October is a roller coaster ride. This year more than usual, we’ve been soaring through euphoric highs of summer weather and then periodically plunging into cold, gray lows that are heavy hints of what is to come.
For many people autumn speaks of endings, shutting down and tucking away all that is bright and joyful. As the sunlight disappears, so do moods shift for many people – SAD (seasonal affective disorder) a very real impediment.
While some gardeners just shut down the garden and turn to other interests, the plant world can continue to satisfy and invigorate us. Plants offer beauty, pleasure, interest and comfort through the whole year, outside and in. This is especially true in October.
Outside: Autumn drama
Letchworth, Ellicottville, the Niagara Gorge and hundreds of other scenic trails through city parks and country roads certainly provide breathtaking color. But I’m talking about the Wow! to be seen in your yard just one plant at a time. If you don’t have anything exciting to look at this month, plant some of the autumn beauties now (in the case of shrubs or trees) or next spring (perennials).
In my garden Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’) is the show-stopper for over a month. It has clusters (drupes) of magenta berries that appear neon in some lighting. Now the leaves are still a limey medium green but soon will drop, making the berry color even more startling against dark mulch or white snow. Deer do not eat this plant, and the berries last long into winter. Some references label Callicarpa Zone 6, but it has thrived for a decade in my very cold Zone 5 yard, in clay soil, dappled shade, with some wind protection.
Another less-known treat in fall is the Seven-son Flower Heptacodium miconiodes, an 18-foot tree with white flowers in September followed by pinkish red bracts. Other woody plants – viburnums, Itea, Rhus – provide wine to red colors in the yard, while the Metasequoias and larches turn rusty orange or gold.
Perennials also carry their share of the performance. The 2011 Perennial Plant of the Year (Amsonia hubrichtii) forms a clump of gold, feathery foliage. Sedums are wonderful, and Japanese anemones and bright blue monkshood still flower through October (not just for this unusually warm one). My absolute new favorite, in its second season, is variegated Eupatorium (Joe-Pye weed) whose green-white leaves acquire splashes of purple while the flowers get pinker and fluffier. And other plants are re-flowering (coreopsis and daisies) or continuing to flower (cool-weather annuals).
Inside: Nesting, nurturing
A different kind of gardening activity drives and satisfies many gardeners during early fall. Several have told me they feel good about protecting, covering, mulching or otherwise tucking in their outside plants for the winter, and even mowing the lawn for the last time. Finally you put the unplanted pots in a sheltered spot, put the tools away, throw the gardening gloves into the washer and you’re done. It’s good plant stewardship with a dose of nurturing behavior.
Many gardeners take the nurturing even further. For the last weeks they (we) have been preparing and taking houseplants and container annuals inside for the winter. They’ll say “I can’t stand to let them die!” or “I save money by using them again next year.”
For those who don’t do this, and who may not understand why our kitchens and living rooms (wherever the best light is) become simulated greenhouses, let me explain.
We don’t just drag all the plants in and dump them on a table in a bright room. Instead, we first spend a little time with each plant, assessing its needs:
• Cutting back? Some plants are too big for our shelves or too tall for our ceilings, and you have to make cuts. Hanging basket plants such as Clerodendron (Bleeding heart vine) and Mandevillas will flower for many more weeks – continue to fertilize – and a haircut won’t hurt a bit.
• Cleaning up? Some people use insecticidal soap or a dunk in soapy water for all plants, but I do not. After the plants’ summer outdoors, the beneficial insects have eaten up the scale insects, and the sun and rain have dried up any fungal spores. I brush the pillbugs (aka sowbugs, potato bugs) off the bottom of the pots, remove any spider webs, take the fallen leaves off the top of the potting soil – and we’re ready. Inside I watch the plants and remove and treat problems individually.
• Repotting? Early spring may be the ideal time for potting up houseplants, but do it now if the roots are crammed into the pots. A crowded pot could need watering every day. Move transplants up just one pot size. Exception: Don’t repot Christmas cacti or other plants that are about to bloom.
The other fun part of indoor plant care is the annual game of matching the plants to a “cache pot” (an outer, decorative pot without holes) and placing them. This can go on for days. I watch yard sales for nice, old-fashioned pots of the sizes I need. I find and move around shelves, stools, benches and upside-down crocks, to place plants at the right height in relation to light. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to interior decorating, and it feels wonderful when everything looks just right.
The lighting part isn’t so much fun for me, requiring some fussing with fluorescent tubes and grow lights, that can be difficult to install or simply ugly. It’s a living room, after all. But plant lighting is necessary for some plant survival, and it can help with mood disorders. Good news in recent years has been the availability of the squiggly, energy efficient light bulbs that are cool enough to put very close to plants, unlike their incandescent counterparts.
And just when every plant is in a good spot for the season, a new houseplant enters my life – or the amaryllis comes up from the basement – and we’re moving plants around again. It’s a plant person’s nesting behavior. It’s playing with plants.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.