October 2009
How's Your Garden?

How's Your Garden

Try Old Tulips in Alabama


The ground is now cool enough to plant spring bulbs, like these for tulips. Photo courtesy of Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.

Tulip bulbs planted now will be lovely in the spring, but in this part of the world, they’re a garden luxury. You plant them now and enjoy the blooms for a couple of weeks in the spring. If you’re lucky, they might bloom again for another spring or two, but you can’t count on it. However, some old tulips are an exception. Last spring I saw a bank of red tulips on Highway 36 between I-65 and Huntsville that had obviously been there and multiplying for years. They made me think of Holland. The solid mass of red covered a bank in a swath 20 feet long and five feet wide. They’re likely an old species type enjoying good drainage and full sun on the bank. One such species is Tulipa clusiana, a low-chill type which even comes back in Southern California. This one will also come back in Alabama if the soil drains well and it stays dry in the summer. If you long for tulips but tire of planting and replanting, consider trying some old, low-chill heirlooms in your garden, especially any derived from Tulipa clusiana. Finding old species tulips is not easy. One way is to dig some from a friend who will share a few or find a plant swap, mailorder or online source of heirloom tulips. This month the soil should be cool enough to plant tulips in their new home.

A well-established patch of asparagus is dense enough to keep down summer weeds. The challenge is in winter, when the tops die down.


A Salty Solution

After writing a piece about weed control in asparagus several years ago, I received three letters from readers in the Midwest offering an unconventional solution to keep the asparagus patch weed free: salt. Because asparagus is more salt-tolerant than most plants, including weeds, these gardeners sprinkle salt in the bed to kill the weeds, but not the asparagus. They recommended water softener salt, using just enough to make the ground around the plants white with the salt. You must be careful to sprinkle the softener salt only in the area of the asparagus because it will kill other plants. Also avoid any run-off into other beds or bodies of water.

Clean up the Vegetable Garden

Now is a good time to clean up frosted summer vegetables and plant a little clover or other ground cover in their place. Throw away plants that had leaf spots or other diseases, composting only healthy ones. Mow your fall leaves to chop them in little pieces. These are good mulch to spread over your garden paths and use as winter mulch around lettuce, collards, kale, carrots and other winter crops. Of course, leaves are good anywhere including around shrubs and flowers.

Handy Items to Keep in the Garden




Now is the time to plant pansies and violas. Mix them with hardy foliage in containers.

When out working in the garden, it’s annoying to have to stop and get this and that as you go about your tasks. Here are a few things I’ve found help me stay efficient while I’m working. Keep a bucket or bag handy for clippings, faded flowers and such; you can carry it easily from place to place for droppings as you work. A large plastic mailbox in the garden or near the door is a good spot to park a trowel and clippers. I sometimes use a tool belt for small hand tools to keep clippers and trowels handy on my waist instead of laying them down and then spending time wondering where I laid them. An apron with pockets is nice for keeping seed packets and tomato ties handy as you work. You can also utilize small trash cans with snap-down lids to store open bags of potting soil or fertilizer, especially anything organic that might attract raccoons. In the fall, a large sheet or tarp spread on the ground is great for gathering leaves; rake them onto the tarp then take up the corners to make a bundle to carry to your compost pile.

Pansies and Other Flowers in Pots

This is the month to plant pansies and other cool-season color in containers. Combine pansies or violas with foliage like flowering kale, parsley or Artemisia for nice winter color.

The dwarf abelia stays about three feet tall, well below the height of the windows


The Perfect Fit

The plants around your home should never outgrow their space. If you’re always pruning to clear a view, that plant is in the wrong place. For example, if the base of your windows is three feet above ground level, choose low-growing plants like Gumpo or azaleas, dwarf gardenia, shore juniper, dwarf conifers or other plants that don’t grow more than three feet tall. These will naturally grow together, but not so tall you lose the architectural features of your home. You will not have to prune and the plants will keep their natural shape, which is often ruined by pruning.

Bulb Planting Tips

By November it is generally safe to start planting spring-flowering bulbs or even summer ones you are dividing or transplanting around the garden. Generally you should plant bulbs where they get at least a half-day of sun. Remember shade reappears as trees leaf out in spring, so take this into account when you’re choosing a planting spot in fall and winter. Sometimes bulbs look like little dried-up clods making you wonder which end goes up. In general, the flat end goes down and the pointed end is up. If in doubt, set them on their side. Also, the bigger the bulb, the deeper you need to plant. The Netherlands Bulb Institute recommends setting the base of the bulb at a depth equal to three to four times the height of the bulb. That means the hole for a two-inch daffodil will be six to eight inches deep. If you want bulbs of the same variety to bloom at the same time, plant them at the same time and the same depth. Fertilize at planting with a bulb booster-type fertilizer as directed on the label to be sure you get the most from your bulbs this year and in years to come.

Lois Trigg Chaplin is author of The Southern Garderner’s Book of Lists and former Garden Editor of Southern Living Magazine.