The second week of September is a good time to visit nurseries and garden centers for new plants to freshen the landscape.
Look for Japanese maples that show off fall foliage, shrubs such as cotoneaster with bright winter berries, and oak leaf hydrangeas that offer flowers plus foliage that glows in the autumn sun.
Your soil is likely still be dry from the summer weather so make sure you water any newly planted shrubs until the winter rains begin.
Q. OK, it looks like I will be stuck at home all winter until this coronavirus thing ends. My new idea for survival is to plant a winter garden with shrubs and plants that look good during the coming dark months. I already have forsythia in one corner of the yard but what should I plant behind and in front of forsythia to extend the bloom season? I may add a bird feeder as well. — J., email
A. I am just waiting for our governor to pass a new law: Everyone must plant more hellebores, crocus and mini daffodils this fall to make “staying home” more tolerable. We could call it the Corona Color Bonus.
There is also a cold tolerant rhododendron called ‘PJM’ that will flower as early as the forsythia and winterberry holly with red fruit that feeds the birds. For vivid red or gold stems in a winter garden, check out the Cornus stolonifera or red and yellow twig dogwood. The more compact Cornus ‘Arctic Fire’ dogwood is a 4-foot shrub that is shade and deer tolerant and survives even in wet soils.
You can use an evergreen with a tall and dramatic form in the back of your winter garden corner. The upright Japanese holly ‘Patti O” or the narrow growing Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’ won’t take up much space but the columnar form adds an exclamation point to the winter garden.
Most important of all is to use the dormant season to grow fresh ideas for your landscape. Start a new idea notebook, listen to Zoom lectures and remind yourself that winter and quarantines are temporary.
Q. What is the secret to making cut hydrangea blooms last? I live in Enumclaw and see that you have dried hydrangeas on your gate. I have tried to dry hydrangeas earlier in the summer but mine just wilt a day or two after I cut them. — A.C., Enumclaw
A. It is all about maturity when it comes to handling tough times and a cut hydrangea needs to be mature enough to no longer have a drinking problem. Feel the petals before you cut the blooms. They should be dry and feel like paper. The oldest blooms on the shrub will be the best for drying.
Once cut, remove all the leaves on the stem. Then place in a vase with one inch of water that you allow to evaporate, or if you have a cool, dark shed or garage, hang the cut blooms upside down to dry. As long as you keep the cut and dried blooms out of the sun they should hold their color for weeks outdoors and for years indoors.
There is another shortcut you can use. Artificial hydrangea blooms can look so realistic that it is hard to tell they are not the real thing. When it comes to gardening, there are no rules.
Q. If I harvest tomatoes when they are green, will they turn red? And how can I store them? — P.S., Buckley
A. Not all green tomatoes will ripen when off the vine. They must first reach the “star” stage when there is a darker green star on the blossom end of the fruit. Once the tomatoes reach this point, there is no turning back and your green tomato will ripen if it stays on the vine or not.
You can store your green tomatoes in a dry spot but do not let them touch one another. Some gardeners report that wrapping green tomatoes in dry newspaper keeps them from rotting but just keeping them dry with good air circulation seems to work just as well.
Just be sure to harvest all tomatoes at the first sign of late blight – this is a common disease in Western Washington that turns leaves, stems and fruit black from a fungus among us. Keeping your tomato plants dry by covering the plants with an umbrella or growing them under the eaves of the house is the best way to prevent late blight. Once the plants are infected, they cannot be saved so harvest quickly and do not compost the blighted tomato vines.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.