By Rhiannon Allen
People who aren’t gardeners might think that summer is the busiest time of year in the garden. In my opinion, they are mistaken.
Temperate climate gardening features spring and autumn as its busiest seasons. There is much to do in the garden right now, especially if you didn’t spend that glorious October in your garden.
Before the ground freezes hard, it is most important to plant any ‘spring’ bulbs that you might have purchased. Examples of these are tulips, daffodils, spring crocus, and snowdrops. However, I would also include garlic and shallots in this category. These bulbs used last spring or summer to bulk up their energy stores, and are ready to sprout roots and settle in for the winter.
If you wait too long to plant spring bulbs, they will not have time to set roots before the ground hardens. If you haven’t yet, find a relatively sunny spring spot now, head out with your spade, trowel, or bulb planter, and get that job done.
Most bulbs are planted two to three times their own depth. So if you are fortunate enough to have purchased hearty top-sized daffodil bulbs, they should be set in a hole between eight and twelve inches deep! Tiny grape hyacinth bulbs, on the other hand, can be planted just a thumb-length deep. If you plant too shallowly, baby roots will be subjected to damaging alternations of warmth and freezing. The main exception to this 2-3x rule is shallots, which should be planted so that the top of the bulb is just below the soil line.
Whatever you are planting, you will be rewarded by a longer-lived plant if you take the time to loosen and enrich the soil before you place the bulb in its hole. Use top quality nursery or potting soil. Additions of bone meal, a slow release fertilizer, compost or mycorrhizal fungi are also good choices, as they will nourish the bulb next year.
After you’ve loosened and improved the soil, place the broad end of the bulb the required depth in the hole, fill the hole with more improved soil, water in and wait for spring! And while you’re watching for first growth in your own garden, look for the Garden Club’s display of daffodils emerging along Tyee Drive or their ‘guerrilla’ bulbs (ordered from Skagit Valley’s tulips.com) popping up on verges and at crossroads throughout Point Roberts.
In both case, these are Garden Tour proceeds at work.
Once you’ve planted your bulbs, consider turning your attention to fall pruning. Most deciduous trees and shrubs can be pruned once their leaves have fallen. However, leave spring-flowering shrubs like forsythia and lilac, because they will continue blooming. These shrubs bloom well before summer warmth prompts new growth and bud formation.
Another exception to the fall pruning rule is roses, whose tender canes should not be cut until spring so that open cuts will not be damaged by fungus, wet, and frost. For roses, just pick up the leaves as they fall and put them in the regular garbage so that you have cleared the area of leaves that might harbor black spot.
Our cool, rainy Octobers and Novembers are also the best months for planting most new perennials, shrubs, and trees so that their root systems have time to settle in with autumn rains. These are also perfect months to divide many perennials like chives, daisies, day lilies, and coreopsis.
Use a good spade or garden fork to lift a large chunk. Depending on the root clump, you can use a sturdy sharp knife to cut the clump into smaller pieces, wash the roots and pull them apart by hand, or use two back-to-back garden forks to pry the roots apart. As with spring bulbs, use a high quality, enriched soil for replanting, transplanting, or repotting. If you’d like to pot up excess divisions for the Garden Club’s May Plant Sale, the Garden Club will happily accept your donations next year!
What else to do? Actually, the latest trend is to hold off on many normal autumn tasks like tidying the garden, understanding that sloppy gardening is actually great for the environment. Fallen leaves forming dense mats on your lawn? Just rake them on to flower beds.
Most perennials can be left untrimmed, providing sheltering places for beneficial insects. Notably, leave ornamental grasses uncut to provide winter interest, especially when the winds move them or the sun illuminates them. Some will also provide seeds and nesting material for birds. If they are looking untidy, just comb out the errant bits with your fingers and pull out any rotting material. This is all the Garden Club does with the grassy berms at Tyee and Benson, leaving the brown grasses for winter interest.