In the days of yore, so to speak, before I took up the garden column, I was outdoors editor, offering a weekly roundup of hunting and fishing activity in the upper Kentucky Lake region. Steve McCadams came along and far more than amply filled my shoes with the outdoors news about the time I morphed off into your present garden column.
In the former venue, I always referred to October as the “golden month” of the outdoors. Fishing activity always picked up then and late dove season and squirrel hunting was excellent as migratory doves appeared on the scene and the bushytails started cutting scalybark hickory nuts.
October is a golden month virtually all over the temperate sections of the northern hemisphere and no matter what your outdoor activity, from hunting and fishing to football games, “fall ball” and, yes, gardening, provides comfortable conditions with crisp mornings and mild days.
Veggie fans are already harvesting some greens, to be followed by turnips, radishes, cabbage, broccoli and even, for the most adventurous, rutabagas and the more exotic leafy vegetables.
Meanwhile, we ornamental gardeners are doting on late flowering herbaceous plants, both perennial and annual, and even a few hanger-on shrubs and trees.
We have a fall flowering cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis.’ It flowers most heavily in spring, like other ornamental cherries, but repeats, sparsely, in fall and, on mild days, in winter. Any bloom we can get then, sparse or not, is worth it.
This tree is resistant to a lot of the ills that bedevil many cherries, and will grow to 30 feet or more if unimpeded. Ours was, unfortunately, impeded several years ago when a nearby tree was removed and fell smack into it, splitting it in two. After cutting it down, however, it sprouted from the roots and grew, true to name, into flowering size again with several trunks. I would recommend it as a candidate for a medium-sized tree in full sun, or even quite a bit of shade.
Some witch hazels will spring into sporadic bloom in late fall. Most of it is wasted if leaves are still on the tree and tend to obscure the flowers. Among the reliable fall flowering ones is our native witch hazel, Hammamelis virginiana. It is not only a native of Virginia, but of the eastern United States from Newfoundland to Florida. The first notice of its flowers is their wafting fragrance as one walks through the woods. The small flowers have stringy yellow petals that become more visible as leaves drop. They are not nearly as showy as the exotic varieties from the Orient and their hybrids. They flower in February and March.
We once had a nice specimen of the native near the aforementioned unlucky cherry. The witch hazel got some 10 feet or more tall before just up and dying, compounding the bad luck of the cherry loss.
Of course there are a number of perennials and annuals that will hang around until hard frost and, in some cases, even perk up with cool nights. Marigolds, for instance, that have suffered from heat and drought, take on new life, as do the tender geraniums. They put on a great fall show, as if singing their funeral eulogy before their final swooning at the hand of old Jack Frost. Ditto petunias.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.