Fire safety and prepping pansies: What to do in the garden this week

5 things to do in the garden this week

1. Pansies are the classic annuals for October planting. There is no more cheerful way to welcome guests as they walk towards your front door than by situating pansies with their jowly, whiskered faces on either side of the entryway. They are also excellent candidates for containers if you are wary of planting pansies in the ground because of their susceptibility to soil fungus diseases. No bigger mistake can be made than planting pansies in soil where they died prematurely, whether you planted them last week or last year. I have seen fall-planted pansies endure until the following June so they are not naturally short-lived. Because of the persistence of pathogenic soil fungi, however, you will need to wait at least two years to plant pansies in soil where a previous crop of them flopped not long after planting. When you do plant, make sure that the root ball is elevated half an inch above the soil surface as this provides an extra measure of drainage that could deter soil fungus attack. Incidentally, this same policy of planting slighting above grade pertains to annual vinca, also highly susceptible to disease, which can also be planted in the fall garden. Mulching around your pansies is recommended in order to keep soil moisture constant. Plant Majestic Giant pansies eight inches apart and smaller flowered varieties six inches apart in rich, well composted soil. Although they can take a little shade, they do best in full sun. You  want to avoid getting foliage wet so water from below if at all possible. Pansies do survive a freeze, tolerating winter temperatures down to 10 degrees if not colder, even if their foliage takes on a greyish cast when exposed to such extreme cold. You can plant pansies on soil under which bulbs are planted so that the pansies’ color will cover what would otherwise be bare ground until the flowers from your bulbs emerge in the spring.

2. If you have not already taken measures that promote fire safety, especially if your residence backs up to a wilderness area, do so now. According to California law, you are required to keep a hundred feet of “defensible space” around your house. The first 30 feet are called the “Lean, Clean, and Green Zone” and should be free of low-growing grasses, wood and compost piles, as well as so-called fire ladder plantings. A fire ladder consists of plants that increase in height as they approach any structure. In other words, you want to plant trees furthest from your house and specimens of decreasing size – shrubs followed by ground covers –  as you get closer to it and not vice versa. The next 70 feet are the “Reduced Fuel Zone” where taller grasses are eliminated, shrubs thinned out, and low-hanging tree limbs removed. It is also a good idea to cut away vines that climb up your outside walls and keep trunks denuded of all branches below a height of ten feet.

3. If you succeeded in keeping last year’s potted poinsettia alive, you deserve to be praised. To make sure its modified leaves or bracts turn red in December, provide it starting today with 13 hours of uninterrupted darkness, from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., followed by 11 hours of good light. For its period of total darkness, place it in a closet or put a cardboard box over it but ascertain that zero light gets in since the tiniest quantity of light will upset its biochemistry and prevent the color change you seek, which you may not otherwise see until March. Water only when soil is dry, every seven to ten days. Poinsettias will grow outdoors throughout Los Angeles, as well as points east, south, and northwest along the coast, as long as they are protected from severe cold. This can be achieved by planting against an east facing stucco wall. Not only will heat absorbed during the day radiate out towards the poinsettia at night, providing a measure of protection against the cold, but the morning sun will help it quickly thaw should it have endured a freeze the previous night.

4. Amaryllis belladonna, familiarly known as naked lady, defies conventional wisdom when it comes to bulbs. First, you will need close to a year of patience where naked ladies are concerned since, planted at the proper time, which is now, you will need to wait until next summer to see them bloom. Second, you do not plant them below the soil surface – as is the case with other bulbs, whose planting depth should equal two to three times their length – but want to leave the tops of naked lady bulbs protruding a bit above the earth. You will never have to water them as long as we get a few inches of winter rain, but this measure of benign neglect, when it comes to watering, applies to many other bulbs as well. The naked lady appellation refers to the fact that their leaves appear in summer, turn brown, and virtually disappear prior to emergence of fragrant pink trumpet blooms on long impressive stalks. Following shriveling of their flowers, naked ladies enter dormancy about this time which is when you want to divide large aggregations of their bulbs. If you divide their bulbs during active growth, you will have to wait several years until they bloom again.

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5. Seeds of vegetables and herbs in the umbellifer family, those with the ferny foliage, resist easy germination. Umbellifers, all of which may be planted now, include carrots, parsley, parsnips, fennel, and cilantro. You can accelerate germination by pouring boiling water directly over their seeds once they have been planted in a well-prepared garden bed. Alternatively, moisten some peat moss, put it on a paper plate, and intermingle your seeds with the moss. Then put plate, moss, and seeds in a ziplock bag, to be ensconced in your freezer for 24 hours. Upon removal from the freezer, put the ziplock bag on a seedling heating mat (available from online vendors for under $15) until seeds begin to sprout, at which point they can be planted in the garden row or in containers, covered with a little compost or potting soil.

Send questions, comments, and photos to joshua@perfectplants.com