How to nurture your garden in the fall

Sep 13, 2012

Adrian Higgins gave advice on how to remove weeding in gravel, amend clay soil and other gardening advice from Adrian Higgins

With Fall coming, besides lettuce and spinach, what should I plant?

Welcome, we've had some glitches but we seem to be ok now. I am sowing lots of lettuce varieties, spinach, pac choi and even beets. The window on fall seeding is closing, but still ajar. It's good to start in August if you can bear to pull out the tomatoes etc. 

We had great luck with several heirloom varieties of tomatoes (all sizes, colors) but our tomatillo plant appears to be a bust. There are plenty of husks and you can feel small fruit inside but they're not getting any bigger or darker and a few appear to be shriveling. Is this normal? Anything we can do to get some fruit off this plant?

This tends to ripen later in the season, I wouldn't give up on it. Do make sure the watering is even. The occasional feed wouldn't go amiss either. 

I have two very overgrown lilacs in my yard. They are too tall for the space (the lialcs are probably about 10-12 feet high) and all the blooms are at the top. I'm thinking that I will bite the bullet and cut all the branches back to about 6" above the ground in the early spring. Do you think that is a good idea?

I would take out several of the oldest stems, and allow the younger ones more space and light. Removing wood now will affect next year's blooming, but that's what you have to do to rejuvenate it. 

How would you amend a newly dug (from grass meadow) vegetable bed for next season? Leaf compost over winter? Cover with a tarp to prevent grass germination? Anything to add?

I would sow a winter cover crop, otherwise it will be absolutely consumed with weeds such as henbit and chickweed. I like red clover, when it blooms in spring, it's just gorgeous. You could also go with winter rye. Cut it in early March and till it into the soil. 

Allowing for this summer's brutal weather, can you offer any insights into why my vegetable garden -- with cucumbers the exception -- was so disappointing this year? Eggplant and green peppers failed to appear, and tomatoes were small in size and not plentiful. plus this year I was vigilant about feeding and watering. Is my soil in need of attention?

I had a so-so tomato season (my friends had more than they knew what to do with) though my pepper crop this year was the best ever.  It got dry in early summer, and this will have an effect on plant vigor and fruiting. Fundamentally, a vegetable garden needs lots of direct sunlight and deep organically rich soil. If those are in place, the results may be a little up and down season to season but will be basically ok. 

I just cannot find the time or inclination to start fall vegetable seeds in July and August. I saw some Brussels Sprouts seedlings at Merrifield GC on Labor Day, so I jumped at the chance and planted them, aided by this fabulous weather and row cover to keep the sun (and cabbage moths) off. They are pretty small--about 6 leaves--do I have a chance? Also, I'm thinking of trying to direct sow broccoli even though it's late--my variety says 48 days, so is it worth a shot? I have success with the things I direct sow for fall/winter like roots and greens, but things I need to start early are tough.

I'm trying to grow Brussels transplants myself and although this plant will happily stand through most of the winter, you have to get it to fruit before the freezing weather. I should have planted it a month earlier, I think. Cabbage, brussels and broccoli transplants should be in the ground by early August. The difficulty is that a plant will develop much more quickly in August than it will in September because of shorter days and cooler temperatures so the days to harvest actually change through the season.  But gardening is about experimenting. See what happens. 

I was up to my elbows this morning harvesting plum tomatoes from the glorious and uncontrolled tangle of vines that defy all attempts to stake, when I heard an ominous rustle from the ground. After 15 years in the South, my first instinct was SNAKE! I grabbed my trusty hockey stick and gingerly poked was a lovely painted turtle! The first one I've ever seen in my yard.

What a lovely story. Go Reptiles!

Is it too late to start lettuce/kale/spinach from seed? September crept up on me.

I'm still sowing lettuce, mesclun mix and mustard greens. It's not too late for those, even if you will take them at baby or immature stage. I like a lot of butterhead/cos types of lettuce for fall, including Winter Density and Adriana (can't think why).  

Is it possible to grow tem in an apartment without a balcony?

No. They are raised commercially in greenhouses where growers have figured out how to train them and pollinate them indoors, but they need heat and light. Go with a moth orchid. 

I have never transplanted anything before, but I need to move some black-eyed Susans. I presume I should wait until it is cooler? And I cut the foliage and flowers off as much as possible?

Most perennials can be divided now. Lift the whole plant (I highly recommend a garden fork) and then separate the crown so that the new pieces have both roots and the tiny buds that will develop as top growth next year. You may need to use a knife to split some divisions. Replant them right away to prevent root desiccation (or keep them in a plastic bag for a few days if you have to, out of sunlight). 

Liked your article. In my family, I am the mosquito magnet. Although I understand it is not the tiger that carries the West Nile, I'm wondering about my theory that I am probably one of the 80% exposed without illness, because I have been bitten SO much over the years, even when there were crows dropping dead in the neighborhood. One suggestion - we recently spent a few days at Smith Mountain Lake. We sat outside on the non-screened deck, played in the lake and walked about, and I was amazed that I didn't see or feel a single mosquito. It was a nice rest from my neighborhood. Any reason why they wouldn't be beside that large body of water, or did we just choose a lucky location?

Thanks, I really do feel the Asian tiger mosquito has diminished the gardening experience. I am also leery about an insect whose name can be abbreviated to ATM. But it is a pest that excels in urban environments because of all the little containers we make for it, unwittingly. In the countryside, it is less of a problem. 

Adrian, We have a pencil holly tree that was planted last spring, was doing really well until about a month ago. We have been trying to water it but it looks like it's dying except for one sprig in the middle. Thoughts on what caused this? Thanks!

I think this is a variety of the Japanese holly, which is commonly planted but actually quick to die if it is in heavy clay that gets overwatered. Perhaps someone loved it to death. 

Adrian, Thanks for taking my question. We have a patch of dirt/weeds between our sidewalk/curb that we would like to take out and cover with some ground cover (mondo grass? other?). Is fall the right time to do this or would spring be preferred? Thanks!!

With most hardy plants, fall is the optimum time because the plant is not putting energy into growing and can spend the next few weeks growing a nice root system before the rigors of the next growing season. 

A friend was very successful with cherry tomatoes in this situation. She had them in front of a large picture window that got a lot of sun. She also hand-pollinated them, since there was no wind.

I stand sort of corrected, but it would have had to have been a large window facing west or southwest. Most apartments really don't have the light levels needed, especially in the darker months. 

I have terrible mosquito problems in my yard. Are there some plants I should avoid in my garden, such as ornamental grasses because they grow tall, or English ivy because it harbors moisture in its root systems? Is it true that some drought-tolerant plants can harbor mosquitoes?

Good question. A lot of pest control folks note that the mosquitoes lie in wait on grasses and other herbaceous plants. But the idea of simply not having garden plants and instead a groomed lawn just isn't an option for serious gardeners. I think the most effective way of dealing with this pest is to remove as many sources of standing water as possible, wear long clothing and use repellents. 

We have neglected our yard because each attempt brings worse weeds. Now, I am at the point of starting from scratch and that starts at the soil. Of course, clay is the dirt. Any good resources on how to start this process? I am thinking cutting the weeds and putting down compost and soil to create an environment for grass. I would prefer to burn the lawn and rototiller with compost but i think the Fire dept would have a problem. THANK YOU!!!

You want to pull the weeds so that you stop them from seeding. Other than that, I would come up with a planting plan for the whole part of the yard but only tackle small areas at a time. If you need to replant, say, 1,000 square feet, you could address 250 square feet per weekend (that's 10 ft by 25 ft, something manageable). If you cannot get to planting such an area at once, prepare the soil and lay a two inch layer of mulch that will keep the weeds back until you can plant it. Bare ground equals weeds. 

I have a space for a garden 40 x 40'. How do I start in the spring so that I can have minimal weeds? We have a lot of wood chips at our disposal. Do you suggest landscape fabric at all?

I would do the soil preparation now and sow a cover crop. I don't like weed fabric as much as I used to. It's expensive, doesn't stop all weeds, doesn't build the soil and isn't a permanent solution. 

I deal with squash borers by planting a second crop in very late June or early July and have had some pretty good success up to the last killing frost, which in my Stafford area garden was in middle November last year. The last couple of years, I had what I called squash bugs (they look a bit like stink bugs) by the hundreds. They are a bit white and then turn gray as they get older. They kill the plant if they are there. Any ideas on good methods to kill them? I don't use chemicals that aren't Rodale approved. I've been thinking about vacuuming them, like we used to do to the Yellow Jackets that moved into mouse holes but that's probably not going to be too feasible. Help!

I don't know what your pest is. The season of the brown marmorated stink bug is upon us but it sounds as if this is something else. It might be the harlequin bug, which is a real pain. Vaccuuming is an excellent organic way of dealing with them, along with squishing the eggs on the underside of the leaves. 

The property next to ours is being clear-cut for new construction and we are thinking ahead to the need for a green fence (there will be two large houses crowded into a small space overlooking our property), and since the area now gets full sun, we were thinking of Nellie Stevens hollies, since they get so large. What's your view?

I like Nellie Stevens hollies, I think they are just the right size, and stay healthy looking in a way that American holly sometimes does not. I also like Foster's No. 2 (No, that isn't an Australian lager).  

Professor, great to see you on the chat lineup today and we gardeners continue hoping you are back with us on a more regular basis!! Two good questions for you: 1. if you were planting blueberry shrubs, would you go for bare-root plants or shrubs already planted? 2. For peonies, will they tolerate some amount of  "shade" depending on the planting spot? I have some on order and the place I would like to plant them, at this time of year gets some shade from the tree at our curb, although in summer is pretty much in the sun for 6 + hours a day. Mine is a south-facing exposure.

Thank you! Blueberry shrubs have fibrous roots that can dry out very quickly, which is why they need evenly moist soil. I'd much prefer to handle them with a rootball. Peonies can take partial shade, though they might flop a bit as they stretch. This is why I don't favor the large double flowered varieties of herbaceous peony, advising instead something semi-double, or a tree peony or (my favorite) the new intersectional peony varieties. 

I have hired the mosquito service you mentioned in your article for the past 2 years because the mosquitoes were getting in my house and eating away at my toddler. It is effective (they have a natural spray that I opted for) but expensive, though it is nice to feel that we can use the yard during the summer and makes gardening more pleasant. I live on an alley and my neighbors commented that they had fewer mosquitoes when I started the service, even though they were only spraying in my yard. P.S. I had a good year for tomatoes and cucumbers but not for peppers, and I had the same question about Brussels sprouts. Every year is an experiment!

Thank you for letting us know about this. Many readers are worried about the effects of the insectide on beneficials like honeybees and butterflies, even though the EPA says the risk to wildlife is acceptable.  I think I would be nervous if my neighbor had the yard sprayed every three weeks. 

I need to take down a very old and dying dogwood. I would like to replace it with some pretty crepe myrtles. Do myrtles like the same types of soil and sunlight as dogwoods?

Perhaps not, dogwoods are, in nature, found at the edge of forests so they get bright but indirect light. Crepe myrtles tend to like full sunlight. Many folks have planted dogwoods in full sun, which they can take (and this may help against the discula disease) as long as the soil has enough organic matter to prevent the roots from drying during hot dry spells. So the short answer is, their needs can overlap, but the crepe myrtles need a site that is sunny and well drained. I would consider a treeform Japanese maple. 

My husband and I would like to figure out different landscaping for our yard to be planted sometime in 2013. We are hoping to do the planning ourselves. Are there any books or Web sites we should reference for ideas?

Most important, you are planning ahead rather than waiting for the first cuckoo of spring and deciding, let's plant a garden. This may be way too dry and esoteric, but I'm reading a book at the moment called Professional Planting Design by Scott Scarfone. There are so many variables I'd be reluctant to name just one book. I would advise going to somewhere like the National Arboretum or Chanticleer Garden near Philadelphia to consider light and terrain conditions similar to yours, and see how the pros have handled that. The native plant garden at the US Botanic Garden is another great source of ideas for landscaping. 

Dear Mr. Higgins, we bought a house recently with big square bushes in front. I decided to trim the bottom branches to make them look a bit more natural. As it turned out, the previous owner buried the roots with wood chips and bark, some pieces as big as coasters. The poor plants are distressed. The roots are bent out of shape and very shallow. What can I do to correct this mistake? Thanks for taking my question.

No easy answer, here we have an example of why you don't pile mulch too thickly, especially against the base of a shrub or tree, the roots grow into this medium, exposing them to the air. You could remove this material and let the surface roots die back. It sounds to me as if you would be better off removing these shrubs and planting something more natural and vital in their place. We've run out of time, but thank you so much for joining our discussion today. See you soon. 

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Adrian Higgins
Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post's gardening columnist. Read his recent story on a Boxwood blight disease and follow him on Twitter.
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