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When Fall Planting, Don't Disturb Last Year's Bulbs

September 19, 1987|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

There are a few things to attend to now that summer is over and before fall is completely here, and you are likely to discover a few of these as you go about fall planting. Where, for instance, you planted last year's bulbs.

You do not want to dig these up by accident (as I did this past weekend) just when they are beginning to grow roots and come back to life. After digging up a few freesias and daffodils, I sat down and did some hard remembering and then went around putting in little stakes to mark the other bulb plantings.

To avoid this problem next year, I am marking the location of the bulbs I plant this year on a little map of the garden to be filed away in a safe place.

As you continue to work in the garden, you will discover yet more work to be done. The roses, for instance, should be pruned back about now, so they can bloom at least one more time before winter. This pruning is not as thorough as winter's, but you should remove all of the spent flowers and any hips, and about a foot of stem. Prune out any small twiggy growth, back to a stem the thickness of a pencil, or remove it completely if it leads back to a major cane or branch.

Scatter any brand of granular fertilizer around the base of the plant, lightly cultivate the soil so the fertilizer is no longer visible, then water thoroughly, for a half-hour or so.

In a few weeks, the rose will be growing many new branches and will flower sometime in October or early November, as prettily as it did in the spring because the fall flowering of roses in Southern California is second only to that first spring flush.

While you have the fertilizer out for the roses, sprinkle a little around the camellias and azaleas and thoroughly water it in. In this case don't cultivate it into the soil since these plants are so shallow-rooted. Both plants are making buds for spring bloom and this late summer fertilizing is a great help.

If you have agapanthus, day lilies or clivia in the garden, and have not yet cut off the spent flower spikes, now is the time. The dried spikes of agapanthus will have turned a soft bleached brown by now. They are useful in dried arrangements, so bundle them all together and hang them in the garage to continue drying.

Don't be so quick to cut back other perennial plants in the garden such as penstemon, veronicas and Shasta daisies. Even though they may be turning brown, they will not bound back to life until very early spring, usually sometime in February. Cutting them back in the fall will do them no harm, but it leaves you with a lot of barren-looking spots in the garden so I prefer to wait until December. In my mind, the browning foliage and seed heads are preferable to stubble.

You can begin on those perennials that are going to be dug up and divided this year. Not all perennials require this, but many do or the centers of the plants will die out, or they will simply not do as well as they once did. Most perennials are busy growing new roots and shoots underground and if you wait too much longer, you will damage these. The shoots will not break through the ground until spring, but they make ready underground in the fall and winter.

If oxalis or other weeds got out of hand in your garden this summer, now is the time to dig them out, making sure to get the roots. If they are growing deep inside some other perennial plant, such as agapanthus, you can safely dig up the whole plant, pull out the weeds (making sure to get the roots) and then replant.

Any plant you dig up--to divide or to get the oxalis out of--and then replant, should be watered just about every day for a few weeks until it becomes established in the ground again.

Watering is the one last thing to do this weekend. In a few more weeks, watering will become less important as plants slow down for winter and as the days continue to cool and the sun gets lower on the horizon. But right now, plants still need water and you might be surprised to find how dry the soil has become in parts of the garden. This you are also likely to discover as you go about your other garden work.

In particular, be sure that fruit trees, especially citrus, but also peaches and plums and the like, get watered, even if they are about to lose their leaves. Roses, azaleas, camellias, gardenias and the princess flower are next in importance, but all plants should be kept moist for at least another month while they prepare for winter.

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