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.

Summer Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden

July, 2021 –If ever there was a time that showed the benefits of adding compost to the soil, this past week was it. With temperatures in the Portland, Oregon area setting records for all-time highs, plants suffered just as people, pets, and wildlife did. We generally experience mild summer weather, but one afternoon this week our outdoor temperature was 114 degrees F. Our garden plants are not accustomed to such extremes and many showed signs of heat stress. I watered my containers only in the morning and sprayed the foliage of garden plants with water several times a day. Looking around the garden in the aftermath, there were still many scorched leaves, even on tougher plants.

Summer Heat Wave Protection

Water early in the morning and after dusk during scorching heatwaves.

I do not think that anyone can predict what ou remaining summer will be like in the Pacific Northwest, and that is a good reason to be prepared, and give your plants as much tender loving care as possible. Prior to the heatwave, I had mulched many of my plants with Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend. I was also concerned about my plants in containers and added a top layer of Black Gold Natural & Organic Ultra Coir to help prevent the soil from drying out. Most of my containers are in sunny locations, and the hot sun can quickly dry them out. If we experience more days of extreme heat, I may temporarily move them to shadier locations or even indoors. (Click here to read more heatwave garden-care recommendations.)

Even with the above precautions, and all of the additional watering, I still had some leaf scorching, although I had to think what it might have been like if I had done nothing. Hydrangeas seemed to fare the worst. It was almost impossible to prevent them from wilting. For the moment, I am leaving the scorched leaves on them because if we get another hot spell, even scorched leaves might provide extra protection to the inner green leaves of the plant.

Trim Off Old Blooms

Deadhead garden flowers through summer.

While watering is key to keeping plants healthy in summer, there are other tasks that will keep them looking their best. Roses took a ‘hit’ with the hot weather, but I find them to be very resilient, and by cutting off the wilted flower stems, new growth will soon appear. I have many flowering salvias in my garden, and they have been in full bloom for several weeks. Cutting the flower stems off after they have bloomed will encourage new growth and continuous flowering. (Click here to see Mike’s favorite garden flowers for July heat, including some salvias!)

Summer Herb and Vegetable Care

Keep basil pinched back and deadheaded.

Many herbs thrive in the heat, and I don’t think our basil has ever looked better. I pinch off the flower stems to encourage the plant to put its energy into the foliage rather than the flowers. (Click here to learn more about summer basil care.) Lemon verbena, (Aloysia citrodora), is another herb that seems to relish the heat. This plant has a tall, leggy growth habit, but having it where one can walk by and brush against the foliage and release some of its strong lemon aroma makes it worth growing. (Click here to learn how to grow the essential culinary herbs of the seasons.) Many summer vegetables are coming into their prime. Keep zucchini, tomatoes, and beans picked for continuous production. (Click here to discover ways to share any extra garden vegetables that you may have. )

Keep Bird Baths Full and Fountains Running

Hummingbirds love to cool off and wash in fountains with a shallow stream of water.

Don’t forget to provide food and especially water for the birds. Birdbaths can quickly dry up on hot days, and keeping cool, freshwater available is essential. Birdbaths in the sun also heat up quickly, so consider keeping them in a shadier spot through summer. We have a small water fountain feature in a shaded garden spot, and I replenish the water supply several times a day. It is amazing to see how many birds use it from dawn to dusk.

Stay Cool, and Enjoy Your Garden

Stay cool in the garden with iced water, lightweight clothes, and other cooling gear (Click here for more ways to stay cool in the garden.), and plan future gardens with cooling features in mind (Click here to learn more about cool garden design). While the chores of summer can seem overwhelming, remember that the garden is for your enjoyment. It is a place where you can create what you want. Follow your heart, and make your garden an extension of yourself. More importantly, don’t let the projects and the ‘to do’ list take priority over enjoying your garden.

Winter Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden

Winter Garden Tasks for a Happy Garden

Here we are in January at the start of the New Year. Now is always an exciting time in the garden to be thinking of what new plants to add, what plants to remove or move, what container gardens to create, and what new garden art to add. A garden is ever-changing and never stays quite the same even though we, as gardeners, might not have made any changes. Nature makes its own decisions. When I look at pictures of my garden during the cold winter months, sometimes I am astonished at the differences that I see each year. Visualizing my gardens in years past also helps me determine what needs to be done–from now through to spring–to make them flourish.

Feed Wild Birds

One of the first garden tasks that I recommend is to feed the birds. So many of their natural habitats have been destroyed. I believe that we as gardeners can offer them a haven that is safe and supplied with food and water. More and more gardeners are also buying more plants that provide a natural source of food and shelter for not only birds but insects as well. (Click here to learn more about feeding birds naturally.) Many garden centers now create displays of wildlife plants, so their customers can be informed and plant landscapes specimens for wildlife. Still, without such plants, well-stocked bird feeders can provide nourishment for the birds and pleasure to the gardener. (Have your bird ID book on hand and mark off the different types for winter fun.)

Control Slugs Early

Removing slug eggs early can help save lots of plant damage and frustration.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where I garden, we have, thus far, had a very mild winter. In my own garden, we have yet to have a real killing frost. If the weather continues like this it will probably mean that we’ll have a proliferation of slugs in the spring. To reduce slug populations, check your garden for slug eggs. Look under any boards, nursery containers, and other debris and destroy the small, round, translucent eggs on sight. It is much easier to control them now rather than waiting until the growing season.

Grow Primroses Indoors and Outdoors

Polyanthus primroses come in virtually all colors of the rainbow!

Colorful displays of English primrose (Primula Polyanthus group, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9) are in many garden centers now and can give a feeling of spring with their vibrant colors and fragrance. These primroses are available in almost every color and sometimes blends of different colors. Most garden centers will have plants in bloom, and I suggest selecting those covered in flower buds because they will remain in bloom longer. English primroses also make excellent outdoor potted plants that provide early spring color to an entryway. I always like to have several primrose pots around our entryway, which will remain in flower well into the spring, especially in a protected area. I plant them in humus-rich Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. While English primroses are technically perennials, many gardeners treat them as early-season annuals, but this is a waste. They are very hardy and can be planted in the ground for long-term enjoyment.

Plant Winter-Blooming Shrubs

Camellia ‘Yuletide’ has small, bright red flowers that bloom early.

Perhaps you have noticed an area in your garden where some winter color would be welcome. If our weather stays mild, January can be a good month to plant winter-blooming shrubs. Some good examples are winter witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia, mollis, and vernalis hybrids, Zones 5-8) and sasanqua camellia (Camellia sasanqua, Zones 7-9), which perform well in our Pacific Northwest climate as well as other parts of the country.  Witch hazels are large shrubs to small deciduous trees with flowers that have many narrow, crumpled petals that appear before the leaves. Flowers are fragrant and most varieties also exhibit beautiful fall leaf color. Sasanqua camellia generally has smaller flowers than the more familiar Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica), but it usually blooms earlier, from late fall to early winter. One of the most popular varieties is ‘Yuletide’ because of the bright red flowers with yellow anthers; the plants are often in bloom during the Christmas season. These camellias make excellent container plants, and I would suggest using Black Gold Natural & Organic Ultra Coir in which to plant them. When planting in the garden, these shrubs like full to partial sunlight and highly organic soil. (Click here for planting instructions.) Amending it with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend or peat moss is a good idea. (Click here to learn about more winter-blooming shrubs.)

Buy Seeds Early

Seeds are hot! Be sure to buy yours early this year.

Vegetable gardening and starting plants from seed have become very popular, so it is wise to purchase your seeds from seed catalogs and online seed sellers as early as possible. You don’t want to miss out on being able to get all of the seeds that you want. (Click here to learn how to grow plants from seed.)

With the continuing restrictions due to COVID-19, it can be a challenge to visit other gardens. This places limits on us seeing what plants are blooming in other gardens, but I’ve found that just walking around local neighborhoods can be an inspiration. My garden has been my ‘go-to’ place for some calmness in life and having some color makes it all even better.