Fall has fallen upon us. Today, Tuesday, Sept. 23, is the first official day of autumn, which means, more or less, that we now have more hours of darkness than we have of light. (My husband tells me that the beginning of autumn is calculated differently, astronomically, but let’s not complicate things.)
I hate fall. Do NOT speak to me about the lovely colours, the cycle of nature, the crisp air and colourful leaves. I DON’T CARE, as Tommy Lee Jones said so memorably in The Fugitive (in another context).
I’m not yet tired of summer garden work, and here it is, time to begin the fall chores. Some are pretty obvious so I won’t go into detail. Harvest your veggies (except those toughies that need a touch of frost to ripen).
The end of annuals
Harvest your annual herbs and dry or freeze them. Leave the perennial herbs alone. Cut them now, and you’ll expose those short branches to winter die-back. That won’t be pretty when spring comes. Tempting as it is to harvest sage, tarragon and winter savory now, keep your hands to yourself.
Yank out straggly heat-loving annuals and send them to the compost pile or the brown bags. They’re not going to be around much longer, and you may find yourself out there blinking cold rain out of your eyes as you oust the things.
But let some annual flowers stick around. We live in a kind of borderline climate where some of the things we grow as annuals don’t mind a bit of a chill. The best example is snapdragons, which are technically half-hardy perennials, and will survive temperatures slightly below freezing for some time. If only garden centres would sell them now, the way they sell pansies.
Drying flowers the easy way
If you want to dry flowers for winter, pick them now, when they’re almost or fully in bloom. The giant Annabelle hydrangeas are good candidates. You can cut them with long stems, without worrying about damaging the plant.
If they’re already dried out, just put them in a dry vase, use them in a wreath, or some other way. If they’re fresh blooms, put them in a vase with a little water and leave them until all the water is gone and the flowers have dried naturally. CAUTION: Do not do this with the pretty pink and blue mophead hydrangeas. They’re borderline hardy here, and they might not survive being cut back now.
While you’re out there waving your clippers around, look for interesting seedheads to cut and use in dried arrangements. Black-eyed Susan centres, rosehips, even maple keys (the winged seeds, in pairs) wired together in bunches are all fine additions to fall and winter arrangements. Add them to a grapevine wreath, and you have a door decoration for the season.
Or you may just want to gather seeds for next year. Black-eyed Susans will likely seed themselves, but you may want to scatter some seed in a different area. One pod of hollyhock seeds will give you enough for about a zillion plants. Garlic chives (also known as Chinese chives) flower and make seed prolifically, so pass them on to other gardeners who want to try them.
Don’t delay – dig in now
One more thing: Plant spring-flowering bulbs. You know, tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths. Early fall is a great time to get them in the ground. Your hands (and other body parts) will stay warmer, you’ll have more daylight than if you wait and your bulbs will do better if they get a head start on sending out their roots.
I can’t tell you how many bulbs I’ve lost and how much money I’ve wasted by dilly-dallying around and never planting the packages of bulbs I’ve bought. And then there was the year I was out in the back garden, in the dark, trying to chip holes for my bulbs in the cold, hard ground. I worked by the light of a ball cap with tiny LED lights set in the brim (a gift from darlin’ hubby). Lord knows what the neighbours thought.
Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer