Pets, Places, & Things, Urban Garden

Refresh, Research & Carry Over!

By Jacqueline Murphy

It’s September already and your garden may be looking a little fatigued, which is entirely natural. Soon it will be time to put it to bed for its winter rest. This does not mean, however, that you should toss aside your tools and put up your feet for the season. Whether your garden consists of a window box or two or a spacious yard, there is work to be done yet.

If you must take a rest before starting on the more arduous tasks to hand, use that quiet time to cast a discerning eye upon the fruits of your labor to date. I like to assess the previous growing season and mentally catalog what worked well, what didn’t, what needs to be divided, pruned, etc., and start thinking about what I want to accomplish next year.

Refresh worn-out plantings.

September is also a good time to consider sprucing up a tired design with some late season color, either by adding some annuals (pansies, snapdragons, stock, ornamental kale) perennials (asters, mums, ornamental grasses), or woody plants that will offer some structure and visual interest into the winter months (camellia, beautyberry, hypericum, oakleaf hydrangea).

Do your research.

No idea what these plants look like, you say? Looking at photos in books and on the Internet is nice but it’s so much better to see the plants in situ in a well-tended garden. If you live in Alexandria, you won’t have far to go. Chances are very good that there are some fabulous gardens on your street. Most gardeners I know are delighted to show off their handiwork and discuss their triumphs with admirers so trot over and chat them up.

If you’re too shy to quiz your neighbors about their horticultural endeavors, head to the nearest garden center for some retail therapy. You could also visit River Farm, home of the American Horticultural Society, Green Spring Gardens or Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, to name just a few of the many local possibilities for inspiration and edification. Look for plants established in conditions that mimic the ones you have at home (eastern exposure, afternoon shade, moist soil, etc.) and make note of the combinations you find particularly appealing. All of your observations will help you select the right plants for the different areas of your garden.

Woody plants for everyone.

September is a great time to install woody plants (vines, shrubs and trees) because warm soil encourages root growth. Roots will grow until the ground freezes and may continue growing during the course of a mild winter. By the time spring comes around again your new plants will be off to a healthy and vigorous start.

Don’t be afraid to try woody plants in frost-proof containers. Understand, though, that woody plants grown in the ground can last a lifetime whereas those grown in containers may only last a few years. Still, buying shrubs for your container garden is a reasonable investment if you consider how much you might spend to fill those same containers entirely with annuals every season. The best woody plants for containers are dwarf varieties. Dwarf cultivars have a much slower growth rate than the species so they are better suited to container cultivation. Use a single woody plant (a clipped boxwood or topiary ivy, for example) as a container’s year-round focal point and change out the annuals surrounding it according to the season.

Carrying over.

I love the hopeful ring of this old-fashioned term. Many plants typically sold as annuals are actually biennials, tender perennials or even shrubs, and can be carried over the winter, as long as you provide the proper care. If you have enough room and are blessed with enough winter sunshine, some plants can be hauled in and allowed to bask in said wintry light until next spring. If you are short on space, it might be better to pot up some cuttings of your favorites, since cuttings take up less real estate.

Many plants root easily in plain old tap water, like the coleus whose roots are threatening to burst through the glass I put it in last month. I’m going to pot it up this week, I promise. Propagating other plants may require a bit more work involving rooting hormone and a tray of clean sand.

General September gardening tips.

  • As I already mentioned, fall is a great time of year for planting. Install trees, shrubs, bulbs, perennials, grass seed and sod.
  • This is the time to divide and transplant perennials that have gotten too big for their allotted space or have produced fewer flowers due to overcrowding.
  • Buy your favorite springs flowering bulbs now for the best selection and plant them in October.
  • Feed your lawn with a slow-release fertilizer and apply at least once more before the end of the year.

About the Author: Jacqueline Murphy, the proprietor of Garden Calls, offers garden coaching on all aspects of residential landscape with a focus on sustainable design. A Smith College graduate, horticulturist and garden writer, Jacqueline has written for Fine Gardening magazine and books published by Reader’s and Time Life.

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