The autumnal equinox happened a couple of weeks ago, marking the beginning of fall and the official end of the gardening year. Actually, I believe that September marks the end of one year and the beginning of a new year in every sense: It's back-to-school time, which has ingrained in me the habit of going out and buying office supplies, whether I need them or not, and inventing some project to undertake that requires the use of protractors and graph paper. It's also the beginning of last-minute home repair season; I can attest to the fact that the gutter cleaners, duct-sealers, roof repairers and fireplace fixer-uppers of Humboldt County are extraordinarily busy right now and probably wondering what kept us from calling all summer long when they had plenty of time on their hands and good weather for climbing ladders and patching roofs.
I don't know what we were doing. It was summer, and the time just drifted by. But the fall equinox is like a reset button, a system reboot. Suddenly we're sitting up straight again, blinking in wide-eyed surprise, realizing that it's time to wrap things up and move on. This is especially true in the garden, where the tomatoes vines have turned to black mush, the flowers have turned into seed heads, and leaves are starting to drop from the branches. It's time to take stock and make a plan for next year -- meaning the horticultural year that runs from October through next September. Here's what I'm thinking:
Figure out what isn't working. Be brutal. Scraggly shrubs that fail to earn their keep deserve to be turned into mulch. Flowering perennials that won't bloom because they get too much shade have got to be relocated. The same goes for anything that's outgrown its space. Moving day has arrived.
If you have a plant in the wrong place, go ahead and decide where it's going now, clear a space for it, and wait for rain. Once the ground is getting soaked consistently it's easy to move things around. So decide what needs to move and get ready to do it.
Figure out what is working -- and make more of that. A few years ago I bought this beautiful ornamental grass Stipa arundinacea, or New Zealand wind grass. It's a monster of a grass, needs no water or fertilizer, and it absolutely glows. This plant is the color of a sunset: gold and burgundy and pink, with just enough green to keep it from looking like a total freak of nature. When I bought it, I knew it could reach three feet in diameter, so I gave it a little room to grow, but not much. It is now an astonishing five feet in diameter and showing no signs of slowing down. This winter I'll be planting two or three more of them by dividing and transplanting.
Any plant that forms a clump and grows gradually larger every year can be divided and transplanted soon. Flowering perennials and grasses handle this treatment particularly well; woody shrubs, not so much. Just whack the top off so you can get a better look at the base of the plant, and -- once again, after it starts raining more regularly -- dig up the entire plant and break it apart. The roots of some perennials, like true geraniums, will come apart easily in your hands, while the dense roots of some ornamental grasses actually have to be cut apart. You can actually use a small saw for this, but be aware that cutting through roots and dirt will be surprisingly hard on the saw.
So break them into larger pieces and replant them immediately. It's tempting to want to dot them evenly across the landscape, but remember that massing those plants together will make much more of a statement. Flowering plants in particular should be massed together so that they really shine when it's time to bloom.
Plant bulbs. Do it now. This, to me, is the most compelling reason to think of October as the beginning of the gardening year. Putting bulbs in the ground marks the start of something. Don't wait until the end-of-the-season markdowns to get bulbs -- the biggest, healthiest bulbs will all be gone by then. Get them now. It's worth it. And don't skimp on the bulb fertilizer, either: If you're going to pamper anything in your garden, it should be the parrot tulips and the fragrant little daffodils and the glorious purple hyacinths. Give them what they need -- and since bulb food is nothing more than a good all-round fertilizer with a extra bone meal thrown in, you can always use the rest of it around the garden. It's a fine general plant food for this time of year.
Speaking of food. I am harvesting apples from my tree, enjoying the last of the summer basil, parsley and squash, and mourning the premature demise of my tomatoes. Oh, and my June/September raspberries actually produced berries in June and September, as promised. Give some thought now to what actually worked in the garden, food-wise, and what you'd like to try next year. I have once again resolved to give up on tomatoes and let the nice people at the farmers' markets grow them for me, but I will be using next year's straw bale garden to grow more annual herbs. And yellow pattypan squash, which we've been adding to just about everything we cook. But I think the time and energy I've devoted to tomatoes might be better spent on something else. Strawberries, perhaps?
Bareroot season will be here in January. That's the time to plant fruit trees, berry vines, asparagus and artichokes. So clear a space and make a plan. It's a new year.