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New season, new chance to rescue garden

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Sep. 24, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 24, 2011, at 7:29 a.m.

It's now officially autumn, and if any group of people ever looked forward to it — even if some of them usually love summer best — it has to be those of us who have lived through a record- breaking heat wave.

Even though I'm loving the cooler weather — cherishing it, actually, as never before — I find myself looking hungrily out the window during the day, my eyes taking in the light as if it were desperately needed sustenance.

I stand transfixed at the front door of the house, the lush greenness of the trees and the pink vividness of the roses piercing my retinas.

It makes me wonder if I need one of those light boxes that are sometimes prescribed for seasonal affective disorder. I have a call in to the ophthalmologist.

As a result of the scorching summer, that lush greenness and vivid color is harder to find this fall. Some lawns are dead, and not because someone killed them to start over. If you plan to green up your lawn with some new grass yet this fall, it would be good to get on it, as Oct. 15 is usually the deadline. I had hoped that the window for planting would be extended by a warmer fall, since the beginning of the window was shortened by the hot summer. But fall seems to be playing out as... fall.

There are bright spots of color, however. The cooler weather seems to deepen the hot pinks and oranges of coleus and turn them into autumn plants. When I visited Tree Top Nursery this week, I was struck by the tall purple Mexican petunias planted along the front of the garden center. They've really taken off late in the season, one of the employees told me.

I love shopping for mums and pansies and kale for fall container gardens, seeing which color combinations please me this year. (I'm still looking.)

Some of us may need to replant shrubs and trees lost to the heat. Evergreens should be moved or planted six weeks before the ground freezes, so shop for those as soon as possible. Some trees are better planted in the spring, Ward Upham of K- State says, including beech, birch, redbud, magnolia, tulip poplar, willow oak, scarlet oak, black oak, willows and dogwood.

Among the evergreens that took a hit this summer are spruces, yews and boxwoods. A question from a reader this week addressed the yews and also uncovered that some viburnums are less hardy than others, including one of my favorites, the cranberry bush. Here was the question and answer, which ran in my e-newsletter this week:

Q: I have three yews that stand about 6 feet tall on the north side of our house. The top 5 inches of them are brown. Will they survive? I also have a wonderful Mariesii doublefile viburnum that was planted probably 15 years ago. A beautiful specimen. Although I have continued to water it all summer, its leaves have turned brown in this horrid summer. Is it a goner?

A: On the yews, extension agent Bob Neier advises removing the brown now. They should survive. If a yew has brown areas all the way into the interior of the plant, once you remove the brown, it may fill back in and it may not.

On the viburnum, doublefile and cranberry bush types are less heat tolerant than other varieties, Bob says. He's seen some that have died and others that are still alive. Take a knife and cut into the bark to see if it's brown (dead) or green (alive) inside. You can cut dead parts out anytime. If the leaves are brown and the inside of the stems are green, leave the plant alone.

I asked Bob about the wisdom of planting the cranberry bush, and he noted that the last time they were taken out was 1980 — the last really bad heat wave. The bushes that were replaced after that had a good run before they were zapped again.

A lot of boxwoods that were planted in the sun also were lost this summer, or sections of them have turned a cream color, meaning that part is dead, Bob says. One option in that case, after cutting the dead part out, is to use some jute to loosely tie branches together to cover the bald spot, he says.

"In spring they can slowly fill in, but it could be a couple years," Bob says.

Interestingly, nandinas, which can be seen as touchy because they get hit by rough winters, actually are heat-tolerant and for the most part did great this summer, Bob says.

"It's kind of fun to go out and see what's looking good," Bob says.

Another reader asked about whether to prune hollies now. Hers were getting too big. Bob advises taking any dead branches out now, as noted above, and only pruning shrubs and trees lightly at this time of year, unless branches are encroaching on walkways or buildings or something.

"Just take a little bit off the tips," he says, "and do heavier pruning in the spring."

If shrubs and trees are growing too big, be sure not to fertilize them, because that only pushes on more growth, he points out. If you do want to fertilize trees and shrubs this fall, wait a bit, until they're closer to dormancy and the leaves are fading, he recommends. If the plants are in a fertilized lawn, that food should be enough for them.

Most perennials can be fertilized in either the spring or the fall, he says.

Until I get the go-ahead on a dawn simulator or light box, I'm sitting outside in the morning, facing the rising sun in the east, and staying outside as long as I can in the evening, facing the setting sun in the west. I'm trying to figure out a way to work a lunchtime walk into my day to get the heart of the sun into my eyes. I don't want to cheer it on, but I want to be prepared: Daylight saving time ends in six weeks. Maybe my eyes can get what they need from nature if I really work at it.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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