Garden Plot: Saving begonias, last call for lawns and summer bulbs

There’s still time to plant pansies outdoors for fall color that will survive though spring, but don’t delay! (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Last call for garlic and grass food

If you want to plant cloves of garlic for a harvest of full bulbs next season, do it now; the soil will soon be too cold for good root growth.

Time is also running out for legal lawn feeding. I remind all of our listeners in Maryland and Virginia that the new lawn care laws designed to protect our priceless Chesapeake Bay forbid feeding lawns after Nov. 15 (but don’t wait until that last day; the warmer the soil, the better the lawn can utilize the food).

Oh — and those new laws also forbid the use of lawn fertilizers that contain phosphorus, which your lawn doesn’t need anyway.

Buy legal! Feed legal! Save the Bay!

Plant pansies and bulbs

There’s still time to plant pansies outdoors for fall color that will survive though spring, but don’t delay — you want to get these cold-weather lovers into the ground while there’s still enough warm weather left ahead for them to get established before the big chill.

And this is the perfect time to plant spring bulbs for bloom early next season. Don’t worry about pest problems with daffodils; they’re toxic to varmints and vermin. But if you’re planting tasty treats such as tulips and crocus, be sure to spray deer repellent over your plantings to disguise the smell or mulch the beds with dog hair to keep evil squirrels at bay!

Really last call for new lawn seed

Bill in Rockville, Maryland, lists his procrastination excuses: “We had no rain this fall, then too much, and now the early freeze. But I have some very bare areas of my lawn that need almost a total seeding. Do I still have time?”

Maybe, Bill — but only if you stop whining, work fast and choose the right type of seed, which would be fescue. Turf-type fescues can germinate in cooler soils (50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit as measured four inches down) than bluegrass (60 to 65 degrees), and they establish faster once they’re up and growing.

So spread an inch of compost or topsoil over your entire non-lawn, level it out, rake the fescue seed into the new soil and then mist it daily every morning, preferably with lukewarm (but not hot) water.

But you can’t delay; in another week or two the soil will have become too cold to get that seed sprouted, and then you’d just be doing a lot of hard work to feed mice and voles.

Bring in your begonias

Jim in Fredericksburg writes: “Can begonias be brought inside for the winter and survive? If so, is any special care required?”

Two kinds of begonias are common in D.C.-area landscapes, Jim — “bedding” and “tuberous” — and both can and should be brought inside for the winter.

Although “bedding plant” begonias — the kind you buy in six-packs or flats at garden centers in the spring — are almost always left out to die with the first frost, these shade-loving flowers are actually perennial if you protect them from that frost. So if any begonias in your flower beds survived our recent cold snap, pot them up, bring them inside and put the pots close to a sunny windowsill. The begonias will bloom all winter — and then you’ll have big plants to put back outside in the spring! (This trick is easy; I have begonias that have survived eight to 10 years of “in and out” at any house.)

How to store tuberous begonias and other ‘summer blooming bulbs’

Jim in Fredericksburg wrote back to explain that he’s growing tuberous begonias and wants to know how to bring them inside for the winter. Like dahlias, canna lilies and calla lilies, these big-flowered tropical beauties can live for many seasons if they’re cared for correctly.

If frost has already blackened their foliage, cut off the top growth and carefully dig up the underground tubers (or roots or corms or whatever type of underground structure your specific summer blooming bulb is growing from) and place them in paper bags or cardboard boxes filled with slightly damp peat moss. (Don’t use plastic bags unless you poke lots of holes in them.) Keep the boxes in a cool, dark spot that won’t freeze over winter, then unpack and replant the roots outdoors after all risk of frost is over next spring.

But if you have tuberous begonias (or dahlias) growing in pots, and the plants in those pots escaped the early chill, you can just bring them indoors and hang them in your sunniest window for continuous blooms all winter long.

Bindweed: Bad; Solarization: Good

Jen in Cecil County, Maryland, is in a world of trouble. She writes: “I’ve been battling field bindweed in the middle of my vegetable garden for about five years. I didn’t recognize it at first, and it has spread over about an 8-by-15-foot area. I am desperate to get rid of it. Should I lay black plastic over this section and leave it for a season or two? What else can be done?”

Don’t feel too bad, Jen — many people ignore bindweed because the pretty flowers look like white morning glories. But that white color should be a warning: This is not a fun annual flower, but one of the most aggressive and deep-rooted perennial weeds you can battle.

Black plastic? No. That’s a common misconception. But you can achieve success if you solarize the area with clear plastic for an entire summer.

The basics: Mow everything flat to the ground — really scalp it — saturate the soil with water, stretch clear plastic tightly over the top, secure every corner, let it cook for an entire summer and you’ll be rewarded with a completely weed- and disease-free garden.

But you have to do it right or you’ll just waste a growing season. So:

  • Level that surface;
  • SATURATE it with water;
  • Stretch high-quality clear plastic sheeting completely over the infested area;
  • Secure the sides tightly;
  • Let it cook for an entire season — spring through the end of fall.

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