Tidewater Gardening - November 2013

Thinking About the Outside and the Inside


K. Marc Teffeau

November, like March, is one of the transition gardening months where we become focused on preparations outside but also think about what gardening activities we can engage in inside the house. Depending upon what type of fall weather we experience, November can be a rather pleasant month to be outside ~ at least until we get closer to the beginning of December. One observation that I have always had about November is that we usually get a rain storm or two the first couple of weeks that ends the fall foliage display and reminds us that winter is coming.
As with October, some planting can still be done in November. You can still get some of those spring bulbs in the ground before it freezes. Lilies should be in by now, but things like tulips, crocus, and daffodils will be just fine. The garden centers will have end-of-season specials on spring bulbs now, so check out what is available and do some final planting.
Peonies can be planted now in full sun and fertile, well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Dig holes 18 inches deep and fill halfway with a mixture of soil, compost, and a handful of 5-10-10 fertilizer or an organic fertilizer equivalent. Add a few more inches of soil, and set the tubers so the buds are 1 to 2 inches below the soil surface. Backfill, firm the soil, and water thoroughly.
Peonies do not grow well after being moved and will not bloom for several years. Reduce peony botrytis blight and hollyhock rust by removing and disposing of all old stems this fall. This reduces the carry-over of the diseases during the winter, and you will have less trouble next year.
November is also a good time to do some shrub pruning, especially after the first or second frost. Leaf fall makes renovation of overgrown deciduous shrubs easier. Begin by removing all diseased or broken stems. Next, remove 1/3 of all remaining shoots, eliminating the oldest and tallest. If the bush is still too tall, cut the remaining stems to a side bud or branch. Repeat the process in a year or two to complete renovation.
Now, wait a minute Marc! You normally recommend pruning spring flowering shrubs right after they have finished their flower display in the spring and not fall. Yes, that is correct for normal maintenance pruning, but we all have shrubs in the landscape that have outgrown their spot and really need some serious pruning to get them back to the right size. So we do renewal pruning instead.
Pruning spring flowering shrubs now will mean that you will lose some flowers, but this reduction in floral display will be made up in the next few years with the generation of new wood that is conducive to flower production. And, you and I both know, with all that is going on in the spring in the landscape and family activities, we may have the best of intentions to do what is correct pruning-wise, but we don’t always get around to it. So, do some selective whacking now to get those unruly shrubs back into their proper form.
While pruning, also cut away suckers from the base of lilacs, forsythia, and crape myrtle. You can also trim hollies and other evergreens, such as magnolia, aucuba, boxwood, and pyracantha, to furnish material for Thanksgiving decorations.
Sometimes, however, renovation pruning is a lost cause, so we need to seriously examine a complete landscape renovation, including ~ yes ~ complete removal of some plants. November is an excellent time to engage in this process. Talk with a nursery person, landscaper or landscape designer to see what your landscape renovation possibilities might be, and get a design drawn up. With the last couple of fairly mild winters that we’ve experienced, landscape plantings were going on anytime the ground was not frozen.
After a killing frost, long vigorous shoots of roses may be cut back to 18~20 inches so they are not whipped by the winter winds, that may loosen the roots and make the plant more susceptible to winter injury. Mound the canes with 8 inches of soil for winter protection. Remove that soil before growth begins in the spring.
When chrysanthemums are through flowering, remove the stalks at once within a few inches of the ground. This will help root development and make them send out vigorous sprouts in the spring. Some may be lifted and heeled into the cold frame. Plants for potting can be propagated from the side sprouts which will develop next May.
By now you should have moved all your houseplants back inside from their summer locations. If you are looking for inside gardening activities in November, the first of the month is the time to pot up amaryllis bulbs for Christmas blooming. Most bulbs come into flower in six to eight weeks from the time of planting. Make sure you leave the top third of the bulb exposed and only lightly water until you see signs of growth. Don’t keep the potting medium soaking wet as the plant grows, or you may experience bulb rot. Let it dry out almost completely before watering again.
Your Thanksgiving cactus should now be starting to form blooms with the Christmas cactus blooming not far behind. These “holiday” cactus are really not true cacti but are a member of a loosely defined group of plants which include succulents and cacti. As a retirement gift my former office sent me a dish garden of cacti and succulents that was very attractive. This peaked my interest a little more about this grouping of very popular houseplants in general.
In my old office in downtown D.C., I had a Christmas cactus that grew beautifully. It had the right sunlight exposure and I looked forward to its flowering every year. Alas, with a second office move to a different location and then retirement, it did not survive. If you are looking to expand your houseplant collection with cacti and succulents, now is a great time to do it. The garden centers have shifted to indoor and holiday plant sales, so a number of different kinds are now available.
The term succulent refers to a broad, loose category of plants, including cacti, which have developed thick fleshy leaves or stems. These serve as water storage organs to ensure survival under arid conditions.
Succulents are found worldwide. Besides cacti, they include many familiar plants: the jade plant (Crassula arborescens), the snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), the medicine plant (Aloe barbadensis), the century plant (Agave americana), the flowering Kalanchoes (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana). They are sold as gift plants, as well as the sedums (Sedum sp.), and hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.) which are so common in the perennial garden.
Many cacti and succulents are extremely well adapted to living in houses where the relative humidity is low (10–30 percent) during the winter months. They require only modest amounts of water and fertilizer, but do need abundant light. They should be placed in a bright, sunny window. Insufficient natural light can be augmented by artificial lighting.
Cacti can be tall and lanky or squat and spherical, frequently without any branches and almost always without leaves. These shapes result in a large proportion of internal tissue to external surface area which reduces the amount of moisture that is lost through the plant itself. They often have scale or spines ranging from microscopically small to wickedly long and barbed.
When growing cacti and succulents, remember that most are found growing in open, well-drained sandy soil. These conditions should be duplicated indoors. A mix of one part potting soil and one part coarse sand is usually porous enough. Or you can purchase a pre-packaged potting soil mix for cacti and succulents. Both pot and growing medium should be sterile. And ideally, these plants should be grown in pots with drainage holes because excess water trapped in the soil will result in rotting and decay in a very short time.
Often cacti and succulents are grouped together in shallow dish gardens like the one I received. While this may be an attractive method of display, my suggestion is to consider re-potting the plants into individual containers or grouping them in containers as to type.
Choose plants that are compatible in rate of growth so that one or two plants don’t outgrow the rest. Even more important, the plants must have similar water requirements. Generally speaking, most cacti need less water than do other succulents.
During the low-light winter months, cacti and succulents should be watered only enough to prevent shrinking and withering. When watering, do it thoroughly. Water should flow through the drain holes, and the excess should be discarded after a few minutes. A series of repeated shallow sprinklings often results in distorted growth.
As the amount of light increases in the spring, so does the plant’s need for water. The soil, however, should always be allowed to dry out completely between waterings.
Cacti and succulents have relatively low nutrient requirements. Cacti need fertilizer only once or twice a year during the late spring or summer when they are actively growing. Use a houseplant food that is higher in phosphorus than nitrogen, diluted to half the recommended rate. Other succulents may be fertilized in the same manner three or four times during the brighter months.
Happy gardening!

Marc Teffeau retired as the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. and he now lives in Georgia with his wife, Linda.