October 2012 To-Do List: Zone 8

Susan Wells
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Much of the southern part of Zone 8 suffered a crippling drought this summer and it is hard to know when the rains will come back. Your garden may have suffered , but remember, gardening is all about optimism. At least we know cooler temperatures are on the way.

October and November are the best times for planting larger plants and some smaller ones. First of all, the weather is so wonderful you want to be outside all the time anyway, so you might as well plant something. Second, there’s still enough time before a killing freeze that roots can get established. Remember, though, that normally (if there is such a thing anymore) October is a dry month, so make sure whatever you plant is watered in thoroughly then regularly at least until freezing or rainy weather comes. The average first frost date for Zone 8 is Nov. 15.

Vegetables and Herbs

  • You will be harvesting the last of your tomatoes. If you have green ones still on the vine by late in the month, take them in and fry them or put them up as pickles. As soon as there is a freeze, they’ll be ruined, so don’t take a chance. A killing freeze is one that turns a tomato plant black. The first killing freeze is expected in mid November, but it can happen anytime within two weeks of that date.
  • Collards, kale, chard and cabbage are perfect for harvesting now. But use the cut-and-come-again method as there’s still time for new leaves to grow. These members of the kohl family can withstand freezes and are all the sweeter for it.
  • Broccoli should be perfect for harvesting now and into November or December, depending on when you planted the seedlings. The heads should be taken while the flower buds are still tightly closed. Broccoli can withstand a frost, but not a hard freeze down into the 20s. A floating row cover can protect them for the first few frosts of the season. After the heads are gone, try using broccoli greens like you would spinach. They are delicious chopped and sautéed with olive oil and garlic.
  • More tender greens such as lettuces can be covered with floating row cover to extend the season for a few more weeks. Even a light frost can ruin them, so cover them up and the temperature can go down a few more degrees at night without damaging them.
  • Frost will also kill basil, so harvest the rest of that and make pesto (try using local pecans instead of pine nuts for a slightly sweeter version. It’s delicious.) You may also freeze basil chopped into ice cube trays and covered with water. Just crack out one cube and toss it into your sauce or soup.
  • You can dig up a couple of healthy basil plants and pot them up to bring indoors for the winter. Sit them beside a sunny window or under artificial light and keep moist.
  • Harvest the last of your okra and corn before even a light frost hits. Either freeze or can the produce. Don’t you love how okra keeps on producing right up until frost!
  • October and November are the best times to plant strawberries. Put them in a bed tilled, amended and covered with newspaper. Cut slits in the newspaper and drop in the bare-root plants. Then mulch to protect the crowns. Come spring, your plants will have a head start. (Remember not to count on eating strawberries from a new bed. Instead, pick off the flowers and let the plants concentrate their energies on producing a deep root system. The following year, enjoy!)

    Now’s the time to plant strawberries for next spring.

  • If you have dreamed of starting an asparagus bed, now is the time. Order plants from a trusted nursery. All-male stock will be more productive. Pick a well-drained spot in the garden that you won’t disturb with planting annual crops. Dig trenches about eight inches deep and six inches wide and put in a couple of inches of organic matter — compost or rotted manure. Spread the roots of the plants out in all directions and cover with a few inches of soil. As the plants grow up through the soil, cover again and again until they reach the surface of the surrounding soil. Mulch deeply for the winter. If ferns grow up before frost, leave them alone until they turn brown and fall over, then cut them at the soil surface. In early spring, start looking for the spears. Don’t harvest them this first year, instead give them time to grow into ferns that will nourish the roots. Keep well-mulched to keep weeds from getting started. The following year, harvest the spears for three or four weeks, then let the ferns grow up again. The year after, you’ll have six weeks or more of thick spears to eat.

Trees

  • October and November are the best times to plant trees. They will have several weeks of warm weather to send out roots before becoming dormant. Remember the roots will still grow during the winter even after the leaves fall, so water if the weather is dry.
  • Choose trees that will work for you. Do you need shade on the west side of your house to lower your air conditioning bills? Plant a post oak. Do you want a fruit tree or two or three? Try peaches or plums. Do you want evergreens to lend winter interest to a garden that goes all bare bones on you come December? Try Emerald Arborvitae. Do you want something that will flower in the spring or one that will give you vibrant fall color, or both? Try dogwoods or redbuds. Do you want a big tree or a small tree? A live oak or a Japanese maple?
  • Add deep color to your landscape with a Japanese maple tree.

    Be aware of a few things about trees: they actually will eventually be as tall and wide as it says on the tag, and their roots will extend out as wide as their branches do and wider. So don’t plant that cute little river birch in a 4-foot-by-4-foot bed right next to the house and expect it behave well. If that’s the space you have, use a native red bud or dogwood or a Japanese maple instead. Evergreens particularly will brown out and drop branches if they don’t get enough sun. They are fast growers, usually, and will begin to shade each other out quickly if each doesn’t have enough room to reach the sun. So think about what you are doing and plan accordingly. If you are 85, what the heck, it will be somebody else’s problem. But if you are planning a garden you will enjoy for many years, give your trees the respect they deserve.

  • When you plant trees, make sure you dig a proper hole. You can buy a 7-foot, $200 container-grown tree and put it in a hole that’s too small and it will be stunted or die. You can buy a 2-foot bare-root tree for $10 and put it in a good hole and it will grow fast and be a lovely specimen within a year or so. So save your money and use your shovel. Dig a hole at least twice as large as the container the tree is in. Make it a saucer shape with gently sloping sides instead of digging straight down like the sides of a bucket. Make a mound of soil in the middle and sit the root ball of the tree on that, spreading the roots out into the trench around the mound.
  • Make sure that any roots that have started to circle the base of the tree (pot bound) are either straightened out or cut. If they continue to grow around like that, they can cut off circulation in the tree itself as they grow. Also make sure the soil-line on the tree is at or slightly above the soil line of the ground around it. Then fill the hole with the native soil. If it is heavy clay and nothing else, put in some organic material such as well-rotted manure, but not too much. You don’t want to make the hole such a paradise the roots never want to leave it. If your native soil is decent, just leave it alone. Tamp the soil down so it is in good contact with the roots. Water well and add more soil if needed. Don’t fertilize at planting. It encourages new growth that will just be killed by frost. Wait until spring for that.
  • If you are planting balled and burlap trees, make sure to take off the wire cage around the root ball before planting the tree. The burlap itself should be opened at the top and spread out before soil is filled in around the root ball. It will bio-degrade, but if it isn’t opened, it can hinder root growth in the early going.
  • After you have the tree in its hole and the soil filled in, take your shovel or a garden fork and disturb the ground around it out several feet from the trunk, even beyond the edges of the hole. This will allow water and oxygen to get down to the root zone and encourage the roots to spread. Scrape away grass or other plants for a few feet and mulch well, making sure to keep mulch six inches or so away from the trunk. If rain doesn’t provide, water regularly for the baby tree’s first year. There now. You’ve planted a tree that will be a joy to you for the rest of your life.

Shrubs

  • What would Zone 8 be without its camellias, azaleas and hydrangeas? All of these thrive in hot dry shade under the big oaks and pines in our yards. Out in the sun, you can make a statement with the architectural and archetypal crepe myrtle. You can plant container-grown specimens of these any time, but fall is the best time because the young plants will have time to establish a good root system before next summer’s heat stresses them out. Look at the instructions on planting trees above and do the same thing with shrubs. Make sure to keep them watered during their first year.

Perennials

  • Perhaps not for the rest of your life, but for many years to come, a perennial garden will provide blooms in all seasons. Now is the time to plant many of your favorites or replenish stocks of aging friends already in your garden.
  • The first crocuses on record were found on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The species was brought to the Netherlands in the 16th century by way of Constantinople, eventually making their way across the Atlantic to the U.S.

    Plant bulbs of daffodils, hyacinth and crocus now. If you want them to naturalize, toss the bulbs into the space and plant them where they fall. Especially with smaller bulbs, you can just stick a shovel into the soil to the depth the bulb should be planted pull back the soil and drop a couple of bulbs in the slit. Pull out the shovel and nudge the soil back in place with your foot. Voila, you haven’t even disturbed your lawn.

  • For larger bulbs, especially if you are planting in bulk, look at your Home Depot store for an earth auger you can plug in to your battery powered hand drill. This is a wonderful option if you are planting a lot of bulbs at once.
  • For other perennials, there are other methods that are equally easy. Some folks think perennial beds are really difficult to establish. They don’t have to be. Think about it: what you want is a bed with few weeds, lots of organic matter and good drainage. If you have the right tools, you can scrape away sod, lay a layer of organic matter three inches thick over the bed and till to a depth of 12 inches to get a 1:4 ratio of organic matter to soil. That’s a great way to do it.
  • But if you don’t have the strength, time or tools to do that, try laying a thick layer of newspaper over the grass and covering it with some bags of topsoil from Home Depot. Poke holes in one side of the bags for drainage, and lay them holes side down on the newspaper. Then cut the plastic off the surface of the bags to plant your perennials, then put about three inches of mulch, like shredded bark, around the plants to cover the surface of the soil and any plastic that’s visible. You can even put some edging around that if you want to get fancy. Voila. A flower bed.
  • Think about using native wild flowers in an easy, blousy bed. Throw in some purple coneflower seeds (or container plants) surrounded by some yellow coreopsis. Edge with some red or purple verbena and you’ll have blooms from spring until frost. The bees, butterflies and humming birds will love it.
  • Other perennials that do well in this area and can be planted now are daylilies, iris and peonies.
  • You can adapt a similar easy plan for an annual bed for those fall mums and pansies.

Lawns

  • If you are considering redoing the turf, think of getting a soil test, then correct nutrient deficiencies and pH problems before spring. A DIY kit is available at your local Home Depot. You can also take soil samples to your County Extension Services and have it done for a small fee.
  • If the test shows you need lime, apply it now through November. Your lawn will probably green up after the application, but it will take a while for the lime to change the pH of the soil. By spring, you should have a nice mellow soil for the growing season.
  • Use a mulching blade on your mower to shred fall leaves and convert them into rich organic material that can be left on the lawn. Otherwise, rake. Fallen leaves will smother a lawn if left in place all winter.
  • Feed Zoysia and Bermuda lawns through mid-November with a 5-5-20 blend or equivalent. Use a pre-emergent weed killer to prevent the germination of cool season annuals in the lawn.

 

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