It’s pecan time. Hog killing time. Time for the first frost to sweeten the collards and cabbage in time for the Thanksgiving table. Time to round up all the hand tools and give their wood handles the benefit of a protective treatment of one part linseed oil and one part turpentine.
Apply two coats evenly. Sharpen their blades, spray with WD-40 and store them indoors if you can. Good hand tools will last a lifetime treated this way. Run the lawnmower out of gas, and the chainsaw and weed-eater, too. Store them indoors. Get rid of any leftover fuel. Storing it over the winter won’t improve its disposition. The ethanol in it will turn to water and damage your small engines. When you buy new fuel, always add a stabilizer that says on the label it will deal with ethanol.
Fall is the best time to take stock of the garden, too, and think about what needs to be changed for next year. Draw a map of your garden, labeling where perennials are while you can still see them. Think about what worked and what didn’t. If you need to move things, now is the time. Peonies can be separated, other perennials can be divided. Shrubs can be dug up and moved and new ones planted. This should be one of your busiest gardening months.
- If you are starting an asparagus or strawberry bed, do it now. Remember to cultivate deeply for both. Plant the asparagus crowns in trenches 8 inches deep with a couple of inches of compost in the bottom. This time of year, cover completely, bringing the soil in the trenches up to surface level. You will probably need to mix some lime with the soil as asparagus like a relatively high pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Make sure to mark your rows carefully because when those little shoots come up in spring, you don’t want to step on them. Let the whole bed go to ferns the first year. Then the following spring you’ll have a bed full of thick stalks to break off and eat.
- For strawberries, try cultivating the soil, adding some lime if necessary (they like a pH of 5.8 to 6.5) then covering the bed with newspaper. Wet down the paper and cut a slit for each plant. Tuck the crown down into the soft soil, leaving the leaves above the paper. Then mulch heavily with straw or sawdust. And remember, pinch off the early blossoms next spring to let the plant concentrate on growing a good root system before having to produce berries.
- You should be harvesting a bounty of greens this month: kale, collards, cabbage, spinach, mustard, and turnip greens. Use a cut and come again method of harvesting and you’ll have greens all winter. Broccoli and Brussels sprouts can also make it through winter freezes. After you have harvested the heads and sprouts of these two, use the greens just like you would collards or spinach. Cut into strips and sauteed with garlic and butter, those greens are delicious.
- It’s also time to dig carrots, late potatoes, sweet potatoes and so on before a hard frost turns them to mush. The last of the lettuce and other tender greens can be harvested now, or you can extend the season a bit with floating row cover.
- Sadly, many ornamental exotics have escaped into the ecosystem and have become invasive. Privet, honeysuckle, English ivy and others have made some areas completely inhospitable to native plants. Think about using native plants whenever possible in your garden. They will thrive because they are already adapted to the conditions, and they are much less likely to be bullies. Remember though that just because something is native somewhere in the United States doesn’t mean it won’t be an invasive in another area. If you have any question, check with your county Extension Service to find out. If there are exotics you’d like to use, check with the county agent about its habits. Not all exotics are ornery.
- If you decide to try native wildflowers, remember that observation is the gardener’s first and best tool. Walk around your property and look at the different kinds of sites you have. Note how much sunlight and shade, whether a spot is dry and windy or wet and boggy, what kinds of soil are present in this or that area. What are the soil pH and drainage characteristics? The length of time and quality of sunlight received daily can be crucial for native plants.
- Wildflowers common to prairies and large, open meadows normally grow in full sun and will do best when they receive half a day or more of direct sunlight. Plants classified as savanna or open woodland species prefer growing in partial shade. Some flowers that grow in shady areas have adapted to get the sunlight they need by flowering before the trees completely leaf out. Many wildflowers will tolerate drought conditions or relatively poor soils. Yet even these tough plants, (such as black-eyed Susan), will grow more vigorously if planted in richer soil. You may decide to plant black-eyed Susan in an area with relatively poor soil, simply to curb its enthusiasm.
- Collecting native plants from the wild is unethical and often illegal (in the case of rare or threatened species like lady’s-slippers and pitcher plants). Fortunately, you can purchase native plants propagated from seed. Many wildflowers are dormant in the fall or spring, making this a fine time for transplanting them.
- Collecting seeds of wildflowers is appropriate, so long as you harvest seeds judiciously, taking only a small sample so the existing plant colonies will be able to reproduce themselves. Today, wildflower seeds are quite widely available, so we’re frequently better off purchasing these. Growing plants from seed is certainly more economical than buying mature plants. The main disadvantage is that many native plants require a long time to mature or to germinate from seed. Many types of seeds need pretreatment before they can be planted. Most often this involves stratification (planting the seeds in a pot and then refrigerating them for several months until the seeds are fooled into believing that it’s time to break dormancy and germinate). Sometimes pouring very hot water over the soil covering them will help them germinate more quickly. Experiment and make notes in your garden journal.
Trees and Shrubs
With the end of summer, days get shorter. The changes in the angle of the sun and the amount of daylight trigger the trees to begin getting ready for winter. Here is a brief explanation for the color changes we see in the leaves of deciduous trees:
- Plants take water from the ground through their roots. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Plants use sunlight to turn water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose. This is called photosynthesis (putting together with light.) Glucose is usable food for the plant’s growth. Chlorophyll is a chemical that gives plants their green color and helps make photosynthesis possible.
- The month of October is often one of the driest months of the year. This helps trigger the plants to prepare to go into dormancy by November. This lack of light and water cuts off photosynthesis, allowing the trees to rest, and live off the food they had stored during the summer. As the chlorophyll disappears from the leaves the yellow and orange colors emerge. These colors have been in the leaves since the previous spring, but have been hidden by the abundance of green.
- The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the fall. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves to convert the glucose into a red color. The brown color of trees, like some oaks, is made from waste products left in the leaves. The fallen leaves, when shredded and added to compost bins or used as mulch, help continue the cycle of life.”Evergreens” are another science marvel. They keep most of their leaves, or needles, during the winter and continue to photosynthesize, if provided enough water. It is very important that evergreens do not dry out prior to a freeze. Their special leaves, or needles, are resistant to cold and moisture loss.
- This time of year, take advantage of late-season tree sales. The only challenge with trees in pots purchased now is that they may be root-bound. Before you plant them in the ground, loosen the roots. Otherwise, they may simply continue to encircle the plant rather than spread out. Make the planting hole at least twice the size of the pot. Amend the soil if needed. Water deeply, after planting.
- Fallen leaves will smother and kill a lawn if left in place all winter. If you have a heavy leaf accumulation, consider moving the shredded leaves to be used as mulch in the flowerbeds. Increasing organic matter will stimulate the soil microbes that support the soil.
- Continue to mow grass until it stops actively growing, using a mulching blade on your mower. For the final mowing of the season, cut cool-season grasses (fescue, rye blends) to 2½ inches and warm-season grasses between 1½ and 2 inches. This is just a little shorter than you should cut it during the spring and early autumn.
- Prevent weedy patches next spring by reseeding now. Grass seed grows well in fall because the temperatures are ideal and there is less competition from annual weeds. Just be sure to give the lawn enough time to establish itself before winter weather hits. Plant and renovate warm-season grasses in the spring (Zoysia, St Augustine, Bermuda).
Don’t fertilize warm-season grasses in fall.
- Resist use of a pre-emergent for your turf if you have just seeded as it can stunt or kill the seeds.