CRAZY weather has us all in a panic. Yes, it’s early for a week of 45 degree nights; yes, we will see hot weather on the other side of it; no, it’s not gonna freeze just yet and kill all our houseplants. But it IS a wake-up call to start getting our garden affairs in order. Tomatoes and squash will be slowing down, if not quitting altogether; peppers, on the other hand, will be happily ripening up all those babies they put out since the break in the high temperatures. Cold crops will be exploding as long as you keep them watered and protected from bugs, and there’s still some time to stick in a few last-minute winter crops.
VISIT PLANT CAMP – All the houseplants that have been living it up out in the wilds of our yards need to be reined in about now. Start clearing your window sills and tables so you can bring the larger plants back indoors before the heat comes on. These need to be cleaned up, possibly pruned back, and scrubbed down before the migration can begin. See Katelyn’s checklist here: HERE
BEWARE OF OUTRIDERS – Houseplants need to come in before the heat comes on and dries out the air. Check each pot for critters, large and small. If possible, pop the whole thing out of the pot and inspect the roots for bugs, snakes, sleeping bumblebees, slugs, slug egg masses (look like tapioca) and even chipmunks (don’t ask!!!) Give everything a good wash in the shower if you can, or the kitchen sink sprayer. Better yet, slowly submerge the plant in a bucket of water to bring roly-polys all to the surface, along with any snakes, mice and anthills. Scoop or strain everybody off the top and dispose as you see fit. Be ruthless, and eliminate anything that shows aphids or mealybugs, since they will spread like wildfire in the house. Put up a few shelves so you don’t waste the top half of your windows, and put the smaller plants up there.
PLANT SOME SALAD STUFF FOR THE WINTER – Lettuce, mustards, spinach, mesclun mixes will all enjoy this fall weather. Get them in now so they have time to get to an edible sizebefore really cold weather (where it doesn’t get above freezing in the day) puts it all on hold. Build some cold frames around them to keep them pickable all winter long. Come to my virtual Putting Your Vegetable Garden into Winter Mode workshop on Oct 19, 4 pm. Register here: https://phsonline.org/events/prepping-for-winter-october2020-1
COVER CROPS – Plant a cover crop to fill in any bare spaces in the vegetable garden; these are things you plant now in the empty spaces left by the slacker tomato plants; they will enrich the soil over the winter and keep the ground from being naked. Planting some sort of pea family cover actually pulls nitrogen out of the air and holds it in the soil for us to take advantage of later. Even better, ANY cover crop you plant also takes up carbon and sequesters it in the plant scraps, so the earlier you get them in, the more plant residue they leave in the spring. The secret is to not over-till in the spring, since tilling re-releases that bound carbon into the atmosphere. So, MORE PLANT MATTER + LESS TILLAGE = LESS CO2 IN THE ATMOSPHERE. Words to live by. Adam from City Harvest likes an oat & pea mix, since cold winter temperatures eventually kill off the plants, and you can just plant through the residue in the spring without turning it in.
FRUIT TREES – Keep fruit trees scrupulously clean underneath, since fallen apples and pears attract yellowjackets. It’s especially fun to watch them as they are consuming fermented fruit; a little alcohol goes a long way on such a small creature! but watch from a distance; we KNOW how cranky they are this time of year.
LAWNS – Work on your bald spots. On your lawn, that is, where it’s difficult to perfect the comb-over. The easiest seed mix to use is something with the words REPAIR or PATCH in the name. This is a mix of several different kinds of grass, so at least one of them will fill the bill. Some will also contain fertilizer and organic matter. Scratch the soil as deep as you can with a hard rake to break up surface crust, stir in some rotted compost, and cover thickly with grass seed mix. Compress well –putting down a board and walking on it works great. It is essential to keep these plantings well-watered, and not just depend on the rain, so water every other day if it doesn’t fall from the sky at convenient times.
EVALUATE & PREPARE – Think about CLIMATE CHANGE. For those of us who have passive greenhouses, those weeks of 90 +’s in summer and 20-’s in winter have wrought havoc on our crops in recent years. Here’s what has survived my summers in the hoop house with limited water and abundant heat: sweet potatoes, basil, sweet potatoes, rosemary, mint, goji berries, and sweet potatoes. Tomatoes would only grow around the very edges where they could steal rainwater, and it was far too hot for anything bee-pollinated to make fruit. NOTE: irrigation would help, as would ventilating fans, but hey, it’s PASSIVE! Winter cold in my greenhouse promoted mustards that drop seed every year, and a wonderful crop of chickweed that provided greens for smoothies all winter. And of course the rosemary, which reached 5 feet before I had to hack it back so I could walk down the aisle. Thinking of better insulation, strategically-placed water barrels to hold heat, and the judicious use of a kerosene heater for the worst nights.
Sally McCabe is Assoc. Director of Community Education at PHS, and grows stuff at two community gardens and in her backyard. She has been a faithful Primex customer since all the way back when Pops (David’s grandfather) was still around.