Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
October, 2011
Regional Report

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We can plant or plan for a multitude of plants in the fall, including hibiscus.

Fall Planting and Planning

With the approach of cooler temperatures comes several weeks of fine weather for gardeners to plant almost everything and prepare soils for future projects.

Prepare for New Plants
Whether you are putting in new beds or preparing new spots within borders and landscapes to put in perennials and shrubs, now is the time to do it. Either future site should get the same basic attention, including a month to mellow before planting if possible.

To begin a new bed, draw its edges with spray paint and then use a sharp shovel edge to scrape grass and weeds off the surface. Resist temptation and well-meaning advice to dig them in as they will become future weeds to battle. Turn the soil over in this new space or where you plan to add to an existing planting. In that case, dig slightly deeper and wider than you expect to need. Amend the soil you dig with 3 inches of a mixture of compost and ground bark or other organic matter as needed to insure good drainage and water-holding capacity.

In new beds or very old ones, add garden lime and an inch of processed manure and mix the ingredients together well. Use a sharp-tined rake to shape the new bed or refill the spot within an existing bed with the mix. Mulch the prepared area with 2 inches of fresh organic material such as ground or shredded bark or pine straw. Time and water allow the organic materials to blend, earthworms to move in, and soil microlife to populate the new, hospitable root zone.

Spacing Plants
It is important to determine spacing arrangements in the planning process to avoid disappointment later when you have acquired too few or too many plants for the space. Many plants, but particularly trees and shrubs, grow larger than advertised in our gardens because of our long growing season and favorable conditions. Fortunately, we are not primarily minimalist designers and this abundance of growth suits our preference for full-looking landscapes.

There are at least three ways to work out plant spacing based on the expected mature size of new trees and shrubs. The first is to plant for ultimate size, but that leaves big gaps in a new planting. It is not difficult to find uses for these spaces in between, adding lawn or rows of vegetables and swaths of cut flowers until the trees grow together. A second approach is to buy the biggest specimens available and simply mulch between them, which is certainly advisable for slow-growing palms and other focal point trees. Third, you can plant at closer than recommended space to achieve the full look and plan to move out half the plants when the bed becomes crowded. You gain a lusher look while growing plants to be used in yet another bed later on. This strategy is also employed to increase curb appeal for homes on the market.

Finally, consider the different effects spacing can display. Straight lines of shrubs closely spaced mark important directions, such as to the front door, while curved lines equally spaced invite the eye, if not the feet, to follow them. Either line is more whimsical when drawn with shrubs spaced father apart and interplanted with annuals or bulbs. Likewise, a straight line of shrubs in a bed appears one-dimensional, but a staggered planting measured on the same center-to-center spacing looks like more plant material with greater visual depth. Consider the illusion you want to create and use plant spacing to get it.

Timely Vegetables
Despite the annual admonitions from many, including this writer, relatively few gardeners really embrace the fall and winter vegetable garden. Some say it is a matter of time, because the season is full of football and family holidays, leaving no time to worry about cabbage worms and successive lettuce planting. I suggest that those with time constraints concentrate on one or two of best candidates right now. There is nothing like success to inspire, unless it is the envy of neighbors who see you picking strawberries in early spring. Young strawberry plants are easy to grow and widely available for October planting. A card table size patch in well-drained soil will delight a family of four.

All sorts of radishes can be planted now, with tastes from piquant to freshly sweet and textures more interesting than the sad slices seen at the salad bar. If you find those radishes too bland or bitter, grab some seeds and surprise yourself with white icicles or pink watermelon radishes in about a month.

Except for beets, which you can also plant now, the vegetable that gets the worst rap must be spinach. Both of these vegetables are supposed to taste a bit earthy, but their best flavors are lost quickly after harvest. That means you are likely to enjoy them much more when you get them fresh from the garden.

If all this good news does not persuade you to grow fall vegetables, spend some time preparing the patch for whenever you plan to plant again. Compost the leftover plant debris, pull all the weeds and rake the bed to reform it. Put on an inch of processed manure and an inch of compost, add a sprinkling of garden lime, and top it all with an inch of organic mulch. Walk away and let natural processes take over until you are ready to plant English peas in January.

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