Garden chores continue this month, even as frost threatens. Enjoy the gorgeous weather as you tackle late-season tasks.
A pretty spring bulb show takes root now. Tuck bulbs into soil now through November. In warmer parts of the South, refrigerate tulips and hyacinths for six weeks before planting in December or January. Place bulbs in a lidded plastic container in the refrigerator. Check them occasionally to make sure there's no condensation or rotting.
When planting bulbs, follow these tips for success:
1. Add a handful of bulb fertilizer to the base of planting holes, mixing it into soil.
2. Beat burrowing creatures by planting bulbs in wire cages.
3. Foil squirrels by tucking bulbs into soil beneath groundcovers.
4. If you want to force bulbs for indoor blooms, you need to give them 14-16 weeks of cold (41-48 degrees F). When the cold period is up, flowers will appear after two to three weeks at room temperature. Good bulbs for forcing are tulip, crocus, daffodil, and hyacinth.
Frost affects much of the South this month. Listen to forecasts, especially if you have plants you want to protect.
If you're facing a frosty night, protect plants by throwing a sheet or other nonplastic material over them. In the morning, remove covers after air has warmed above 40 degrees F. To protect vegetables for several weeks, use frost blankets, which are made from spun polyester. You can actually anchor these in place over plants. The blanket permits water and sunlight to pass but precludes frost.
It's important to know how plants react to frost. Basil, for example, can't take temperatures below 40 degrees F -- lower temperatures cause its leaves to turn brown. You can save your basil for a few days if temperatures are falling into the 30s. Cut stems you want to save, placing them into a clean bucket filled with a few inches of water. Stems will last longer if you keep the bucket out of direct sun and in a cool place. Interestingly, mustard greens, kale, and carrots all get sweeter after frost kisses leaves. And you don't need to worry too much about salad crops such as lettuce, spinach, and arugula -- they can take hard frosts (below 28 degrees F).
Test Garden Tip: Dig tender bulbs such as canna, dahlia, caladium, and tuberous begonia after frost nips leaves. Dry bulbs in a garage or shed until soil clinging to tubers falls away. Gently knock soil away, clip stems, and store in peat moss or sawdust. Store bulbs where they won't freeze and aren't accessible to mice. In warmest parts of the South, these bulbs don't need to be lifted. Simply mulch plants well for winter.
Feed roses early in the month to fuel the fall flower show. Use a rose fertilizer according to label instructions.
Sow seeds now for flowers next spring. Candidates include poppy, cornflower, and larkspur.
Prepare planting beds by loosening soil 6-8 inches deep. Scatter seeds evenly. Poppy seeds are small; mix with builder's sand so you can see where sand (and seeds) land. Rake beds gently after sowing and water. Thin seedlings 4-6 inches apart.
Collect seeds from your favorite annuals' flowers, including larkspur, four o'clocks, bachelor's buttons, morning glory, and sunflower. Dry flower heads of zinnia, Tithonia, and cosmos on screens; remove seeds when heads are dry. Place seeds in tightly sealed containers and store in a cool, dry place.
Dress up planting beds and containers with cool-season color: pansy, viola, snapdragon, flowering cabbage and kale, pinks, English daisy, and red mustard. Mix fertilizer into beds before planting, or apply via irrigation.
Add perennials to your garden now for a bigger show of color next year. No-fuss varieties include daylilies, peonies, salvia, and phlox.
It's time to move houseplants inside for winter. Prepare plants for the transition with these helpful tips:
1. Repot and fertilize as needed.
2. Prune large plants that flower on new growth, such as Bougainvillea or Mandevilla vines. Removing growth now won't affect flowering next year.
3. Clean the soil surface by pulling weeds and removing dead leaves.
4. Give insects the boot by spraying plants with water. A soap-and-water solution also works well. Be sure to spray leaf undersides.
5. Evict insects living in soil near drainage holes by submerging lower half of pots in water for 15 minutes. Or direct pesticide spray into drainage holes.
6. Borrow or buy a hand truck or dolly to move large plants.
7. Place plants indoors in a sunny, unheated room to give plants a cool retreat. This type of growing environment helps reduce pest problems.
8. Allow holiday cactus, kalanchoe, and potted azaleas to stay outdoors until night temperatures fall to 40 degrees F. This treatment helps improve flowering.
Fall is a perfect time for planting trees and shrubs. Choose balled-and-burlapped or potted plants. Water plants as fall unfolds, especially if rain is scarce. Mulch after planting to help retain soil moisture, but don't heap mulch against tree trunks. Grind fall leaves to use as mulch around perennial and shrub plantings or to blanket empty vegetable beds.
Gather pine needles (straw) to place around plantings. Pine straw is especially effective around acid-loving plants: azalea, rhododendron, gardenia, holly, and camellia.