There are many jobs calling for our attention in the fall, but despite what you might think, the most urgent is watering. Plants that are still blooming need water to continue flowering, but its also vital for trees, shrubs and perennials to go into the winter well hydrated, both to maintain their vigor and to assure strong flowering next year. Many gardeners Ive spoken to noticed that even their most reliable flowering shrubs performed poorly this year as a result of last years drought. Spring bloomers in particular azaleas, philadelphus, bridal-wreath spirea, viburnums and rhododendrons had smaller and fewer blooms. Plants continue to need one inch of water a week, whether it comes from rain or your hose.
Once blooming has finished, perennials can be cut back to about three inches, including hollyhocks, fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), blanket flower, liatris, balloon flowers, peonies (after theyve turned black), coneflowers, sedums and black-eyed Susans. If you prefer, leave black-eyed Susans and sedums uncut for the winter. Theyll add interest to the winter garden and provide protection for wildlife. Chop up coarser stems before adding them to the compost bin; dispose of diseased or pest-infested plants in the garbage.
Now that weve passed October 15, our first possible frost date, its time to think seriously about removing summer annuals. If you dont need the space for pansies theres less urgency, but remember that impatiens turn to chilly mush with the first freeze, so its better to do the job before then.
We associate bulb planting with cool autumn days, so its not surprising if, after our long Indian summer, yours are still in the garage. Even now, though, theres no pressure to get the job done. Late planting means fewer bulbs lost to those mad squirrels deep into their feeding frenzy by November theyll have regained their senses and your bulbs should be spared. If your bulbs are all in the ground by Thanksgiving youll be right on target but, truthfully, if you pass by my house in December youre likely to see me still scrambling to get them in before the ground freezes. Whenever you plan to plant, its wise to buy your bulbs early to be sure of a good selection. Store the bulbs in a cool, dry place a basement or garage is fine until youre ready to plant.
I like to have a lot of bulbs that bloom in March because, by April, there are so many tempting plants in the nurseries that I need plenty of free space in my beds. Combine early bulbs with camellias, hellebores and pansies for a mass of color in the dreary days of late winter. For the earliest color, try the diminutive daffodils, February Gold, a neat, 12-inch flower with backward-sweeping petals like a spaniel with its head out the car window, and Tt–Tt, a charming 6-inch miniature. An added advantage to these little bulbs is that their shorter leaves are unobtrusive and easily hidden by emerging perennials.
As a change from snowdrops, try Scilla tubergeniana, an elegant, silvery-white squill. Growing near my front door, these rapidly spreading little 5-inch flowers always elicit exclamations of admiration in my garden. The dwarf Iris reticulata is also an essential part of the late winter garden. Picture a Japanese iris on a 6-inch stem. Now picture it blooming in early March and youve got this irresistible little iris. Colors range from dark blue or purple with bright orange, yellow or white blotches, to pale sky blue, yellow or white with subtle variegation and shadings. Although purported by the growers to bloom in February, in my warm garden they never bloom before mid-March. Bulbs diminish in size quickly, so plant deeply (4 inches) and feed annually, or replant every year for a showy display.