Outsiders, who have the usual image of wintry Buffalo, often ask, “Isn’t it a very short growing season?” They just don’t know about our comfortable, temperate climate and the extended gardening season we have in early fall. The trouble is: Many people here also act as if gardening is over when it’s time for the Erie County Fair.
Let’s not be those people. Let’s not give up. We can enjoy six or eight more weeks of outdoor living, with gorgeous yards, patios and productive food gardens.
Keep the flowers going
Annuals in baskets or pots can remain beautiful, or be improved, and the perennial garden can be fabulous – with just a little effort and knowledge. Here are some tips for annual flower baskets and containers:
• Give containers a fresh start: Some annuals peter out in the heat of summer (million bells, Calibrachoa) and will revive in cooler weather. Others have grown leggy or look terrible. Cut them back, fertilize, and enjoy. Dig out any that have definitely finished. Then go to a garden center that keeps its plants growing for you. You should find many attractive annuals to stick in the pots – coleus for example. Add fresh potting mix.
• Make or buy a container combo: Often large “mono-pots” or “Euro pots” (giant pots stuffed with gorgeous plants) are on sale. Many growers offer cool-weather plants for fall decorating, so use them to upgrade your window boxes or planters. Some garden centers offer workshops for designing fall containers, so check in with your favorite.
Fall is for perennials
It is a wonderful time to plant perennials, from now through September. Find healthy, well-maintained perennials that you saw on garden walks or wished you had planted last spring. They may be all green now but will be great next year with this early start.
Go to the garden center for another reason too: Many people fail to use wonderful late-flowering perennials, because they don’t know them and the plants aren’t obvious during the June garden shopping rush.
Find Japanese anemones, bright blue monkshood, darling toad lilies, Joe-Pye weed, asters, goldenrod, lobelias, sedums, and – if you’re lucky – New York ironweed. (Vernonia is my favorite perennial for the pollinators.)
A trick with perennials for your containers: If you are having a Labor Day party, for example, display some flowering perennials in decorative pots on the patio or deck. Then plant them after the partying is done.
The fall food garden
It’s a neglected opportunity, and unfamiliar to many gardeners – especially if they are new to salad gardens or vegetable growing: You can plant seeds or seedlings now that will produce lots of fresh food. A few plants will die when the first hard frosts happen (typically late in October) but many food crops keep growing through fall, undeterred (or even improved) by cold air and soil.
Lettuces, spinach, kale, mixed greens: These are easy to grow in spring from seed, but most of them bolt and become bitter in the first hot weeks of summer. They love cool weather, so plant the seeds now and you can harvest salad greens for weeks to come. Find the seeds at garden centers or online if necessary (ParkSeeds.com for example). Choose the shortest “days to harvest” on the labels. Plant them wherever you have space – flower beds, around shrubs, or in empty containers. Cover them during frosty nights. Many will stay alive all winter in hoop houses or cold frames.
Turnips: You may not have thought of them lately, but there are sweet, small varieties that grow quickly, producing succulent white globes and healthful greens.
Carrots: In spring carrots run several risks, including some pests as well as rotting in wet soil. Plant seeds now, especially for short cultivars, and you’ll have carrots in a few weeks. They get sweeter after frosts have begun, so plan to harvest “sugar carrots” for Thanksgiving. They are great snacks for kids too.
Broccoli and cauliflower: These are cold-season crops. Plant as soon as possible, and enjoy well into November.
Garlic: Plant now for next year; it’s so good for us and essential for fine cooking.
About the tomatoes … Prepare to cover them during any cold nights, when frost threatens. Sheets or tarps will do. If you’re seeing blossom-end rot (black tomato bottoms), it’s all about the excess or insufficient water that is supposed to transport calcium during the fruit’s blossoming period. Nothing to do now. Don’t worry. Discard the bad and eat the good.
Lawn and landscape time
I hope this is a reminder of what you know already – but tell your friends who are new homeowners or gardeners:
• Now is the best time to establish new lawns, or improve the lawn you have.
• Now is the time to add compost everywhere – spread over lawns, around landscape shrubs and trees, and onto flower and vegetable beds. Mix compost into compacted or tired soil in any new planting area, and spread it onto large areas such as landscape beds or over tree roots – before you add any winter mulch. Do not crowd trunks.
• All autumn long is ideal for planting most shrubs and trees, as long as you plant properly and water until the soil is frozen.
• Stick some bulbs in everywhere you can, for a brighter spring.
• Make a date with a Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional (CNLP) now to plan landscape projects, or with an arborist for tree evaluation and care (before storms come). Professionals can do a lot of work in the fall and winter, and they will be very busy in the spring.
And you thought we were done for the season? Think again. Gardening time is now.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.