The lone voice of horticultural reason

Late August Reminders

As our relaxing Labor Day weekend festivities become memories and the kids head back to school it’s easy to pack it in from a gardening standpoint. I must admit it’s tempting to sit back and do nothing more than watch the sedums, boltonias, asters, solidagos, chrysanthemums and rest of the fall bloomers in my garden burst into color over the next five weeks. After all, it’s been a pretty good year for growing flowers and an acceptable, if modest, year for vegetables.

Then experience kicks in, or perhaps stubborness, and I realize that giving up now, early in the fourth quarter, is what bad football teams do.

Now is an excellent time to move perennials. For too long I’ve saved this simple task for the spring, and whereas that’s the best time to divide most perennials, an early jump on next year can be made by moving entire clumps now, up until mid-month. I’ve never lost a perennial moved at this time of year, and you shouldn’t worry, provided the areas you move the plants to contain good gardening soil and you water them in well. I add a little 0-18-0 super phosphate to the soil to stimulate a quick shot of root growth, but like so much of what I do, it isn’t absolutely necessary.

When it comes to plants we divide in the fall, you can still squeak by this week if you need to divide your irises. Clumps should be divided every three to four years. Wait and divide them in the spring and you’ll see little bloom until the following year. (Moving them in early spring, provided you take the entire clump with plenty of soil around it, is something I’ve had good success with, and plenty of bloom that same year.) Oriental poppies are another odd duck that won’t bloom if divided in the spring. August is the best month for dividing them, but you can cheat a little bit. If your clump has grown large and dead in the middle, get to it in the next few days and they’ll be eager to bloom next year.

This week and next is a perfect time to sow grass seed on thin or barren patches of lawn. The cooler yet still sunny weather allows grass to grow enough roots to survive the upcoming winter without having to also battle the intense heat of earlier months. Be sure to loosen the soil in the areas you seed to a depth of at least three inches, definitely use a fertilizer designed for grass seed and be mindful that the most common mistake made when sowing grass seed is to sow too thick. But most important, before you sow, take a step back and ask yourself if the area wouldn’t look better if you simply plunked a new flower bed there instead, and to heck with the grass.

Now is a good time to take notes for next year, while this year’s successes and failures are fresh in your mind, or perhaps still before your eyes. If you don’t already keep a notebook of your garden observations, consider starting one. I have a nice planting of sedum ‘Vera Jameson’ in the middle of one bed that is just getting ready to hit bloom, and it’ll be fine, but already I can see there’s a better spot for it nearer the corner; it’s too close now to the other fall bloomers, whereas that corner is going to have nothing going on this fall. So I write that in my notebook because next spring I’ll never remember.

I made a dreadful mess of my biggest, oldest perennial bed this year, and have made a lot of notes for next spring. Lilies that I had moved from the middle of the bed to the rear last fall all came in not taller, but the same height as the too-large wave of echinops (globe thistle) in front of them, and their whole effect was lost. I had divided the echinops this spring and it took off on me, growing taller and fuller than the previous year. I also broke a cardinal rule when I placed a large wave of red phlox too close to the front. Every book ever written on color in the garden warns you that red is the most noticeable, sucking the life out of the colors behind it. You can be sure that I used red ink-and capital letters-four weeks ago when I wrote, “NEXT YEAR, GET THAT *!!#*%!#! RED PHLOX OUTTA THERE!”

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener