The Early Fall Garden To-Do List

The autumnal equinox happened September 22nd. It’s the official start of fall when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward. The earth’s axis of rotation is perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun on this day. Many people believe that the earth experiences 12 hours each of day and night on the equinox. However, this is not exactly the case.

During the equinox, the length is nearly equal but not entirely because the day is slightly longer in places that are further away from the equator- like where we live. Also the sun takes longer to rise and set in these locations as it does not set straight down but in a horizontal direction.

Variegated alstroemeria

It was a hot summer and I’m ready for fall. This is the perfect time for transplanting or adding new plants to your garden. Why? Cooler air is kinder to plant foliage while soil temperatures are still warm creating an excellent environment for new root growth. In the fall many plants and trees, even broadleaf evergreens, are entering a period of dormancy. With no need to allocate resources into foliage, plants are transferring all their energy into roots and storing nutrients for the cool months ahead. By spring, the new root systems should be well established.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like alstroemeria, agapanthus, coreopsis, iris, daylily, yarrow, rudbeckia, calla lily, aster and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart although they don’t always bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves. Start perennial flowers seeds now so that they will be mature enough to bloom next year.

bergenia cordifolia

Fertilize shrubs lightly one last time with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or layer of compost. Use compost only on California natives.

Fertilizing roses now will encourage them to bloom again this fall. To keep roses blooming make a habit of pinching and pruning off old flowers. Always cut back to an outward facing branchlet with five leaves. There are hormones there that will cause a new flower bud to grow much sooner than if you cut to one with only three leaves.

Plant cool season veggie starts like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, lettuce, spinach, brussels sprouts, onions and leeks in soil enriched with 4-6″ of compost as summer vegetable crops will have used up much of your soil’s nutrients.You can sow seeds of beets, carrots, radishes, spinach, arugula, mustard and peas directly in the ground.

Cut back berry vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

hemerocallis

Spider mites are especially prolific during the summer. If some of the leaves on your plants are pale with stippling, spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching off with neem oil as they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides. Plan to spray with a horticultural oil in the winter to kill overwintering eggs.

The weather these days is perfect for being outside. Enjoy it and this place we call home.

The World of Lavender

Everybody loves lavender in a garden. It’s one of the standard requests I get to include in a garden design. But we picture the lavender fields we seen in famous gardens not the spindly, woody plants we often end up with in our own gardens. With so many kinds to choose from and endless growing tips here is Lavender 101 from The Mountain Gardener.

Lavender farm- Whidbey Island, WA.

Lavender needs good drainage. Incorporate organic matter if necessary to make the soil loose and friable. Compost is the best amendment because it is fertile and the uneven particle sizes create better air spaces and give the roots better anchors to attach themselves to. Check the soil’s pH (potential hydrogen) to make sure it falls somewhere between 6.5 and 7.5. If the soil is too acidic the lavender will not thrive. If the soil is too alkaline, the nutrients are ‘tied’ up in the soil and the plant cannot use them. Yellowed growth can be indicative of a soil that is out of balance. Adding compost can help to balance the pH.

Mulching with a fine mulch or compost after planting helps with the weed control. Avoid mulching right up to the stem of the small plant. Instead, leave a collar about two inches wide around the plant.

If planting in pots, make sure to repot every spring into a larger container with fresh soil to allow the plant to continue to mature and to provide as many flowers as possible. A good, coarse, potting soil with organic fertilizer mixed in works best.

Grosso lavender with mixed lavender varieties

In the ground or in a pot, full sun is a must. In hot areas, some late afternoon shade can be tolerated without effecting flowering. Lavender in the field rarely needs fertilizer, especially if compost is applied as a mulch. More often, problems arise because the soil is not healthy. Avoid chemicals in pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that kill or starve the beneficial organisms in the soil.

While Lavender is extremely drought resistant once established, it grows larger and produces more blooms with regular watering. This means that when it is dry, water it then let it dry out a bit before soaking again.

Plants should be pruned every year immediately after bloom. Pruning should not be confused with harvesting. Pruning is necessary to extend the life of the plant. Lavender flower wand stems are usually a bright green while lavender leaves are gray. Cut back not only the flower stem, but also about a third of the gray-leaved stems as well. If the plant has been neglected, it can be cut back further, but avoid pruning back so far that only woody stems with no leaves are showing. A plant pruned into the wood may push out latent (sleeping) buds or it may die.

It’s possible to have a lavender blooming in your garden most of the growing season. Here are my favorites.

Spanish lavenders start blooming early to mid spring. All of these do best with a good pruning about four or five weeks into the bloom cycle, which discourages these large bushes from becoming untidy and sometimes encourages a second sweep of blooms. Spanish lavender is sometimes referred to as French lavender since it grows wild in France.

lavender farm-San Juan Island, WA

French lavender has the more traditional gray leaves but with serrated edges. This large, fast growing shrub is sometimes referred to as everblooming lavender. French lavender does best when kept at no more than three feet, including blooms. The large, blocky flower heads can be dried if picked before any of the little flowers turn brown. Goodwin Creek lavender is a hybrid of French Lavender with a shorter growth habit and a darker purple flower head that is held on a longer wand. It makes a nice border or edging plant.

English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolias), like English, Munstead and Hidcote start flowering in mid to late spring and are finished by late spring or early summer. They look great when they flower, and after pruning, remain a compact ball or hedge with exotically fragrant leaves the rest of the year. Hidcote is famous for its dark purple flower. Like most of the English lavenders, Hidcote is not as drought or heat tolerant as the lavandins.

The English hybrids, sometimes referred to as lavandins, come in third in the bloom cycle, starting just as the the English lavenders are finishing, and continuing to mid summer. These are the workhorses of lavender. They do it all: bloom lots, grow just the right size, and smell wonderful. Provence and Grosso are the best known of these, but there are many others. These are the ones to line the drive or border the garden with.

Grosso lavender is cultivated for oil used mainly in the cosmetic industry. It makes great lavender bouquets and wands as the flowers stay on the stem better. It has beautiful purple calyxes instead of the normal green calyx of most lavenders. Provence has a long, slender flower wand that is useful for dried bud collecting. The buds come cleanly and easily away from the stalk.

Trees for Shade, Wildlife and the Future

We don’t plant enough trees. Everyone wants an instant garden but nature doesn’t work that way. When you look out from your windows into your landscaping what catches your eye first? I’ll bet the most majestic and inspiring sight in your garden is probably a tree that frames your house giving it a sense of permanence, welcoming you home and providing a haven for songbirds that serenade you on a summer day.

Japanese maple- Stanford campus

Large or small, trees make the world go round. They produce oxygen and act as a giant filter that cleans the air we breathe. A mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.

Trees clean the soil by absorbing dangerous chemicals and other pollutants that have entered the soil. They can either store the harmful pollutants or actually change the them into a less harmful form. Trees can filter sewage and clean the water that runs off into our streams. They can absorb and lock away carbon dioxide as wood so it is not available as greenhouse gasses.

If you live near a busy street trees can muffle the noise almost as effectively as a stone wall. They also act as a windbreak during windy and cold seasons reducing the drying effect of the wind and keeping it from blowing precious topsoil away.

Gingko biloba

Trees slow storm water runoff which helps recharge our aquifers. On top of all the beneficial things trees do for us they provide shade and keep us cool in the summer. In the winter they break up the wind reducing heating costs. Trees increase property values. If you’ve been thinking about adding a few trees to your own property here are some of my favorites. Some don’t get enough recognition others are classics. All make great additions to the garden.

I like Forest Pansy redbud for its stunning red foliage, Sango Kaku Japanese maple for its year round interest, Strawberry tree, and Tristania laurina Elegant. Evergreen Dogwood, Cornus capitata, is also known as Himalayan flowering dogwood lives up to its name in every respect. This variety is slow growing reaching 20 ft tall in sun or partial shade after about 25 years. After flowering, red fruit provides a treat for the birds.

To make your garden more compelling also consider planting a Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn gold’ or Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’. Also called Apple Serviceberry it has edible small fruits you can use in jam and grows fast. Chinese Fringe Tree has magnificent clusters of fragrant, fringe-like blooms and is a terrific accent for small yards.

Swan Hill olive

We are all familiar with the huge flowers in late winter of the Saucer magnolia. This beautiful tree also makes a good lawn tree. Oklahoma redbud takes heat and drought but can also tolerate regular garden watering. Chitalalpa ‘Pink Dawn’ grows 12 feet in three years then grows more slowly to 25 feet with a 25 foot spread. It’s pink trumpet shaped flowers are a welcome sight during the summer. Crape myrtle also blooms at the same time providing your garden with color when you’re outdoors the most.

‘Swan Hill’ olive produces no pollen or fruit, takes drought conditions and casts light shade. Chinese pistache provides brilliant fall color growing to 35 feet by 30 feet wide.

Plant a tree for yourself and for future generations.

 

Interesting Plants to Update your Garden

Tired of seeing the same plants in your garden and everywhere else? Feel like changing things up a bit? With this question in mind I’ve turned to my fellow landscape designers to see what plants they are using these days so that every garden they design doesn’t look the same. You can have too much of a good thing.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t want to recommend a plant that hasn’t been shown to be a reliable grower in a variety of conditions. Sometimes the latest and greatest plant introduction turns out to be a dud. Other times a new cultivar of an old favorite hits a home run. Here are some oldies but goodies and new plants to add to your garden.

 

Loropetaum ‘Jazz Hands Dwarf PInk’

Loropetalum ‘Jazz Hands’ is getting the nod from everyone who’s grown it. If you love the deer tolerance, low maintenance. moderate watering and toughness of regular Chinese Fringe Flower this showy dwarf variety is even easier to grow. Staying low and tidy Jazz Hands Dwarf Pink has cool purple foliage with a cranberry undercurrent and hot pink blooms. It looks great combined with Jazz Hands Dwarf White. Local wholesale nurseries are growing it so it’s readily available.

Speaking of local sources for plants, we live in one of the prime growing areas for landscape plants. I recently learned that one of my favorite plants Canyon Snow Pacific coast iris is going through a difficult time. Seems it’s become less vigorous than the other colors in the Canyon series and the growers are working to improve their stock. We need to count on a plant’s performance. There’s enough other issues to deal with in our gardens without starting with a wimpy plant.

Cistus variegata ‘Mickie’

Rockrose have always been favorites in the low water use garden. There’s one with a low, mounding habit that hugs the ground and creates a super colorful accent to the sunny garden. With brilliant gold leaves splashed in the center with green this variegated cistus hybridus called ‘Mickie” is hardy in winter, grows only 14-18 inches tall and spreads to about 2 feet wide. Perfect for containers or smaller gardens.

If you like to include California native plants in your garden Woolly Blue Curls or trichostema lanatum has been shown to be reliable in the garden if given full sun, good drainage and little fertilizer or amendment. Group similar plants and forget about them. They bloom from late spring through summer and make a good cut flower. Another common name for this plant is Romero or California Rosemary which dates back to the Portola expedition in 1769.

If you want to make a big splash in your garden or container try growing Salvia ’Amistad’ or Friendship Sage. With fast growth in the warm months to 4 or 5 feet tall, the rich royal purple flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden. It will grow in light shade with medium water requirements and remain evergreen in warmer parts of your garden.

Cousin Itt acacia

Acacia ‘Cousin Itt’ continues to be a favorite for many of us. This lovely small plant with emerald green, feathery foliage that stays small in the garden and has low water needs. Not to be confused with the bully acacia tree seen around here, it’s one of the good guys. Plant in full sun to partial shade.

So if you’re in the mood to add a couple of interesting plants to your garden, take a tip from what landscape designers use or grow in their own gardens.

How to Live in Peace with a Wisteria

A wisteria is one of those plants that you either love or dread. One of nature’s most resilient survivors they are able to withstand and recover quickly from difficult conditions. To some they are a little too tough for their own good with a growth rate rivaling bamboo during the summer. If you dream of a wisteria-covered pergola shading your patio here are some maintenance tips that are sure to keep both gardener and vine happy.

Wisteria at Filoli Gardens in Woodside

Wisteria are so vigorous they can be pruned at any time, keeping them in bounds and to clear out unwanted or dead growth. Prune out any stems you see extending into eaves, windows or shingles. If yours has gotten away from you, you can even prune it down to the ground and start over with training although you’ll have to wait a few years for your vine to bloom again.

To their control size major pruning is done during the dormant season. Start by trimming the long tendrils that grew over the summer back to about 6 inches from the main trunk. Cutting the tendrils back in this way will initiate flower bud development, neaten the plant up, and show off the attractive trusty, gnarly character of the vines.

Pruning during the dormant season will also give you a fighting chance of keep your wisteria from getting into mischief. As you know if you have a wisteria, those long tendrils are capable of growing another 25 feet during the summer.

Wisteria shading a patio

Whatever time you do renovation pruning remember the response of the wisteria to aggressive pruning is to literally explode with new runners. They put energy into new vegetative growth at the expense of flowering. Make sure you keep up on ongoing maintenance pruning by removing all unwanted runners right to their point of origin. Then prune back the others to 3 buds or sets of leaves. Repeated pruning of these runners is what will eventually give you spurs of wood, short laterals that in turn will provide you with flower clusters. You need to prune these runners all season long which ends up being every 3-4 weeks.

Do not fertilize your wisteria. They do not flower well is there is an over abundance or luxuriant growth. Over feeding also ends up giving them the means to become un unmanageable monster. If you find the wisteria vine has invaded a nearby bed, cut roots with a shovel below the soil line to control any that have wandered.

Maintaining a wisteria requires some diligence but the reward is worth the effort. Remember this especially during winter pruning season to make summer maintenance easier.

Cooke’s Purple wisteria

Which variety of wisteria should you get to cover your arbor, pergola, tree or other structure?

Chinese varieties such at ‘Cooke’s Special’ has clusters of fragrant blue-purple flowers 20 inches long. This variety can re-bloom which makes it a favorite.

Japanese wisteria ‘Caroline’ blooms early with mauve flowers. ‘Royal Purple’ (also known as ‘Black Dragon’) has sweetly scented dark purple flowers. Japanese wisteria are most effective when grown on pergolas so the long flower cluster can hang freely.

Silky varieties produce a profusion of short, 6 inch, fat clusters of strongly scented flowers that open all at once. They have velvety seed pods and bloom best in full sun.

 

How to Plant a Spectacular Container Garden

There’s something about a beautiful container overflowing with interesting flowers, foliage or succulents that always gets my attention and although I already have 241 containers I’m always on the lookout for ideas to create one more.

Wall planter with ivy geraniums

You can grow anything in a container. Think of them as furnishings. Grow herbs and other edibles near the kitchen door, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, hummingbirds and butterflies, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

Some of the most dramatic containers utilize the concept of combining a thriller, some fillers and spiller or two. Not all my containers will use this formula but I seem to be drawn to those that do. Plants in nature can be quite random in the way they grow together and still be lovely. Containers need a bit more order to dazzle and direct the eye.

Thrillers act as the centerpiece of a container. They are usually big, bold and beautiful. Next come the fillers. Fillers can be foliage or flowering plants but they should complement and not overwhelm your largest plant. Usually they have a mounding shape and I’ll plant several around the thriller. The last plants are the spillers which are small and will soften the edge of the container.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plant

Mixed container planting

colors, two is sometimes enough. That doesn’t count green unless it’s lime. Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you’re done. You want the pots to look good right away. Big pots, at least 16″ across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

In choosing a container, remember a porous clay pot will dry out fast in the summer sun as will a small pot. If you want pots on a sunny deck, you’ll have better results if your container is made or ceramic or colored plastic and is big enough to allow 2 inches of potting soil around the root ball. I don’t use water absorbing polymer granules in my containers as they are all in shade in winter and would stay too wet depriving plant roots of oxygen.

Water when the top 1 inch of soil in the container is dry. On a very hot day, watering mid day will cool the soil although I like to get my watering done early. Get to know your plants. Plants that are still growing into their containers need less frequent watering than those that are getting root bound. How much water? Water until it runs out the bottom and empty the saucer the next day if any water remains. Use a gentle nozzle that doesn’t dislodge the soil or compact it. Also make sure the water in the hose isn’t hot from lying in the sun.

Plants in containers are watered frequently and the water draining out of the bottom carries away nutrients. Actively growing plants need regular feeding from spring to early fall. Water soluble fertilizers are fast acting. Dry granules and time release capsules last longer. Organic fertilizers tend to work more slowly and are especially ideal for trees, shrubs and long lived perennials or for large planters in which you keep the same soil from year to year. Be sure plants are moist before feeding. The best fertilizer is the one that you get out of the package and onto your plants.

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