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Have you ever had a ‘substitute’ teacher?  As most of you know, a substitute teacher doesn’t do things the same way our regular teacher does.

A few years ago, I was asked to step in as a ‘substitute’ for my father-in-law’s landscape.

Meticulously pruned desert ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
 
My father-in-law had always been a meticulous gardener and took a lot of pride in his landscape.
Have you ever seen rounder shrubs?
 
A few years earlier, I had designed the landscape around his new home and tried to convince him to allow his plants to grow into their natural shapes.  But as you can see from the photo above, he didn’t follow my advice.
 
He eventually took out his backyard grass and replaced it with artificial turf and whenever flowers or leaves would fall on the grass, he would vacuum them up – I’m not kidding.
 
We would often joke with each other about our very different styles of gardening – especially when he would come over to my house for a visit and see my plants growing “wild and free” as he would say.  
 
But despite our differences, we shared the same love for plants and the garden.
 
Unfortunately, his gardening days were numbered and he asked me to come over and help him with the gardening tasks that he could no longer do.
 
My father-in-law was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in October 2010 and it progressed very rapidly.
 
So, I became his ‘substitute gardener’ and I was happy to be able to help out so that he could still enjoy the beauty of his garden, even if he could not care for it himself.
 
 
In early August of 2011, I lightly pruned back his gold lantana.  At this point, my father-in-law spent most of his time indoors sitting down. But, as I was pruning, I saw him slowly make his way out, with his walker, so he could watch me prune his plants.
 
At this point, he could no longer talk due to ALS and I’m certain that if he could have spoken, he might have asked me to make the lantana ’rounder’.
 
After this light pruning, the lantana would grow back to its original size before stopping during winter.  If they had not been pruned, they would have look quite overgrown for my father-in-law’s taste.
Light pruning involves removing 1/3 or less.  The timing of this light pruning is crucial – prune too late and your plants will be extra susceptible to damage from frost.  Don’t prune after early August in zone 9 (July in zone 8) gardens. Pruning in fall should not be done for this very reason. 
 
 
Another part of the garden that my father-in-law took a lot of pride in was his flowering annuals.  Every year, he would plant the same red geraniums and white-flowering bacopa in winter.  Once spring rolled around, he would plant red and white vinca. He never deviated by trying out newer colors or varieties.
 
I found myself taking over this job as well and when I came home and see all there was to do in my neglected garden – I didn’t mind.  It felt so good to be able to control how his garden looked because ALS had taken control of everything else.
 
My father-in-law died in September 2011, just 11 months after being diagnosed with ALS.  
 
It’s been almost 3 years since he passed away, but whenever August comes around and I find myself lightly pruning back my gold lantana – I enjoy the memory of one our last moments together in the garden as I pruned his lantana.

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Each year, around the end of August, I walk into the plant section of our local home improvement store just to look at the colorful, flowering annuals


While I may be sorely tempted,  I don’t buy any; I just like to look.


BUT, I know that I am in trouble when the majority of the nursery shelves is covered in a sea of winter annuals – I feel like a kid in a candy store.  The vibrant colors and scents are almost intoxicating – to me anyway.

 

In the past, when I managed landscapes on golf courses, I would come to the store in our work truck and load countless flats of annuals for planting around the golf courses and the other buildings.  I loved planning ahead of time what I would plant and the color combinations that I would use.

Petunias, bacopa, and alyssum

In the low desert, winter annuals typically show up in the nurseries around late August, and it is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of fall being just around the corner along with the promise of cooler weather.  So before you know it, you buy a bunch of flowers and run home and plant them.  The problem is, is that it is often still too hot for them to survive.

 Red geraniums with bacopa
For years, I would tear out the summer annuals around the golf courses and plant winter flowers in late September, usually with good results.  Of course, I would have to be vigilant and replace a few plants that would fall victim to the warm September temperatures, but overall they did fine.  
 
That is until one year when we had higher than usual temperatures in early October.  The flowers kept dying despite my best efforts.  Each day on my way to work, I would have to stop by the nursery to buy replacement plants.  This got kind of old after 2 – 3 weeks and I would have to go from store to store to find the same kind of flowers that I needed.
 Blue Petunias 

So, I learned my lesson – no matter what, we would not plant winter annuals until late October.  I mean, it was silly to pull out the summer annuals in September when they still looked great.  I think people want to get a jump start on winter flowers because it makes us feel like the weather is cooler when it isn’t.  So unless you want to make extra visits to your local nursery, WAIT until mid-October.

Now, since I no longer manage landscape areas, I am only responsible for my annual pots.  Last year I planted hot pink geraniums with alyssum, and they did very well.  In the past, I have tried the following combinations with good results:
 
– Yellow Snapdragons with Blue (Deep Purple) 
– Petunias and White Alyssum
– Red Geraniums with White Alyssum
– Hot Pink Geraniums with Lobelia
– Yellow Pansies with Lobelia 
– Light Blue Pansies and Alyssum
– White Snapdragons with Pink Petunias and Lobelia 

 

Snapdragon

 PLANTING:  For containers (pots), I use a planting/potting mix, which is specially formulated for containers – not potting soil, which can become soggy.  

 
If you are planting annuals in the ground, then I add compost or potting soil to the existing soil at a ratio of about 1 part compost to 1 part existing soil.  


If you do not have a compost pile at home, you can buy bagged compost at your local nursery.  Add slow-release fertilizer, following directions on the label.  Plant your winter annuals, making sure that they have enough space between them to grow.
 
CARE:  Water twice a day.  I usually water in the morning and maybe late in the afternoon as the plants are becoming established (about two weeks).  You can then water once a day or every 2 – 3 days, depending on the weather.  


In a managed landscape setting, I would also fertilize weekly with a liquid fertilizer to promote maximum blooming.  At home, I usually fertilize every other week.
Viola
 

Now that we are in the second half of October, I am ready for planting winter annuals in my garden.  I have been thinking about planting violas.  I have not planted them since I was a little girl and I did notice some beautiful ones at the nursery back in August.  Those violas are probably dead from the heat of late August.  


Hopefully, they will have some new ones in now that it is really time to plant!