Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Time to start prepping garden for next year


Just as Memorial Day is perceived by many as the first day of summer, so it is that Sept. 1 is considered the unofficial beginning of fall. As such, our frame of mind and our gardening activities relate to end-of-season type activities:

- Seed or sod a new lawn. Seeding should be completed by mid-September if sowing Kentucky bluegrass, since it is slow to get established. You have a bit more leeway, i.e., to the end of the month, with fine fescue as its establishment rate is faster than that of bluegrass. If seeding a mix of bluegrass and fescue, use the mid-September deadline. After seeding, spread a layer of loose straw over the area. This mulch layer helps stabilize the soil from wind or water erosion, retains soil moisture and provides some insulation for grass seedlings. There's much more leeway if laying sod. In fact, sodding is best done at cooler temperatures (55F to 65F) since the sod is less likely to dry out. Keep in mind, that soil preparation whether for seeding or sodding a new lawn is the same.

- Apply fertilizer to existing lawns. Research has shown that if you only fertilize your lawn once a year, early September is the best time to do it. Growth of grass slows down as the days get shorter and cooler, but roots are still growing and will benefit from a fertilizer application now and again in late October. Making these late season fertilizer applications can eliminate the need for spring application.

- Pinch off the blossoms and tiny fruit from melons, pumpkins and winter squash. With shortening day length and cooler temperatures, the rate of fruit development is slowing and newly set fruit are unlikely to mature. Pinching off new blossoms and tiny fruit now will redirect the plant's energy to the development of existing fruit. Cantaloupes are ready to harvest when their skin is fully tan and a crack appears on the portion of stem closest to the fruit. Watermelons are ripe when the tendril nearest the fruit stem turns brown and dries up. I also look for yellowing of the ground spot, that is, underside of the melon in contact with the soil. Pumpkins are ripe when the fruit is fully orange in color and the rind is hard — hard enough to resist poking with your thumbnail. Similarly, winter squash is ripe when the rind is hard. After harvesting, place pumpkins and winter squash in a warm (75F to 85F) and airy place for about two weeks. This curing process will extend their storage life.

- Cut off the growing tip of Brussels sprout plants to stimulate development of the sprouts. Brussels sprout is a classic fall harvested vegetable, and, unlike the rest of us, the sprouts tend to get sweeter as the weather gets colder.

- Harvest the dried seed of dill and coriander for a supply of seasoning. However, leave some seed on the plants and let these drop to the ground. Next spring the seed will germinate and provide new plants for the new season. This works so well that I haven't sown any dill seed in five years.

- Pull up all spent, diseased or pest-infested plants in flower and vegetable gardens. Placing this debris onto a hot compost pile — one with a temperature of 145F to 160F at its center will kill pest and disease organisms. Otherwise, dig a hole and bury the debris.

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- Bring indoors all houseplants that vacationed outdoors this summer. But before you do, treat the plants for pests. Aphids, mealy bugs and spider mites are the most likely critters to hitch a ride on the plants. A forceful spray with a garden hose will dislodge most of these pests. (A very forceful spray will dislodge plant leaves and perhaps the entire plant from its pot, so be careful with that hose.) As extra precaution, apply neem oil or insecticidal soap as per product directions. Also, prune back plants that experienced a disorderly growth spurt and repot those that outgrew their containers. Finally, just as you acclimated the plants during their move from indoors to outdoors back in June, reverse the process by moving the plants indoors at night and back outdoors during the day. Gradually increase the indoor time over a period of about two weeks.

- Take cuttings from geraniums, coleus, begonias and impatiens. Root the cuttings indoors in a mix of sand and peat moss or houseplant potting mix. Once rooted, grow the plants on as houseplants through the winter.

- Snip off the mature seed heads from some favorite annuals, e.g. calendula, cleome, marigold, morning glory, nasturtium and zinnia. If the seeds don't readily drop free of the seed heads, dry the seed heads by spreading them on newspaper in a cool, airy location until dry. Store the seeds in glass jars or in sandwich bags.

- Raid the piggy bank and shop for spring flowering bulbs before the crowd gets there. Garden centers currently have an abundant supply and wide selection of varieties.

- Dig and divide and replant daylilies and peonies, or buy new specimens for planting now. Space daylilies about 1 1/2 feet apart when planting. They can tolerate part shade, but place them in soil that drains well. In October, plant daffodil bulbs between the daylilies. After daffodils finish their bloom next spring, the daylily foliage will come up and hide their fading foliage.

- Apply fresh mulch, such as aged wood chips, around trees and shrubs, and a finer mulch, e.g. buckwheat hulls, composted wood chips and dried grass clippings, around plants in perennial borders.


On a matter not specific to the fall, slugs have been devouring many of the flowers in the gardens of my friend, Michael Symons. Recently he asked me for recommendations for slug-proof plants. Being that my brain functions as slowly as a slug on a frosty morning, the only thought that came to mind was marigold. I figured no persnickety slug would be enthralled by the strong and stinky scent characteristic of marigolds. Apparently, slugs aren't as finicky as I thought. After a bit of research, I learned that slugs actually enjoy munching marigold foliage. On the other hand, some annuals that slugs tend to avoid include: alyssum, begonias, China aster, cosmos, bachelor's buttons, gazania, impatiens, love-in-a-mist (Nigella), nasturtium, flowering tobacco (Nicotiana), portulaca and snapdragon.


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