Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening. In this edition of "From the Garden Gate," Roy talks about the 'vegetative doldrums' of September, and how to prepare for next season.
For gardeners, September can often make us feel as if we have slipped into a period of vegetative doldrums. The veggie garden looks a bit wearied and tired—nothing like that patch of bright green plants that seemed to surge out of the ground last Spring. The flower beds are beginning to have lots of crispy brown leaves and more seed heads than flowers. Weeds seem to have more ambition to grow and propagate themselves than my carefully chosen Helenium and Echinacea plants.
But, courage! There is still important work to be done, and there are still plants to grow this season, and, of course, bulbs to plant for next season as well. Gardeners are, after all, eternal optimists and are always looking to a future defined by things that blossom and maybe even furnish up a pleasant dinner.
Spring flowering bulbs will begin to show up in garden centers and home stores this month to the delight of those of us who won’t be able to resist buying a few packages of new varieties or colors that we just can’t resist. September around here isn’t, of course, the best month actually to plant bulbs, but buying—well, that’s a different matter. As for planting Spring-flowering bulbs, October or November are much safer times. Basically, you are looking for a time when soil (emphasis on soil) temperatures are 60 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
The fact that you are not going to plant your bulbs right away is no reason not to plan your Spring plantings and buy the bulbs you’ll need. Take a walk around your flower beds now and try to picture what you would like to see in the Spring. For example, I tend to favor planting clusters of 8 to10 tulips or daffodils as opposed to rows of them. So in September I look around and decide exactly where I want the ones for next season. That way, when I go on my buying excursions, I know how many bulbs I actually need, as opposed to buying things and having no idea what I’m going to do with them. The main thing to remember when buying bulbs early is to store them correctly.
And as for storing Spring-flowering bulbs until time to plant them, first of all, keep them cool. The guides all say that 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal. Since those temperatures are not all that easy to find around the house in September and even October, I just put them where it’s coolest, and that’s always worked so far. If you are going to keep tulip bulbs for more than a month before planting, you might consider keeping them in a refrigerator if you have one with the space, just to give them a jump on the twelve weeks of cold that they need to bloom at their best.
As long-time gardeners know, some vegetables can still be planted in the Fall. In fact, a number do exceptionally well in the cool weather. Some of what I should have gotten planted by the first of September are such veggies as kale, kohlrabi, mustard, and collards. But I’m counting on the milder weather we have had in recent years to be merciful and let me plant a little late. By the middle of September I’ll try to plant leaf lettuce, radishes, spinach, and turnip greens. It’s all pretty straightforward. Prep the soil; mix in some triple-10 fertilizer (or organic sources of nutrients); plant the seeds; and keep well watered until the seeds sprout.
Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.