11/3/17: In the garden this week


Foliage of Penstemon digitalis has been this beautiful color since September, but I’m not complaining. Those are seed stalks of purple lovegrass, Ergostatis spectabilis.

The weather can only be described as freaky. I am longing for autumn–the two cool days this week were a mere teaser. Most trees are holding their leaves, although most perennials have finished blooming. I am still seeing monarchs almost every day. I wonder what they’re finding to eat.

Most garden chores for this week are the same ones I usually suggest in early September, except for this first one:

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds, save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week because the rainstorm on Tuesday gave us approximately 1 1/2 inches of precipitation. But be vigilant, especially while the weather remains warm: In any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

practice good horticulture with warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, and cucumbers. This is particularly important as the season winds down. When you clean up the garden, throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material). Fall-planted cool-season crops are not doing well this year!

— because of the warm weather, tomato plants have not died back yet, so keep picking, and keep removing suckers and diseased plant material (and again, don’t compost diseased material). Look at this post, this one, and this one for basic information about growing tomatoes. And keep picking: don’t let the fruit rot in the garden.

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Seed of purple lovegrass and of little bluestem is ripe, as are seeds of joe pye weed, penstemon, prairie onion, and monarda. Aster seeds are ripening. Milkweed seed is done.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheas–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with native in the spring.


Most perennials have finished blooming, but sweet black eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba) still has a few flowers. Its seeds ripen late and will feed birds all winter. Note the leaves that fall on the garden and remain to insulate the soil and harbor butterflies, moths, and other creatures.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. However, because of the warm weather, you could fertilize now (and legally you cannot fertilize after November 15). If you reseed bare areas this fall, be sure to water newly seeded areas frequently: grass seed will only germinate if kept moist, so give seeded areas a light sprinkling several times a day. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis. Do not water, or if you feel you absolutely must water, water infrequently and deeply. And always remember: the more you water, the more you’ll have to mow!

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit.

— do not clean up the perennial garden until spring: the seeds that remain will feed the birds all winter; the stems and dried leaves will shelter innumerable small creatures; and the detritus the ground harbors next season’s butterflies and moths.

Enjoy the garden this week!


Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is displaying rather dull fall color this year, and its leaves are handing on much later than usual. The berries are gone–the birds eat them as soon as they ripen. This is one of the best all-around native trees for partial shade.



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