Monday, October 18, 2021

October’s beauty belies its warning of winter

by VALLE NOVAK Contributing Writer
| October 10, 2021 1:00 AM

October’s fabled “Bright blue weather” is truly my favorite time of the year. But as the headline says — it carries the warning of oncoming cold and it’s time for a bevy of small and/or large garden/landscape activities. I’ll address them in a series of informative suggestions that will hopefully cover any unfinished business you have in your surroundings.

Autumn’s early descent into the 30s on the thermometer warns us to protect our tender perennials and shrubs for the coming cold. It’s also coming on to the final time for planting spring bulbs, tubers, corms and such and preparing ground for next years' gardens. Fall planting is necessary for tulips, daffodils, iris, peonies and other spring flowers since they must undergo a natural "cold treatment" in the ground. Over the winter, the cold weather dormancy triggers a chemical mechanism within the bulb that sets the process of blooming in motion.

When planting bulbs, follow depth instructions and if you wish, give them a little bulb food. If planting after mid-October, though, don't give any more plant food or fertilizer to them or anything else in the garden. That's time for dormancy to begin, and plants need to wind down and go to "sleep" — not be jolted artificially into wanting to grow and put out roots, leaves and blossoms — which is what fertilizer is for.

Division and transplanting should be done now and remember to replant divisions at the same depth they were growing. Remember that iris need to be practically on top or the soil as iris leaves, as long as they are green, are still providing food to the rhizomes, so don't cut them off till they've faded (I pull mine away each spring). In all cases, remember to replant divisions at the same depth they were growing, and in the case of iris, that means shallow.

And please, if you're moving or dividing a peony, take extra care. These wonderful perennials like to stay in one place (often for 100 years.) so if you must divide one, use extreme good judgment. Don't strip the soil away from the roots. Leave the soil on and around the clump as best you can, while cutting with a heavy sharp butcher knife or even a sharp hatchet. Have the new hole ready and place the whole clump/division into it, watering well, and providing good rich soil around any empty spaces. Then, leave it alone. Divisions of any bulbous, tuberous, corm-growing plants should never be done more often than every three years.

Speaking of fertilizer, now is the ideal time to give that last shot to your shrub's roots, to strengthen them for the true cold ahead. I gave my roses their final drink of fish emulsion for the year this past week. You may, of course, fertilize with manure, digging it in gently around the root expansion area of your foliar or flowering shrubs. Aged manure is best, but fresh rabbit, llama or horse manure is not as "hot" and possibly damaging as fresh chicken or cow manure. If "hot" is what you have, mix it with soil and apply on top of the ground around the shrub, covering well with soil, leaves, or compost. It will leach into the ground over winter without damage to the root system.

I’ve discussed pruning before, and while most pruning should wait until spring, you may thin away dead, broken or crossing branches now, but major cutback should be held off until after the snow has come and gone. Pruning is another "jolt-giver", nudging shrubs to put out new growth to make up for what was removed. Too, open stem/branch wounds invite burrowing pests to do their dirty work over winter.

Container plants definitely need attention now, whether it's moving them to winter quarters — a windowed back porch or a well-lighted garage — depending on the species. Rosemary should have been brought in already in increments, of course, to negate any shock from cool garden to in-home temperatures. If you have really huge containers that stay year-round in the garden, keep them (and the entire garden) watered well during dry time, and later, protect them with a wrap of burlap, a wall of straw or heaped-up banks of leaves.

Don’t use plastic — it absorbs too much cold and can freeze the roots of container plants; And both plastic and ceramic tubs can crack if not given extra protection.

Herbs and veggie garden plants have their own rules. Chives, sage and mints can be divided and moved now and tender herbs like rosemary and tarragon should be potted up and moved to a protected porch or cool room before the first frost, Keep the gardens and lawns watered — too many people quit after harvest — but the soil needs that moisture, as do the roots of plants, shrubs and perennials. If allowed to dry out, a bad freeze can be disastrous, especially if there is no protective snow cover. Leaves are the perfect natural mulch and if you have them, you are blessed. Save them during your fall cleanup, and please consider leaving small brush piles for winter bird protection.

Many of our summer songbirds — swallows, red-wing blackbirds, robins and others, have left for their annual migration to warmer climes. "My" hummingbirds left a month ago, along with most of the butterflies. With the exodus of the summer birds, however, comes the return of the winter population, and the chickadees, nuthatches, Stellar's jays and even a few juncos are already at hand in my treed sanctuary. These hardy cold-weather lovers appreciate the cover, warmth and protection from predators that brush piles provide.

I’ve put out the feeders of black oil sunflower seeds and the protein-packed suet blocks, though there's still plenty of natural food at hand: perennials and grasses gone to seed, snowberry bushes and Mountain ash trees laden with berries, and Nature's bounty still lavish., I've included a thistle tube for the Pine siskins who haven't arrived yet. Don’t forget to continue filling your birdbath. A water source is vital, especially when the freezes come.

Again, don’t make the common mistake of slowing down on your watering. This is something plants need right into dormancy. Many fruiting plants and small trees — from plums (which need a nice frost to come to fruition) to peppers and tomatoes — need that water to successfully mature.

There are still late harvest items on the docket if you’ve planted winter squash and pumpkins, for instance, and when your garlic tops begin to yellow and die down they may be ready to dig. Make sure by digging down under just one and have a look. You should see plump bulbs encased in a papery covering. If they’re not ready, re-cover and leave for a couple of weeks. Otherwise, pull the bulbs, brush them off and store in a cool, dry location.

The gorgeous red burning bushes are “flaming” all over town, Rocky Mountain Maples are beginning to turn color, as are the red and yellow Osier dogwoods, and the blue-and-gold month is upon us. I love it. Welcome, October!

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at or by phone at 208-265-4688 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Valle Novak