Pat Curran

Almanac: September-October 2107

by janem on August 31, 2017

What To Do in the Garden in September & October

Hairy bittercress

Hairy bittercress


The best time to renovate or install a lawn is late August through September. Cooler, longer evenings and moist weather encourage root growth. It’s easier to keep the seedbed moist for germination, and annual weeds such as crabgrass will be unable to set seed before frost.

Plant colchicum and the true fall crocus bulbs as soon as they are received. Otherwise, Colchicum may bloom in the bag! Go ahead and plant them anyway, and they will be ok.

Replace tree guards around vulnerable tree trunks to prevent “buck rub” deer damage.

Start planning to bring houseplants inside, especially tropicals. This allows for an adjustment period (maybe even quarantine in case they have pests). Holiday cacti and cymbidiums need cool temperatures to set flower buds, but not cold or frost. A cool room inside should suffice.

It’s your last chance to plant veggies outside—only radishes and maybe spinach are fast-growing and hardy enough to get a crop. Consult

Plant a hardy cover crop such as winter rye in vacant garden spaces. Otherwise, I sheet-compost there instead (flattened cardboard covered by leaves).

Consider planting hardy veggies in a cold frame or low (or high) tunnel for winter crops. Think about overwintering potted herbs on a sunny windowsill. I have had good luck with basil, parsley, and sage. Rosemary needs careful watching and watering, as it doesn’t wilt when dry, it just dies.

Keep up with the weeding, but ease off on the deadheading. Roses, for instance, will be better prepared for winter if allowed to set hips.

Visit your local nurseries for great sale plants. Also, tour display gardens and note what is blooming now. There are many fall-blooming perennials besides mums! Hybrid anemones that have not become invasive at my house, even after 20 years, are ‘Honorine Jobert’ and ‘September Charm.’ Cimicifuga ‘White Pearl’ is a fragrant late bloomer susceptible to early fall frosts, so plant it in a sheltered part shade location. Ditto for Korean wax bells (Kirengeshoma spp.) and hardy begonia (a zone six plant that has overwintered for me several years in a sheltered spot). Mark the hardy begonia well since it doesn’t come up until almost June. Fall monkshood is very frost-hardy and brings that deep marine blue to the garden (remember it’s poisonous, though). There is even a late-blooming hosta called ‘Red October’, but only the petioles and flower scapes are red.

Divide and replant hardy spring-blooming perennials as soon as possible. You can also move or divide the hardier perennials such as tall perennial phlox, hosta, or daylilies. Avoid disturbing shallow-rooted perennials like heuchera that are prone to heaving.

Make maps or take pictures of your plantings before the first frost hits and the leaves fall. Replace labels if needed. Pencil lasts a long time on plastic labels and doesn’t fade in the sun. Take notes about what needed to be moved/divided/replaced next year. Finish planting container perennials and woodies. Keep them well watered. I mulch right after planting to allow more root growth before the soil cools off too much, despite the usual recommendation to wait until the ground freezes.



October is the best month to move peonies (both herbaceous and tree peonies, if necessary, but this is a big job!). We dig, divide, and pot up herbaceous peonies in October for the May plant sale, and most of them will bloom in the pots around sale time. It’s also the best month to dig up and divide hardy lilies. Its time to finish planting your spring-flowering bulbs outside! I mulch crocus and tulips with pea gravel to deter the critters that might be inclined to start digging. Start potting up the hardy bulbs you want to force (you can finish this task in November). Protect potted crocus and tulips from mice.

Mid-October is the best time to plant garlic. Be sure to rotate the garlic to a well-drained area, and mulch after planting. It’s recommended to plant the biggest cloves and save the smaller ones to eat.

Late October is a good time to start cleaning up around your perennials. Consider cutting down dead stalks (except for mums, Japanese painted ferns, kniphofia, and semi-woody plants like lavender, sage, Russian sage, and butterfly bush, which overwinter better with the protection of the old stalks). You may choose to leave stalks in place for winter interest (sedum, e.g.), birdseed (echinacea, black-eyed Susan, e.g.), or overwintering beneficial insects, including pollinators. Pull those winter annual weeds that have sprouted! Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is a particular pest because it blooms at such a tiny size. If you see little clumps of circular white objects resembling tapioca, those are snail or slug eggs. Get rid of them (not in the compost).

This is my best opportunity to apply mulch because my flowerbeds are full of bulb foliage by early spring.

Use your mulching mower on the leaves on the lawn, if possible. Consider collecting leaf bags from your neighbors! I have a special compost bin for leaves. I leave them in the bags (plastic preferred) until the leaves turn into “leaf mold”, which is my main organic soil amendment. Most leaves are wet and ‘dirty’ enough to compost right inside the bag. Any really light bags contain dry leaves—these are set aside for use as mulch in the veggie garden the next season.

Clean up all the old veggie plants, debris from the veggie garden, and fallen fruit. Although most recommendations are to dispose of this in the trash, I have too much to do that. Instead, I put it in a long-term inactive compost pile, so I’m isolating diseases and pests that the debris may hold. Applying fresh mulch will help isolate disease organisms. Be sure to protect fruit tree trunks up to four to five feet above the ground from nibbling wildlife.

Continue preparing to protect vulnerable plants from deer, rabbit, and rodent damage – with fencing, hardware cloth (which is actually wire), plastic tree protectors, and/or repellents.

Move a bucket of good garden soil and/or woodchips into a freeze-proof location. This can be used during winter thaws, to cover the roots of frost-heaved, shallow-rooted perennials such as heuchera. Otherwise, heaving causes the roots to dry out, and generally the ground is still frozen enough a few inches down to prevent replanting. This tip is from the late Elisabeth Sheldon, author of several excellent gardening books, who used to have a nursery near Ithaca.

It’s too early to wrap evergreens in burlap, but not too early to get prepared. The goal used to be to prevent winter wind and sun from desiccating and killing the foliage, especially of broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons and hollies. This is still important, and despite the controversy about them, I have been applying antidessicant sprays the last few years, but generally not until Thanksgiving or even later. But now with global warming, early spring damage has become just as important. Warm weather in March is no blessing when it is followed by drastic cold snaps that kill twigs, buds, and leaves that have become de-acclimated. Be sure not to let woody plants go into winter in a drought-stressed condition.

—Pat Curran and the Tompkins County Master Gardeners


Almanac: March-April 2017

by janem on March 17, 2017

March Edibles
Start onion/leek/celeriac seeds early in the month. Consider getting a heated germination mat. After the seeds germinate, take the plants off the mat and place about 4 inches below hang fluorescent or LED lights.

Start pepper, eggplant, and parsley seeds late in the month if you are in zone 6 or a warm microclimate of zone 5 (otherwise, early April). Soak parsley seeds in lukewarm water for a few hours first. Use the germination mat. Move to the light setup as soon as the seeds sprout.

If you have overwintered vegetable plants in a cold frame, make sure they don’t get overheated. If there are root veggies in the garden, dig them up as soon as you can before they resume growth or rodents get to them. Harvest overwintered leaf veggies (FEDCO Seeds has a great list of extra-hardy veggies that can be wintered over with the help of a cold frame or low tunnels or mulch.) Egyptian onion, also known as perennial or walking onion, needs no winter protection and provides an early harvest.

It’s time to start pruning fruit trees (except peaches) and grapes, before they leaf out. If you grow fall raspberries, and prefer to get the large crop in late summer and fall, prune all the canes down to the ground. ‘Polana’ is a great variety that fruits for over two months starting in mid-August. I avoid ‘Heritage’ due to late fruiting and susceptibility to Phytophthora root rot.

March Ornamentals
Observe where the snow melts first. This is your warmest microclimate. Consider putting your earliest spring bloomers there, such as snowdrops, winter aconites, and hellebores. Also, keep track of where the snow lingers longest. This is your coolest microclimate. When designing  your landscape, consider this site for plants that tend to sprout too early and get damaged by late spring frosts. By mulching heavily and siting them in a cooler spot, they will stay dormant later and hopefully avoid such damage.

Watch out for water that accumulates on top of frozen ground. Consider covering sensitive alpines with a bucket or plastic box to prevent this. Water puddles can kill evenwinter-hardy plants such as purple poppy-mallow. Plant them on a slope to allow the water to drain away.

Winter is a great time to plan garden improvements because the architecture of your design is most apparent then. Take a photo of an area of your garden, and print it out on 81/2” x 11” paper.  Tape a sheet of tracing paper over the photo and, with a pencil, sketch shapes and sizes that you might like to add to the picture. Sketch circles and sweeping lines of various lengths for shrubs and grasses. Use a stick and ball to represent flowering perennials. Is there a view you would like to maximize or hide? Use colored pencils to enhance your design.

Now is also a good time to evaluate and prune your ornamental trees and shrubs, except for species that are considered ‘bleeders’. Maples, birch, yellowwood, magnolia, linden, willow, and nut trees are just a few trees that should be pruned a little later, after the sap is finished running.

This is a good time to repot houseplants and resume fertilizing lightly. Look for problems such as insects. Leggy plants such as angel wing begonias can be pruned and the cuttings rooted.

April Edibles
Start tomato, broccoli, cabbage, and basil seeds indoors in mid-month (if you will have enough space under your fluorescent lights). Start fava beans in individual cells or pots late in March or early in April, depending on your microclimate. This is a bean that tolerates light frosts, so plant the seedlings outside later in the month, to get production before hot weather.

In late April, move pepper, eggplant, and basil seedlings to individual pots indoors. Consider applying black plastic or IRT (infrared transmitting) mulch to warm up the soil in the veggie garden where you want to plant heat-loving crops.

If spring weather permits, direct-seed cold-tolerant veggies such as peas, spinach, lettuce, radishes and carrots around midmonth.

Finish pruning fruit trees (except peaches) and grapes before they leaf out. Prune berry plants per recommendations. Consider applying row cover on strawberry plantings. Fertilize blueberries with an acid fertilizer such as ammonium sulfate (NOT aluminum sulfate) and/or apply elemental sulfur to keep the pH acid enough.

April Ornamentals
Protect early-sprouters from late spring frosts. Candidates for protection include the true lilies, Japanese painted fern fiddleheads, Kirengeshoma species, and crown imperial, all of which have been zapped one time or another in my zone 5 frostpocket location. You can use the same covers that you employ to protect your tomato plants in fall: old sheets and blankets that are not too heavy, cardboard boxes, or upside-down buckets. Avoid using sheet plastic and tarps. Do not rush to cut off last year’s foliage as it does protect the crown and emerging sprouts.

Early April is a good time to divide Solomon Seal before the stems elongate, and bloodroot before it sprouts. Later in the month, it may be time to remove last year’s stalks from mums, and divide the clumps if needed. Also, it’s a good time to divide many hardy perennials such as phlox, Siberian iris, Hosta, daylilies, asters, Helenium, Boltonia, Heliopsis, Shasta daisy, and so on. Bearded irises may be divided, but they probably won’t bloom this year. Lavender, culinary sage, Russian sage, and butterfly bush can have dead wood trimmed off late in the month, when winter damage and live buds can be distinguished.

Protect crocuses and tulips from animal damage. Crocuses are particularly vulnerable because a new corm needs to be formed each year; they do not have persistent true bulbs like tulips. A mulch of pea gravel helps to discourage digging, and then repellent sprays are needed once they sprout. A deer fence helps, but I suspect rabbits may also browse on the foliage.

If the spring is dry, and you have plantings that receive salty runoff, water them heavily to flush the salt down below the root zone. Prune off branches damaged by salt spray, and make a mental note to install a burlap screen to prevent salt damage next winter.

Use your germination heat mat for getting heat-loving tropical ‘bulbs’ such as caladiums started. Use shallow pots until they sprout. Depending on your microclimate, you may need to pot them up again before they can be safely planted outside. Other tender ‘bulbs’ such as dahlias and cannas can be potted up early, but should grow at normal indoor room temperature.

— Pat Curran and the Tompkins County Master Gardeners


In the food garden
Continue to cut off curly garlic scapes to encourage larger bulbs. You may be able to harvest garlic in late July.

Remove spotted or yellow leaves from your tomatoes. This will slow down early blight and septoria leaf blight. If you suspect late blight, take leaf samples or pictures to your local Extension office.

Protect berries from the birds with bird netting. If some berries look moist or misshapen, check for the maggots of the two-spotted drosophila fruit fly. Destroy all the bad fruit. If a lot of fruit has been set, you can then use rowcover to keep the fruit flies out, but this will also prevent further pollination so wait until they are done flowering. Consult Cornell CE for spray recommendations. Also look out for the marmorated stink bug. The Cornell Insect Diagnostic Lab has good links for both pests at

Keep your food plants weeded, watered, and mulched. Blueberry bushes are particularly sensitive to drought. A five-gallon bucket with holes, next to each bush, provides an easy way to water and measure how much water you’re applying (10 gallons each is good in drought situations, once or twice a week).

Keep tomato branches inside their cages, and guide melon and squash vines.

This is the last month to plant these veggies for a fall crop if you are in zone 5: snap beans, peas, cucumbers, carrots, kohlrabi, summer squash, early sweet corn, green onions. Zone 6 gardeners get a couple more weeks of growing season. Cover newly planted seeds with rowcover to keep them cooler and moist.

It’s time to renew or move the strawberry bed. Moving the plants allows a thorough weed removal, and then there’s still time to plant a succession crop (see above).

Keep the asparagus bed weeded. You shouldn’t be harvesting any longer. Look out for asparagus beetles; drop them in soapy water.

To maximize basil harvest and prevent blooming, cut plants back by one-third, rather than just plucking leaves. You can probably do this three times. You can overwinter a few basil plants in pots on a warm sunny windowsill (put parsley on your cooler windowsill).

Handpick Japanese beetles, Colorado potato beetles, etc. Look for the eggs on undersides of leaves. Use B.t on cabbage family plants. Remember B.t will also kill the caterpillars of desirable butterflies; instead, grow extra parsley, dill, or fennel, to have more black swallowtails. Leave common milkweed in rough areas for monarch caterpillars.

Don’t panic if you have few apples or crabapples this year. We should have a large fruit set next year. Thinning the fruit then may reduce the tendency to biennial bearing that might result.

Black knot is a fungus that affects some plums and cherries. If you haven’t planted plums yet, seriously consider the hybrid plums that appear to be totally resistant. Most of these are products of plant breeding in the upper Midwest, so they are hardy to zones 3 or 4.

It’s finally okay to remove daffodil and tulip foliage – removing it prematurely has a negative effect on flowering. This is also a good time to move the bulbs, or you can dig them up and dry them off, for planting in September.

Early July is a good time to move Colchicums. The dormant foliage should still allow you to find them. Try growing plumbago, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, as a fall-flowering groundcover with the Colchicum. The foliage will help support the Colchicum flowers and keep them out of the mud.

A good rainy day chore is sorting seed packets. Also, if you forced bulbs this past winter, you can take them out of the pots and store them dry and cool for the summer (except for delicate ones like snowdrops).

Leggy annuals may need to be pruned back to encourage new growth and more flowering. Some annuals don’t take hot weather and may need to be replaced.

Unruly perennials such as spiderwort can be cut back by two-thirds, and then watered. They will send up fresh new foliage. Deadhead some other perennials, like catmint, and salvia either for continued bloom, and improved foliage.  For more details, consult the excellent book by Tracy DiSabato-Aust: “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden.”

Bearded irises can be divided and replanted now. Get this done before Labor Day, to allow sufficient time for rerooting. If you want to order more, do so right away. Late-planted bearded irises may heave out of the ground and die in the winter, but if they have enough time to root, they are very winter-hardy. A tip from the Southern Tier Iris Society: put a brick on late-planted rhizomes to prevent heaving.

Continue to go on garden tours at private gardens and arboreta. Take your camera and notebook, because you are sure to get ideas for your own garden.

Mark colors of phlox or daylilies in case you want to propagate them for friends or Plant Sales.

Watch your viburnums for viburnum leaf beetle adults, especially if they were defoliated by the larvae. Consider a pesticide treatment to save the shrubs. Do not cut back branches just because the leaves have been eaten or damaged. Scratch the bark with your fingernail. If it’s green underneath, the branch is alive. Dormant buds under the bark just need time to develop into sprouts and leaves. If the leaf defoliation isn’t too bad, an organic control method is to snip off the twigs that contain the VLB eggs. Although the egg-laying sites are most obvious in the fall, one actually has until April to trim the affected twigs. See the VLB factsheet for details.

This is the last month to fertilize woody plants, without encouraging tender late growth that may not harden off in time for winter. It’s also the last month to prune woody plants—except for dead or diseased wood.

Spring-planted woody plants need to be watered every week unless there is an inch of rain. Ten to 15 gallons per plant is recommended. If you haven’t protected them from deer yet, start planning how to do it.

In the food garden:
This is the last month to plant these veggies if you are in zone 5: broccoli or cauliflower transplants, leaf lettuce, spinach, and turnip. Protect them from the scorching sun with rowcover or milk crates.

The easiest way to expand the veggie garden is to sheet compost now with flattened cardboard boxes. Overlap the edges and then cover them up with whatever you have – grass clippings, woodchips, spoiled hay, or bags of leaves. By spring, most of the weeds will be dead. This is also a good way to prepare the ground for shrub borders, berry plantings, or flowerbeds. You can also use thick newspapers, but they take longer to apply.

Harvest garlic when the leaves are yellowing. Then you can weed the area and plant a late crop (see above). It’s best to rotate where you grow garlic, so pick a new spot with lots of sun and good drainage. Maybe, sheet compost the new spot now, until planting time in mid-October.

Keep up the weeding, watering, and mulching, as needed. Try not to get leaves wet as that might spread disease. Keep a close watch for tomato/potato late blight.

Keep harvesting beans, basil, okra, cucumbers, summer squash, eggplant, etc., in order for plants to keep producing. It’s okay to leave some peppers on the plant to ripen and turn color.

Fall-bearing raspberries should start producing by mid or late August. If you have the variety ‘Heritage’ and have had problems with early fall frosts destroying part of the crop, plant an earlier-bearing variety, such as ‘Polana.’

Enjoy blueberries until Labor Day if you have planted the late-bearing variety ‘Elliott.’ Maybe you’ll have room to add it next spring, if you’ve not planted any!

Nursery stock goes on sale and may be a good money saver if it has been well cared for. Be sure to water weekly after planting if rain is insufficient. Keep the watering up until the ground freezes, unless rain is adequate.

The second half of August is a good time to start to move and/or divide some of the hardier perennials. Try to be done by the end of September.

It’s time to order bulbs for fall planting, to get the best selection of varieties. Lots of spring-blooming bulbs are deer-resistant. Avoid tulips and crocuses, and enjoy carefree alliums, winter aconite, snowdrops, snowflake, Siberian squill, glory-of-the-snow, Puschkinia, Fritillaria, and Anemone blanda. Grape hyacinths send up fall foliage, but even when it’s browsed, it doesn’t seem to affect their vigor.

Repot your houseplants to get them established before they need to be brought back inside.

Keep the lawn mowed at a three-inch height for the strongest root development and drought resistance. But if a drought drags on, allow the lawn to go dormant. It will revive on its own when rains resume.

Late August and early September is the best time to renovate the lawn or to seed a new one.

This is the time to start protecting tree trunks from ‘buck rub’ damage.

— Pat Curran and the Tompkins County Master Gardeners