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Perennials, Garden upkeep

October Gardening

Monday, October 2, 2006

Peering blearily at the file of fall gardening chores one might query whether this, rather than spring, is the busiest time of the year for gardeners. "Sons of toil, covered with tons of soil," P.G. Wodehouse cast us as. That master of the metaphor could be right. Let us list, briefly at least, what will work off the pumpkin pies and other comestibles . . .

Commence to cut back perennials, you will be advised. Yes -- but not quite all. Succulent sedums, such as the ones beloved by migrating fall monarch butterflies, are left until early spring, likewise ornamental grasses. Dwarf shrubs used in the perennial border also are left -- but what about subshrubs? An example of these is the well-known culinary common sage and many of its ornamental relatives. Trim these back to six inches (15cm). Butterfly bush receives similar treatment.

Borders really gotten weedy and out of hand? Fall is perfect timing to renovate. Dig everything out and set aside. Spread compost up to 6 inches thick (15cm) and spade over. Remove every last weed or other roots discovered in the process. Split the perennial clumps, reserving the outer portions, discarding the older, played-out centre sections. Spread bone meal fertilizer generously, and then replant the most desirable selections. Complete by edging the bed with a turf knife.

Mixed in with the perennials and in planters, tubs and other containers may be summer bulbs such as canna, dahlia, gladiolus and tuberous begonias. After the first frosts have shriveled the tops, dig out, wash off the soil and dry thoroughly. Store in a cool but frost-free place covered with bone-dry peat moss.

Many summer-long flowering tender perennials are treated as annuals. They need not be. Select the very best specimens of geraniums, impatiens and fibrous-rooted begonias then cut these back to just four inches (10cm). Pot into 6-inch (15cm) clay pots and grow on a sunny indoor windowsill through the winter.

Hibiscus, bougainvillea, fuchsia, abutilon and many other desirable and increasingly expensive woody specimen plants can also be overwintered inside. Cut the growth made this past summer back by three-quarters before bringing indoors. Also apply a drenching spray of insecticidal soap as a precaution, repeating at least monthly through the winter. These plants seem to attract white fly and aphids especially. As Lubarsky's Law of Cybernetic Entomology states: There's always one more bug

Hybrid roses do not require protection until later in November. For some reason retailers seem unaware of this and sell out of rose collars and bagged cattle or sheep manure long before then. Purchase now along with any lawn or other fertilizers on final fall sale. So long as the bags remain sealed, they can be stored at sub-zero temperatures over winter and still remain viable. As for the roses themselves, cease deadheading and allow the "hips," or fruit to develop as a signal to the roses to start preparing for shutdown.

Mulching flowerbeds is best left until the ground freezes. This will not take place in south-central Ontario until at least the end of November, more likely December -- and has been known to extend into January. If mulches are laid down too early, bugs and other thugs will have a heyday protected from weather and their natural predators.

Rake leaves into heaps, then shred with the lawnmower. Use a leaf-blower if you will but beware: you might be courting paracusis. This, according to Charles Panati (1989) is a peculiar form of hearing loss characterized by the ability to hear better in a noisy environment. Vavavavoom! Now I hear you! Store the shredded foliage temporarily in garbage bags with holes punched through the sides. Never rake unshredded leaves directly onto beds. They will mat down into a soggy, air-excluding mass, smothering out life beneath them.

How about lime on the lawn? Distributed evenly with a mechanical spreader this can "sweeten" the soil, as old-timers were wont to say. In other words, turn an acidic soil into one more alkaline (they tasted it to determine this happy conclusion). Soil can become acid from heavy and constant applications of fertilizer -- including some 'natural' ones. Moss may be an indication of low pH or acidity. For just this reason, however, keep away from rhododendrons and other acid-loving plants.

So how about Halloween? The Sakata Seed Company suggests you use the violas 'Venus Deep Orange' and 'Venus Black' ( although the best of luck finding them for sale anywhere . . . Likewise the Dracula genus of 60 species of orchids from Central and South America that grow on rocks or trees. The pendulous blooms are said to resemble little dragons, hence the Latin name of Dracula, a diminutive of dragon. D. bella and D. chimaera, both native to Colombia are recommended by orchid aficionados. Or just give up any horticultural theme and mention that you know of the Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, co-ed, chartered 1780. A trifle more than a pumpkin-toss away from there is Transylvania County, in the western parts of North Carolina, bordering on South Carolina.

One perennial to handle with caution during fall cleanup is aconite also known as monkshood or, more ominously, wolfsbane. All of them can be deadly. In the gulags of Sakhalin Island in far eastern Siberia, state prisoners of the communist regime sort release from this life by using wild species. The hoi polloi of Europe similarly favoured aconite (the upper classes preferred a potion of hemlock) for executing criminals. Next month being municipal election time, with its inevitable slate of failed candidates, it might be worth noting that on the Greek island of Ceos, the infirm, old and other undesirables were forced to take aconite. And if they succeed in being elected? May we recommend a copy of R. J. Garner's The Grafter's Handbook (London, 1960).

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.