As this week winds down, so does the part of the year that we know as summer. It’s a bittersweet time for some gardeners, especially those who see it as the end of the gardening season.
But it isn’t.
As we gently enter the fall, we also enter the second-busiest time of the year for plant lovers, as we reseed, divide, transplant and begin planting for next year.
So, let’s take a ramble and look at some things that need your attention.
I also work as a naturalist in both the woods and in wetlands. For a number of years, in both those areas, we’ve been well aware of an annual grass that goes by the name of Microstegium vimineum and also is commonly known as Japanese stiltgrass. It’s been around for a hundred years, but in the past decade it’s become aggressively invasive. It can grow up to 3 feet tall, and, regrettably, deer don’t eat it — but they can spread it.
For better or worse, I didn’t take it very seriously, even though for the past two years I’ve been seeing it show up in conditions that it’s not supposed to like. Japanese stiltgrass seems to have a fondness for moist areas, woodlands with dappled sun and lightly shaded roadsides, but this summer I found it growing in my lawn. It hasn’t taken over, and I hope the square-foot outbreaks are manageable. But if I’ve got it, you can’t be far behind.
It’s really not all that unattractive, but it is an annual grass, unlike Kentucky bluegrass, fescues and ryegrasses, which are perennial. This means that Japanese stiltgrass germinates in the spring, just like crabgrass, grows and sets seed (up to 1,000 seeds per plant) in the summer, then dies in the fall, leaving bare spots where it germinates, then expands and grows again next year.
Mowing keeps it short but doesn’t stop it from going to seed. You may notice it as spots in your lawn, but it can also establish in garden beds and vegetable gardens. The seeds remain viable for up to five years.
I’m hoping I noticed it early enough to control the outbreak, and I’ve become fastidious about removing it by hand, though I don’t know if it’s gone to seed. Small areas can be hand-pulled, but this needs to be done early in the season.
Pre-emergents like those used to control crabgrass seem to control it, and there are stronger herbicides like Acclaim that control it. But Acclaim is very expensive, costing about a hundred dollars for a pint, and it takes some understanding about just when to apply it.
For strictly organic lawn lovers, there is some evidence that corn gluten may control Japanese stiltgrass, but it will need to be applied for several years. Rutgers has a pretty good fact sheet on Japanese stiltgrass that you can find here: https://njaes.rutgers.edu/fs1237/.
Many homeowners are using mulching blades on their lawn mowers. As we get into this late part of the season, though, the blades can get dull, and the undersides of the deck can get gunked up with old grass clippings. The result is that the mower that did such a great job in May and June seems to be leaving clumps of grass and clippings on the lawn in September.
This means it time to change your blades and get under the deck to clean out the left-behind clods of grass and to remove any grass that might have gathered in the baffle.
Mulching mowers require a high amount of “lift,” and when mulching blades get dull, the lifting ability gets greatly reduced. The lift, or the ability of the mower to raise the cut grass blades into the deck to be finely chopped up, is critical for these machines to work well. And if clods of wet grass accumulate under the deck, this can also affect the lifting process. So, a good under-deck cleaning will help as well.
Mulching blades are a bit tricky and best sharpened at a shop — or buy a second set, swap them midseason, and then have them both sharpened during the winter.
The East Coast has been going through a dry spell that isn’t uncommon at this time of the year. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the dryness, especially up through the Hudson Valley and New England, should result in some spectacular fall colors for those of you who are peepers.
The bad news, however, is that the dryness means we need to continue our watering. Don’t slough off on watering your lawn, since grass plants need to be actively growing as the days cool to develop great roots for next year.
And if you’re doing any overseeding or new seeding, a regular watering schedule is critical for good seed germination. But don’t skimp once the grass germinates. The lawn and newly seeding areas will need an inch or two of water (irrigation or rain) every week until the nights get cold.
I see a number of mail-order nurseries offering roses for fall planting. I’ve always planted roses in the late spring, and I have some qualms about doing this in the fall.
If you can find container-grown roses, then fall planting may work out well, since they already have a good root system and will establish fairly quickly. Don’t give them any fertilizer at planting time, though, because this can result in a fast burst of growth that will not have time to harden off for the winter. This can result in substantial die-back over the cold months, or even a failure.
I would certainly refrain from planting bare-root roses in the fall. The rose plant will expend a great deal of its energy to establish a new root system when the plant should actually be storing energy to make it through the winter.
It may be a good time to transplant roses, but do so by moving the plant with as much soil intact as possible — and, again, no fertilizer until next year.
The best news on roses is that many of them will continue to thrive and flower well into the next two to three months, and it’s not that uncommon to have some roses flowering out here at Thanksgiving. But even established roses should not be fertilized again this season.
And make sure you continue to remove dropped foliage and faded flowers, as these can be the prime source of disease reinfection come next year.
There are lots of perennials that can be divided now, and the rule of thumb is that if a perennial flowers in the spring, it can be divided in the fall.
I was very surprised last year when I divided some geum in late September and not only did it easily overwinter but it even flowered right on time in the spring. And once your tall garden phlox stop flowering and the foliage begins to drop, these too can be cut back, divided and moved.
We’re also getting into the fall mushroom hunting season, also referred to as mushroom foraging. Again, an important caution: If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing and have a perfect ID of the species you harvest, or if you’re not with a friend who knows their mushrooms — don’t eat them!
If you make a mistake with these easily confused delicacies, you may die or get severely sick by eating the wrong ’shroom.
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One fine body…