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Autumn Busywork

From composting to pruning to putting in perennials and cool-season grass seed, there's no shortage of projects for a fall weekend.

October 19, 2000|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

What can one do in the garden on a fine autumn weekend? Probably not rake leaves, which is what gardeners in much of the country are doing this month. Trees here that do lose their leaves usually shed them in December.

But there is no shortage of autumn activities, from planting to tidying up the garden. Many plants have finished their runs and need to be pulled out or pruned back. I just cut back some asters, anemones and a big Canary Island sage that had finished blooming, and I dug out some of summer's annuals. The bedding plants might have made it for a few more weeks, but by quickly replacing them with pansies and primroses, my garden will bloom in the middle of winter and last partway into summer, at least in my coastal climate.

Still, some think it wiser to plant around the holidays so bedding plants bloom first in spring when they are less likely to be beaten down by rains and people are more likely to be outside to see them.

The prunings and the plants I pulled out got chopped up and were added to the compost pile. I use a piece of an old piling from the long-gone Ocean Park pier as a chopping block, hacking away at the plants with a machete. This may sound fanatical, but small pieces--only 2 to 4 inches long--decompose much faster and will be ready to use in just a few months if I keep them damp. Of course, compost grinders do a much better job but are rather expensive, and most are noisy.

The prunings from the Canary Island sage were chopped up too, but some stems were too thick, so I reluctantly tossed them into the city's green refuse can. Vegetation that goes into these cans also gets chopped up and composted, but on a much bigger scale, and it ends up in someone else's garden.

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I need all the compost I can get because it has so many uses in the garden, but there is never enough. I've already used up the pile that I started at the beginning of summer. It was added to the beds where I planted the primroses and pansies, so they would have nice fresh, fertile soil. Season after season of bedding plants can really take it out of a soil--exhausting nutrients and the organic matter that gives it tilth.

I mixed compost into our raised vegetable beds before sowing seed of our favorite fall crop--that mix of baby lettuces and other greens called mesclun. This time I planted seeds of six different "Cut and Come Again" lettuces (packaged by Renee's Garden, [888] 880-7228), which can be found at nurseries. Growing mesclun in rows, spaced only 6 inches apart, packs a lot of lettuce into a small space, and we've found that sowing in rows makes it easier to spot any weeds so they don't end up in your salad.

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We still grow some full-sized lettuces, but the tender young leaves of baby lettuces are so much tastier. We cut them when they are only about 4 inches tall, leaving an inch of stubble from which new leaves quickly sprout. Each sowing produces about four crops of 4-inch leaves, before the greens begin to get bitter. By then another few rows are up and ready to harvest, if we've timed it right.

I spent some time last weekend pruning trees and shrubs that had grown too dense or big over the summer. I cut back and opened up a handsome strawberry tree to better see its elegant reddish bark. Pruning now, before the Santa Ana winds arrive, can also help avoid breakage. Open plants up and the wind will whistle though foliage, rather than push against it.

Tall trees are too big a job, but I can prune the shorter ones and most shrubs. I prefer to do the pruning myself because it's fun to shape plants so they stay airy and graceful, something professional gardeners seldom have time for on their rounds. I even managed to chop up some of these prunings for my compost pile, though most ended up stuffed into the green can.

Perennials can also grow too big, or too wide, but simply pruning them back often isn't enough. The centers of some kinds begin to die or look peaked after a few years. Then they must be dug up and split into smaller pieces. For a fresh start, the smaller chunks can be planted into soil rejuvenated with compost. With most perennials, this job is best done during the autumn and winter months.

I cut back, dug up and divided some asters that had just finished blooming. And, though it is perhaps better done in late summer, we also dug up and divided a planting of bearded iris. We waited so we could see which varieties were "re-blooming"--kinds that bloom in fall as well as spring. In our small garden, there seems no point in keeping irises that do not repeat their bloom in fall.

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