Garden Diary - Fall 2003


A very wet month, with, seemingly, rain yesterday, rain today, rain predicted for tomorrow. While some measure of rain is important, plants will better prepare themselves for winter if they get the correct signals. That means less rain that encourages soft new growth, and (for the same reason) no application of nitrogen fertilizer. I can control the fertilizer part, but not the rain.

The first colchicum is in bloom, and it is only September 5th! 'Dandaels', a cultivar I bought in Holland last year has presented me with the first of its lavender goblets. Something to admire at a time when the first signs of the garden winding down are making an appearance.

Though it is early in September, I've started moving the major houseplants back indoors. Much better to allow them a period of adjustment to indoor conditions well before the heat comes on. First was the weeping fig that a friend gave me when he was moving and did not want to abandon it. This is a major deal, since the tree is taller than I am and it resides on an upstairs balcony. It is the up two flights of stairs and turn at the landing without becoming entangled in the ceiling light fixture that is awkward. The tree spends its summers out on the deck under a summer tent that shades a rectangular table and four chairs. The adjustment to outdoors is easier on it than the return inside, which is accompanied by a regular, slow but steady discarding of leaves. Not a big deal, as I pass it each morning on my way downstairs I pluck any yellow leaves that are preparing to fall.

Next was the big red spot banana. It gets planted directly in the ground each summer. Since it is tender, that means digging and repotting it, and moving it into the great room with its two-story ceiling. Not that it is heavy, mind you. Bananas don't have that much in the way of roots. But it is Big!, and including the pot is around 11 feet tall. So I spread a big blue tarp in the great room, in front of the French doors. Dug banana, and levered it onto another tarp. Enlisted the aid of my husband, and we staggered agross the lawn, up the steps of the deck, across the deck, and into the house. Then repot. That's sort of like setting up the Christmas tree. "Is it straight?" "No, it's kind of leaning to the left. Oops, mean my left, that would be your right." And so on until it is mostly vertical and I can sweep up the mess that seems to get on the floor regardless of the tarps.

September is a great time for planting. I got some pachysandra from a friend, simply cutting it back from where it had crawled out and concealed a good part of a path. Pachysandra being as vigorous as it is, and given our wet weather, I simply separated each stem (not worrying if the pieces had roots or not) and set them in the ground. I think they'll all take.


Bulb planting started last month, sequencing the various bulbs, corms and tubers so that those whcih need priority planting receive it. First in were some Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, as they will be wanting to make leaf growth right away. I planted their modest white bulbs close to the surface. A rosette of green leaves makes a prompt appearance, and remain through the winter. Next in sequence were little bulbs, corms, and tubers, since they dry out more rapidly than larger ones. And any geophytes that lack a tunic, such as the dogtooth violets, Erythronium 'Pagoda', also go to the head of the line.

It is a scramble at this time of year, to plant and weed and prepare for winter. And, perhaps, no, definately as important, take time to enjoy the beauty of the season. Paul and I and a friend/ neighbor of ours took a day trip to the New York Botanical Garden on October 18th. It had rained the night before, but in the morning there was enough blue sky to make a flag, as the folk saying goes. The occasion: Lord Pankenham was over from Ireland, giving a tour of specimen trees and afterwards signing his book, "Great Trees of the World." So we had a pleasant lunch outdoors on the terrace of the Garden Cafe, an interesting walk on the grounds and through the old forest, and I did get my copy of his book signed. Altogether a successful outing.

Scarcely a week later we had the first hard frost. No complaint, really, as frost could come any time after late September and here it is October 24th when it dipped to 28.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Time to start digging (to be honest, I should have started a little sooner but I think all will be well.) All the named cannas - 'Stuttgardt', 'Pretoria', and 'Tropicana' - are cut back, dug, and spread out to cure on tarps in my garage bay. I dug all the hippeastrum (you may know them as amaryllis) which had been planted out in the spring. The foliage, close to the ground as it is, was barely kissed by frost. The bulbs were wrapped, separately, in newspaper and put in the basement for a dormancy nap. I'll repot them early next year, probably sometime in January.


After that first true frost we had milder weather again, so I could catch my breath, so to speak. In other words, I put off digging the remaining cannas, the attractive purple-leafed one that I'd been given sufficiently long ago that they've multiplied, and multiplied some more. They grace the bottom of the driveway, the planting area up-slope and outside the kitchen windows, and elsewhere. So there's enough to rescue for a winter in the garage that it takes most of an afternoon and a lot of digging. And a couple of days later, November 8th to be exact, I cut back the hardy banana, Musa basjoo, to prepare it for winter. It is planted very close to the house, just outside my study window. The slight warmth through the basement wall is helpful, but assistance is still required to get it through the next few moths. I cut the three big culms back to less than knee high. Plastic garbage cans, filled with dry oak leaves, are inverted over them. Next I hammer wooden stakes into the ground, through the open handles of the garbage cans. This keeps them from blowing off. And finally I rope them all together, again to help stabilize them. Soil is piled against the rim of the garbage cans, so seal against drafts. And then I must wait for spring, to see how well they survived. They came through last winter, 2002/ 03, reasonably well. This year was wet enough, but I do think they would have liked hotter weather - the banana leaves were big, but not as luxurious as they were in the summer of 2002.

Bulb planting continues. The daffodils are in, now it is tulips' turn. Thanks to the deer who think they are a delightful addition to the garden buffet, I only plant modest numbers of tulips. So there are some soft apricot-orange feathered with pale lavender 'Prinses Irene' in front of purple-leafed Berberis 'Crimson Pygmy' and Spirea 'Gold Flame' that has coppery orange new growth in spring. The narrow bed adjacent to the deck has it's usual in-fill of 'Estella Rijnveld', a flamboyant, flora-dora red and white parrot tulip. I adore the huge relaxed petals with their snipped edges.

It's November 18th. I finally got around to planting up the large rectangular looks-like-terra cotta Campagnia planter with aspidistra. The original round pot was so crammed full that I got not only the four large divisions I needed for the new planter, but also several additional small ones. The rectangular planter of aspidistra looks very good in the master bathroom. Of course, while it is not sparse, it will look even better when the plants fill in some more. Previously, I move the aspidistra outdoors for the summer, but this may be too large to manage that. Since aspidistra are so tolerant of abuse in the form of low light, this shouldn't be a problem.

Yahoo! Here it is the next day, November 19th, and there are snowdrops in the garden. Not the Galanthus nivalis regina-olgae that vanished a couple of years ago, but one I got as Galanthus caucasicus. That's now an invalid name, so I'll have to do some research. But you know, the plants all know who they are, and do their own thing, and do not worry about names. So perhaps we should not be up-tight about names either.

And as we approach the end of the month I'm busy potting bulbs for forcing. yeah, should have done it earlier but now is better than not at all. Hyacinths, for fragrance. Small daffodils, 'Tete-a-Tete' and 'Little Toby', because they are easy, and fun. And some double flowered early tulips because they are fun. I keep them in the garage where temperatures hold at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit even in the coldest weather, and that's good rooting temperature. This year I am trying something new. As well as the usual 6- or 8-inch pot with several bulbs in each (but only of one kind, I do not mix-and-match) I am using a few cell trays with six large comparments in each to hold individual tulip or hyacinth bulbs. Not quite sure what my intentions are, but I figure that, come spring, they could be plugged into the garden or used in a planter with pansies and primroses.

The biggest concern in the garage is mice, who eat tulips and hyacinths. Some pots got a piece of aluminum window screening tightly tied over the pot. This is not ideal, as I will have to keep a close eye on them, once growth begins. Otherwise the shoots might be damaged. At the supermarket I found some rather shallow white plastic lattice trays that grapes had come in. I've used them, upside down, over pots. Actually, I've stacked them two high. The openings are very small and even though mice can insinuate themselves through little openings I think these should work. When I go to bring the pots of bulbs inside I'll find out if they got eaten or not.

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