Virginia Landmarks
December 2, 1998
Fairlington Historic District
Gardening By The Yard
National Register
March 29, 1999
Photo of Tom Corbin, Gardener
Photo by Ron Patterson
Gardening by the Yard
By Tom Corbin
A Fairlington Gardener
Questions and comments can be directed to - please reference:
"Gardening By the Yard Column."

Fall Gardening 2011
(Posted November 4, 2011)

Photo of a Day Lily - Tom's Garden 2011

Tom's 2011 Garden
Click Here for SUMMER Color

(Posted June 15, 2011)
(Posted June 23, 2011)
Photo of Hydrangea - Tom's Garden 2011
How beautifully leaves grow old.
How full of light and color are their last days.
~ John Burroughs

After this week end's Halloween "snow", I wasn't certain whether to entitle this "fall" or "winter" gardening!

It appears that the temperatures in Fairlington did not dip low enough to freeze the still-blooming remnants of summer and fall. Perhaps we will have some warm days to keep things going a bit longer; however, I would not delay finishing any fall planting and clean up in the border - snow for Halloween does not bode well for the winter season (still about 6 weeks away).

Being the procrastinator I have become, I was late in putting in the fall kale and pansies and planting spring bulbs, but I did get the crops done last week. Planting over five dozen pansy plants, a dozen kale and assorted other items, and about 150 bulbs does take a toll on one's back!

Planning for Spring - Bulbs

Remember that you can plant tulips until the ground freezes. Usually this means into December, but with the current, strange weather pattern - who knows.

There are bargains to be had in purchasing bulbs now since nurseries are busy preparing for the Christmas season. The smaller bulbs - crocus, snowdrops, trout lilies, etc. - should have gone in in September. Daffodils, too, should have been planted, but if you have the bulbs, put them in now. Daffodils take a little longer to root than tulips.

Late planted bulbs usually bloom later than established ones; tulips usually bloom on schedule no matter when you plant them.

Bulbs look better planted in mass and in clumps rather than planting them in rows. Planting in clumps of odd numbers (3, 5, 7 etc.) gives a more natural look. Odd number plantings of any material looks more natural. Tulips usually bloom when perennials are well sprouted, so the look is appealing - tulips blooming amid the spring foliage.

How to Plant Bulbs

Planting tulip bulbs about six inches in depth keeps the squirrels away. Working some slow release fertilizer in the soil also seems to discourage the squirrels. I used to spray a rodent repellant, but have got lazy and just let the fertilizer and depth keep the squirrels at bay!

If you buy quality bulbs, you are guaranteed spring blooms since the buds are already set in the bulbs. Most bulbs can withstand shade since they are up before the trees leaf out fully in the spring; however, you may have fewer blooms the following spring since the bulb foliage needs proper sunlight to set next year's buds.

Grape hyacinth foliage is well above ground now. Don't remove it, and there is no need to cover it - it withstands the winter.

Planning for Spring - Pansies and "Flowering" Kale

Ornamental Kale

Six inch pots of pansies give a more instant effect in the border, but my experience has been that the larger plants do not withstand the winter as well smaller ones.

This year I put in 4 inch pots of pansies which are not as fully developed. Given a few weeks of non-freezing temperatures, they will have time to develop roots and tops and be strong enough to hold through the winter, blooming during mild spells. Amend the soil with some slow release fertilizer and humus (if you have it) to give the plants nutrition while they are still growing.

Remember to loosen the soil after removing the pansy plant from the pot so that the roots have contact with the soil.

I find that the looser leafed kale withstands the winter better than the so-called flowering cabbage plants (which actually look like cabbages). Snow and ice tend to accumulate in the cabbage leaves causing rot. This is not the case with the kale.

Both the kale and cabbage develop darker colors as the temperatures drop.

Those plants that survive the winter actually bloom in the spring and their feathery yellow blossoms are a welcomed addition to the spring border; simply remove any winter-damaged leaves in the spring. They usually bloom with the tulips and azaleas.

There is also a "Tuscan kale" that looks nice in the border if you can find it. The leaves are a textured gray green. This variety is actually edible.

Speaking of edible plants, I noticed that the Smithsonian gardeners put in lettuce and spinach plants in their fall-planted pots. Seems like a good idea, looks nice, and gives an extra boost to dinner time's fresh salad!

Patio Plantings

Residents complain that their patios look bare in the winter. A "backbone" of smaller evergreens keeps the patio vibrant throughout the season. My patio has boxwood, Mahonia (turns a nice bronze color when the temperatures drop), camellia, euyonomous, and Nandina (with a nice crop of berries this year) plantings. Of course, no matter what you have back there it looks ragged during the coldest weeks and at the end of the season before spring tidying up - but a good backbone of evergreen helps eliminate the bare earth look.

Potting up some pansies, cabbages, small grasses, and other on-sale small evergreens gives winter interest, too. Use bigger pots to keep the winter watering down to a minimum. Given the micro climate of most patios, these pots will grow earlier in the spring than items planted directly in the ground. Stick in a few bulbs - tulips, hyacinths, daffodils - for instant spring color.


Winter Interest
Red Twigged Dogwood

Some azalea foliage adds winter interest. Two varieties mentioned in a recent article worth considering are 'Silver Sword' (green/white evergreen leaves) and 'Stewartstonian' (brick red leaves in the winter).

Nandina domestica turns reddish brown in the winter and offers braces of berries (which the birds leave alone). There are dwarf nandinas to consider with interesting foliage shape and color, but the domestica variety is an old standby that is easily grown and can be radically pruned in the spring so it doesn't outgrow the space.

There are red and yellow twigged dogwoods which provide winter interest. These are shrub variety dogwoods and not the usual tree forms. These dogwoods need severe spring pruning to encourage new growth which colors easily in the winter.


Prune back perennial tops now, leaving two or three inches of stems so you'll know where they are in the spring. Leaving some stems also helps prevent winter rot from ice and cold. Be sure to cut the stems; don't pull at them because this, too, can cause rot. Don't pull hostage foliage; always cut the leaves back to prevent winter rot.

If you don't discard your mums in your fall clean up, cut the tops back after the blooms die. You will see new growth already on mums. Remove fallen leaves from your border. Leaves that accumulate around perennials can produce rot.

Applying mulch to the border adds a clean, neat effect, but mulch should not be applied until the soil really cools down. A light mulch of two inches helps prevent plants from heaving out of the ground during winter thaws and also gives an even, clean appearance to the border.


Don't prune spring flowering shrubs now, except to remove dead wood. If you do, you lessen the number of spring blooms. Summer blooming shrubs, EXCEPT hydrangeas, can be pruned.

Pruning hydrangeas now means you are removing next year's flower buds. Many people ask, "Why didn't my hydrangea bloom this year?"

The answer is usually that you pruned it in the fall/ early winter, thus removing the flower buds, or the tips were winter killed. Hydrangeas tend to sprout early in the spring and may be damaged from spring freezes and frost.

The hydrangea variety 'endless summer' blooms on new wood and can be pruned at any time; however, if you prune it radically in the fall, you're going to find that the shrub blooms much later on new growth.


Remove hoses from outdoor faucets and drain. Remember to turn off outside faucets from the inside valve. Leave the outside faucet open after turning it off from the inside valve.

Protect empty terra cotta pots from freezing - invert them or store them in a dry place.

Clean, oil, and put away shears, loppers, trowels, etc. to prevent rust. Store any remaining fertilizer in a dry place.

The Late Autumn/ Winter Scene

As I write this column, my borders still have plenty of interest - kale, pansies, berried shrubs, toad lilies, a late flowering Korean chrysanthemum, and some grasses as well as liriope and perennials, such as sedum and Shasta daisy, which have sprouts that will remain over the winter.

Actually late fall and winter have their own interests. Take time to enjoy the shape of bare trees against the scrubbed blue sky. Notice the color and texture of different barks. (Some crape myrtle bark has already begun to "shed" creating interesting colors and textures.) Some bark colors intensify during the winter.

Remember we just put the border to "bed" in the fall in anticipation of another spring. Gardeners are really the eternal optimists! Keep a sharp look out, for there is always something of interest in the natural world.

"Nature has undoubtedly mastered the art of winter gardening
and even the most experienced gardener can learn from the unrestrained beauty around them." --Vincent A. Simeone, in "Wonders of the Winter Landscape"

Even though Fairlington gardeners are limited by our spatial constraints, it is always a treat to keep up with gardening trends by exploring noteworthy garden publications. I highly recommend the following:


Practical Web Sites

Gardening Resources Galore - Offers great links on "Residential Gardening", "Indoor Gardening", "Native Plant Gardening", and much more. offers some simple, practical videos on garden maintenance and general gardening advice.

Note to Readers

As some of you probably remember, I used to do this column for the All Fairlington Bulletin as an effort to offer to local gardeners some practical advice based on personal experience. I am always interested in who (if anyone) actually reads or uses this advice and will respond to your questions or comments. Drop me a line at and reference "Web Site Garden Column" in the subject heading.

American Horticultural Society
Web Site
Photo of Gardener

The American Horticultural Society (AHS) is one of the oldest national gardening organizations in the country. Since 1922, we have provided America's gardeners with the highest quality gardening and horticultural education possible.

We accomplish this with the help of an impressive network of experts -- from the members of our Board of Directors, specialized Advisory Committees, National Great American Gardener Award Winners and corporate sponsors.

At AHS you’ll get connected -- to great gardens around the world, gardening education for all levels of skill, sources of information on any garden subject imaginable, a community of gardeners eager to share their experiences, other great gardening events and activities, and much, much more.

"Go Green"

In the interest of protecting our environment, there are many thing the small-time gardener can do to limit our impact on the planet.

Plant native species. The American Horticulture Society (located near Mt. Vernon), Blandy Farm (the VA arboretum near Winchester, VA), Green Springs Farm (located off Little River Turnpike), and local farmers' markets offer native species which will grow in our area.

Use natural products. Limit the use of chemical sprays and fertilizers in the garden.

Consider drought tolerant plants. Once established many plants, including native species, are drought tolerant. Discover them through a little garden research.

Promote Natural Growth Patterns. Encourage the natural growth form of plants and shrubs. Sheared plants are stressed out and use more water than those left to grow in their natural pattern.

Photo of Earthtaken by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972.

Photo of Flowers
Photo of Flowers
Signs of Spring
Tom's Garden - April 2010
Posted April 5, 2010
Photo of Flowers
Photo of Flowers
Photo of Flowers
Photos by Andy Eschen and Larry Fickau
Fairlington Flowers - May 2008
Posted May 28, 2008
Photo of Flowers
Turn your backyard into a haven for wildlife

Fairlington Historic District Links

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