Top 3 Things to Do - and NOT to Do Now

first, give thanks

Sept 23: Female Monarch on ‘Jeana’ phlox

Everyone is asking “what should I be doing in the garden NOW?” Well, as I said a few days ago, relax, give thanks for your garden and all of its inhabitants, and enjoy these early weeks of Fall. The garden is changing almost day to day, and there is astounding beauty in the gradual decline. Monarch butterflies are still gracing us with their presence, (a male and a female are each swirling around my head and through the garden as I write this), and earlier today there were 5 at once on the Tithonia plant. I am trying to sear these visions into my memory to sustain me through the long New Hampshire winter ahead.

But, since you are all asking, I’ll share the following suggestions that are a bit different from those you might read elsewhere. Yes, keep up with your deadheading (except for plants like echinacea, sunflower, thistle and pluming grasses that feed the birds). But, more importantly focus on these:

essential task #1- be a plant paparazzi

Document, document, document. I’m always harping on this and for good reason. Photos that you take of your garden now (even the areas that might look overgrown, or downright rough) will help you plan for next year’s tweaks. Today’s photos help you anticipate what to expect next year, and they serve as extremely useful before & after memory jogs. I frequently refer to my Google Photos while out shopping. Having the photo in hand while I peruse plant possibilities really makes my shopping trips more effective!

Mid-September decline reveals opportunities for more pots of colorful bulbs or annuals

For example, I am using this photo to the left to plan a slight redesign of this east facing garden bed. After many rounds of tweaking over the past 5 years, these plant combinations have done a really excellent job of producing color, texture and pollinator sustenance from early spring until early fall. But by mid-September, the ‘Raspberry Wine’ bee balm has succumbed and has been cut back and replaced with a pot of the purple dracena. The dracena pot will be brought inside to over winter until spring and then ultimately find its place back in the garden bed next year.

The towering Joe Pye Weed and the verbena ‘Hastata’ in front of the garage window have also given up the ghost. I have refrained from cutting them back, because I need this visual clue to help determine the steps I’m going to take for next year.

For next September, I’ll likely just cut back the dead foliage and then place colorful pots of tall dahlias in their place. I have never grown dahlias, and this will be a great time to experiment. Shades of deep pink and purple, along with purple foliage varieties, will be a great color replacement for the earlier blooming Joe Pye Weed and Verbena. Since this bed doesn’t have room for any more plantings (without removing something else), rotating containers in and out through the seasons has worked well to fill holes and maintain visual and pollinator interest.

I just placed an order with Brecks Bulbs for a few different varieties of “single” dahlias, as these are preferred by pollinators. I’m super excited by this ‘Verrone’s Obsidian Dahlia’.

Newly planted gold fernspray chamaecyparis receives regular supplemental watering in the gravel garden.

essential task #2 - hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Thoroughly water your evergreen trees and shrubs. This is especially important for any specimens that were planted this year or last. It can take a full 3 years for a tree’s roots to become established, and they need to be well hydrated heading into winter. Since evergreens don’t drop their leaves or needles in the fall, they continue to transpire moisture throughout the winter. Once the ground is frozen, they can’t uptake essential moisture. This exposes them to the risk of drying out on bright, sunny winter days. As a result, we frequently see brown, curled up leaves and dead conifer branches come early spring time.

The past few weeks have been relatively dry in southern NH and northern MA, and with only light rains forecast for the next 10 days or so, plants are in search of moisture. While perennials are naturally in decline and don’t have high water needs, our evergreen conifers (pine, spruce, fir, cypress, juniper, yew) and broad leafs (rhododendron, azalea, boxwood, daphne) will really benefit from additional moisture now. Water is best delivered slowly and at the root ball. I prefer to leave a hose on top or just at the perimeter of the plant’s root ball. I let the water drip very slowly over a period of 30-60 minutes depending upon the size of the tree or shrub. If the specimen is planted on a slope, lay the hose behind the trunk and let gravity pull the water down and forward through the entire root ball. This ensures deep watering that will reach to the bottom of the root ball, not just the top inch or two. By encouraging deep roots, we’ll have fewer problems in the months and years ahead.

essential task #3 - soak up the wonder

Harry loves mornings in the garden

Regularly walk your property and observe the garden. I mean really look at each plant. Observe the natural patterns of growth and decline. Hear the birds, native insects and other “residents” that benefit from your garden’s habitat. See the bumblebees still in slumber under a plant leaf. Smell the delicate perfume of the clematis on the fence. Observe the unexpected beauty of flower and foliage combinations that weren’t in the original plan, but have evolved nonetheless!

I typically make the rounds with the first cup of coffee and Harry the cat leading the way. The morning walk is not only a time to appreciate the wonder of the garden as it wakes up, but also the best time to snap photos with my phone (see Essential Task #1 above). They are instantly and automatically uploaded to the cloud and will be available for me to view on my laptop with Google Photos by the time we make our way to the patio “office”.

Your daily garden inspections will not only bring you joy and satisfaction as your garden evolves over the seasons, they will connect you more deeply with each and every plant. Over time, you will learn to recognize even subtle changes, opportunities for improvement and potential problems on the horizon.

And, your horticultural knowledge will deepen. You will become more familiar with what’s “normal” and what’s “abynormal”, and will be in a better position to nip problems in the bud while there’s still time.

It’s a wonderful way to begin the day!

your plants would rather you not!

Deferring garden tasks helps us to remain focused on the Wonder of the Garden. A more relaxed approach may also help the garden survive and thrive in the long run. With that in mind, please refrain from these activities:

  • Cutting back: Plants like agastache, penstemon, and ornamental grasses will have a much better chance of survival if you leave at least 6” of growth to protect the crown during the winter. Better yet, let them stand all winter and cut back in late March/early April. They look lovely after a snowfall, too. Yes, they will eventually go splat and then disappear under our 5’ tall snow banks. But they’ll be also happier with a bit of a blanket until the spring thaw. Think of it as an extra comforter on the bed!
    (It’s OK to cut back plants and remove fallen leaves from anything that was diseased, like bee balm with powdery mildew. Just be sure to properly discard the affected materials and avoid tossing them on the compost.)

  • Excessive bed “cleaning”: This year’s bark mulch, leaf litter, dried grass clippings and pine needles all provide an insulating blanket (see above) for our perennials and shrubs. It’s not necessary to rake everything out this fall, and excessive raking can actually be detrimental to the garden’s health as it leaves the plant crown unprotected. In fact I actually ADD a 4-6” protective layer of shredded leaves and pine needles to my perennials beds in late October. I’ve been doing this for a number of years, and once I got over the more “casual” aesthetic of this approach, my plants have been much happier and enter the next season with more vim and vigor! Come spring clean-up time, I gently remove the “blanket”, leaving behind an inch or two of decomposing leaves and needles which serve as “nature’s fertilizer” and help to condition the soil.

  • Feeding: Plants are entering a stage of dormancy. They do not need to be fed at this time (watering is different - see above!) Feeding now will only encourage new plant growth that won’t have enough time to “harden off” before the winter freeze. We’ll discuss feeding next Spring and the benefits of slow release, granular, organic fertilizers.

  • Pruning: The general rule of thumb for evergreens, is to prune in very late winter/early spring. This means March/April here in zone 5b. Of course, if you have dead limbs, those are fine to remove now. Just be sure to use clean, sharp secateurs and prune about 1/4” from trunk, taking care not to cut into the bark of the main trunk. For rhododendrons & azalea, pruning now may remove next year’s flowers. For hydrangeas, it’s still a bit early to prune and we might as well enjoy a few more weeks of their lovely dried blooms!

let’s connect!

I’ve visited a few of your gardens in recent days, and so enjoy seeing the growth, progress and your latest plant additions. If you have any questions about what to do now/later/next year, or have concerns about any plants, need a referral for a local arborist who is a true “artist”, or simply want to brainstorm for next year, please reach out. I would love to hear from you! I also welcome visitors to The Big Little Garden to see what’s blooming now and to hear my plans for extending the Wonder in 2020!

Thanks for reading!

Barb Young