A month ago we were heading for shady places to get out of the sun, but now we look for sunny places to warm ourselves. Even the stubborn folks who still refuse to put on socks recognize the unmistakable chill in the air. October is my favorite time of year, with bright blue skies and pumpkin flavored everything. It’s also the time when gardens are in their last days, as frost approaches.
When Will it Frost?
How soon frost hits depends not only on the nighttime temperature but on the circumstances in a particular garden and even how hard the wind is blowing. If your garden is on the upper side of a slope, the frost may come a little later in the month than if you are gardening in a valley or low pocket where cooler air collects. If the air is very still (one of those clear crisp autumn nights when every star is visible and you are sure you can hear the coyotes calling in the Arboretum), very cold air can collect near the ground and freeze your tender plants. Here in coastal Boston the ocean provides extra moisture in our air, so the soil and air don’t cool down as fast as they do for our neighbors to the west. But guessing when the frost will come to your garden is not an exact science.
So there is a little period of gambling, when gardeners who want to see the bell peppers get as big as possible may risk leaving them on the plants just a little too long, and then overnight those pepper plants can turn into yucky black stalks with watery globs hanging on them.
Some folks decide to deconstruct the garden in part because they are tired of caring for the plants. I’m kind of tired of picking green beans, and was thinking today would be a good day to pull the bean plants out, but there was such a big harvest hanging on the vines, and so many flowers promising more beans next time, I felt ashamed of my laziness and dutifully picked another bagful.
In my community garden plot I have a tiny fall garden growing right now. There are radishes, which grow quickly and are already as thick as, well, as a very thin pencil, and lettuce, which has finally taken a little spurt and is recognizable. They should be able to grow to maturity (though very slowly) even if there is a light frost. Some folks use lightweight Reemay fabric to protect fall crops during October, and then recycle it as floaty ghosts for Halloween, but root vegetables and lettuces can do well on their own.
The kale and chard will continue, as will the marigolds. (Actually, the kale doesn't matter so much anymore, since my husband has gone on permanent strike against Any More Kale, no matter how good it is for you.) The herbs are still going great guns – parsley and basil and mint and sage and chives, but most of them won’t go on much longer.
Which brings us to my own list of Good Things To Do at the End of the Garden Season, ranging from planting spring flowering bulbs to dealing with herbs, potted plants and the green tomato question. And then walking in the Arboretum or catching the changing leaves from a kayak in Jamaica Pond or on the Charles.
Find Ways to Save Summer Herbs for Winter Meals
Those herbs add so much flavor! And you can go right on using them after your garden has gone to bed. Probably the easiest way of saving herbs for later use is to chop up a couple of tablespoons of parsley and/or chives and mix the herbs into a small amount of butter. You can add lemon juice if you want to get fancy. Spoon some of the mixture up in a sandwich baggy and freeze it until you are ready to toss it onto winter soup, vegetables, rice or whatever. Herbs are killer expensive in the winter, but you can feel smug and thrifty about the splash of fresh herb flavor from your own garden.
You can also pot a small clump of chives to bring indoors (I haven't been successful at this with any other herbs.) If you keep them well watered in a cool but sunny spot, you should be able to use them all winter.
The Green Tomato Question
Once the night-time temperatures drop into the 40s, the plants stop growing, so the tomatoes that remain aren’t really vine-ripened anymore. Some folks put them in the compost at this point, but you might enjoy them as green tomatoes. My grandmother used to bread them and fry them up; they were as tasty as anything that is breaded and fried up. I’ve used them to supplement tart apples in pies. Best of all is green tomato pickle relish (I go light on the tumeric) for hamburgers, or to make tasty tuna salad or egg salad. Next best, and much less work, is half sour tomato pickles (you can try them at Zaftig’s in Brookline to see if you want to make them).
Planting Spring Flowering Bulbs
Even in the depths of autumn, we gardeners believe spring will come! So we look for sunny, well-drained spaces to plant bulbs of colorful spring flowers, and afterward water well and maybe put down some mulch to hold in the moisture.
Everyone has seen those plantings of brightly colored tulips in orderly rows like soldiers at attention. When the bulbs are planted so that their arrangement is a little bit random, they seem much more beautiful, a drift of color, a musical chord. You will note that Wordsworth did not treasure the memory of daffodils in a row but in a crowd. If you only have the funds for a dozen or so, plant them as you think they might appear in nature (as long as they are about a foot apart), rather than in a thin string across an area or along a walk. They will spread and thicken next year, and you can move on to another area.
The Potted Plants
If you have indoor plants that you set outside for a summer vacation, you may want to wash them off before bringing them back indoors, to make sure that you are not bringing critters in with them. The other day I brought in a huge spider with some garden flowers – one with mottled, bumpy legs. AAAIEE!
Cleaning plants off is a kind of meditative activity, spritzing the leaves (top and bottom) and them drying them off with a rag. Some people mix ivory soap into the water to help with the cleaning. Others soak each whole plant in a tub with some slightly soapy water and then rinse and dry everything off.
There may be some beautiful plants that are not going inside. This is a good time to make cuttings -- coleus, sweet potato vine, and impatiens are all windowbox favorites that can easily be persuaded to become houseplants.
If you are emptying containers for the season, it’s a good idea to sterilize the pots. Old potting mix can be added to your compost.
Dividing Crowded Perennials
In order to stimulate growth when bulbs or corms or roots get too crowded together, or to keep the size of a planting under control, some plants need to be divided periodically. It’s best not to divide them when they are blooming so this is the time to divide spring or summer bloomers (although for some reason fall is supposed to be a good time to divide asters – maybe just because asters really seem to thrive on division). Some plants really do not like to be divided, so check the list. And once you have divided your plants, if you don’t have room to plant the extra material, think about bringing it to the city-wide Annual Harvest Festival and Perennial Divide in Mattapan next weekend, when people will be bringing all kinds of perennials they don’t have room for in their urban gardens.
Mowing the Lawn and the Leaves
And then mowing it all again, so it’s easy for the chopped-up leaves to disintegrate and enrich the lawn (then later if you really have a LOT of leaves, put them in your compost! And if you don't have a compost pile yet, fall leaves are a great way to start one.)
Leaves and the Arb or canoeing
Fall leaves are not just about gardening. Yes, a thin layer of chopped leaves left on the lawn may deter dandelions, and leaves around trees and shrubs may provide root protection, but leaves are much more. Whether they are the russet of the oaks, the pale yellow of the fluttering birch leaves or heartstopping orange-red-hot pink of the sugar maples, they are among the sweetest joys of New England. For us in Boston, they are our reward for sweating through the humid summer, a last taste of beauty before the bleak black and grey and white of our urban winter. The Arboretum already has abundant examples of autumn glory, with more to come.
Fall leaves are especially beautiful in combination with water. We are lucky that we have so many ways of enjoying October by being on the water in a kayak or canoe here in Boston: throughout October on the Charles River (check the hours for different rental locations) or on Jamaica Pond. Further afield, Mass Audubon sponsors many autumn paddling trips.
Brookline’s Amy Lowell describes the combination of water and fall leaves (and the coming of frost?) in her poem, Autumn:
All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.