space under my office. The hose was still connected, and, when the temperature dropped, the line froze - a messy and expensive business.

Now is also the time to make one last check of the garden. I always find at least one tender plant that I somehow overlooked when bringing plants inside for the winter. This past week, I discovered that a small carob tree that had been completely engulfed by a healthy bit of soapwort. A heavy frost would surely have done it in.

This week, a reader sent me a query about the advisability of cutting back his thyme border now. My answer was a resounding "No, not at this time of year." If you prune after late August, you run the risk that if we get a few warm days - like we got on Halloween weekend - new growth will begin to sprout. Then, come the first heavy freeze, that tender new growth can frizzle up and the plant may die back. You may cut off old, dried, bloom stems. But wait till the first new growth next spring to trim back the whole plant. I leave the long stems on the Russian sage through the winter, then cut it back by two-thirds in the spring. I used to be more timid and only cut it back by one-half, but the deeper cuts give bushier plants.

"Let it go till spring" holds true for all the plants that produce new growth from this year's wood - santolina, rosemary, lavender, sagerue, etc.

Plants that die down to the ground are another matter entirely. If you see a new rosette of growth coming up at the base of the plant, you can cut off the dead stems. Echinacea, achillea, anise hyssop, bee balm and the like will benefit from this.

The reader who wrote inquiring about thyme also noted that while many books tell how to start an herb garden, there doesn't seem to be one that gives information on maintaining it. Do any of you have a favorite book that tells how to keep up your herb garden? These days, when I have questions about growing a particular herb, I go to www.google.com on the Web and type in the plant name. That usually provides a list of sites that I can consult.

Fall is a good time to check all your plant labels. As I pulled up spent annuals, I realized that some of my labels had faded beyond recognition. It only takes a minute to re-label. You'll be glad you did.

Even though most of the garden is desolate, there are still blooms. The tall ageratum-like plant I mentioned a few weeks ago is flowering like crazy as is a 3-foot yellow cosmos. And so is the rosemary by the porch. As I pulled the last of the weeds to lay down landscape cloth for a pathway, it was grand to discover that the saffron crocuses planted last spring (against all the rules) are blooming, too.

Outside my office window, a native witch hazel, its leaves still a glowing, golden yellow, brightens my day. It won't be long before the twisted witch hazel petals will unroll and take on that same golden hue.

We still have a few lovely garden days ahead. Make the most of them.

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