Neil Sperry

Here are October’s critical assignments for North Texas gardeners

Special to the Star-Telegram

This year has been unlike most others. But as I typed that I realized that I’ve said that just about every year at this time. Nothing much is standard in Texas when the weather is involved. We had ample rains the first half of the year, and we couldn’t squeeze two drops out of the clouds ever since. It stayed warm way too long, and lawns and landscapes suffered in the meantime.

So with all of that said, I thought this might be a good time to jot down some notes of things you’ll want to be doing the second half of October to get the train back on the tracks. These are your most critical assignments for the next several weeks.

Plant ...

Trees and shrubs planted now will have the best possible chance of getting established before next summer’s hot weather plows back into town. Nurseries are putting much of their stock on sale, and the plants are full and vigorous. Water them by hand every few days to help them get established.

Pansies and violas are the most cold-hardy of our winter annuals. Also include pinks, snapdragons and ornamental cabbage and kale for winter color.

Plant daffodils and grape hyacinths as soon as you buy them. Plant in masses rather than long, straight rows for best visual impact. You must refrigerate Dutch hyacinths and tulips for at least 45 days at 45F, planting in the last two weeks of December. They need that “artificial winter” in order to bloom properly.

Prune ...

Tidy up your perennial beds by removing all browned foliage, flower stalks and seed heads. As much as possible leave all green foliage in place as long as you can. The plants need it as they store food for next year’s growth and blooms.

Remove dead and damaged branches from trees while you can still identify them before leaves start to drop before winter. If necessary, hire a certified arborist to do any removal from high up in trees.

You can trim errant branches from shrubs to keep them tidy, but save major reshaping for January or early February, just before they start their burst of spring growth. By doing major pruning now you will have to look at the stem stubble all winter, plus you might force tender new growth prior to cold weather ahead.

Continue mowing your lawn at the recommended height for the type of grass that you’re growing. Allowing grass to grow tall does not improve its winter hardiness. In fact, it weakens the grass and invites invasion by weeds. Mowing regularly allows you to keep fallen leaves picked up off your lawn. Use them in the compost.

Fertilize ...

Time is about up for your fall lawn feeding. Apply a high quality lawn food containing primarily nitrogen (no phosphorus – the middle number of the fertilizer analysis). Look for a brand with upwards of half of its nitrogen in slow-release form.

If you have fescue turf, or if you have used ryegrass either as temporary cover or to overseed your warm-season lawngrass, apply an all-nitrogen fertilizer now to stimulate new growth in fall’s cooler weather.

Apply a high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food to new annual color transplants to get them off to a fast start.

As you put mulched leaves that you’ve picked up off the lawn into the compost, add one cup of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer or several cups of manure per cubic yard of leaves. Turn the pile with a spading fork. The nitrogen will promote bacteria that speed up the decay of the organic matter. Keep the pile moist and cover it with black polyethylene plastic to keep it warm.

On the lookout ...

Broadleafed weeds in your lawn (those types that are not grasses) can be controlled with application of a broadleafed weedkiller spray containing 2,4-D. Read and follow label directions to achieve best results without doing damage to desirable trees, shrubs and other ornamental plants.

Check for scales, mealybugs, whiteflies, roaches and other insects you don’t want to bring indoors with your patio pots as cold weather approaches. Check the plants carefully, even taking them out of their pots to inspect them. You might set them into a washtub of water to let them soak for a couple of hours. That should drown any insects that are being harbored within the soil. Let a Texas Certified Nursery Professional help you find the right insecticide for any insects you find on the stems and leaves.

Asps (puss caterpillars), Io moth larvae and Hagg moth caterpillars are all active in Texas landscapes currently. Each is capable of inflicting a very painful sting if you brush against it accidentally. They are easily controlled with Bacillus thuringiensis organic insecticide or with most other inorganic insecticides. Learn what they look like, and teach young children never to pick up caterpillars in the garden.

As we discussed here last week, there seems to be more damage from white grub worms to North Texas lawns this fall than in any year in recent memory. To check, pull on the grass in browned patches. If it comes up without much resistance, and if you can find 4 or 5 white grubs per square foot of topsoil by digging down 3 inches, you have an outbreak. Treat right away with a labeled insecticide such as Imidacloprid.

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