True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Forget the frosty punkins and shocked corn. James Whitcomb Riley, even, would want us to move on. He, the intrepid author of October’s glories, never wrote about November, as far as I know, but other authors did. The European ones moaned and bawled over the gray curtain of winter that has always fallen there in November.

Here, in the good (so far) old USA, and particularly here in the South, we look to November many years as our October, that is, when foliage color peaks and frost really is on the pumpkin.

Matter of fact, we had frost here on Oct. 5. All the roofs were frosted as I made my way to The P-I to man the computer for this column and others. I didn’t check on the pumpkins. Friday ushers in the eve of All Hallows Eve, and that means next week will be November.

All that to say this: November is one of two or three of the busiest months of the year for the ornamental gardener.

We will not list all the work that you should accomplish next month but I will mention some of what my experience over a half century of gardening has winnowed down to the most essential.

First of all, let me say the weather in November is pretty reliable, but not always. Nov. 13, 2019, brought a low temperature of 8 degrees, way out of sync and way early. Anytime weather conditions vary early or late from their norm, there is trouble. That 8 degrees would not have caused even a ripple in January or February, but in mid-November, things were still sapped up and the freeze was devastating, most notably to crape myrtles and big-leaf hydrangeas. The evidence is yet visible as crape myrtles have tops of a mixture of dead and barely alive branches. And I got not a single bloom this year from the bigleaf hydrangeas.

That is all water under the bridge and there’s no use crying over spilt milk. Incidentally, I never could see the sense in that last saying.

Well, anyhow, November is an excellent time to prune Japanese maples. In spring they will bleed incontinently, which is no problem except that it will make you feel sorry for them. The sap is going down as we speak, and they won’t bleed excessively.

Other pruning can be done, too, but major winter pruning of, say, fruit trees, is better in late winter.

The chief reasons for November tasks are (1) you won’t have to do them when the rush is on in spring and (2) the weather, as we said, is usually (usually!) accommodating, in Tennessee if not in London.

Leaves, as Christopher Lloyd of England famously said, are the undertow of our autumnal lives, and November is the month when the leaf gathering starts out the gate. (An aside: Thanksgiving Day will be here in a few weeks, and I have one hugely critical blessing to be thankful for. The stinking sycamore tree on our west line is gone and leaf pickup will be minimized compared to the last 30 years or so. I promise I won’t mention it again, for at least a week.)

A heap of dividing and planting can be done in November. The toughest perennials can be divided and replanted and it will do most of them good. Just don’t bother ornamental grasses until spring.

As soon as beds and borders are mostly bare, this is a good time to top-dress with some organic product, either compost, peat or animal manure.

Peat has been a boon to my borders the last two years after a generous topping three autumns ago.

Of course, all the things that have withered up and stopped blooming can be cut away and the haulm discarded.  

There is a myriad of other things that will show up as you start working  your way through these few. Tomorrow is not too early.

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If you missed the annual bulb sale to benefit our local library you will just have to wait until next year.

The sale was again a smashing success: sold out, with $1,000 raised to go to Rhea Public Library. Congrats to all those who worked hard on the event.

JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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