October Stepping Stones to Gardening Success
October weather can be even more glorious than September. In the Panhandle, days are warm and nights cool, sometimes cold. The sun appears lower in the sky supplying many opportunities for enjoying backlight scenes. There's alot going on in the garden -- October is the transition month into fall, much like March is into spring. Trees and native plants begin to turn yellows, reds and then finally the browns are left until they fall. Native sumacs are brilliant! Fall flower blooms are peaking; by the end of the month, are waning. Berries on shrubs and trees ripen to an eye-catching red. Ornamental grasses have now fully plumed out and in their full magnificence transform beds and border. Roses, dahlias, lantanas, vines and many warm season annuals continue with their last blush. October bears the reward for our efforts throughout the year.
Fall blooming bulbs include Sternbergia lutea, called the autumn or winter daffodil, and the autumn crocus, two of which are Crocus speciosus var. alba and Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus for October delights. Colchicums, also referred to as an autumn crocus, are small flowers from corms that are eager to bloom. Cultivars such as 'Waterlily', 'Violet Queen' reaching 6-8 inches tall, and the 'Giant', up to 12 inches. The longest blooming are the rain lily, Zephranthes candida, “the flower of the west wind” from Argentina blooming on and off again from as early as late July into October.
Butterflies are plentiful in October. Sometime from the end of September into October the fall migration of American painted lady, Queen and Monarch butterflies passes through the Texas Panhandle. Hopefully, your garden contains nectar plants for them to visit and refuel before continuing on to Mexico. Give them a reason to stop at your home landscape.
I view the fall as the beginning of the gardening year, not the end. Indeed, there is no end, just a continuation. Spring preparation begins six-months or more in advance. There really aren’t too many October tasks except for maintenance, the preparation for winter and of new beds for spring planting. Some spring blooming plants will rebloom if conditions are right, including lilac, wisteria, yuccas, California poppies, and iris for a joyful surprise.
Week by week through the month, the days and nights cool. Coupled with shorter daylength, growing slows significantly. The first week in October is the last week to plant greens with expectation of a harvest before spring growth begins in mid-February and March. It's time to clean out the shed and garage in preparation for storing the pots and containers and converting warm season annual beds to compositions of cool season pansies, violas, cabbage and kale. Unless an Arctic cold front plunges way south (as sometimes happens), we are usually blessed with four to eight additional weeks of blooms and vegetables. The average date of the first frost falls around October 20th, but many years it’s delayed until November.
Stepping Stones is arranged in most cases on a week to week basis within the months with gardening tasks described by order of the Seven Principles of Gardening, as needed, namely:
1. Plan and Design
2. Analyze and Improve the Soil
3. Create Practical Turf Areas
4, Choose Appropriate Plants
5. Efficient Use of Water
6. Use Organic or Inorganic Mulch
7. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
Following the weeks' tasks, I've included suggestions under the headings "Keep it Up", "Extras", "Be a Plant Explorer" and "Oops! and/or Don't" -- extra tips I practice and have found to be important or interesting. If you've been gardening for several years, there will be fewer tasks each week for each principle. Included in the sidebar at the right are QuickSteps -- a summary or outline of tasks to do each month. Feel free to copy and print out to refer to during the month.
Don't worry if you can't get to the task in the first week suggested. These times are when I've noticed the earliest most likely success achievable. Naturally, each and every year will be different. Some years will be warmer, some cooler. Adjust and stay tuned to the weather.
Weeks One and Two
Plan and Design
If your new bed area has Bermudagrass, rethink the timing and wait until next year to kill the Bermudagrass when it’s actively growing. Otherwise, preparing and amending the soil in most other areas can be started from September until February.
Continue to edit the garden. Certain perennials can be divided in the fall for root propagating, such as the veronica groundcovers Veronica pectinata, V. pectinata ‘Rosea’, and V. ‘Blue Reflection’, Achillea ageratifolia and A. siberica will propagate well by root cuttings too, as will Calylophus. Divide other perennials with spreading root systems such as coral bells (heucheras) and cranebills (geraniums species). Transplant and move perennials for a great start on the next growing season. The roots will continue to grow through the winter. I have noticed much growth in my low water-use perennials from October to February.
Pumpkins, winter squash and gourds on the vine can be picked and used for display, or stored for cooking in the months to come.
Amend the Soil
For non-Bermuda grass areas, if using the smothering technique, or lasagna method of preparing a bed, do so now. Place a layer of 4-6 newspapers overlapping over the new bed area. Shovel sand 1 – 3 inches deep or other inorganic amendment (follow amendment instructions) on top for clay soil. Follow this with 3 inches of compost. Let this set until next year, until late January or early February. Then work the soil with a garden fork, mixing in the material. Add another 3 inches or so of compost, depending on the type of plants you intend to landscape with. Mix in again.
When I prepare a new bed using the lasagna method, I start in the fall, and work the soil after the top growth is killed a minimum of two times before planting, three is preferred.
I usually rotor till only once, to avoid over tilling. A stout garden fork is my tool of choice. Buy the stoutest garden fork you can. It will still break in our compacted clay soil, at least it’ll last longer. Preparing the ground properly is a very important factor in gardening success and quick establishment of plants. The benefit of using the lasagna method is in saving your topsoil. This is especially beneficial to you if you’ve been topdressing your turf with organic matter, you don’t want to peel it off and toss it away.
Build the soil by adding 1 – 3 inches of compost (insure that your compost has not been exposed to persistent synthetic chemicals; see Maintenance, Composting, Killer Compost) to flowerbeds, more for the vegetable and rose beds. This may all depend on how many years you’ve amended them organically in the past.
Xeric beds do not need yearly amending. If a decline in vigor is noticed several years after establishing xeric beds, pull back the mulch and add a compost blend, 1 – 3 inches. I have not noticed the need to add organic amendments to xeric beds 3-5 years old. However, if the occasion occurs that I need to replace a plant, I add a handful of Yum-Yum mix to the planting whole for quart size perennials. Add more when planting shrubs and trees. Now,after 10+ years, I broadcast Yum-Yum Mix over the rock mulch on the xeric beds in the spring, and wash it down to the soil with a garden hose. Everything is still going strong. You could do this in the fall instead of spring.
Continue to mow turf as needed. If you feel it’s necessary to aerate the turf, do so. Apply topdressing to turf if you didn’t in September, about a ½” to ¾” layer. More is not better, but may smother the turf.
Finish any fall planting in new beds. October is a good month to add trees to the landscape.
Plant snapdragons chrysanthemums and asters as soon as possible, the sooner the better for root development prior to winter’s cold (planting these in September is better). Plant winter hardy annuals such as pansies, violas, and ornamental cabbage and kale.
Monitor nighttime low temperatures. Protect tropicals from lows below 55º, and sub tropicals for temperatures below 40º. Dig up and bring inside any non-cold hardy perennials to winter over (alocasias, caladiums, colocasias, gladiolas, etc.). Rinse off the tubers and let dry out of the sun for a day or two, taking care not to expose them to temperatures below freezing. I usually store mine inside, uncovered, after all foliage has died back. This has worked successfully for me for many years, particularly for elephant ears.
Withhold water from amaryllis in the fall; move them under a cover if rain threatens. Dig up amaryllis bulbs that have been planted outside in May. Some people plant amaryllis directly in the ground, others bury the pot and all. Wash and air-dry them out of direct sunlight for a few days. Pot them up or place in a light-tight box or area for about 8 weeks, with temperatures about 50º. After the leaves shrivel and turn yellow, cut them off. After about 8 weeks, pot them, and keep lightly moist in a bright, sunny inside location, above 55º. They will begin to re-bloom during the holiday season. (Garden Design Magazine, Dec. 2000-Jan. 2001).
Efficient use of Water
Adjust sprinkler systems with the change in season. Disconnect any outdoor water fountains, drain, clean out and store the pumps in the shed or garage.
Mulch the beds for winter, up to 3 inches. Add inorganic mulch to the xeric beds, if needed.
Weeks Three and Four
Finish any of the above-mentioned gardening tasks, your stepping stones to gardening success. You will notice through the year, your xeric, or low water-use beds require far less maintenance.
Garlic, shallots and onions could be planted now if you can find them for sale. I keep back cloves of garlic from the summer harvest and normally plant them in November. You could plant now, or wait another few weeks. Some gardeners immediately plant the largest cloves around the time they harvest the garlic. I haven't found much difference between the two methods.
Plant spring blooming bulbs, but you needn’t be in a hurry. November is just as good. The last few years, I composed a tulip bed overlayed with pansies. Planting tulips and daffodils 6 inches deep and overplanted with cool season annuals is a practice that makes a pleasing spring display.
Dig up any tender, not cold hardy bulbs to over-winter. Frost generally will not damage them, nor even the first freeze, but dig them up before the ground cools too low. Cold moist soil will rot the bulbs in the fall, just as readily as it will in early spring. (Photos of chrysanthemums at left, a medley of lantana at the right.)
Review the tips for composting and recycling yeard waste. As leaves begin to fall, harvest this valuable organic amendment. For the large leaves, rake onto the lawn and mow. For a crop of large leaves, put your bag attachment back on the mulch mower, mow and bag them up, and disperse them back on the beds and borders. Or just compost them. Repeat as necessary.
Delay your major garden cleanup until late winter or early spring. Studies have shown the garden is more resilient with the cover of finished stems and leaves. Remove any diseased or pest infested foliage and take it to the dumpster. You don’t want any of that to winter over. Birds will thank you for leaving the seed heads over winter. Don’t clean out beds thoroughly, just some cosmetic cleaning. Provide a winter habitat for the beneficial insects, birds and other critters. These are all part of the rhythm and cycle of life, the garden and soil web of life.
Plant pansies, violas, kale, dianthus, snapdragons, ornamental cabbages, mums and asters, the traditional fall plants if desired. These winter annuals of pansies, violas, and ornamental kale and cabbage can be planted in the large insulated foam containers that look like stoneware. The insulation allows them to winter over, most winters. They are high maintenance and need to be watered regularly and fed with Yum-Yum Mix or “Pansy Food” for continued blooms throughout the winter months.
If you’ve been a gardening angel to someone or someplace, put those gardens, as well as your own, to bed for the winter.
Keep it Up
- Mulch mow
- Irrigate if necessary
- Turn and moisten the compost pile if necessary
- Record information in your garden journal
Be a Plant Explorer
With such a great and diverse nation with a multitude of ecosystems, choose one and visit. Fall is splendid in many areas, and in the south, temperatures are cooling, making outdoor adventures more attractive. Spring plants are replaced by mature summer and fall blooming plants, giving many botanic gardens an entirely different appearance from spring displays.
If you missed out on the tallgrass prairies in September, early October is still prime time to visit. Or head south, many gardens have recovered from summer’s heat and are enjoying the second season. October through December is a great time to visit the Chihuahuan Desert parks as many flowers are still in bloom.
Revised February, 2018