Fall Maintenance: End-of-Summer Gardening Tips
It's easy to get the gardening bug in springtime, when humans themselves feel like new sprouts finally getting out into the sun (or, for some of us, like vampires emerging from dusky lairs). But as the summer growing season comes to a close and the crowds at the garden centers and farmer's markets dwindle, we feel resigned to letting it all die and shifting our attention to the fall lineup. This year, don't let the changing seasons become an excuse to turn back into a vampire (or to watch them on TV). Fall brings plenty of reasons to stay active in the garden, including buying and planting new stuff and gearing up to extend your dirty pursuits into the cold seasons.
Killer Deals on Remainder Plants
Those poor specimens left on the racks at garden centers at the end of summer...a little droopy, a little dry, and surely a little sad, feeling like the forgotten gifts on the Island of Misfit Toys. But just like the square-wheeled train and the spotted elephant, those "aged" plants just need a good home, and they can be rescued for a fraction of what you'd pay for this year's hottest toys (or healthiest plants).
Late summer is THE time to watch for sales at garden centers. Annuals are fire-saled, not surprisingly, but the real deals are the perennials that will thrive when planted in fall. Expect savings of 50% or more on many plants. And if something looks especially tired, try to negotiate the price down further; retailers know these plants have one last chance at yielding any revenue. Many sales also include garden tools, as the stores have to clear shelf space for winter merchandise.
Good Time for Planting
Flower children know that fall is when you plant many bulbs for spring emergence. It's also a good time to transplant trees, divide and replant perennials and lay sod or re-seed the lawn. For many plants, late summer and fall are preferable to spring because the ground is warm (good for digging and encouraging root growth) and the sun's heat is less intense (good for foliage and your water bill). You can even plant a late summer garden for one last crop yield.
When you're emptying the shelves at your garden center, ask about planting and maintenance for this time of year and through the winter. Most perennials and trees will survive their first winter if their roots take hold before hard freezes set in, while some plantings should be watered periodically through winter, particularly if it's a dry one. (Keep in mind that new trees do best in the long run if they're watered regularly for three years, not for just the first season or year like most people commit to.)
Cold Frames and Hot Beds
A cold frame, for those who aren’t familiar, essentially is a mini greenhouse that lets you grow cool crops, such as lettuce, well into fall. Most cold frames are simple DIY affairs constructed with four short walls (or you can dig a hole instead) topped with an old storm window. As such, they're perhaps one of the original examples of upcycling, back when it was referred to as "using up some of that old crap in the shed." If you build a cold frame now you'll get to use it twice before next summer because they're also handy for starting and hardening plants a little early in spring. Nervous about making your own, or think now would be a nice time to build a garden shed? Call a handyman!
A hot bed is a nice, warm pile of poop. Horse poop, to be precise. You can turn a cold frame into a hot bed by digging down about 2 feet, adding 18 inches of manure -- that is, fresh manure -- and tamping it well. Top the poop with about 6 inches of sand to fill the hole. As the manure decomposes it creates heat, making the sand a toasty place to set pots and flats for growing plants in fall and even winter. If you're not the kind of person who relishes a Saturday outing to gather manure, or you're stuck in a one-horse town, you can create a hot bed with electric soil-heating cable (available online and through garden supply stores).
For fall and every other season, the best sources of gardening information are local gardening and landscape professionals, as well as state and local extension services. These folks know what works best in your climate and can steer you toward local stores and other resources for getting what you need. The most comprehensive extension programs typically are run by state agricultural ("ag") universities and offer online content and call-in help lines manned by certified Master Gardeners. Many cities have small extension offices and can be great sources for finding cheap mulch and other garden materials, and don't be afraid to call for help from a landscaper. Whether you're a resident of Podunk, Illinois or Baltimore, Maryland, landscapers are there for you.
Philip Schmidt writes for Networx.com.