Tips from Long Islanders who know it's cool to garden in fall
Don't look at fall as the end of one gardening season; think of it as the beginning of the next: Forget to pull weeds or ensure trees and shrubs have adequate water now, for instance, and you'll pay dearly come spring. What's more, it's easier to dig, haul and clean up when the weather cools down, so nature supports your efforts. End-of-season sales mean tools, equipment, perennials and spring-flowering trees and shrubs are discounted at local nurseries, and the cost of exterior work like fence installation also is often reduced.
There are other benefits to actively gardening in autumn. Many cool-weather vegetables planted in spring can also be sown at the end of summer for a second harvest in fall, and all those autumn leaves are a great excuse to start composting. Experienced gardeners know that seeding the lawn in spring is an uphill battle, and if perennial plants are in need of division or relocation, fall is the most forgiving season.
These five Long Islanders have embraced fall as prime gardening season, and their efforts have paid off in more ways than one.
Spruce up the lawn
Most turf grasses in our region are cool-season grasses, which means they germinate, grow and thrive best when temperatures drop a bit. That's why during the dog days of summer, lawns may turn brown. And that's also why this is the best time of year to seed your lawn.
Tamson Yeh, of Shirley, is a turf and land management specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. She has a PhD in plant science and has been working with turf grasses for nearly 25 years. Her tips for Long Islanders tuning up their turf:
First and foremost, she said, "Make sure any seed you buy has the highest percent purity and highest percent germination available. You'll find this information listed on the label. Look for a percentage of 85 or higher for each component of the seed mix."
"To get the biggest bang for your buck, freeze grass seed in your freezer for 48 hours before sowing to crack the seed coat. Doing so will make seeds germinate 50 percent faster."
"If you have any shade at all, you should never use rye grass. Also check labels on shade-mix packages for rye grass because sometimes it will be included to satisfy the customer's need for quick germination, but you don't want any in there if you have shade."
Do not dethatch the lawn. "It basically doesn't do much," Yeh said. "If you want to do something good for your lawn, you should core aerate instead."
Check the soil's pH level and "if indicated by the reading, add lime now. The freezing and thawing cycles over the winter will help incorporate lime into the soil."
"New seed has to be kept moist until grass is 1 1/2 inches tall. This may mean watering several times a day, especially if it's hot and dry. If seedling turf dries out even once before it gets to that critical 1 1/2-inch height, you may have to start all over again."
"Give your turf a good drink of water just before the first frost. This is a good idea for your ornamental plants, as well."
If you're not seeding now, it's a good time to fertilize. "Apply fertilizer at a rate of 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. To figure out how much product you need, divide 100 by the first number in the three-number N-P-K sequence on the fertilizer bag. That gives you the pound of product needed per 1,000 square feet." Yeh recommends using a product that contains 50 percent to 70 percent slow-release fertilizer.
Start a compost pile
Making compost does require some thought and planning, but it's not a complicated endeavor. There are many sizes and shapes of compost containers and tumblers available for purchase, and you can even forgo them and simply pile up ingredients in a designated section of the yard. Keep the ratio of ingredients to about 50 percent "browns" (dried perennials, autumn leaves, leather, twigs, paper and hay) and 50 percent "greens" (fresh grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps), and alternate them in layers, keeping the pile moist. Turn or toss the pile periodically to ensure even decomposition.
Florence Palomo, 48, moved to Bellerose from Jamaica, Queens, five years ago and began composting immediately. "It was just a natural thing for me to do because my mom did it," she said, "so when I finally had the space to do it, I began composting, too."
Palomo's mother, who emigrated from Haiti in 1959, educated herself about composting by reading home and garden magazines. Palomo's brother and sister soon got on board, and now she keeps the family tradition alive, rotating two batches of compost -- one in a repurposed garbage can and another in a higher-tech compost tumbler -- so that when one batch is ready to use, the other continues "stewing" the food scraps, leaves, hedge trimmings and shredded newspapers and junk mail that she adds regularly.
The piles sit outside all winter, and Palomo applies the compost to her garden beds in spring, two weeks before planting time. One thing she says she learned is that the benefits of compost extend beyond the garden: "I don't have to spend money on fertilizer anymore, and I love that my trash can doesn't have food in it," she said.
Divide and multiply
Fall is the ideal time to divide most spring and summer perennials. Wait until blooming ceases, then cut the plant back to 8 to 12 inches to make it easier to work with. Insert a garden spade or fork into the soil about a foot from the base of the plant, and apply pressure to the tool's handle to raise one side of the clump. Remove it and repeat all around the plant until you have loosened the root ball and are able to lift it out of the ground. Then insert your tool into the center of the clump and apply pressure until it separates into two or more pieces, and replant each separately.
Laura Casini, 48, of Malverne, has been gardening and dividing plants for most of her life. "My father always loved to garden," she said. "His garden is beautiful, and I guess I just took after him. Now my daughter does it with me."
Superstorm Sandy pulled down a heavy wisteria in Casini's garden and knocked down part of a tree and a fence. "I took that opportunity to create a whole new garden," she said. "I went down to the dirt and started over," planting new perennials and trees, and giving the yard a tranquil Japanese-garden feel.
"I divide my hostas, black-eyed Susans and tiger lilies every third year because it gets out of control," she says, adding that she replants some divisions and exchanges others with her neighbors. "The thousands of black-eyed Susans around my house all came from one plant I planted 12 years ago," she said."
But for all her experience, Casini keeps things simple: "I use basic tools for my gardening, and it works out," she said. "I use a shovel to divide plants. You don't have to spend a fortune and have fancy tools to have a beautiful garden."
Plant cool-season vegetables
Sowing new seeds in late summer can set you up for a wonderful fall harvest. Arugula, mustard greens, Asian greens and spinach planted now can be ready to harvest in as little as a month; radishes take just three weeks from seed to salad. And the flavor of cole crops, which include Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale and kohlrabi, actually benefit from a light frost, so there are no worries if an overnight chill looms.
Bruce Amundsen of Aquebogue has been planting cool-season vegetables for 15 years. The State Department of Agriculture employee, who trained in ornamental horticulture, said he owes his love of vegetable gardening to his father, who always had a garden. "When he moved, my father didn't have a good spot to grow his vegetables anymore, so he sent me some seeds and I started them for him, and that's how I got into it," he said.
Today, Amundsen, 65, starts some of his own seeds under grow lights in his basement and sows others directly in the ground. This year he is growing a second crop of lettuce, carrots, beets, Swiss chard, parsnips, peas, Chinese greens and scallions. He planted beans, too, but woodchucks ate them.
Experience has taught Amundsen a few things:
"Chinese greens are great for the fall because they germinate faster than most greens -- faster than lettuce -- and they come on fast so you can plant them even later in the season than the others."
"Scallions will survive the entire winter outdoors."
"Carrots and parsnips are difficult because if there's any crust on the soil surface, they can't push through. So sow them in a trench and cover them with a potting mix that contains peat moss."
"Lettuce doesn't germinate well in the heat, so this year I found a new variety -- Anuenue -- that was developed at the University of Hawaii and germinates better in late summer."
Amundsen said he is hoping to have a lot of vegetables for Thanksgiving this year. "It's a lot of fun to go outside and pick vegetables for the meal. My wife's family comes to visit, and they all get a kick out of that."
Add seasonal curb appeal
It might seem difficult to keep the garden looking its best in autumn, but it needn't be. Summer flowers fade, fallen leaves cover lawns and walkways, and perennials start to dry up and turn brown. But just a few simple tweaks can go a long way toward ensuring your home's curb appeal is every bit as eye-catching as it was just a few short weeks ago.
Patricia Ventaloro, 62, of Shirley has been impressing her neighbors every fall for the past 37 years. In 2011, she even won her community's William Floyd Beautification award.
Ventaloro, who was born on Long Island but considers herself a "country girl at heart," says she takes her inspiration from Pennsylvania Amish Country.
In September she positions two country wagons filled with pumpkins, leaves and chrysanthemums in the front yard. Cornstalks used to play a part in the decor, but she said, "I've found that if we have a damp fall, they turn black and get moldy, and the squirrels try to get the corn and make a mess, so I don't buy them anymore."
She does, however, have a trick up her sleeve to outfox the critters: "I buy pumpkins, but not the real ones," she said. "The squirrels destroy them, too, so I buy the Styrofoam ones. And when their colors fade after a couple of years, she gives them new life with a little spray paint. Ventaloro also uses fake fall leaves to add seasonal flair to her still-blooming potted summer plants.
And on Oct. 1 she takes things to the next level: "That's when I bring out all my Halloween stuff."