Life After Frost: Gardening Is Not Over
Frost was late this year. It was nearly mid-October before we had a hard frost, one that murdered the zinnias and blackened the basil. For me, hard frost is a day to mourn a little, to spend a few moments missing the summer that passed, for the tomatoes that brought me such great pleasure and the flowers that graced my table.
Zinnias have been frosted, but this is a good time to save seeds for next year.
But autumn is grand, too. I still have plenty of garden veggies to harvest and process, and those fall days full of sun and a few monarchs are full of surprises and delights.
I’m always delighted by plants that bloom now –especially woody plants. I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) that bloom subtly each fall. The blossoms are not obvious because they are small, yellow, and their leaves are yellow (and green) and have not yet fallen. But those curly blossoms will persist even after the leaves have dropped. Witch hazel is a native tree that lives in shade or part shade. It’s a small tree or a shrub, depending on the variety. It blooms either now, or in very early spring.
Witchhazel is a good small tree for the understory.
Another interesting shrub in bloom now is disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolius). Although most books describe the flowers as “insignificant”, I disagree. They are small – just half in inch across, and close to the stem – but they are in pairs, back to back, each like a small purple starfish. I‘ve had my disanthus for 4 years, and this is the first time it has bloomed, or at least the first time I have seen it bloom. So I yelped with excitement when I first saw the blossoms.
Disanthus flowers are small, but very beautiful.
The best thing about disanthus is the leaf color. The leaves are deep red and purple, and have been so for many weeks. The color is better than that of the now prohibited invasive, burning bush (Euonymus alatus). But unlike burning bush, disanthus doesn’t litter the countryside with babies like a stray, unspayed dog. It stays in one place, and grows slowly to a 6 to 10 foot height and width.
Disanthus leaves are gorgeous all summer, but now in particular.
In the flower garden my fall asters are about done, but I still have one Rudbekia or black-eyed Susan looking great. It is Rudbeckia subtomentosa, a variety called ‘Henry Eiler’. It’s taller than I am. Its petals are very delicate and are spaced apart in an airy fashion. The stems of this plant are quite thick, but not thick enough to stand up to fall winds without staking.
'Henry Eiler' Rudbeckia is still blooming, despite frost.
Grasses are nice now, too. They generally bloom in fall, producing subtle green flowers that most people don’t recognize as flowers. My favorite grass is a Chinese feather grass (Miscanthus sinensis), a variety called ‘Morning Light’. The leaves have a central white stripe and each stem stands up 4 to 6 feet, or even more. This grass will look good all winter waving above the snow.
Each stem of feather grass has 20 or so thin strands of flowers that will produce seeds. This plant does not reproduce from seed, however. The clump gets bigger each year, and can be divided to create more plants. I’ve read that the time to divide it is in the spring, not now.
'Morning Light' Miscanthus will look good most of the winter.
The milkweed plants I started from seed this year stayed small and did not flower. But I will harvest some seeds elsewhere and plant some more. The seeds need a cold period before they will germinate, so planting outside now makes sense. Last spring I bought seeds and planted seeds in flats indoors, then put them in the fridge for 6 weeks before they would grow. The red milkweed I planted the year before did great this year, blooming and attracting pollinators. I will plant some of their seeds when I see the pods are ripe and ready to burst open.
I’ve cut down some of my perennials, and pretty much all are ready for the knife or shears. I’ll leave things with stiff stems and interesting seed pods for winter viewing and as food for the birds. But the more I can do now, the better. One landscaper told me she figured that every hour of fall clean up reduces spring work by three hours.
One of my last tasks each year is to run over the lawn with my lawnmower, chopping leaves into perfect mulch. I rake it onto a tarp and pull the tarp to my vegetable garden where I spread the leaves over the by-then weeded beds. It keeps weed seeds from germinating in the spring, and adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down and is eaten by earthworms.
My gardening friend and fellow garden-book writer Sydney Eddison of Connecticut always saves her chopped fall leaves in contractor bags and uses them in the spring on her flowers. I have filled up 6 huge plastic bags with grass clippings and leaves another friend gave me, and have stored them in the barn for use in the spring. Sydney Eddison has the best soil I’ve ever seen after mulching with chopped leaves for 40 years or so.
You don't have to bag chopped leaves to use in spring, but storing some will provide wonderful mulch.
Don’t forget to plant your spring bulbs now, too. You can plant into November, but it will be cold by then, so get going!
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