Until last weekend I was able to maintain a state of “seasonal denial.” This is a self-comforting mechanism that Northeast gardeners and some others adopt in autumn. Wool sweaters were still in the winter closet, hats and mittens on a back shelf, and lawn furniture stood ready for one more warm evening. However on Saturday, I returned home from a week in Florida. Still wearing cotton clothes, I walked from the airport into the windy rainstorm and realized: I will not be strolling in the garden with my dog and chardonnay this evening. Pay the snow plow bill, and put away the pots. This is it. The summer gardening season has ended.
Then I realized all the chores I had not finished.
Thinking that I was the only one who hadn’t completed the seasonal task list, I drove around some Buffalo gardening neighborhoods and saw that many of you have full bird baths (not the heated kind) still standing, dead hanging baskets and container combos on the porch, and clearly unmowed lawns laden with leaves. Then I asked some deeply committed gardening friends, “Have you finished most of your chores yet?”
Ellie Dorritie, of the Cottage District, Buffalo Garden Walk and National Garden Festival fame, wrote: “Ha ha ha ... OK, I’ve taken out the brown stuff in front. People can see that. But next to nothing in the back. Until the freeze it’s been a riot of color ... Now I have to face the music, plant those bulbs, fill the cart with compost and spread it ...”
Whew. I am not alone.
My good friend Kathy Guest Shadrack never lets me down, even in the shared guilt department: “Finished – Ha! Working people only have weekends, when we have to do everything, not just garden. So, I have 75 percent of my garden yet to cut back – and cut back I must or suffer the consequences of vole damage (when they have nice nesting material) and other nasty surprises. Then I have as many plants to protect – with wire baskets secured with landscape pins over precious lilies and hosta crowns and a tasty topping of castor oil mixed with detergent.” She goes on to mention wrapping Japanese maples and dragging in pots. And the Shadracks have one big garden (www.smugcreekgardens.com).
Gordon Ballard also described a “rude awakening” after the hard freeze Sunday night and realized they still needed to dig out 50 cannas and over 100 dahlias (see how-to below), and pull out mushy annuals. His tip for water gardeners: Do shut off the pond pumps, put in the aerators and de-icing donuts, and put the nets over to catch the leaves and all the rest that blows in. That, too, could have been done a bit sooner!
The not-too-late list
It’s not too late to:
• Plant bulbs. Almost everybody I asked has bulbs still to plant. Elizabeth Licata (GardenRant.com) wrote: “I still have 300-400 bulbs or so to pot up or plant. But there is still plenty of time for that.” She also mentioned shopping for bulbs, as she has noticed an unusually good bulb selection available locally this year. From past mistakes I will add the reminder: Don’t leave purchased bulbs in a hot room while you’re waiting for a sunny November day for planting.
• Bring in cannas and dahlias. They’re only dead on top. Cut back the blackened leaves and dig out the tubers. Dry them for a day – not freezing – and then tidy them up: Cut the stems an inch from the tuber and snip off excess roots. Pack in sand, peat or sawdust, and store in a cool place (40 to 50 degrees). Every few weeks check for dryness (sprinkle the bin with water) or dampness and rot (lift and dry the tubers and repack in new material).
• Save the ceramics and glass, including bird baths, bowls and planters. First-time container gardeners often make the mistake (at least once) of leaving them outside too long. Even planters that were advertised as winter-hardy will sometimes crack as the soil or water freezes and thaws, expands and contracts. If they are staying outside, put planters upside down, preferably emptied, or cover them with heavy plastic tied firmly around them.
• Plant trees and shrubs. Landscapers plant woody ornamentals with considerable success as long as the soil lets them, but you have to take extra care to provide a proper hole, have unfrozen backfill ready, water well and then be sure the plant doesn’t heave out or dry out during the winter. In windy areas, stake well too.
• Stash the unplanted. Gardening fanatics often repeat something like this: “You’re not a real gardener if you don’t have a bunch of plants in pots staring at you from the driveway.” I qualify. Move the perennials or woody plants-in-waiting to the protected side of a building (out of direct wind), or into a cold outbuilding. Cluster them together. Mulch around and over them after they have frozen (to discourage rodents from nesting around their succulent stems).
• Cut back perennials. Leave seed heads for the birds or attractive stalks or grasses in place, but cut back messy foliage to a few inches above the plant crowns.
• Turn under the annuals. If you can’t turn them into the soil, compost your annuals.
• Start a compost pile or bag the organic matter for future use.
• Cover what needs protecting from severe winter weather or deer. Most damage from both sources happens after December. There is time.
Bottom line: Nearly none of us, including some of the best gardeners, has finished. But that is OK. It’s mostly not too late this year. And, as optimistic Gordon says: “We’re not going to wait until it gets cold next year!” I say, Ha, ha, ha!
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.