In Carolina Piedmont gardens, they say, September is our second April.
This kind of chipper slogan reminds me of “60 is the new 50,” another talk-show maxim that’s a mix of wishful thinking, denial and true belief in technology, with a little “Faust” thrown in for good measure.
Gardeners start as wide-eyed idealists but quickly evolve into curmudgeonly realists, so skepticism is perfectly understandable.
In the veggie patch, however, there is some truth to the idea that fall is our second spring. Cool-season crops we love – lettuce, broccoli, slaw cabbage, collards – mature to maximum sweetness in cooler weather. If you plant them in September here and nurse them through the hot spells as young’uns, they grow to delicious maturity later in the fall.
Here are some tricks of the trade:
• First, don’t wait. Hopefully, you already have some fall things going, started in mid-August. If you haven’t, get your broccoli, cabbage, collards and the like in as soon as possible. Same goes for beets and carrots, using varieties that mature in less than 70 days. Lettuce, mustard greens and radishes are all a bit more tolerant, but you still are wise to get them in by mid-September.
• Second trick, use transplants for all but the root crops and mustard greens, to give you a head start. They are readily available, in case you have not started your own.
• Last, keep your plants watered, especially during hot spells. I believe in mulch, but don’t overdo it; an inch of straw to cool the soil is fine. Some gardeners rig up shade for September transplants, and it is a perfectly good strategy short term. Just be ready to remove any shading as we move from summer to fall, and days begin to shorten.
Some summer crops are going strong and benefit from attention and regular picking. Peppers are my prime example; for me, this is always their best time of year. But I have to stay on top of picking (no problem; peppers freeze well), and I sometimes have to brace stems. I like using those little green bamboo sticks, functional, unobtrusive and biodegradable. Can’t beat ’em.
This cool, soggy summer, our tomatoes were way below spectacular. One variety stands out for breaking the pattern – Early Girl. Tomahto snobs may turn up their noses at this workhorse hybrid, preferring Brandywine and other ballyhooed heirlooms, but at our house it’s been Early Girls satisfying those irresistible cravings for tomato sandwiches over a long, wet, pleasantly cool but tomato-challenged summer. (Meanwhile, I’ve had a bumper crop of basil – must be pesto time.)
There are plenty of other September garden chores. Bugs and weeds have huge head of steam, and both require conscientious control efforts. Watch for stink bugs, and relentlessly hand-pick them (they come up to the tops of plants after watering).
Pigweed and other summer party crashers are setting seed. Get after them before they throw that seed everywhere for next year. Weeds with deeper roots are easier to pull after a rain, but try to get rid of them when they are small.
Leave your shrubs and trees alone this month. Plants need to harden off before the rigors of winter, even in our mild climate. Don’t add fertilizer or manure (except, of course, in the vegetable patch), and be especially careful not to prune plants that bear autumn flowers (such as Sasanqua camellias) or set berries (like winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata). Unless you want a dull spring, keep your nippers strictly away from azaleas and other spring bloomers.
Garden centers will soon be filled with “instant color” mums. I’m not crazy about most chrysanthemums, frankly. White mums are associated with funerals in Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Still, if you want to have a “killer” landscape, you have an endless variety of flower and leaf colors, at bargain prices. Pick compact, healthy plants with tight buds. I prefer to use mums in pots, move them around and then feed them to the compost when they have done their job.
That said, mums will grow here as perennials if you stick them in the ground. But next season and beyond, they won’t look anything like the way they do fresh out of the nursery, tanked with more growth enhancers than a baseball slugger. We’ve had one recycled mum by the mailbox at the end of our driveway since 1996, and it offers up just a couple of modest blooms each year. White, of course.