Gadbois: The palette is changing

No, your eyes are not deceiving you, trees are starting to change colour. Coming back from the cottage last week, I noticed tinges of red and yellow on the leaves of some deciduous trees, mainly maples.

Columnist Anne Gadbois: In the Garden

It feels like it’s too early this year, but then again we are now in September.  Still, I estimate the leaves are two weeks ahead in starting their usual fall display, most probably because of a summer season with persistent heat and drought.

Same goes for plant material. Over the summer months, I noticed the hot dry weather shortened the bloom time of my perennials.

I reserve annuals for containers as I have not had much success in planting them directly into our poor soil here on the alvar. In containers, they fare well because I can control the watering. For conservation reasons as we are on well and septic, I choose to limit watering the lawn – it went dormant, brown and crispy but I  gave the perennial borders some water every few days when they became perilously droopy.

Flowering was brilliant and showy but not long-lasting, and the decline of varieties blooming together was very rapid. Note to self: find and plant new drought-resistant perennials to brighten up some dark spots in my perennial border now. 

Here are some activities we can tackle this month:
Start working on plant divisions and transplants

September is the perfect month to move and propagate perennials. The spring and summer bloom succession has perhaps revealed some areas which could do with more colour; those hostas which are now overcrowded in that shady corner could be split, those rudbeckias (black eyed susans) which have drifted too far off in one direction (they follow the sun – heliotropism) could be divided. In preparation for next year, there is time enough now for perennials to set root in another location before the winter. For advice on how to do this, there are a multitude of gardening sites and YouTube videos which outline the process for each plant variety.  If you can’t plant up right away, store your divisions in soil in pots in a sheltered area or in the compost bin if you have a large one; they will make it through the winter to be planted in the spring.

‘How-to’ gardening advice on dividing perennials is plentiful online. Here’s a general one:

Create a new garden bed

Want more space to plant those divisions? Now is also a good time to open a new garden bed and to prepare the soil with all that nice compost which has been piling up over the summer. Opening a new bed or expanding an old one can be as simple as cutting the grass really short, placing cardboard or eight to 10 layers of newspaper over the area, and piling on some topsoil mixed with compost. Edging the area would be nice but that could also be done in the spring. The cardboard/paper layer will decompose over time taking the turf layer with it. Voilà! A new garden bed which you can begin planting in the spring.

Search for plant bargains

A visit to area garden centres will reveal many are offering true bargains in an attempt to take care of their inventory before the frost (I shudder to think of frost). Take a look for spring bulbs which can be planted now and into October. There may also be some great deals on perennials, shrubs and trees.

Fall is also good time to plant pansies (viola tricolor) and violas (viola sp.) and you’ll have the satisfaction of getting two seasons worth of enjoyment out of them.  In my garden, blue violas come naturally as a wildflower, and make their way around the property indiscriminately and with gay abandon. I try to encourage them around the rockery and truly enjoy their joyful little faces as one of our first flowers. These come along with the native columbine (aquilegia canadensis), lungwort (pulmonaria sp.) and primroses (primula vulgaris), all low-growing clumping plants with cheerful blooms, the sight of which certainly raise the spirits in May after a long winter. These three plants have proven to be very dependable in our area.

Target a few invasives and replace with native plants

This is the hard part. I am not protected from having invasive species on the property. My whole neighbourhood is covered in common buckthorn (rhamnus cathartica), I find its seedlings everywhere. Most invasive species I inherited, but some I actually planted, a testament to my ignorance about such things 20 years ago. My goal is to at least give clean-up a go, one or two stands a year, so that over time the environment will be more akin to the natural setting, an ongoing challenge.

I would recommend a very good guide which is put together by the Horticulture Outreach Collaborative and published on the Ontario Invasive Plant Council website:

The summer of 2020 has been a gardening challenge in more ways than one. Overarching it all of course has been the continuing pandemic which initially greatly impacted the plant and gardening industry. A late opening of producers and garden centres resulted in reduced varieties of plant material initially. But then, a wondrous thing happened. We started to realize being out in our gardens was something we could do safely and so, little by little, people who had never grown anything were out in their yards, enjoying the experience. Kids were planting veggies from seed; their parents were creating garden ‘rooms’ with all sorts of landscape and hardscape accoutrements in order to entertain friends ‘at a distance’ as phased re-openings were allowed. Garden centres and nurseries opened and supplied plenty of bedding plants and vegetables. Its been a different but overall good growing season and it continues until the frost. There’s that word again.

Anne Gadbois is a long-time member of the West Carleton Garden Club and its past president. Gadbois, who lives in Corkery Woods. Anne writes on the wonders and challenges of gardening in our large, geographically diverse area.