Autumn seems to be coming earlier this year, with the spring and summer drought causing deciduous plants to show fall color and drop leaves about a month ahead of schedule. We also seem to have gotten a jump start on our rainy season, which means the time we've all been waiting for has finally arrived: planting season! Here's what to tackle in the garden this month.
Plant hardy perennials, shrubs and trees. It's long been ingrained in gardeners that fall is for planting, and that's absolutely the case. Not only can you score some great deals at nurseries looking to reduce stock, but fall and winter rains help plants develop a deep root system that will set them in good stead come spring. For immediate gratification, two varieties to consider are 'Black Magic' camellia (Camellia japonica 'Black Magic'), with gothy burgundy blooms even a brooding teenager would like, and dogwood shrubs with colored stems such as our native Cornus sericea or the more dwarf 'Midwinter Fire', both of which make a minimalist, modern display in a vase.
Fill containers with fall and winter plants. As the weather cools, the growth of plants slows down, so it's getting to be your last chance to cram your containers full of annual flowers and foliage plants and expect them to actually fill in. I love evergreen sedges such as 'Prairie Fire' or 'Everillo' (Carex cvs.), or cheerful dwarf spurge (Euphorbia cvs.) such as 'Ruby Glow', 'Ascot Rainbow', and 'Tasmanian Tiger'. With some interesting colors of viola, lush 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, and ornamental flowering kale or cabbage, you can create fun combinations that will look good for months to come.
Geek out on some unusual bulbs. I'm not much of a bulb expert, so I asked Hans Langeveld of Longfield Gardens for some out-of-the-box picks for our rainy North Coast climate. Fritillaries, such as 'Lutea' (yellow) or 'Rubra Maxima' (orange), are a woodland favorite with a cluster of hanging bell-shaped flowers atop elegant bare stems. Langeveld says the bulbs should be planted 8 inches under the soil surface, and that the aroma of the bulb repels both squirrels and deer. (No word on whether it repels gophers!) Daffodils are another great pick for our climate, and he recommends 'Pheasant's Eye', which has a small golden center ringed with a vivid orange flare, and split corona daffodils, which have a rufflier look than the traditional ones. Both are great as cut flowers.
Transplant anything that's in the wrong spot. With our first serious rains already arriving, this is the perfect time to transplant anything you've been meaning to move. For woody shrubs and trees, only transplant things that have been in the ground fewer than three years, or shrubs with a shallow root system such as rhododendrons. Perennials can also be transplanted now. Just wait for an overcast day and use a sharp shovel or spade to dig around the entirety of the plant, making your first exploratory digs around the outer edge of the plant's foliage. If the soil is crumbling away and you are not cutting roots, you can try digging ever so slightly closer to the trunk until you do find the rootball. Tempting though it is, don't dig in soggy soil, as you can permanently damage the soil structure. Much better to dig when dry, and water thoroughly after you're done.
Stop deadheading roses and let them form hips. This encourages roses to go dormant gracefully, even in warmer coastal locations where they might otherwise hang on and bloom through the winter. I've noticed fewer pest problems in roses that are allowed and encouraged to drop their leaves and experience a few months of true dormancy. Plus, the rosehips are gorgeous to look at and they can be added to winter bouquets or wreaths. If you are an organic gardener, the high vitamin C content of your rosehips can help stave off winter colds if brewed into a tart and flavorful tea.
Prune plants off the house and gutters. A beautiful planting of shrubs, trees and perennials makes a house into a home, though there's no denying that plants are better off not touching the house itself. Winter winds can whip shrub and tree branches onto gutters, windows and walls, which can scrape off paint and protective finishes and make a racket during storms. Also, at this time of year ants are rushing around looking for safe places to eat, drink and take shelter, and I've heard from pest companies that they often find ant trails going up a tree or shrub onto, and then into, the house. That's why now is the perfect time to check up on your foundation plantings to make sure that all have been gently pruned and guided off of the house.
Add seed and compost to your lawn. While lawns are very tough once established, cajoling grass seeds into sprouting and forming a lush green carpet can be challenging at the wrong time of year. It's still warm enough in October for the seeds to sprout, yet it's also cool and moist enough that the seedlings need less coddling to survive. If you have any areas of your lawn that are thin or have bare spots, rake a half-inch of compost over the existing grass, sprinkle seeds over the top, and do one more gentle rake to mix the seeds with the compost. Water it in, keep it moist, and keep pets (especially chickens) off of it until it's looking thick and healthy.
Get in the spirit of Halloween by adding black plants to your garden. Plants with black flowers or foliage go surprisingly well in nearly any style of garden. Try 'Black Taffeta' heuchera (Heuchera 'Black Taffeta') in containers or the foreground of the garden bed, upright 'Tuxedo' California lilac (Ceanothus griseus 'FIT02') along the fenceline for a vertical accent, 'Black and White Minstrels' dianthus (Dianthus chinensis var. heddewigii 'Black and White Minstrels') near an entry where you can enjoy that spicy clove fragrance, and 'Black Beard' black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Black Beard') nestled at the feet of taller grasses and perennials. If you're anything like me, you'll fall in love with the dark beauty of these plants and will be looking to incorporate them year-round. •Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.