Now that fall has finally arrived, it’s time for the annual retirement of all things summer – as the shorts, golf shirts, flip-flops and swimsuits get tucked away for another season.
Being the fashionista that I am, that means that it’s safe for me to bring out my green down vest (with stylish red reverse), Stormrider jean jacket and plethora of plaid.
One thing that does perplex me this time of year are those gardeners who pull out their summer flowers and leave their beds and containers absolutely bare for the entire winter. It is kind of like putting away your summer clothes and walking around naked until next spring – not only would it be a little chilly and uncivilized, but I have more than a few friends that I wouldn’t want to see ‘in the skinny’ under any circumstances.
Besides that, the remaining bare soil patches are more prone to run-off or erosion and weed infestation, let alone being utterly dreary – so why not plant them up for the winter.
Here on the wet coast, September through March is usually mild enough to support quite a range of cool-season bedding, and here is a brief description of what you can expect to find at your local garden centre.
• Cyclamen – most of the mini-floral cyclamen are quite cold tolerant and they come in a beautiful array of bright colours. These work well in containers or hanging baskets, although they are best used under the eaves, as the blooms fade quickly in the rain. That said the coral, purple, red, hot pink and white blooms really stand out in our dull winter weather.
• Winter pansies and violas (Viola spp.) – these are the bread and butter of winter bedding and come in a vast range of colours and sizes. Winter pansies are also available with trailing habits (the Plentifall series) for hanging baskets or highly ornate forms, such as the darkly veined Whiskers series. The smaller violas seem to bloom more consistently and are a better scale for containers. Both of these may not look their best during the coldest weather, but they often perk right up and burst into bloom as soon as things warm slightly.
• Flowering kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala) – also known as flowering cabbage, these come in a bright array of white, deep rose or purple that intensifies with the cold. They usually last until Christmas, at which time you can simply cut them off at ground level and allow the adjacent pansies or violas fill in the void. Be sure to purchase the size you want, as these plants will not grow much except coning upwards, when they go to seed.
• Dusty Miller (Jacobaea maritima) – this is quite an old-fashioned bedding plant (which used to be called Senecio), but the reason it has been around so long is its versatility and tolerance of neglect. The intensely silver foliage is a great backdrop for violas and pansies, or a tall centrepiece in a winter container. Simply prune out the damaged foliage in spring and pinch out the flowers to prolong its lifespan.
• Ornamental grasses – there are quite a number of evergreen ornamental grasses to perk up those front door containers or pots around the back deck. Top of the list are the lustrous Carex ‘Evergold’ and ‘Ice Dance’, which stay nice and clean through winter. While the reddish-browns of Carex buchananii or the pumpkin orange highlights of Carex testacea are perfectly suited to an autumn colour scheme.
• Winter trailers – many evergreen perennials work well in containers, adding both depth and a little colour contrast. The best of these include golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia ‘Goldilocks’), wire vine (Muehlenbeckia), Sedum ‘Angelina’ and variegated forms of English ivy.
It’s a good idea to get your cool-season bedding plants settled and rooted-in before the first hard frosts to prevent heaving.
In-ground beds should be lightly turned with a little 6-8-6 granular fertilizer before planting, while root-bound planters should have at least the top soil layer freshened by adding some new container soil mix.
• I’ve uploaded a new story – It’s Not Dead ‘Til It’s Dead – to my garden blog at www.soulofagardener.wordpress.com and there are plenty of ornamental grass descriptions to view on my plant selection site, www.mikesgardentop5plants.wordpress.com.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery
manager and gardening author