The searing summer heat is finally gone for good. The North Shore garden (and gardener) is ready for a change. Here are a few tips and ideas for both sprucing up your garden, for transitioning into winter, and for planning ahead for spring:
1) For right now, the fall flower garden – especially the perennial beds – needs a shot of color. Great choices are available everywhere; in addition to the usual chrysanthemums, try some colorful asters, and durable pansies or violas. Eye-popping kales are readily available, as well – experiment with a variety of forms and colors, mixing greens, whites and deep reds, and tall, nearly black Dinosaur Kale (also called lacinato or cavalo nero – ‘black kale’) with the bouquet-like ‘Kamome Red’ or the fluffy, lacy ‘Peacock’ varieties. The kales, of course, are multi-taskers – all are edible, in addition to being remarkably durable, usually lasting into December in the slightly warmer North Shore microclimate.
Another interesting multi-tasker in the transitional fall garden is decorative millet. While an annual, a potted-up clump will last well into fall as a growing plant, and has the advantage of being a seed food for birds, as well as a handsome focal point and foil for the shorter kales and mums, asters, and pansies. For maximum impact, choose the ‘Purple Majesty’ variety, a striking deep-colored plant; its flowering seed stalks can reach a lofty five feet high, but are strong enough to resist both winds and the weight of clinging finches as they dine. Unlike the usual corn shocks (bundles of dried corn stalks), these can stay in the garden all winter, for both wildlife food and to provide winter interest.
All of these decorative transitional plant choices are widely available. Try local independent garden centers, big-box retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s, grocery stores, and our local farmers markets.
2) This is also the perfect time of year to upgrade those ho-hum perennial beds at bargain prices. Virtually every independent garden center still has a wide variety of perennial plants available; figure out the space you have available, and a general idea of what height/colors might work, and go shopping! Keep an open mind for varieties with which you may not be familiar, too. Keep in mind that the biggest advantage of shopping at an independent garden center is that there will be well-informed staff available to help you visualize what an unfamiliar plant will look like, when it will bloom in our area, and its features and benefits for your garden. The larger independent centers generally grow their own plants locally – and in some cases, as with Chalet Garden Center – even develop their own varieties, which are acclimated to our climate demands, meaning the chances of success are greater than with plants purchased at a wholesaler. Hunt around and hit those smaller retailers, too, such as West End Garden Center in Evanston or Urhausen Greenhouse in Lincolnwood, both of which are tucked away in residential neighborhoods.
3) This is also the perfect time of year to plant bulbs for next spring and summer; the soil has cooled off, but is not frozen, and the sparse rain we have had this year will make that soil easy to work now. Now is the time to break into your compost pile, and incorporate that black gold into your garden, should you be lucky enough to have it. If you don’t, pick up organic soil amendments at those garden centers, both independent and big-box, as they will both nourish your new additions, and improve the tilth of your soil in the future. Readily available organic amendments to use are chicken manure, worm castings, and bone meal, the traditional amendment for bulb planting; other bulb-specific granular fertilizer mixes are also easily found, sometimes in proximity to the large displays of flowering bulbs.
And such displays! Even smaller retailers, like the newly-renamed Perez Gardens, formerly Hibbard Road Gardens, in Northfield, has a broad-ranging display of spring-blooming bulbs, including not-often-seen specialty flowers such as a double galanthus (Snowdrop). They sell their bulbs individually, so if you just need to replace a patch of played-out tulips with something new and different, like an offbeat color of Hyacinth, or a longer-lived and squirrel/deer resistant Allium, you can buy precisely what you need. And speaking of hungry wildlife, don’t forget to pick up some animal repellent, be it an exotic new mixture, or the old reliable dried blood meal (which will also provide nitrogen and organic matter to the soil going forward, and which is available inexpensively at those big-box retailers).
So, put on a light jacket, don your gardening gloves, and get to work. In the minds of a lot of gardeners, fall is the best time of year, as a little dreaming and planning, some shopping, and a bit of elbow grease can really pay off in a big way next year, while still providing literally instant gratification.