Neil Sperry

It’s first call for early fall gardening tasks and these are the most critical

You’ve probably laid out the plans for Labor Day sales, parties with family and friends and the start of the football season. Nice of a garden guy to stop by with a few timely tips of things that you really ought to get done in your lawn, landscape and garden. Just call me your “pocket conscience” if you will, but here are the most critical.

Pre-emergent weedkiller

You’re in the middle of prime time for this one and we’ve been talking about it for several weeks, so I’ll keep it short. Apply Dimension, Halts or Balan to prevent germination of winter grasses such as the extremely annoying annual bluegrass (Poa annua). You don’t get a second chance. Apply these granules before this time next week or you’re likely to see this weed come winter and spring. All the directions you’ll need are on the bag.

Last call to start new turfgrass

Speaking of lawns, if you have bare spots where you need to get St. Augustine, bermuda or zoysia started, you’re at the deadline. Sod is better than plugs just for quicker establishment, and it’s getting really late to be seeding bermuda. Plant into freshly tilled soil, and water daily to get the new grass off to a good start.

Fertilize almost all of your plants

Soil tests almost always will show that an all-nitrogen food where a large percentage of the nitrogen is in slow-release form will give the best long-term results. Turfgrasses can be fed now, probably even St. Augustine. If you recall, I’ve been advising you to hold off on feeding it due to gray leaf spot, a fungus that is made worse by applications of nitrogen during the summer. Flower and vegetable plantings can be hastened along with a water-soluble plant food – again, one that’s high in nitrogen.

Treat iron-deficient plants now

Symptoms: yellowed leaves with dark green veins, most prominently displayed on newest growth first. Leaves do not fall from the plants until fall. Many products aimed at correcting iron chlorosis also contain sulfur. Its function is to lower the pH of the soil (make it less alkaline) so that the iron will remain soluble for longer periods of time. Plants that are most likely to show iron deficiency: dogwoods, wisterias, azaleas, gardenias and loropetalums among many others. Keep iron products off masonry and painted surfaces that could be stained.

Plant leafy, root vegetables this weekend

The list includes lettuce, spinach, endive, radishes, turnips, carrots, beets and many other less common types. If you haven’t planted broccoli and cabbage transplants yet, you can still give them a try, but plant them where you’ll be able to cover them with frost cloth the nights of the first freezes to keep them growing for a few extra weeks. They can handle cold weather until winter really sets in.

Wildflower seeds are planted in the next couple of weeks

It’s not exactly the way nature does it, but it may be a tiny step better. If you think about it, they bloom and go to seed in the spring in nature. The seeds mature in May and June and fall to the ground where birds, insects and washing rain can destroy the crop. By sowing them now you bypass many of those challenges. Choose a sunny, well-draining location where turfgrass will not compete. “Scuff-till” it lightly to create a seedbed. That’s a term I’ve never heard of either. I just dreamed it up to describe how you might run a small tiller over the planting area to break the crust of the soil enough to give the seeds a place to catch root. If you’re doing a larger area you would probably use standard farming equipment to disc the ground lightly.

Water the plantings so they don’t dry out as the seeds are starting to germinate. As fall progresses, you can turn them over to fall rains, watering only during extended periods of dry weather. Do not apply fertilizer. Similarly, if you’re planting in flowerbeds, don’t do much heroic bed preparation, and keep the soil relatively “hungry” to prevent your plantings from getting lanky and “going all to foliage.”

Be on the lookout for fall pests

Fall webworms, for example, are showing up everywhere. They’re building their tents along the branches of pecans, persimmons, walnuts and other species of trees. Sprays are difficult and not especially effective unless you use a wetting agent to allow the spray to penetrate the webs. It’s usually easier to trim the webs out of the trees using a telescoping pole pruner. (Watch for electric lines.)

Stinging caterpillars proliferate in the fall. Make yourself familiar with puss caterpillars (“asps”), also the caterpillars of Hag moths and Io moths, among others. Each can inflict painful stings to unsuspecting victims. Children are attracted to them, so we adults need to teach them not to touch any caterpillars randomly.

Watch out, too, for nests of yellowjackets. They are much more aggressive than wasps and hornets, and they also tend to build their nests in hidden spots beneath eaves and within shrubs. It’s always a good idea to brush across hedges with a rake handle to test them before you start trimming.

Neil Sperry hosts“Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: