Mike Darcy’s Fall Garden Tasks For a Happy Garden

As potted annuals and vegetables die back, it is time to clean them up for the season. Mike Darcy’s Fall Garden Tasks For a Happy Garden

RAIN! We actually had rain. Not just rain but enough to clean the dust off of the leaves, wet the soil, and make both gardeners and plants happy. I was thrilled to see such heavy rainfall. Downtown Portland, Oregon actually received a record rainfall on September 17, 2021, of 1.80 inches. While our average rainfall for the year is still down, this was certainly a boost, especially coming after a very hot and dry summer.

Healing From The Hot, Dry Summer

Fall rains are lifting the spirits of those that suffered unseasonably hot, dry summers.

It has been a rough summer for many gardeners with the record-breaking temperatures, and if that was not enough, the lack of rain in what is normally a moist-summer region was unprecedented. Many gardeners, including myself, had a difficult time keeping plants hydrated. I could water plants one day and on the next, they might be wilting as though they had not been watered in weeks. Some plants were badly scorched from the intense heat, and there was little we could do to prevent it. We all learned some lessons from this and realized that we can expect repeated high temperatures. This year’s summer weather was not just a one-time occurrence. Future garden preparations are in order. [Click here for some good tips that can help save summer plants during extreme heat spells.]

Amending Soil for Heat and Drought

Mulch, such as these fine bark chips, is an important tool that helps retain water and protect plant roots from cold and heat.

One lesson to be learned is the need to increase and protect soil moisture. Even though there is no universal rule that says plants need to be mulched, mulching does reliably hold soil moisture and helps keep roots cooler when temperatures rise. There are a variety of mulches that help reduce soil evaporation, these include fertile compost, quality triple-shredded bark mulch, shredded leaf compost, and fine bark chips. Soil additives that naturally increase water-holding capacity include Black Gold Just Coir Coconut Coir, Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss, and Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. All are OMRI Listed for organic gardening and hold lots of water to keep plant roots refreshed. [Click here to learn how to calculate mulch and amendment application rates for your garden.]

If transplanting is in order, adding Black Gold Natural & Organic Cocoblend Potting Mix to the soil is also beneficial. Black Gold Garden Compost Blend also makes an excellent addition to perennial and shrub containers in need of an organic matter boost. [Click here for additional tips for saving water in the garden during drought.]

Transplanting and Planting for Heat and Drought

Relocate more sun-sensitive shrubs and perennials to shadier spots.

October is an excellent time to plant and transplant many trees and shrubs. Before planting or moving plants, I walk through our garden and take a good look at the plants that suffered in summer. Perhaps they are not in the best location and would perform and thrive much better if they were moved. Since we have had predictably harsher summers during the previous years, I think that many of us, including myself, have stretched the “zone” where some of these shade-loving plants are planted. Moving partial-shade lovers to shadier locations seems safer these days, and if something does need transplanting, fall is an ideal time to do it in the Pacific Northwest. Gardeners with shorter seasons living elsewhere may be better off waiting until spring to move plants.

Plant drought- and heat-tolerant plants, like hardy olives.

Over the years, I have been choosing more plants for drought. In my garden, I have three fruiting olive trees, (Olea europaea ‘Arbequina’, USDA Hardiness Zones 7-11), that are planted in an area that gets intense summer sun. These trees received no supplemental water, and they show no sign of any stress. Through summer, I checked the leaves daily for any sign of scorching and there was none. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my hydrangeas and rhododendrons in sunnier locations did not fare so well, so I have decided to relocate them to a garden space that gets more shade. Transplanting them now, while the soil is still warm, will encourage root development, and fall and winter rains will provide the moisture they need. Back to soil amendment: this is the one opportunity that you have to amend the soil around the roots of your transplants. It is also essential to make sure that they do not get too dry after planting, even in fall. [Click here for a great overview of how to plant and site trees and shrubs.]

If you grow rhubarb and notice the stems seem to be getting smaller, it may be time to dig and divide the clump. Dividing rhubarb needs to be done every 3-4 years. Rhubarb develops a large root system and likes soil rich in compost or organic matter. Many gardeners grow rhubarb as an ornamental rather than as a food crop. Some varieties have red stalks that can be quite showy.

Sharpening and Cleaning Garden Tools

If you clean and tend to your garden tools, they will last for years!

While it is easy to forget to take care of the garden tools that we use, pruners, pruning saws, mowers, etc., this is a good time to clean and oil them so they will be ready for spring. Rakes, shovels, and hoes should also be cleaned and sharpened. I like to take my mower for a tune-up in the fall or winter, so I know it will be ready in the spring. [Click here for a great how-to for cleaning and maintaining bypass pruners.]

Planting Spring Flower Bulbs

Plant up layered bulb pots now for the spring show!

Don’t forget to plant the many spring-flowering bulbs that are now available in garden centers. Bulbs also do well in containers and can provide some color on a deck or patio in the spring. For bulbs in a container, I plant winter pansies over the top and they provide color all winter. In the spring, the bulbs will come up through the pansies. I use Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix in the pots. [Click here to read my article about how to prepare and plant deluxe layered bulb planters for spring.]

There is much to do in the garden during autumn before we have a killing frost. If the weather stays warm and sunny, many plants like fuchsias, salvia, geraniums, etc, will continue flowering. Enjoy them as long as you can.

Overcoming Problems With Ornamental Grasses

In-ground, grasses are perfect for planting in dry stream beds and among wildflowers. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

When landscape grasses take on full autumn color in the western states, they are always the focal point of the late season. It is the driest part of the year when their life cycle peaks after flowers pollinate, seeds form and are finally released into the wind to repopulate the land. These annual reproductive structures are why ornamental grasses own the fall garden when few other plants bloom. Even in the early winter, the standing flower stalks offer attractive interest through the snow.

It’s the less desirable grass habits that are less understood. These influence selection, placement, and other issues you won’t hear about elsewhere. Here are some tips to help you select and design grasses into your landscaping, so they don’t become problems later on.

Grass Litter

When this Pennisetum sheds flower parts and seeds, it goes right into the pool. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

After pollination, grasses shed their flower parts. When the seed is released, they shed their hulls. A lot of fine litter is dispersed over a long period. If the grasses are located upwind from a swimming pool or water feature, the litter is blown directly into the water. This can make it challenging to keep pumps and equipment clear and the water quality sparkling.

Therefore, know the direction of your prevailing winds and storm winds before you decide where to plant grasses. Limit planting areas downwind or away from the pool.  However, it’s common for wind direction to change with the seasons, so if you plant them poolside, planting them downwind is not foolproof. Cutting the seedheads back may be necessary.

Invasive Grasses

Native deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is quite long-lived and fairly trouble-free.

The reason you hear so much bad press about fountain grass (Pennisetum species and varieties) is that they love our climate and sprout anywhere there is enough moisture to grow. There are many ornamental species with weedy tendencies. Some garden favorites are hardy perennials, like foxtail fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), but in milder western climates tender perennial forms, like purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum‘), will survive several seasons, too. Perennial forms don’t die back and are long-lived. Pennisetum such as these are displacing less aggressive native species in low, moist areas.

The same applies to your yard. If the seeds fall near irrigation heads, they sprout into weeds. It may have been open ground, but now it’s become a longterm weed problem. Such introductions are hard to stop and take a few seasons of dedicated handwork to clean out.

Runner Grasses

Runner grasses, like Japanese bloodgrass (shown) and Bermuda grass, will invade and become intertwined with perennials and other ornamental grasses.

Runner grasses spread, unlike stayput bunch grasses. The common southern lawngrass, Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon), is the poster child for a host of aggressive runner grasses that spread fast and invade perennials and well-behaved bunchgrasses. Another ornamental grass to add to the equation is Japanese bloodgrass (Imperata cylindrica), with its red-tipped blades and fast-spreading runners that will quickly overtake moister beds. The problem is the worst when runner grasses overtake bunch grasses. They creep unseen beneath a garden grass, and then once well rooted, the runner grass becomes nearly inextricable. If the bunchgrass is large and broad, the two grasses will forever be bound together, foliage plaited into a nest, and there’s no separation once established. Prevention is everything. Beware adding these, or any aggressive runner grass, to your yard or garden.

Short-Lived Grasses

This fine-textured Mexican hair grass in full flower and nodding in the breeze. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

Grasses are ephemeral plants by nature, adapted to range fires in the wild, grazing, floods, and landslides. Those that evolved with a long life span prove that they have adapted to climate change, since well before the Pleistocene, and are still super adapted for the future. The most long-lived, resilient grasses to grow in arid gardens are native deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and its kin (Muhlenbergia group). But, more short-lived species, such as the windswept Mexican hair grass (Nassella tenuissima) or purple fountain grass, die out in just a few years.

Clump Splitting

These newly planted blue fescues have not suffered crown split yet.

Early in the life span of blue fescue (Festuca glauca varieties), the mounds of icy blue needles are perfect hemispheres. Like many other grasses, fescues grow too tall and heavy then split down the middle, allowing light to reach the root crown at the center of the clump. The direct sun sears those formerly shaded crown stems, causing premature aging while the rest of the plant is perfect.  Replacement is often required if the plants are depended upon to create full geometric domes. This is a natural process for fescues, so they are best planted with other species that take up the slack visually if they decide to split.

Midwinter Decline

In warm-winter climates, grasses are cut back midwinter, in colder ones, late winter. (Photo by Maureen Gilmer)

As dramatic as sweeping monocultures of grasses are, they are best used with ever-beautiful support plants due to an unattractive period in midwinter, even if not fully dormant. The grasses are routinely cut back to just a few inches to simulate a cold event. This removes dead and dormant growth as well as detritus inside the clump to make way for the renewal of foliage. To avoid the barren ground, it’s wise to choose other evergreen plants to carry this composition until green grass shoots start up again in spring. Renewal is part of grass biology, so cutting back is regenerative and makes them healthier overall.

Ornamental grasses are an important cornerstone of today’s arid-zone gardens. Those species adapted to warmer climates without summer rain offer a change in texture as well as wind-blown beauty in containers on porch or patio. They require lots of nutrition, so be sure to use Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix when planting for efficient water-holding potential and water conservation. The best grass for containers and garden at higher elevations or further north are Miscanthus varieties, which ask for a bit more water. (Choose low-seeding or sterile forms, such as giant miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus).)

While shrubs and succulents can be inanimate, the slightest breeze begins the gentle sway of a thousand soft grass blades. The animation of the nodding flower spikes liven up a dying landscape in the dry autumn winds.


Sweetgum for Fall Sunset Color Out West

“Red oaks are supposed to turn red in the fall, not brown.” People always ask why their eastern tree colors turn dull and crispy by Thanksgiving in California. “Are you sure you planted the same species I requested?”

I’ve repeated this mistake way too many times to newcomers to the state. When grown in regions with warmer, more arid climates, the chemical process that results in fall leaf color isn’t there for red oaks, pin oaks, maples, and other eastern and northern hardwoods. (Click here to read more about the cause of fall leaf color.)

Eastern Trees in Southwestern Autumns

These columnar sweetgums show the tree’s color range, from dark red and purple to pink and yellow. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Fall color in these trees is incredibly iffy in California, where resources are less bountiful, and autumn temperatures do not drop at night like they do in the north and east. Where native, the leaves of these hardwoods accrue lots of colorful pigments and they die rather than slowly, declining over a long period in fall to show maximum color once their green chlorophyll is gone. That’s why I recommend one reliable eastern hardwood species to my California clients who miss the autumn color change from back east.

Sweetgum For Fall Color

Some varieties, like ‘Moraine’, have the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range.

I can always count on American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) for fantastic color. It’s a native of the American east with a potential four-century life span and height reaching up to 130 feet. I’ve seen them deep in the northern Louisiana bayous proving their tolerance for poorly drained clay soils as well as dry ones. The tree bears amber-like resin which led to the genus name Liquidambar, which means liquid amber. The dried resin (or sweetgum) was sweet enough to be popular chewing gum for Native Americans and settlers alike.

Sweetgum is the only tree I know for a guaranteed rainbow of reliable fall colors along the mild southern California coast and further inland where winter has shorter days and is a few degrees cooler than summer. So, no matter where planted, American sweetgum will perform.

Sweetgums product lots of brown prickly fruits.

Fall also brings a wealth of prickly, brown sweetgum fruits, which are easily collected and often self-sow. Sweetgums grown from seed yield a great range of color variability. The hues of its palm-shaped leaves can range from vivid magenta to red, orange, canary yellow, burgundy, and dark purple. Among seed-grown trees, each individual displays its colors irregularly, with some darker, others lighter, and a few simply dull. This is why buying or selecting unlabeled or unnamed sweetgum saplings is best done in the fall to see their color.

Over the years growers selected the very brightest seedlings of their seed-grown trees. These were grown separately to study that individual’s color over time to ensure reliable color. Will that color be stable each year?  If so, propagating that tree by cuttings would yield identical clones with guaranteed color every year.

Sweetgum Varieties

A fall colored driveway is indeed possible in California. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

When a new variety is vetted and approved, which takes decades, it’s propagated and given a cultivar and/or trade name. One of the most popular is the narrow ‘Festival’ (20 feet x 60 feet), which is an excellent choice for smaller residential landscapes. Its columnar form fits into tight spaces between buildings. Line several up along a driveway for a stunning entry experience in the fall. This clone offers a virtual rainbow of warm colors that are so powerful they create a focal point for any late-season garden. ‘Festival’ turns super bright yellow, orange, and red in the fall with a few smoky tones and purples. Bear in mind that it is slightly less cold hardy than the species, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.

For those looking for stronger reds specifically, consider the fast-growing ‘Moraine’ (Zones 5-8), which is recorded to take slightly more cold than ‘Festival’. It has the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range that makes it a fine alternative to that red oak. Keep in mind that Moraine’s canopy has a more spreading, pyramidal form, which makes it a better shade tree. Plant it as a single specimen tree or in a grove to intensify your yard’s fall color mass.

One of the best for the Pacific Coast is  ‘Palo Alto’ (Zones 6-9), a good clone renowned for powerful bright reds. It is a well-shaped pyramidal tree that’s ideal for groves and makes a nice companion to coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Deodar cedars (Cedrus deodara).

If you do not like the messy fruit of sweetgum, consider the low to no fruiting ‘Rotundiloba’, which has rounded leaves with pretty but highly variable fall color.

Before you take a chance on an unproven tree for fall color, take a good look at sweetgums this fall when they bear their prettiest dresses. Purchase what pleases your eye, then plant with generous amounts of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to improve water penetration before the winter rains for flawless performance over the next 400 years. (Click here for a complete how-to guide for tree planting.)

Beautyberry for Bountiful Fall Color

Branches laden with bright purple berry clusters can be a very pleasant surprise to those unaware of the virtues of beautyberry (Callicarpa spp.).  These berries  provide a bright spot of color, especially in the autumn garden when the color performance of many shrubs is over.

Beautyberry Origins

There are more than a dozen species of Callicarpa, however only a few are readily available to at plant nurseries.  Most often referred to as beautyberry, most species are native to China and other parts of Asia, but Callicarpa americana is a native of the southern and eastern United States. All grow and flower best in full to partial sun and prefer soil with average fertility and good drainage.

Beautyberry Varieties

The leaves of Bodinier’s beautyberry develop a burnished or yellow color before falling in autumn.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the most widely planted variety is the Chinese Bodinier’s beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii  ‘Profusion’, USDA Hardiness Zone 6-8).  This is recommended because it is a heavy bearer of bright purple berries.  In the spring the new leaves are tinged with bronze as they first appear, and the branches become lined with clusters of tiny lavender flowers. In my garden, it tends to be a bit of a gangly grower, reaching up to 7 feet tall and almost as wide. Select pruning of the tallest, most overgrown branches will keep it in check.

I also have a  white Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica ‘Leucocarpa’, USDA Hardiness Zone 5-8), which has white flowers and berries and is a slightly smaller shrub (4-6 feet) than Bodinier’s beautyberry.  In the autumn, as the foliage of ‘Leucocarpa’ begins to turn yellow and brown, the clusters of white berries create quite a color contrast.

The spring flowers of beautyberry are pale lavender to pink.

There are new varieties Callicarpa that have been developed to offer colorful foliage and a compact growth habit.  Variegated Japanese beautyberry (C. japonica ‘Snow Storm’, USDA Hardiness Zone 6-8), is a good example with leaves that are white at the beginning of the season and then becoming mottled with green as they develop.  Unlike the gangly ‘Profusion’, ‘Snow Storm’ is a tidy, mounding shrub to 3 to 4 feet that is desirable for small gardens or containers.  It has pink flowers and purple berries.

The American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, USDA Hardiness Zone 6-10) is a larger shrub (6-9 feet) with a more informal, long, arching, open branches and of looser bright purple berry clusters. Plant it in more informal landscape settings.

Beautyberry Lore

The leaves of American beautyberry naturally repel mosquitoes.

Sometimes I marvel at what we do for our plants and what our plants do for us. I find it fascinating to read folklore about plant attributes and then test the folklore in real life.  The American Beautyberry poses a good example of how lore can help today’s gardeners.

In the early part of the 20th century, farmers in northeastern Mississippi discovered that placing fresh crushed leaves of Callicarpa americana under the harness of draft animals, like horses and mules, helped keep biting insects away.  This practice became known throughout the region, and people began crushing leaves on their own skin to keep mosquitoes away. People stopped using American Beautyberry with the dawn of insect sprays, so this practice was almost forgotten until recently. Recent research found Mosquito Bite Deterrent chemicals were present in the leaves of these plants. In fact, they showed significant repellent activity against mosquitoes.  Maybe this could be called ‘folklore becomes reality’.

Two years ago I conducted my own experiment with a neighbor that is interested in botanicals for medicinal purposes. We both rubbed leaves of my Bodinier’s beautyberry on our arms to see if they would repel mosquitoes. Sorry to report that the mosquitoes landed on both of us, because I had not realized that the mosquito repelling properties were from C. americana and not my variety!

Visit your local garden center this fall season and check out their selection of berried Callicarpa.  By making your purchase now, you are assured of getting the berry color that you want!  With the long and hot dry summer we have had, be sure to amend the soil with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend before planting, and water thoroughly.    

Growing Dwarf Apple Trees

Dwarf apple trees can fit into practically any sunny, small-space garden.

Walking out on your deck, balcony, or patio and being able to pick fresh apples off your own tree may be a dream to most gardeners.  In the world of today, we often have small lots, which means less available space for a standard-sized fruit tree.  Even if we did have space, there may be other competing factors to prevent an apple tree from flourishing, such as shade from a neighboring house or a mature tree casting shade and expansive roots, competing for sun, water, and nutrients. For many urban and small-space gardeners, dwarf apple trees (Malus domestica) is the solution, and fall is the best time to plant them.

Even with limited space, dwarf fruit trees can grow and thrive, if provided good ground. These small trees will even grow well in large containers, so they can be grown on a sturdy balcony or small patio if given adequate sunlight and good care.

What Makes Dwarf Apples Dwarf?

Garden centers sell our favorite apple varieties, like ‘Honeycrisp’, ‘Fuji’, or ‘Red Delicious’, as very very dwarf (5-7′ tall), dwarf (6-10 feet tall), or semi-dwarf (8-12 feet tall). The fact is, any apple variety can be in compact form if it is grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. So, what is grafting and how does it work?

A row of dwarf ‘Red Delicious’ apple trees.

Every commercial apple you buy is actually two apple varieties grafted or joined together; one variety is the main tree (scion) while the second variety is the rootstock. The scion of a dwarf tree is grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, so it’s the rootstock that controls tree size, among other factors such as disease resistance, hardiness, and vigor. (Learn all about the grafting process here.)

It is unfortunate that plant labels on apple trees don’t tell the whole story. It is as important to know what the rootstock variety is and the scion variety because the rootstock determines how a tree will grow. There are many different apple rootstocks. For example, G65 is one of the most dwarfing varieties, producing trees reaching about 4-7 feet.  The next size up would be a rootstock called M9, producing trees reaching about 6-10 feet.  (Learn all about dwarfing rootstocks here.)

The Best Dwarf Apple Trees

A semi-dwarf apple tree.

For apple trees in general, all need to be cross-pollinated, which requires two trees to be planted in close proximity to each other.  Apples can be early-, early-mid-,  mid-, mid-late-, or late-blooming, so you need to choose at least two trees that bloom at the same time for cross-pollination. Apples are primarily honeybee pollinated, so it also helps to plant other garden flowers and shrubs for honeybees, to make sure there are lots of pollinators in your garden to help your apples. (To learn more about flower gardening for bees click here. To learn more about trees for bees click here.)

‘Golden Delicious’ is a great eating apple and popular pollenizing tree for other mid-season varieties, like ‘Jonagold’ or ‘Gala’. Likewise, the mid-late-blooming ‘Honeycrisp’ will pollenize other mid-late-bloomers, like ‘Granny Smith’. Just choose the apples you like best, whether they be for fresh eating, cooking, or cider, and be sure their bloom is coordinated for best production. (For a full list of apple pollenizers, click here.)

Growing Dwarf Apple Trees

Dwarf apple trees are ideal for growing in large containers that are at least 10-15 gallons.  If planting in a container, fill the pot with one part Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix mixed with one part Black Gold Garden Soil. If planting in the ground, good drainage and good soil quality are essential. Amend the soil with Black Gold Garden Soil before planting to increase organic matter.  A yearly top dressing of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is ideal for trees in containers or in the ground.  When placing your trees, remember that the critical factor is the sun; these trees should have daylong direct sunlight.

Espaliered fruit trees are great for training against walls or fences. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Gardeners with very little space should look for apples that are espaliered for training against a fence, trellis, or wall.  Espaliered trees require harsher pruning if they are to be maintained in their attractive architectural form, but they are space saving.

Yearly pruning in late winter will also help standard dwarf apples. Remove crossing or unwieldy stems as well as unwanted water sprouts that may arise from the rootstock. Another important step to winter care is spraying trees with dormant oil spray to control common pests, like whitefly, mealybugs, mites, and aphids. Spray before your trees have leafed out and when temperatures are below 40ºF.

Check out your local garden center in fall because if they have dwarf fruit trees, it is likely they will be on sale.  If they are not available now, spring would offer a better selection.  You might be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to have fresh apples to pick from your own trees.

Planting a Barrel Cactus Safely

The ferocious spines of the golden barrel cactus make them very difficult to pot. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The golden barrel (Echinocactus grusonii) is America’s favorite cactus. All over the Southwest, it has become a coveted living ornament in landscapes. When backlit by the sun, the bright canary-yellow spines literally glow, creating high drama against blue agaves and succulents. A big yellow cactus potted on porch or patio becomes the quintessential year-round focal point that never loses its warm color.

Large golden barrel specimens and other large barrel cacti thrive in big, strong pots if they are planted properly. What folks don’t know is that they are darned difficult to handle, and painful, too. The challenge is transplanting the stemless ball of wickedly sharp spines. The combined soil and plant weight makes golden barrel unwieldy to carry, which complicates matters further.  Here’s how to do it safely without damage to you or the plant.

Protect Yourself

This basketball-sized golden barrel is planted in a perfect-sized salvaged container to allow for future growth and easy watering.

To start, you’ll need long, thick, solid-leather gloves, because picking up pots of golden barrels is a wrist and knuckle nightmare for bare skin. Loosely wrap the cactus in a piece of carpeting, or find a cardboard box that fits over the spines tight enough to “catch”. The box is a bit better because it lets you turn the cactus upside down to stand while you carefully remove the pot. This exposes the root ball and facilitates preparation for transplanting.

When inspecting the root ball, look to see if your large cactus has been field grown and recently potted up. Field-grown cacti are cultivated on slopes that provide rapid drainage. They are dug and potted up in nursery soils that typically drain more slowly and are less suited to cacti longevity because they’re viewed as temporary. To protect your investment, inspect the bottom of the plant and remove any organic matter that may provide excess moisture. Then you will want to prepare your container for planting.

Planting Barrel Cacti

bare root
Newly dug from the grower’s field, the shallow, wide roots of the golden barrel are exposed temporarily until transplanted.

Your decorative pot must be wide enough to contain the cactus and have at least 1 inch or more free space on all sides to allow for new growth, watering space, and surface evaporation. Use a concave pottery shard to dome over the drain hole to prevent erosion. Then open a fresh bag of Black Gold Cactus Mix, a fast-draining medium containing a blend of perlite/pumice or cinders, earthworm castings, and compost. It encourages vigorous growth while ensuring ample aeration and drainage.

Use dry potting soil right out of the bag when potting up your golden barrel cactus. Place a layer of soil at the base of the pot, then set the top of the cactus root ball about 1-2 inches below the pot’s edge, and hold it there while you pour in the mix around the sides. Allow the mix to filter down and lightly pack it to create a porous yet solid base.

BG_CACTUSMIX_1CF-FRONTDo not water the cactus directly after planting, and put it in a partially shaded location. Wait a couple of days before watering, so any injuries to roots during the planting process have had time to heal themselves. Then water in thoroughly. Add more potting soil where settling or pockets occur.

For more visual interest, try adding a surface layer of gravel, glazed tile shards, or tumbled glass. Place in full sun.

Finally, try raising the bottom of the pot up with broken tile shards to create a gap between the drain hole and saucer. This facilitates rapid drainage to create the perfect conditions for cacti and succulents. It also protects decks and paving from what can become a very heavy, beautiful and ferocious plant in your garden.

Rehab Raised Beds Inside and Out

Raised-bed hoops and row covers can help you protect crops from harsh growing conditions and winter cold.

Second gardens are always better than first gardens.  When those first gardens were your raised beds, then maybe it’s time to raise the bar.  Bigger, better, and more prolific are garden characteristics that all gardeners want, so perhaps it’s time to rehab and expand in preparation for next year’s summer garden.

So many raised beds were at first experimental or created with the kids as a family project without long-term planning and smart design.  That’s why they often don’t last as long as they should.  Earth-to-wood contact (something forbidden in house building) introduces wood rot and invites pests, such as termites. You need to know what you are doing to get more life from your raised bed.

Choosing the Best Raised Bed Building Materials

Redwood ties are naturally rot resistant and great for raised bed building.

Early on, wooden railroad tie beds [read more about railroad tie beds] became popular and kept the rot problem at bay, but ties are made from heavily treated wood. They contain dangerous heavy metals and creosote, which can leach into the soil and be taken up by edible plants. Pressure treated wood has the same problem. It is treated with fungicides and other compounds to reduce rot that can leach into the soil.

Untreated woods are not all the same. Many break down fast, resulting in short-lived raised beds. If you want long-lasting beds, avoid soft or rustic reclaimed woods certain to rot quickly. Instead, choose long-lasting red cedar or redwood. Both decompose slowly and are the most recommended for beautiful frames that resist rot. Trex, and other polymer/wood alternatives, also last forever and look great. All of the rot-resistant options are initially more expensive but worth it if you plan to garden for years.

Rehabbing Your Raised Bed

Just Coir creates a good organic base layer for raised bed gardens.

If you already have raised beds made with fast-to-decompose wood, you may already be experiencing the unfortunate and very common results. They are rotting, bowing, or breaking open at the seams due to decomposing edges weakened by the weight of soil, plants, and mulch.  This means it is either time to rebuild or refurbish the frames.

Moreover, if you have had your beds for a while, the soil will be low and in need of replacement. Like all garden beds, soil volume falls as microbes consume the fine humus, and nutrients are depleted by garden plants. Poor garden soil will produce poor garden plants.

Fall is the best time to replenish raised bed soil and fix repairs. Take advantage of the fabulous fall weather to replace all rotting or bowing boards or edges, and revive sad, tired soil.  Here’s the five-step process in a nutshell:

  1. Remove existing soil, if it’s degraded to mostly woody matter and perlite.  Stockpile the old soil material for future use as summer mulch, or layer it into the compost heap.
  2. Inspect the newly exposed sidewalls by stabbing questionable spots with a screwdriver.  If the metal penetrates the wood,  then there’s rot, and they need to be replaced.  Also, check and reinforce loose corners.
  3. Make repairs to sidewalls using Trex or long-lasting, untreated wood boards. Consider adding more height if you would like to grow plants with deeper root systems. Not only should you use strong, quality wood, but investing in heavy hardware will add to the longevity of your beds. Choose heavy wood screws tightened with an electric screwdriver to keep beds from loosening with the seasonal shrink and swell of the wood.
  4. Replace the soil in stages.  Black Gold Just Coir creates a 100% organic matter barrier that holds water and repels root-knot nematodes.  The heart of the raised bed should contain a rich mix of local topsoil amended with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and a soilless potting mix, such as Black Gold Natural and Organic Potting Soil. The combination depends on the quality of your local soil; great topsoil requires fewer amendments. In general, an even mix of 2 parts topsoil to 1 part compost and 1 part soilless potting mix will yield great results. If drought is a problem in your area, adding a mulching layer of Black Gold Just Coir or Garden Compost Blend will reduce surface water loss.
  5. Add an all-purpose fertilizer, at the manufacturer’s prescribed application, to help drive explosive growth.

Irrigate and Sow

Inline drip tubing that invisibly waters your garden without ugly surface tubes and emitters.

Gently water your raised beds to allow them to settle and marry over the winter months.  If you don’t already have it, drip irrigation is highly recommended for effortless raised bed gardening.  Try soaker hoses or buried underground inline drip tubing that invisibly waters your garden without ugly surface tubes and emitters.  If you want to expand next year, put in a new bed close to the old one and share the irrigation.

While watering your rehabbed raised beds, throw in some seeds for beets, radishes, turnips, and other root crops that germinate at temps down to 40 degrees F.  The addition of row covers will protect cool-season crops well into winter.  Harvest the leaves, eat the sweet roots, and enjoy long winter yields as your refreshed raised beds do all of the work for you.

How to Manage Mice in Raised Planters

Young tomato seedlings in my Grow Box  – note the water-fill opening and mouse access on front.

As the heat of “dead summer”  begins its slow ebb into fall, it’s planting time in California and the Southwest.  While most folks across the US plant in spring, here the mild fall is our second growing season for food crops.  What we grow now feeds us into the holidays with roots and greens and maybe even squash or peppers with the right system and climate.  I grow many ways, in raised beds with row covers, in the greenhouse and out in the open air, depending on the season and crop.  This allows me to compare the methods for different crops at different times of the year.

By June, my tomato plants were healthy and happy!

Planting Grow Boxes

Last year I tested Grow Boxes in the greenhouse attached to the south side of my home.  With such low humidity in the desert, these boxes with their 4-gallon reservoir keep plants far better hydrated than any other method.  The box is designed so plants produce long trailing roots that dangle into a large water reservoir sucking up all the moisture they need rather than being limited to watering times.  Last year I planted the boxes with tomato seedlings in February when high UV in the desert allows greenhouse growing in the high desert and year around in the low desert.

I selected ordinary tomato varieties to evaluate how well the boxes work here.  Because indeterminate tomato varieties are long blooming, I wanted to determine if my tomatoes could indeed become perennial and produce year around without frost.  I was thrilled to find the seedlings literally exploded out of the boxes and never stopped growing or producing new fruit until that sudden August decline.  The tomato plants quit taking up water, became discolored and generally failed for no particular reason.  And whenever I don’t know the reason, my mentor always advised, “dig a hole”.

Grow box Sept
Grow box with tomato roots

Managing Mice in Grow Boxes

The cause was revealed when I disassembled the boxes to take my first glimpse at the roots that should dangle down into the water reservoir.  They were gone!  I discovered this was due to a design flaw of the Grow Box: reservoir accessibility to mice in my greenhouse during our blistering desert summers when they are keen on cool, moist places.  The Grow Box opening for water access is easy for any small rodent or insect to enter.  When water was low or dry in between fill-ups, the mice entered the reservoir and literally ate all the dangling roots, explaining why my tomatoes suddenly quit taking up water.   We finally captured the mice, but there may be more in the future.  I’ll be fashioning a hardware cloth cover for the fill holes of my six Grow Boxes to keep smaller creatures out, or the very same thing will happen again in this rodent-rich desert, particularly if grown outdoors on porch or patio!

roots consumed
Grow Box with tomato roots eaten by mice

This year I upgraded and replaced the potting soil with Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix with RESiLIENCE®, which I hope will enhance the wicking crucial to the function of the Grow Box.  This year I will test fall-planted vegetables in the greenhouse Grow Boxes to learn whether the fruit will ripen in November, despite cooler weather and shorter days. Only testing will prove whether plants that require pollination and long, hot days to ripen can be coaxed to fruit in the short, dark, cool winter.

Here in the desert, and everywhere else that is difficult to grow things, these quasi-hydroponic Grow Boxes are an ideal way to keep plants fully hydrated and healthy.  They are a useful solution to grow efficiently in drought.  And now with Moisture Supreme, they will be better able to take the heat, and perhaps I will finally learn whether or not indeterminate tomatoes can indeed be grown year round in my greenhouse.

Growing Cabbage, Kale, & Collards: Fresh Super Foods

A single large clay pot easily supports cabbage, parsley and Swiss chard for porch or patio.

Until recently, collard greens were known only in the South and among African Americans who brought this “soul food” into northern cities during the Great Migration a century ago.  Today collards and kales are heralded as “fresh super foods” due to the high nutritional value of these large-leaved members of the cabbage family. These “pot greens” are eaten stewed, steamed, or wilted for a quick healthy meal.

Curly leaf kale is actually sweeter after it’s exposed to frost making this an ideal Fall crop.

Brassica is a genus with dozens of variants, most being from the original species, Brassica oleracea.   Among them are cauliflower and broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and collard greens.  Such close relations mean virtually all of them are grown the same way in western gardens.

Let back-to-school ornamental kale and cabbage displays in the grocery store be your reminder that it is Brassica season.  August is the time to start your fall and winter garden, which can feed a family with healthy greens even after frost sets in.  If row covers are used, plants can remain productive despite significant late-fall cold inland and at higher elevations.  The key is sowing your brassicas while it’s warm enough stimulate good germination and maturation of seedlings, indoors or out.

Start Them Indoors

Brassicas can best be grown from seed sown indoors in advance while conditions are too warm to plant outdoors.  Time their indoor planting so they’re ready to plant out into the garden when temperatures cool off in September.  Seed germinates best between 65 to 75º F but will sprout at lower temperatures, though it may take more time.

Collard greens are a staple of the old South that’s catching on everywhere for plentiful pot greens.

Sow the small seeds in Black Gold Seedling Mix with RESiLIENCE® to provide a clean, moisture-holding media for optimal germination.  After the seedlings germinate, carefully move them to individual pots of Black Gold Moisture Supreme Potting Soil with RESiLIENCE®.  Be careful transplanting these vegetables because damage to stems can introduce unwanted disease.

Sow Them in the Ground

Cabbage family greens also germinate nicely out in the garden while the soil is warm.  It’s an old custom to cover seedbeds in wet burlap on hot dry days to keep them moist and shaded during germination.  Some gardeners create shade covers to aid seedling development.

Pick a “mess” of greens from the garden for a quick, easy and highly nutritious meal.

If you grow a “mess of greens”, it’s enough to feed a family for months since leaves are cut while the plant lives on to make more foliage.  A big pile of leaves lose a lot of volume in the cooking process, so don’t underestimate the numbers of plants needed. Err on the side of overdoing it.  Space the plants as stipulated on the seed packet since these will be very large at maturity.

Recondition soil before you introduce your Brassica seeds or seedlings into the garden.  The ground may be depleted by summer crops, so it’s important to boost fertility.  Greens depend on nitrogen, the nutrient responsible for stem and leaf development in plants.  Make sure you fork in Black Gold Garden Compost Blend before planting.

Grow Them in Pots

Flowering cabbage, yet another Brassica, is often grown in pots with annual flowers for winter gardens.  This demonstrates how well-adapted leafy greens are to pots and troughs on your porch, patio or deck.  Blend your greens with violas and calendulas, both easy-to-grow cool-season annual flowers with edible blossoms.

Too many Americans have grown up without ever tasting real “pot greens”, but when picked fresh their rich sweet flavor will soon become a family favorite. (Keep in mind that most greens actually tastes better after it’s exposed to frost!)  What’s even more surprising is it takes less than an hour to harvest and cook greens into a healthy, garden-fresh meal.  That makes it a time saver that doesn’t sacrifice nutrition.

This year, grow a wide range of these super foods in your fall and winter garden, so there’s always fresh picked fast food in your kitchen at the end of a busy day.

Bewitching Black Garden Plants

When it comes to showstopping flowers and foliage the high-performing Dahlia ‘Yellow Hammer’ is exceptional.

Garden plants with near-black leaves and velvety flowers are rare and wonderful. These bewitching beauties may grace our gardens all season long, but those that shine in autumn are perfect for fall, Halloween gardens, and container plantings. Mix them with orange, red, and white blooms for instant seasonal good looks!

Black Annuals

Zinfandel oxalis
The starry lemon-yellow blooms of Zinfandel oxalis appear atop dark, dark leaves.

The most common black flowers for fall are black pansies. There are lots of different varieties, some with large flowers (pansy Halloween II) and small flowers (Viola tricolor ‘Bowles Black’), and all are very easy to grow from seed. Black pansies look beautiful when planted alongside cheerful Diascia Flirtation Orange with its brilliant tangerine flowers or the purple-black-leaved Zinfandel oxalis (Oxalis spiralis ssp. vulcanicola ‘Zinfandel’) with its small yellow flowers.

Fall nurseries and flower markets also offer pretty dark-leaved ornamental peppers with colorful fruits. The black-leaved ‘Black Pearl’, with its marble-sized hot peppers that turn from purple-black to deep red, is an extra nice variety to seek out. The lower-growing dark-purple-leaved pepper ‘Purple Flash’ is another festive pepper for the season.

Illusion® Midnight Lace is a fine-leaved black sweet potato vine that complements many garden plantings. (Image from Proven Winners)

There are plenty of interesting summer garden annuals with black hues to add interest to containers, beds, and flower borders. In recent years, many black-flowered petunias and calibrachoas have hit the market. Of these, Petunia ‘Black Magic’ is likely the darkest and purest black. The magenta- and black-flowered Calibrachoa Superbells® Blackcurrant Punch is another showstopper, sold by Proven Winners, that will bloom until frost with good care. (Read our article about Petunia and Calibrachoa care.)

Lots of dahlias have wonderfully dark leaves that contrast beautifully with their colorful flowers. The orange-yellow-flowered, dark-leaved ‘Yellow Hammer‘ and pure yellow-flowered ‘H S Party’ are two more complementary selections with blackish leaves that look sharp all season long.

All containers and summer borders are complemented by rambling ornamental sweet potatoes. Of these, try the deepest purple-leaved rambling vines from Proven Winners, Illusion® Midnight Lace, and Sweet Caroline Sweetheart Jet Black. Both are beautiful and high-performing.

Black Perennials

Calibrachoa Superbells® Blackcurrant Punch™ looks great through summer and fall. (Image from Proven Winners)

Perennials with a dark side include a suite of Heuchera that look nice from spring to fall. The Terra Nova offerings ‘Black Beauty‘ and ‘Black Taffeta‘ are both pretty and suited for shade gardening. Plant them beside variegated or golden-leaved plants, such as the golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macraAureola) and the red and gold Heucherella ‘Stoplight’. The perennial groundcover black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) has grassy looking foliage that contrasts equally well with other brightly colored perennials for shade.

Those looking for a drought-tolerant black-leaved plant for sun should consider the truly beautiful Sedum ‘Desert Black’ with its dark leaves and deep-magenta blooms. Plant this alongside low-growing Coreopsis, such as the classic variety ‘Moonbeam‘.

Rainbow Rhythm® Storm Shelter is a beautiful dark daylily for the garden. (Image from Proven Winners)

One that can’t be left off the black-flowered-perennial list is the tall (40″), midseason daylily ‘Ashwood Dark Side’. The summer bloomer has iridescent petals that shine like obsidian. A more colorful daylily on the black side is the mid-sized (24″), midseason Rainbow Rhythm® Storm Shelter from Proven Winners, which has mauve and purple-black flowers.

Early summer is also when gardeners can enjoy the lacy black flowers of Centaurea montana ‘Black Sprite’ as well as the fragrant red-black flowers of Dianthus barbatus ‘Heart Attack’. Frilly German iris of all shades of black and purple are also easy to come by and most bloom and are available in late spring to early summer. Of these, the velvety ‘Hello Darkness’ and black and purple ‘Wild Wings’ are two of the best.

Cultural Tips

Container-grown plants should be grown in Black Gold® Waterhold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which is OMRI Listed for organic gardening. It holds water well to keep plant roots hydrated in the summer heat. A seasonal application of fertilizer formulated for flowers, such as Proven Winners Premium Water Soluble Plant Food, will also keep your plants performing to their fullest.

When designing with your dark-leaved and dark-flowered plants, opt for sharp color contrasts when choosing companion plantings. Garden flowers with warm oranges, yellows, and reds really light up when planted alongside darker-colored plants. White-flowered plants are also recommended for those interested in creating black and white gardens.

Black garden plants aren’t just for fall and Halloween, but they are the most fun at this time of year. So, add a little black magic to your garden this season.

Plant the deepest purple Heuchera ‘Black Beauty’ with golden-leaved plants, such as golden creeping speedwell. (Image from Terra Nova Nursery)


The upright Sedum 'Desert Black' is tolerant of heat, drought in addition to offering unique garden color.
The upright Sedum ‘Desert Black’ is heat and drought tolerant. (Image from Terra Nova Nursery)