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Primping for Winter Interest

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers. You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.  Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may. I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed.  The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be. It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself. I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.

Name Your Garden!

by Sandy Swegel

A friend told me years ago that everything should have a name, even inanimate objects. She was helping me garden one year and within just a couple of weeks, everything we might ever have a need to refer to had a name. The big orange wheelbarrow, of course, was “Pumpkin.” The red bargain shovel was “Scarlet.” My little hand shovel was “Scout.” Soon my old truck had a name (Zohar) and it just went on and on from there. Her premise was, that if you’ve named something, you take better care of it. This must be true because I lost my good pruners that season, most likely because they were anonymous.

I love gardens. In the past few months, I’ve become so infatuated with making my garden look as amazing as humanly possible, and I’ve even managed to get my friends doing the same. Just the other day a friend of mine had new composite fencing installed by Ecomposite, whose fences are made from recycled plastic and wood. However, out of all of my friends, none of them have the passion for gardens that I do, to the point where I even have names for the gardens that I see.

Gardens just begged to be named. They even name themselves. The wild area with the chokecherries and wild roses is “The Thicket.” A client’s garden that is full of lavender and has the best mountain view in town is “The Anti-Depression Garden.” The part of the yard with two apple trees and a cherry is “The Orchard.” My names aren’t particularly clever sometimes, but they either convey the essence of the garden to me or they are a convenient way to talk to other people. Or most other people. A gardener who happened to be an engineer left me a message once asking me to weed in the “Ovate” garden. The what? I said. But ovate was very clearly the proper technical name for the shape of the bed.

You get the idea. You can name your garden after the plants that live there or the shape of the bed or the emotion the garden evokes. Garden writer Lauren Springer coined the phrase “hell strip” years ago to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street. Everyone knows what you mean when you say “The Hell Strip.” For years a favorite area at the Denver Botanic Gardens was the Red Garden…every plant, every foliage and bloom, was red.

Other gardens I’ve named are the grassy area in the back where I threw the wildflower/grass mixture, “The Meadow.” The small bed near the entry door to my house is “The Nursery” where I heel in all the plants I acquire but don’t know where to put them. My very friend Rosemarie’s garden beds are very practical and organized like the busy engineer and supermom she is. Her favorite bed though is a small strip we named “The Diva Garden” where she can plant outrageous purples and reds and those “OMG I have to have that plant” purchases to nurture her wild side.

I think the plants in the named beds do thrive better. Maybe it’s because once garden areas have a name, I have a relationship with them and take better care of them. I named my new pruners “Snippy” so I won’t lose them so fast this time. Now if only there were a way to link them to the ICloud so I could just hit the button “Find my Pruners” and they’d ring until I found them.

Mums & Asters

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Fall in Colorado and the most colorful gardens are the shelves at the hardware store garden centers.  Thousands of mums are for sale. I’m not that fond of the one-on-each-side of the front door look, but I do like to get the small 4 in and 6 in containers and plant them here and there in the garden where things look drab.

You’ve probably figured out that those mums you’re planting this year will never look the same as they do today.  They’ll be taller for one thing….so if it’s a permanent planting, take that into account when you choose their spot.  They’ll also be sprawlier, which is a good thing in my book.  They look a bit too controlled and tidy if you ask me. Much too alien from my garden which is not controlled and tidy.

Do you know the history of your mum? Most likely it started back in June or July when three plant plugs were evenly placed into your 6-inch pot. They had ideal indoor growing conditions with fertilization for bloom…and the part that makes them most distinctive…regular applications of growth inhibitors that keep them short and stocky for that perfect Fall round look.  By next year, the growth inhibitor has long since worn off and no matter how much you cut them back by the Fourth of July, they won’t be so compact.  Which I think is a good thing as you can see in the garden picture of the orange and yellow and red mums I planted two years ago.

If you like more of a wildflower look in your garden, go with asters.  You’ll probably have to plant them from seed because they aren’t sold commercially as much as mums.  But the reward is they’ll reseed themselves (usually not too aggressively) and their flowers will be light and airy and move with the breeze in the Fall sun.

Tough Love

by Sandy Swegel

Ok, your seedlings are up and growing. Whether in the ground or growing under a light, your plants have one or two sets of true leaves. You can’t wait to have a big beautiful and blooming plant.  Now you have to be brave.  You have to take that nice tall plant and cut it down.  Ouch.

The result of this tough love is that you get better, bigger, stronger plants.  The gardening term is “pinching back” because you want to get “branching.”  When you pinch back your one main stem, the plant responds by sending up two stems. Presto chango, you have doubled your plant.  Let the plant grow another two sets of leaves on each new stem and again pinch back to the first set of leaves. Now where you once had one measly little stem, you have four stems growing out and a strong bush plant.

This works especially well with basil and other herb foliage plants.  It’s also amazing with petunias and annuals you want lots of flowers from.  Even if you’re buying plants from the store, pinching back can be a good idea. When the commercial growers are producing plants for sale, they want a plant that has a flower as soon as possible because even one flower makes a plant sell. If that plant is spindly or just very full you have to be strong and even pinch back that flower.

Pinching back is only for plants whose stems are branching,  It doesn’t work for herbs like parsley or flowers like lilies.  With perennials, it’s best to pinch back before the first flower buds have started.  The only other time I don’t pinch back is when I’m willing to sacrifice the greater good of the plant for the instant gratification of flowers.  Sometimes I just need a flower RIGHT NOW.

Knowing how plants act and react is the secret to having a beautiful garden.  You can learn about how plants behave by observing them and noticing things like how they branch when you pinch back a set of leaves. There are good scientific reasons the plants are doing what they are doing.  Scientifically, you are “interrupting apical dominance” and stimulating “axillary buds.” If you want to understand plant behavior more thoroughly, one way to do that is to read Brian Capon’s book, “Botany for Gardeners”  It explains plant physiology with words and pictures that are easy to understand.
www.amazon.com/Botany-Gardeners-Third-Brian-Capon/dp/160469095X/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

3 Easy Way to Get More Plants

by Sandy Swegel

No this isn’t about how to sneak into your neighbor’s yard at night with a shovel and bucket.  Although stopping by at your neighbor’s when she’s in full gardening mode can often score a few plants that she’s getting rid of.  But Spring is a time when plants are vigorously growing… so they easily transplant or divide or root.

Root in Water
The easiest new plants this week were the forsythia and viburnum blooms and curly willows I cut to put in vases in the house.  By the time they were finished being beautiful, little rootlets were forming at the bottom of the stems…so I’ll leave them in water another week or so and then plant them directly in the garden.

When I’m weeding out plants that are in places I don’t want them to be, but I don’t have time to save each little plant if I want to finish the cleanup, I keep a bucket of water with me and throw in stragglers that might survive till I have time to deal with them.  Got some nice yarrows, perennial geraniums and veronicas this week.

Annuals like geraniums root easily in water. I’ve also gotten fuschias and the wing begonias to root easily.

I’m not saying rooting in water is the best way to propagate plants….but before I knew much about gardening, I rooted lots of plants this way and it’s fun to watch the roots grow in the kitchen window while I wash dishes.

Cut off divisions
For plants one is traditionally taught to dig up, divide and transplant, (Shasta daisies, Veronica, salviaphlox, among many more) I’ve found great success just taking a shovel or my trusty soil knife and slicing through about a 3-inch piece on the edge.  I leave the mother plant undisturbed so its growth and bloom is normal.  The division transplants easily although it may bloom later.  This works great with hostas and I’ve gotten dozens of baby hosta plants this way.

Direct seed.
I was hanging out in the parking lot at the local garden center drooling over all the perfect annuals being unloaded.  And such a deal.  $2 or $3 for a four-pack…how can one resist?  However, by the time I get to the checkout stand, all those couple-of-dollars added up to a lot of money that wasn’t in my budget.  Then I remembered my first garden as an adult.  We sprinkled one pack of marigold seeds.  True, they didn’t look like much in early May….but come June, they were blooming and there were dozens and dozens of little marigold plants for less than the cost of that four pack. Come mid-summer the tiny field of marigolds were much prettier than that four-pack would have been.  PLANT MORE SEEDS.  :)