The second week of September is a good time to do some garden math.
Divide and then multiply your perennials now for maximum return on your energy investment.
Iris, daylilies, phlox, hosta, brunnera and other summer bloomers can be dug from the ground and split apart with a shovel or ax. Some perennials such as the shade-loving astilbe can be broken apart with your hands, replanting the young side shoots and discarding any inner or middle sections of the roots that look dark and damaged.
The secret to a successful transplant operation is to do the dirty deed on a cloudy or wet day, or at least wait until the cool evening hours. Many plant roots have a vampire-like quality and it is painful for them to be exposed to bright sunlight.
Here, a few questions from readers answered.
Q: If I plant lettuce seeds in September, can I harvest the leaves for fresh salads all winter? I put in a first garden this past spring and had good luck with beans, tomatoes, cabbage and cucumbers. I followed your advice and built a raised-bed and filled it with a mix of topsoil and compost. Now I want to keep growing. — T.R., Puyallup
A. Yes — just grow for it. You can plant the seeds of lettuce, Swiss chard, cabbage and onions now. If you protect the seedlings from the coming cold with a cold frame or hoop house, you can be eating from your garden and enjoying your salad days almost year-round.
A hoop house is a removable structure made from “hoops” — usually bent plastic PVC pipes attached to the side of a raised-bed using brackets. Then a sheet of plastic is draped over the hoops so that it does not touch the plants and still allows for air circulation. You can also purchase hoop houses or cold frames at garden and home stores now.
Q: We have a large apple tree and there is no way we can eat all the apples. Many end up falling to the ground and attracting wasps. I think we need to clean them up or they will spread disease. My husband says the fallen fruit adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Who is correct? – P., Email
A: You both have a point, but you’re missing an opportunity. Extra fruit and garden produce can be donated to your local food bank and apples are especially good for families that struggle to find food to fill a lunch box.
Make an extra effort to deliver your garden produce to a food bank clean and in good condition, so you don’t create extra work for the food bank volunteers. You may also want to ask about “gleaning” opportunities. This is when community groups volunteer to harvest crops that have already been picked over or to collect fruit from homeowners like you that can no longer eat or collect the fruit themselves.
Q: I have heard you speak about using sedum “Autumn Joy” for long lasting color in gardens like mine with poor soil – but at the nursery I also see sedum “Brilliant” with deep rose blooms and one with bright pink flowers called “Neon.” Are these just as tough as the sedum you recommend? They are much more colorful, but I am a very laid back gardener and don’t want to kill any more plants. — N.M., Olympia
A: I think you should load up a cart with any sedum that catches your eye and find out what survives for you. Consider any plant that doesn’t survive a composting opportunity and a learning experience.
In the grand scheme of things investing in plants is an inexpensive gamble as you could hit the jackpot and stumble upon the perfect perennial that loves your site conditions and thrives on the care you give it. When that happens, consider it your signature or theme plant and use it again in several more locations.
By repeating a specific plant in your landscape you allow the eye to move easily around the view creating a soothing scene. Just remember to loosen the soil all around the area where you add sedums and succulents to encourage good drainage. Do not fill a new planting hole for sedums with compost in the bottom. It is the winter rains that rot many plants rather than the winter cold that kills them in Western Washington.
Q: What is the brilliant red shrub that I see along the interstate and even in some parking lot planting strips? It has small leaves and can be really wide but it is not a tree shape. Also, what growing conditions does it need? — S.B., Kent
A. Sounds like the Burning Bush or Euonymus alatus. This tough, flat-topped shrub has corky ridges on the branches, but otherwise fades into the background until the fiery fall display of brilliant red foliage.
Easy to grow in well-drained soil, the biggest planting mistake is not giving this shrub enough room. Even the “compacta” or dwarf form will grow up to 10 feet wide and 6 feet tall.
For the best fall performances, do not give this euonymus too much to drink and make sure it grows in a sunny location. Add some low growing cotoneaster with bright red berries or plant a golden-leaved ginko or maple near the burning bush for a fire storm of intense autumn color. Meet Marianne
Sept. 12: Celebrate new plants with “Blooming Bingo” a fundraiser for Thurston County Master Gardeners, 6:15 p.m. at the Lacey Community Center, 6729 Pacific Ave SE, Olympia. Tickets are $20. Go to mgftc.org for details and tickets.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her atbinettigarden.com