Topsy-turvy weather, including a repeat visit of Indian summer over the past week, has made a shambles of the November work schedule.
In past years, you would ordinarily be raking the last leaves from the lawn and flower bed by now, but not so this year; the job has only begun. Composting would have been well underway by now, but we are only now processing the first leaves.
On the other hand, some garden events have been accelerated.
Spring crocus sprouted in some landscapes earlier this week. But those who mulched cooled the soil and stemmed the premature flowering cycle. In protected corners of some sunny gardens, dormant buds on forsythia and flowering quince began to swell and showed the first signs of petal color. Such buds will soon be destroyed by frost.
While matters stabilize in the outdoor garden, we embark on major holiday preparations. Your priority this weekend is to launch amaryllis so spectacular flowers grace your home for the holidays and the winter that follows.
Check out the supply at the garden shop this weekend, bringing home a half-dozen or more tubers which will accent your home or apartment with continuous flowers from Christmas to Easter, which falls on March 31 next year.
If this is your first venture with amaryllis, buy the prepackaged amaryllis kits which come with tuber, plastic pot and sterilized soil. If you have grown amaryllis before, limit your shopping to the best tubers available. You'll find top-quality Dutch and African amaryllis tubers at most garden shops in colors running from red, white and pink to yellow, apricot and bicolors.
If you have amaryllis left from last winter, we hope you showered tender, loving care on the plant through the spring and summer, eventually forcing it to go dormant a month ago on the basement floor. Now, give a few hard raps to the base of the pot to dislodge the plant and rootball, then hold the top of the tuber while you dip the rootball into a bucket of warm water.
Dip the soil so you are able to wash the soil away from the tuber, but don't stand the tuber in water. If you find "offshoots" or baby tubers growing off the mother plant, avoid separating them in the process. However, if they come loose for any reason, put them aside because they will be potted up separately.
From here, the procedure for potting old and new tubers is identical.
How wide is the tuber? Measure to be sure, then add two inches to that number and you have the precise size plastic pot needed. Use plastic pots instead of clay.
As for soil, use the best. You can buy pre-mixed 1-1-1 soil at most garden shops or you can make your own using equal amounts of milled or compressed sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite. Add equal amounts of each to a brown bag, enough to pot up all tubers.
Grip the top of the bag with your hand, then shake the bag vigorously for 10 seconds to mix the ingredients. Add the contents to a plastic dishpan, then hot water from the faucet to wet the ingredients. Don rubber gloves at this point, working your protected hands in the dishpan to make certain the soil has been moistened. Finally, scoop out the wet soil onto sheets of newspaper on the kitchen counter to surface dry for a moment.
Line the base of the plastic pot with some stones or gravel, then backfill halfway with your pre-wet 1-1-1 soil, to which a heaping tablespoon of lime is added and forked into the soil. Add more soil, filling the pot almost to the rim, forking another tablespoon of lime into the soil.
Scoop out some of the soil at the top center of the pot, then plant the amaryllis tuber so one-third is in the soil and two-thirds is out of the soil. Twist the tuber a little to seat the roots and allow the soil to come in contact with the wall of the tuber. Now, add five ounces or six ounces of warm water to the soil, not spilling water over the tuber as you do. Let the pot drain in the sink for a few minutes.
Aside from moist soil, the amaryllis needs sustained heat to break the dormant cycle. Immediately, place the potted amaryllis on top of a heat source -- ideally on top of a hot water heater or the furnace.
Lacking either, apartment dwellers should place the amaryllis atop a metal TV tray, then use a gooseneck desk lamp with a 60-watt bulb to provide a constant heat source. Place the desk lamp on the floor, then rotate so the lamp projects its light and heat to the base of the metal TV tray.
Leave the amaryllis intact and undisturbed for almost two weeks, during which time the tuber will send forth its first vertical shoot, which is called a "scape". When the shoot is longer than one inch, put the pot into full, direct sunlight in a south-facing window. If you're lacking full sunlight, place the pot under a set of grow lights where the automatic timer is set to illuminate the plant for 16 hours every day.
From then on, keep the soil lightly moist, alternating water and fertilizer. To supply nutrients, use Peters's 20-20-20 at full strength, pre-mixed in a plastic gallon milk jug. Keep a record when you water or fertilize so you will know what to do the next time.
As for the "offshoots" mentioned previously, each will be potted up separately in 1-1-1 soil, with lime added. Use three-inch plastic pots at this time, transplanting to four-inch pots in early March. These baby tubers will be grown nonstop for the next 18 months to 24 months, by which time they will have matured and reached flowering potential.
Next, we come to the "latecomer lawn program" for homeowners who for one reason or another were not able to renovate their lawns in late summer. Over the next three weeks, neglected lawns can be upgraded so that seed may be applied in late December or early January and a rejuvenated lawn is in place before next Easter. However, you must embark on the program this weekend if it is to succeed.
The symptoms of "troubled lawns" are all too clear. You find clusters and pockets of dead plant material, probably crabgrass and goosegrass killed by frost. If your lawn is a patchwork quilt of dead plants, you are looking at dead weeds which will not come back to life.
Begin renovating your troubled lawn today by bringing home your supplies from the garden shop. For lawns without trees, buy a container of "33 Plus" as well as an Ortho tree and shrub hose-end sprayer. If there are trees on the lawn, use Ortho Weed-B-Gon. A far better product for weed control around trees is "Turflon D."
Do not cut the lawn. Read the label instructions to determine the precise amount of product needed to control weeds in a 1,000-square-foot area. Using the Ortho tree and shrub hose-end sprayer, treat lawn weeds. If you use 33 Plus or Turflon D, only one application is needed for most weeds.
If you apply the weed-control products this weekend, weather permitting, all weeds will die to the roots over the next three weeks. Over the first December weekend, you will either hand-rake the dead weeds from the lawn surface or rent a machine to automate the job.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).