Now that temperatures have finally started to moderate, many of us are sneaking back into our landscapes and gardens to do more than just keep things tidy and alive. We're actually planning fall landscaping projects. Let's make a list of some of the ones that may cross your mind for October. It is, after all, the pivotal month during which we turn the corner from summer and plan for winter and spring ahead.
Time to plant ...
October is a time for planting. Once daytime temperatures are reliably in the 70s and low 80s, we can plant pansies and violas. Planting too early, while it's still hot, results in lanky, stretched plants that never recover. Pansies just don't handle heat well. Nurseries now have good supplies of these bestselling Texas annual flowers. Plant pansies in raised beds filled with loose, highly organic garden soil. Where we used to plant beds of only one color, there are some terrific blends of mixed colors. Pansies need full sun and ample nitrogen to keep them growing vigorously. They're especially well suited to large patio pots, so they're perfect for small landscapes and even apartments and townhouses.
While you're planting pansies and violas, add a few of their other winter-hardy brethren. Ornamental cabbage and kale are showstoppers. Red Bor kale is a tall, old Russian variety. Because of its very dark purple foliage, it has become one of the favorite backdrops to beds of pansies and pinks, and it's commonly used in large winter-color containers for its height and drama. Pinks and snapdragons are also well suited to North Texas winter landscapes, and they're widely available now. If you have a protected spot, you could also include sweet alyssum, "Bright Lights" and "Rhubarb" Swiss chard, and Iceland poppies.
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If you have spring-flowering perennials that have become congested, dig and divide them in the next couple of weeks. The list of plants that can be divided now includes day lilies, irises, violets, mallows, coneflowers, shasta daisies and gloriosa daisies. Plant the divisions at the recommended spacings, and give the extra plants to friends. Do not overcrowd your beds as you replant.
Local nurseries have good supplies of spring-blooming bulbs. Small and early-flowering daffodils and narcissus as well as grape hyacinths have the best chance of establishing and repeating their bloom year after year. Tulips and Dutch hyacinths will need to be "chilled" in the refrigerator for a minimum of 45 days at 45 degrees to simulate a cold winter. Plant them no sooner than mid-December.
If you have bare ground that needs a temporary turf covering for the winter, choose either annual or perennial rye grass from seed. It can be planted now into freshly tilled soil that has been raked to a smooth grade. You'll need to time your plantings carefully if your city has imposed watering restrictions -- you can't let the young seedlings get dry. If you have traditionally overseeded Bermuda or St. Augustine turf to have green grass in the winter, this might be a year to skip it. The summer stresses have weakened our grasses, and the competition might be difficult for your lawn to overcome in the spring.
If you have been postponing the planting of new trees and shrubs because of the weather, wait no longer. Nurseries have wonderful supplies, and fall plantings have the best success rate. After all, they have an extra six or seven months to establish new roots before the next summer arrives. Nurseries have outstanding supplies right now, and many are offering their plants with good discounts as they try to reduce inventories before winter. This year hasn't exactly seen record sales for them, and the plants are larger and nicer than ever.
If you're buying container-grown nursery stock, consider buying fewer shrubs but larger specimens. Sure, if you step up from 2-gallon containers to 5- or 10-gallon plants you'll pay more per plant, but you'll be better able to judge how far apart to plant them. You'll get a more immediate impact on your landscape, and the plants will have deeper root systems for a greater margin of error during dry spells.
... And to plan
It's always better to buy nursery stock with a landscape plan in hand. If you don't have one, talk to a local independent retail garden center. Most have a person who can help with the design. They might have a few minutes to do a quick sketch for you if you're buying the plants from them, but you would probably be better advised to hire the designer to do a full landscape planting plan to scale. You'll be amazed at the difference that will make in the outcome of your landscaping efforts. It's much easier to schedule a designer now than it will be in the spring. Ask for referrals, and check them out. Ask for locations of landscapes they designed two or three years ago. That gets past the raw, just-planted look, but it's soon enough that the people wouldn't have begun to retrofit and alter the designer's plans.
Most of us have been cooped up in self-protection the past four months. Now, finally, it's our chance to get back outside. See you in the garden!
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.