This beautiful time of the year presents its challenges and gifts. As the temperatures lessen and the days shorten the trees do their chlorophyll trick and change to glorious shades of gold, red and saddle brown. Summer-past gardens become food for our compost piles.
Some plants that have been dormant for the “heat season” begin to shine. Geraniums begin to bloom again and their leaves darken to rich green, forcing the decision of “compost or houseplant for the winter”? Chrysanthemums cut back during the warmth of summer, bloom long and bright with shades of burgundy, maroon, gold and lavender. Container plants, also cut back and fed during August and September, can be moved to sheltered locations closer to buildings to extend their bloom into the chilly days to come. Tender perennials or houseplants can be gently washed and sprayed with an insecticide and brought gradually into the house for the winter.
Although this looks like the end of gardening for this year, you still have some wonderful opportunities, especially this year.
A Great Time to Plant
With the temperature down, outside is a special place to be. The insect population has lessened and that certainly adds to the comfort level. Planting and dividing can be accomplished with some sweat equity, but with great benefits in the end.
Remember to plant using the lasagna or no-till technique and to loosen the root balls before placing in the holes. Water well at planting time and do not forget to water again during the more mild days of the winter.
What oh, what to plant?
Late fall is also a wonderful time to take stock of your garden spaces. We clean out and reorganize our wardrobes so why not our garden spaces? Carefully examine those clumps of daylilies, iris, perennials, ground cover and shrubs that have rooted “babies”. They are a wealth of planting material. Divide gently by soaking clumps and pulling apart or in the case of grasses, by brute force with an axe or shovel. Planted with care, mulched and watered, they will reward you with rebounding growth, usually by the second or third year after division. Remember not to fertilize newly divided plants. They need to remain dormant, rest and not be asked to grow.
Selective weeding, looking at what you are removing, can sometimes save you a bundle. Plants self-seed and sprout in great abundance. Look before you leap, or in this case before you rip out. Designate a specific area of your property to act as a nursery. Look for a sheltered partial shade area to winter-over your seedlings or cuttings.
Collect seeds, knowing that mature seeds are dark brown or black and can be stored in labeled bags in the refrigerator for the coming spring. If not refrigerated they dry out and will not readily germinate. Knowing the hydration factor, always remember to soak seeds overnight before planting for the best success rates. Seeds also make a great gift in decorative small bags with colorful labels, tied with a bow. Small gift bags can be used for this purpose or plastic sandwich or snack bags with gift tags for identification. Have friends over and have a seed exchange.
Dig in some nice winter crops; Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, collards, beets and carrots can be planted and overwintered under a covering of mulch. They can be mulched using pine needles, straw or chopped leaves from your lawn. This enables them to establish roots and grow through the colder season. These crops if planted early enough in the fall, can be harvested all winter long, first as tender seedlings, then as mature plants and then when they go to seed, can be used for future plantings. These crops make wonderful winter vegetables and can be made into rich soups and stews. Root vegetables are rich in vitamins we need all winter long.
Harvest those herbs you have continued to cut back through the heat. They can be dried, hanging in bunches in the attic, or rinsed, dried and frozen to use in winter brews. Give those dried herbs a couple of months to dry and one gray day in winter, crumble them up and place them in spice jars for aromatic additions to sauces and soups, to say nothing of the room and hand-freshening affect in the crushing. Tender sprigs of purple basil makes bright red vinegar that can be colorful when used in salads.
As the temperatures drop and frost becomes an issue, there are still some food sources in your yard. Persimmons that grow in this temperate zone are delicious and sweet but only following a frost. “Tender” is the term referring to plants that react to frost, by withering and dying. We all know the “first to go” crops, lettuce, basil, and tomatoes. These are great additions to your compost pile.
Look around! Fall and winter interest can be found in many plants including: Virginia creeper; with bright red fall foliage, red chokeberry, orange in fall and bark interest in winter, strawberry bush with red leaves and fruit capsules in the winter and witch hazel with red berries in the winter. Itea has beautiful red fall coloration. Lindera has scarlet berries and yellow leaves while swamp rose is adorned with luscious red rose hips. Lots of native viburnums show off with fall and winter interest. Dogwoods, holies, scarlet oaks and red maples along with blue junipers with their wonderful deep green foliage and blue-gray berries are a breath of fresh air all winter long. Look for the soft gray-white bark of the sycamores and bleached leaves of beech that hang on until early spring.
So celebrate, as fall and winter are many things, a reason to give thanks for what the past year has given and a focus on things to come.