Kachemak Gardener: Fall is here but there’s still lots to do in the garden

We took our own advice, packed the rickety camper (an A-Liner), and headed north to Hidden Lake. This is a huge campground in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge with Skilak Lake as the main feature. We were one of two campers there, nice and peaceful. The colors were lovely, all was well until — are you ready? — seven, yes seven, huge RVs decided to make our little cul-de-sac home away from home. Well my goodness. Can you imagine the symphony of generators? Needless to say we moved as far away as we could get, took an after-dinner walk down to see who/what they were and, of course, they were very nice people from Montana having a family reunion.

The colors are still lovely. I think we were a week early, so pack up and go. There are trails galore in the refuge. Take your pick, go for a walk/hike and enjoy a change of scenery. The Hidden Lake area had been spared the ravages of the Swan Lake Fire. I suggest you head for it.

This was a perfect fall day, ideal really. John and I are taking advantage of the weather to tackle the last of the garden chores. He is tasked with the chores that require brute force, i.e. dumping out the soil from the greenhouse and replacing it with fresh compost. We do this in the fall so its ready go April 1 (hopefully). The Brussels sprouts are the only food left out there, and I’m in no hurry to make the harvest as they can withstand any number of frosts. There are those who leave them in the garden all winter and make a harvest when they want some for dinner. I’ve tried that, and failed, so the harvest will be made sometime this week. They will be blanched and put in the freezer.

In the meantime, I’m in the perennial beds. I’ve removed the millions of cosmos (three varieties) that admirably filled in the gaps where I lost perennials last winter. The thalictrum (meadow rue) has been cut down and will go to the dump because of the zillions of seeds that just one plant can successfully strew about, almost every single one making a new plant in the coming growing season. They need a bit of control, although I need more than there is right now, so will leave some to do what needs to be done. In another world they would be considered “winter interest” because the seed heads are gorgeous. But the meadow in front of us is loaded with cow parsnip, aka “pushki,” and the warblers love them, so that’s enough seed head winter interest for me.

As I have stated a million times, I’m not a garden designer. I just plant this and that here and there. The East and West Gardens have managed to go along with this technique, even surviving last winter so they didn’t need much attention this growing season. But the beds in front suffered. The outer one was completely empty, so I filled it with cosmos until I could figure out once and for all what to do with it. You would think that after 22 years that bed would be well established. No, it is in constant flux, but enough is enough. I finally hit on what to do with it (after all these years): put the same plants in it that are in the middle bed. So, I dug up two peonies from the middle bed and put them in the outer. Now next season I’ll start more Desante delphiniums and tuck them here and there along with salvia, columbine, lilies — see what happens? It works, trust me.

This is the first time I’ve ever moved a peony. I had put in three new ones in the middle bed to replace the ones that died. Lo, one of the “dead” ones made an appearance late July right next to the new one. I figured the new one hadn’t really established itself yet and, sure enough, it came right out with the help of a potato fork, same for the other one that I decided could keep the first one company. Cinch. I had cut off the foliage, although it didn’t look ready to be removed, but it made the whole process easier. The foliage is going to the dump. I poked around to find the pink eyes that will be next year’s new growth, made sure I didn’t replant them too deep, and will now hope for the best. If you need to move a peony, right now is the time to do it.

The East Garden is lovely. This is the area that I planted with trees and shrubs 22 years ago with the help of my friend Carol, in the pouring rain no less, and we’re still friends. Everything is too crowded and I’m not going to do anything about it. I like it, so do the birds and grandchildren. It has a Secret Garden quality to it. It’s interesting how an enclave can be created just with trees and shrubs. Add a bird feeder and bird bath, cup of tea, comfortable chair and there just isn’t anything finer.

So, the greenhouse is empty. It was wildly successful, although I thought we were doomed from the start. The tomatoes were begging to be planted but couldn’t get out there for three more weeks — same with all of the seedlings. Everything was three weeks late. We have had a very short growing season.

This fall seems like it can’t quite make up its mind; some trees are turning color and yet others are not. The three mountain ash here are all bright green. Even the larch is holding onto green, but the birch are turning. The “real” forest is making a stab at being fall, but it seems half hearted. Which is why I feel off kilter. Every year I look to the forest in front of us for the fall cue and this year it isn’t really working. Yes, the mornings are below freezing. Yes, I’ve harvested almost everything out of the garden, but something is missing and I can’t put my finger on it.

That said, there is still a lot of gardening to be done. Now is a good time to get in a path if you have been thinking about one. Make it 4-feet wide (mine are all too narrow), and if I had it to do over they would all be grass. Its easy to make a nice edge using your spade along the perennial borders, and grass makes for perfect footing. Making it wide enough to pass the lawnmower down it once or twice is the ticket. Think about that. Also, now is the time to put up a greenhouse and have it ready for spring. I use mine to get a jump start, but close it down when we start losing daylight.

There are still lots of weeds out there and they are rapidly going to seed. Don’t put yours in the compost now, the seeds will just spring up where you least expect them. Keep gardening.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick is a longtime Homer gardener and has been writing Kachemak Gardener since 1990.

Lysimachia purpurea’s yellow blooms glimmer in the fall light. (Photo by Rosemary Fitzpatrick)

Lysimachia purpurea’s yellow blooms glimmer in the fall light. (Photo by Rosemary Fitzpatrick)