Autumn is finally upon us here in Texas...tree leaves are turning a soft golden color, the nights are getting cooler and finally, finally, we have logged some rain (at least around Dallas.) After the brutal, dry summer experienced across the entire state, fall couldn’t come too soon. Gardeners can now enjoy mild temperatures while tending to a number of chores.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 4, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Sadly, one of those chores may include the replacing of plants that were torched by the extended triple digits. The good news is that this is a great time for new planting, especially perennials and shrubs. The temperatures and rainfall allow roots to get a head start on growth before plants go dormant for the winter, which makes for stronger, healthier plants in the spring.
Heuchera, hosta, coneflower, penstemon, Shasta daisy and dianthus are just a few of the perennials that can be planted now. If you're looking to put in more herbaceous plants such as salvia, Russian sage, lavender or agastache, be sure to provide sharp drainage by amending the surrounding soil with gravel or expanded shale. Although they need an adequate amount of water to get established, many woody-stemmed plants don't like a lot of moisture and can perish if they stay too wet over the winter.
However, most shrubs absolutely love being planted in the fall. Their root systems are generally larger and deeper than regular landscape plants so they really benefit from the extra moisture and root development time that autumn provides. Just be sure to dig a deep enough hole to accommodate the entire root ball, and water well. Texas Sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana - shown at left) and Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) are three tough and beautiful native shrubs that should be included in every Texas landscape.
In the southern U.S., planting wildflower seeds is recommended through December. Choose a site that gets full sun and has good drainage. Remove any existing vegetation and lightly cultivate the soil to a depth of one inch. Scatter half of the seeds over the area in one direction then spread the other half in the opposite direction. Walk across the area several times to press the seeds into the soil, and water thoroughly. Many of the seeds will germinate and remain in a small seedling state through the winter.
Thanksgiving weekend is my favorite time for planting spring-flowering bulbs, and it's a good way to work off the extra helpings of stuffing and mashed potatoes I inevitably indulge in. As most experienced Texas gardeners know, Dutch-variety tulips rarely naturalize in the warmer parts of the state, as the bulbs don't get the adequate chilling time needed to get through their second year in the ground. There are two options: plant new Dutch tulips each year or plant a type of tulip that does come back. Sometimes known as "species" tulips, these Mediterranean varieties are shorter and tougher than their Dutch cousins. Popular species tulips include Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia'or‘Lady Jane'. Most daffodils perform well across the state and do tend to return each year. I am also very partial to an unusual, stunning ornamental onion, Allium schubertii (pictured at right) which seems to be hit or miss on coming back each year, depending on how tough the weather is.
As for non-planting-related fall chores, there are several that will fill your time. Clean, stack and store empty plant pots. Clean, lubricate and store your shovels and other tools. Some gardeners prefer to empty and store their rain barrels to prevent freezing and cracking, although I've never had a problem with this here in Dallas, despite an awfully cold winter last year. Set up hoops over beds of tender plants and veggies so when a freeze comes, all you have to do is secure some frost cloth over the area.
Speaking of veggies...one of the most common questions I hear this time of year is what to do with green tomatoes still on the plant when a frost approaches. If you cover the plant, and the predicted freeze is expected to be short-lived and/or somewhat minor, your tomatoes will probably be fine. Your best bet is to pick all the fruit off the plant before the freeze and bring them inside. Believe it or not, some will ripen. Some won't, but there are plenty of great things you can still do with green tomatoes. If left unprotected, other warm-season veggies such as peppers and eggplant will be toast. On the flipside, cabbage and broccoli are incredibly cold-hardy and even like a bit of frost.
In general, you want to have all of your fall planting chores done about a month before your projected first frost date. Texas, being as big as it is, spans eight different Hardiness Zones, ranging from 6a in the northwestern tip of the Panhandle to the steamy 9b southernmost portion near the Mexico border. While Amarillo will generally get a freeze before the end of October (and they have, in fact, recently received several inches of snow), Harlingen rarely sees temperatures below 50°. So...plan accordingly.
On a related note, here's a bit of good gardening news: the Farmer's Almanac is predicting a very mild, very wet winter of 2011-12 for Central and Eastern Texas, with Dallas seeing its first visit from Jack Frost a little later than the usual November 15 date, and Houston residents getting their noses nipped on or about December 20. For the western third of the state, it appears the extreme drought could continue, unfortunately.
I am an avid organic gardener and certified Master Gardener for Collin County, Texas (that's North Dallas). However, I don't take being an MG too seriously, as I still manage to kill plants on a regular basis.
I enjoy growing nearly everything: vegetables, herbs, tropicals, roses...the only plants I'm really bad with are orchids and houseplants. I am also a fierce defender of spiders.
When not gardening I can be found cooking, birdwatching or hugging on either my sweet English hubby or my two wonderful doggies, Ray and Bailey.