Garden Notes: Fall weather

Tropical disturbances, and time for deadheading and curing.

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The Island has been lucky so far; even luckier would be to receive rainfall — nothing more — from a passing tropical disturbance. If you contemplate donating to relief efforts, and there are many, please consider devastated parts of southwest Louisiana, wiped out by Category 4 Hurricane Laura. Louisiana ranks 49th poorest of the 50 states; the ravaged southwest area (SWLA) is the poorest part of Louisiana.

Dahlia time

For many, many years, it was fun anticipating what stupendous or gorgeous dahlias Ozzie Fischer and George Shattuck would enter in the fair. Now, many more gardeners continue their dahlia love affair. While dahlia tubers may be brought into flower much earlier, they are true flowers of late summer. Dahlia time is eagerly awaited; it felt as if it was taking forever this year, but it is here. For colors or impact, there is really nothing else like dahlias at any point in the garden year.

Best grown in full, all-day-long sun, dahlias generally require support, usually a stake, if the tall sorts are being grown. The growth, top-heavy with flowers, is lush and brittle; if not well-supported, large chunks of it may be lost in a single wind event.

The typical dahlia cultivar height is four to five feet, up to six feet! I find myself using more mid-height (three-foot) cultivars, since my garden is not so sunny, and they stretch. They are tied into concrete reinforcement mats wired to rebar (my go-to solution for everything that needs support).

Keep passé flowers deadheaded, and cut stems longer than you would think. This seeming sacrifice of flower buds creates a stockier plant with another two branches with buds, doubling those you sacrifice.

It is still a long while off before dahlias are dug. Sometime in late October or early November the tops are allowed to blacken with frost, and after an interval, which allows them to cure and store well, the tubers are then dug.

‘Butterscotch PMR’ squash

Speaking of curing, the winter squash I am growing this year requires no curing, according to Johnny’s Select Seeds. It is ‘Butterscotch PMR,’ and its smaller fruits are described as the ideal “small family” size.

Otherwise, it is critical for butternut and other winter squashes to cure, by leaving in the field or in a warm place for a time for the rind to harden to extend storage life.

‘Butterscotch PMR’ is an All-America Selection winner. My four hills have so far produced 18 fruits, with more still growing. We have not eaten any yet, but they look good. Fruits may be cooked whole in the microwave: Pierce the skin, then microwave whole squash for about 12 minutes, cut in half, and spoon out the seeds.

In the garden

Drought conditions continue. Longer solar wavelengths — light with heat — penetrate soils more deeply now, compounding drought. Twig browning and early leaf drop are symptoms of this stress, especially for plants with shallow root systems.

Overly woody lavenders suffer over winter, and often fail completely. Trim them now, in order for regrowth before cold weather. Cut flowering shoots back to leaf buds, by one-half to two-thirds.

Many perennials, such as daylilies, phlox, rudbeckia, and centranthus, may be cut down. They resprout once this is done, looking fresher. Deadhead buddleia; its invasiveness results from its being a super-seeder.

Other small tasks: training tomato vines through the concrete reinforcement mats; spraying brassicas with Bt.; deadheading basil; setting out Egyptian onions’ bulblets for scallions; clearing away plant debris; and pulling weeds in the raspberry bed, watchfully avoiding the swelling Argiope aurantia garden spider and her web, and yellow jackets and wasps on the fruit. Somehow, I have let a tray of ‘Boro’ beet seedlings mostly die — ugh!

Sequester carbon

This year’s problems: drought and heat. These two factors look as if they will be with us in future; many gardeners are looking around and, like me, planning that humus building, moisture retention, and carbon sequestration are avenues to work on. Preserving every tree possible suffuses carbon from the atmosphere into their tissues, as they also attract dew, and cool and shade our homes.

As gardens wind down, it is a good time to clear away and reorganize, keeping in mind working to improve soil health and fertility. There’s a world of difference between a garden that is fertile and productive and one that does not grow much, or is beset by problems.

Performing these and similar tasks in your garden, you might find explanations and advice in a 48-page PDF, “The Carbon Sequestering Garden,” from NOFA/Mass, helpful in achieving your gardening aims. 

What is NOFA/Mass? The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association: “NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown.” See bit.ly/2ZDojJP to find out more.

Houseplants, too

Many houseplants will be returning inside soon, after their summer’s sojourn on porches and patios. Repotting is in order for some, and a washing with insecticidal soap as well.

Repot large plants by removing from the pot, shaving off some of the congested root ball with an old knife, and refilling the gap with fresh potting soil. A flat stick, such as a shingle, works well to re-tamp the space between container and root ball. At the same time, prune plants’ tops back, especially if they have flowered, to compensate for reduced roots.

“Hitchhikers” include various scales, pill bugs, fungus gnat larvae, and larvae of black vine weevils. Controls I use are sticky traps, insecticidal soap, and horticultural oil. Beneficial nematodes (Steinernema carpocapsae) are available for root-feeding black vine weevil larvae, the adult of which is the nocturnal snout weevil that cuts notches in plants’ leaves. Check this article for more control info: rhododendron.org/v57n4p219.htm.

Tick check every night.