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OPINION | JANET B. CARSON: Breaking Ground

by Janet B. Carson October 2, 2021 at 1:37 a.m.
Blackgum leaves turn deep red or burgundy in the fall. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)


We finally got a taste of fall weather, with crisp, clear blue skies and sunny days with cool nights. It warmed back up a bit for a few days, but we can all hope that is the end of the warming trend. We are in that transition between the air conditioning and the heater, and it feels good.

It was awfully dry heading out of September with only a little respite in some parts of the state. We are still drier than I would like. Our plants are preparing for fall, and we want them as healthy as possible heading into dormancy. So, pay attention and continue to water as needed.

◼️ Signs of fall are everywhere, from falling leaves to pumpkins, mums and pansies. Halloween decorations are popping up. Group a combination of pumpkins and gourds, throw in some mums and pansies, maybe a hay bale or a cornstalk, and you have instant landscaping that can last for a month or more.

◼️ Pumpkin availability increases every year. Some traditionalists just want an orange jack-o'-lantern, but there are plenty of options for the adventurous folk. Pumpkins and gourds and other winter squashes come in many colors, including white, striped, splotched, green, almost black, and yellow. The skin can be smooth or rough, with some that look like they are covered in popcorn. When choosing these hard-skinned fruits, inspect them for soft spots or blemishes. You want blemish-free fruits with a healthy stalk attached. Elevating them above bare soil can also delay the inevitable rotting. Occasionally squirrels and other animals start feeding on them, so monitor them.

◼️ While some gardeners still have healthy and happy summer annuals and vegetables, many gardens are looking a little sad in the extended dry conditions. Cleanup and planting can be done in the vegetable garden and the flower garden. As vegetables, annuals and perennials play out, pull them and add them to the compost pile — if they weren't diseased. When you open up a space in the garden, replant. Vegetable transplants are readily available, along with winter annuals, including pansies, violas, kale, cabbage and Swiss chard.

◼️ Interest in native plants, particularly wildflowers that attract bees and butterflies, continues to grow. October is an ideal time to plant wildflower seeds and transplants. Make sure the site is clean of grass and weeds before planting. Large beds in full sun get a lot of competition from grass and weeds and can be hard to maintain as a wildflower garden. If you are growing totally from seeds, throw in a combination of annuals and perennials to ensure some blooms the first season. Many perennial plants don't bloom from seed the first year. Start small and add to the garden each year so it doesn't get overwhelming.

◼️ If you haven't been watering (and even if you have) many trees are shutting down early and starting to shed leaves. Many people are lamenting that they think this will be a poor year for fall color in Arkansas, but don't be too quick to predict. Moisture levels, coupled with cool nights and warm sunny days affect fall color. If leaves are starting to fall in your yard, regular mowing can handle them for now. When leaf-dropping begins in earnest, raking or mulching will be needed.

◼️ If your house looks like a commercial greenhouse in the winter from all your overwintering houseplants and tropical plants, now is the time to begin the move inside. Inside and outside conditions that mimic each other makes for the easiest transition. I know of a few people who have turned on their heat inside their house already (not even a possibility at my house), and if it is too cold for you indoors, it is too cold for heat-loving tropicals outdoors. Clean and check all your plants before you move them in. Insects and diseases will multiply rapidly indoors. Use the sunniest room you can. Cut back on your watering schedule.

◼️ If you want to try overwintering some of your favorite annuals, take some cuttings and then toss the rest of the plant. Remember that not every plant is a candidate for indoor living.

Nyssa sylvatica, blackgum, grows 50 feet tall but only 20 to 30 feet wide. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)
Nyssa sylvatica, blackgum, grows 50 feet tall but only 20 to 30 feet wide. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Janet B. Carson)


One of the prettiest native trees for fall color is blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica).

When people hear the "gum" part of the name, they shy away from this tree, thinking of the nasty sweetgum balls, but this tree has no thorny fruits, just a small black drupe or fruit.

The deep red or burgundy fall color is one of its main attributes, and it begins to put on a show before any other tree in our landscapes.

The tree will reach a mature size of 50 feet in height, but it has a narrow, almost columnar type of growth, getting only 20-30 feet wide.

Once established, it is fairly drought tolerant. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. It does form a deep tap root, which can make transplanting a bit difficult, but today you can find them in large containers in nurseries.

A few variegated or dwarf forms are available.

Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.


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