Planting Season

Ed inspects the first delivery of annuals in mid May.

Ed inspects the first delivery of annuals in mid May.

May Day at tea time.

May Day at tea time.

We were wise to wait until after Mother’s Day to start planting annuals. Nights have remained cool. The soil was downright chilly. Soil temperatures regulate much of the activity above ground, and when they started to warm, our fair city greened in a hurry. It’s hard to believe that six short weeks ago, work was called on account of snow.

Although we have nearly finished planting annuals for the season, the carport and back patio are once again filling. This time it’s with perennials. We have projects ranging from converting an artificial turf putting green destroyed in the Waldo Canyon Fire to establishing groundcovers under a lofty canopy to planting up beds created in response to water shortages in an effort to reduce thirsty turf.

The old putting green about to receive its first plants.

The old putting green about to receive its first plants.

Planting season will continue through June, as long as daytime temperatures stay reasonably normal (no triple digits, please), and evenings cool. The one condition: Homeowners must take responsibility for regular hand watering to get plants established. To be within the rules of current water restrictions, any watering that takes place outside of your designated hours and days must be done with a drip system or by hose with a positive shut-off and on trees, shrubs, and beds only.

If too much heat comes into the forecast, we’ll take a break in planting. It really isn’t wise to ask plants to deal with getting situated in a new location during a hot spell. Too much stress. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself: Move to a house without air conditioning in, say, Houston in July. Doesn’t sound the least bit appealing, does it?

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Why Wait for Fall

I first discovered fall planting about a decade ago. How? Springtime is too busy to plant in my own garden while keeping up with client demands. Summer? Well, it’s just too darned hot for both the planter and the newly planted.

Great things happen after the first of August, however.

First, nights get longer and generally cooler. This means that even if the day is hot, there’s often a respite between dusk and dawn — for garden and gardener alike. Longer, cooler nights help keep moisture in plants and soil. Stress levels go down.

Near the beginning of September, nights have become long enough to trigger changes in plant processes. What we notice takes place above ground — greatly diminished growth, the yellowing of some leaves, and a mellowing and quieting of most blooming activity. What we can’t see: Below the surface, roots are growing.

Growing underground in September, this new installation will start filling in next spring.

The convergence of lower overall stress and root growth make for excellent planting conditions. There is less opportunity for transplant shock. Even better, there is a good chance the new plant will root out in the still-warm soil creating a stronger plant next spring.

Another advantage of fall planting is cost saving. Garden centers regularly offer great bargains to clear their shelves. And, because it’s cooler you won’t be spending as much time and money keeping new plants hydrated.

Most plants benefit from dividing, transplanting, and planting in the early fall — from mid-August to the Autumnal equinox. This includes irises, daylilies, perennials, ornamental grasses, deciduous and evergreen shrubs, and small trees. Some sources say that grasses and evergreens do best if planted in the spring, but I can’t say I’ve found that to be true. Trees may also do quite well if planted after they’ve dropped their leaves in October.

You’ll want to get all your planting done by October. Not that all your plants will turn into pumpkins after October 1. It’s just you’ll want time to put in bulbs for spring.

Speaking of bulbs: Have  you placed your orders?

Sage and Savvy, Number One

What’s a gardening website without tips, tid-bits, and to-do lists?

Every now and then, at least, don’t you think?

Some of my favorite tools for Spring clean-up. Especially the little rake. It can get into the crunchiest of places.

Spring clean-up will soon be wrapping up in these parts, but just in case you’re running a little behind, like I am, here’s a couple of tips:

  • Use hedge shears to cut back dead stems and grasses. I find cutting is easier on the plants than pulling, except with daylilies and iris.
  • Cut down a whole bed at once (unless it’s too windy), and then rake it off.
  • Toss everything directly into a large trash can or open tarp that drags along as you progress through a bed.
  • Compost at home, or take winter’s dregs to a place like our beloved Rocky Top for recycling.

Gotta love a hori-hori.

Now is a great time to:

  • Blade out those cool season weeds, like dandelions.
  • Get soil activator and fertilizer on what’s left of your lawn.
  • Scatter, scratch, and water in compost or organic fertilizer around your shrubs, grasses, and perennials.
  • Turn on your irrigation system or start dragging hoses.
  • Top off your mulch.
  • Cut new edges along beds and walkways.
  • Pinch back those geraniums you overwintered.
  • Resume the stretching you ignored all winter long.
  • Stock up on sunscreen.

Oh, and if you have early season tulips of daffodils that have finished blooming, snap off the seed pod forming at the tip of the stem. Bulbs tire more easily if they bear seeds.

Always remember to step back from time to time and admire your work.

Oh! Oh! And one more thing: Schedule a massage.

To Build or Not to Build

Say you live in England and you love desert plants, succulents and cacti from South Africa, Baja California, or somewhere really exotic, like Colorado? Your soil is constantly moist, lightly acidic, crumbly with leaf-mould. It’s terrible! What can you do?

That’s right, you’ll have to build your own soil. Make it lean. Make it gritty. Make it quick to drain. Use a little of your garden soil and mix it with equal parts coarse sand and lightweight perlite. That should do it.

A handmade cactus garden.

Now, isolate the stuff in a pot so you can control how much water it doesn’t get, and so it will dry out fast, like it would in the desert. Then plant it up. Put the whole kit and kaboodle someplace in full sun, but sheltered from the rain, and you’ve got it. Instant, handmade desert.

Sound like a lot of trouble?

It is.

It’s the same kind of trouble we semi-arid plains dwellers go through to grow broccoli.

But what if we semi-arid plains dwellers want to grow native yucca, shrubs, sage, cactus, agave, grasses, and wild beardtongues? Should we build the soil?

It’s a great question, and one with no definitive answer.

Gardeners have a hard time resisting compost or believing (at least at first) that anything of value can grow without our TLC. There’s always the thought that a little assistance can’t hurt. Isn’t it what every plant hopes for?

Maybe. Maybe not. Conventional ideas of fertility may not be a great thing for plants that evolved in and for such “poor” soils as ours. There is even research suggesting native plants will form stronger myccorhizal communities, taking up greater quanities of nutrient from mineral-rich soil, if left to their own devices.

However, there are gardens featuring native plants throughout Colorado, in which soils were amended before the plants went in. There is no question these gardens are thriving.

Native rabbit brush, yucca and grasses, connecting the cultivated with the wild.

To build or not to build?

Why not join in the great experiment yourself, and try some natives?