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Recently, a friend of mine and his wife purchased their first home in Montgomery County, Maryland. Although he is not a gardener, his wife enjoys cooking and could not wait to have a home so she could have the space for a culinary garden. Because it is winter, my housewarming gift was a promise to deliver a dozen herbs and vegetables next year when the weather warms up. I like to grow them from seed and always have enough to share. The other part of my housewarming gift was this: a dozen items to consider before digging up the lawn and installing garden beds.
Sunlight: Throughout the year, watch the sun move across the sky; know what parts of the garden are in full sun, or receive morning sun and afternoon shade, or receive winter sun under a deciduous tree.
Drainage: Watch the way the water runs (or not) on your property when it rains. Find the outside spigots and the main water shut off valve. Get a hose that is long enough to reach the garden beds and get a sprinkler, a watering wand, and watering can. In the winter, look at how fast the snow melts, possible salt damage patterns, and if the neighborhood kids sled in your backyard.
Existing Plants: Identify the plants/shrubs/trees that currently exist on the property and learn if they are annuals, perennials, conifers, or deciduous shrubs and trees. Likewise, know the difference between a weed and a great perennial that is coming up in the spring. Know whether you have invasive English ivy or poison ivy.
“Know whether you have invasive English ivy or poison ivy.”
Wind Patterns: Find out if you have shelter from winds or how storms may affect your property. Look for dry air from the dryer vent and increased air circulation from the AC unit.
Soil: Get a soil test of the area where you intend to plant by contacting the local extension office for bags and laboratories. Typically, soil in this area has a high level of clay and soil around a house may be compacted. For more information, check out the “Soil Tests” tab/page at http://www.pegplant.com.
Family Needs: Determine the style & color of the house and the style of garden you want. List needs such as a place to entertain adults, a place for kids to play, and/or a vegetable garden. Watch the foot traffic that your family favors. Sometimes the developer does not do this justice and you need to re-align the paths and sidewalk. Also, look for ways to soften the lines, it is best to create curves and soften the developer’s harsh angles.
Resources: Visit the public gardens and nurseries during the four seasons. Find out the best prices and sources for plants, mulch, tools, etc. Find out if there is a local gardening club to join, check out the local gardening books from the library, read the gardening columnist in the newspaper, and/or subscribe to the local gardening magazine. Identify the local extension agent and, if interested, find out about the Master Gardener program. All of this can be found at http://www.pegplant.com under the tabs/pages.
“Visit the public gardens and nurseries during the four seasons.”
Existing Animals: Watch your property at different times of the day to see if there are deer, foxes, rabbits, dogs, cats, etc. Deer and rabbits present challenges for gardeners but sometimes dogs and cats are helpful in scaring away the deer and rabbits. Determine if existing fencing is yours or neighbors and if tall enough to keep out animals such as deer. If fencing is needed, contact the local extension agent for suggestions on recommended heights.
Lawn: Identify the type of grass you have, some are dormant in the winter. Find out if the previous owners used a service and what type of chemicals/fertilizer they applied to the grass. Decide if you will be cutting the grass or hiring a service because if it is a service, the staff may not be able to distinguish a weed from a great perennial plant. Determine how much lawn you want to keep and how much to dig up and create beds for gardens/vegetables. Determine if there are exposed tree roots to trip up little kids or slopes that can be filled to level out the land.
Records: Keep records of what you buy and where you buy it so you know where you can get the best deals. Take photos throughout the year. Know your homeowner association rules. If you plant, keep records of what you plant; if you fertilize, keep records of what you fertilized, with what type of fertilizer and when. Measure the property, create a map, make copies and overlay water flow, sunlight, plants, etc.
“From now you, you will be watching the weather!”
Tools: Make an inventory of tools that either came with the house or that will have to be purchased, including the tool shed to house them. Determine if the hose is long enough to water the plants, if there is a trowel, shovel, sprinkler, etc. Sometimes it is best to spend the first year searching for the best deal on tools, accessories, and containers while getting to know the layout of your yard before planting in the ground.
Weather: Learn your USDA Plant Hardiness zone, which would be zone 6 or 7 in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Learn last and first average frost dates, which are usually Mother’s Day and Halloween. Download a weather app on your phone or buy an outside thermometer. From now you, you will be watching the weather!
Yesterday I received the electronic newsletter from Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York with an image of several snapdragon seed pods as their “Happy Halloween” message. When dried, the seed pods resemble skulls, a perfect Halloween image. Naturally, I then cut my snapdragon stalks in my garden and brought them into the kitchen to see if I too had skulls. Sure enough, the dried seed pods look just like skulls with their hollowed out eyes and mouths.
How is this useful you ask? Halloween potpourri! Just imagine the orange of dried calendula petals, the black of large seeds or beans, and several dried skulls in a glass pumpkin. Or put the mixture in a small basket and glue more skulls to the basket’s handle with a hot glue gun.
Last year at this time, I was furloughed due to the government shutdown. On a happy note, I had plenty of time to work in the garden and visited several well-known garden centers in Northern Virginia and one in Maryland to peruse their selection of cool season edibles. I was surprised to see a very narrow selection: plastic packs of broccoli, kale, and lettuce; one type of an onion; one type of soft neck garlic; and in one place, one plastic bag of hard neck garlic. To their credit there were raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry bushes in large plastic containers, usually at a reduced price. But even that selection was not representative; there are many other fruit bushes and brambles that do well in this area.
Many people are interested in eating healthy and growing their own food so I find it perplexing that garden centers don’t capitalize on this in the fall like they do in the spring and summer. Growing vegetables is the same, it’s just different vegetables. Several of my spring plants like spinach are grown again in the fall. In fact, I often use the same package of seeds. But then, most of my plants are started from seed. If you want to learn more about what is really possible, if you want to expand your choices of edibles, try growing your plants from seeds. Find companies that sell seed, ask for catalogs, and order a few seed packages of cool season edibles.
While you may see a few broccoli and kale transplants in the garden centers, you will find many types of broccoli and kale not to mention brussel sprouts, red and green lettuces, spinach, mustards (like a lettuce but peppery), mache, chard, endive, arugula, turnips, broccoli raab, cilantro, and dill from companies such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange, and Territorial Seed Company. If you look at their web site or their catalogs, you will find that within each of these types of plants, there are many varieties, some more cold tolerant than others.
Don’t forget the “Asian” or “oriental” greens which tolerate light frosts here in my Zone 7 garden. Some of these are sold by the aforementioned companies while Kitazawa Seed Company sells 20 varieties of Chinese cabbage, 20 varieties of mustard, over a dozen varieties of pak choi, and different varieties of tatsoi, mizuna, and edible chrysanthemum greens.
Although these are not harvested and eaten in the fall, I would be remiss if I did not mention the wide variety that exists in the Allium family. Like I said, I only found one onion, one soft neck, and one hard neck garlic in the garden centers. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has about 7 of each type of garlic, plus elephant, Asiatic, and turban garlic. They offer Egyptian walking onions, white multiplier onions, yellow potato onions, and shallots. Small bulbs like these are easy to plant: dig, drop, and cover! Seed Savers Exchange and Territorial Seed Company sell many different types of garlic and shallots and Territorial Seed Company also offers multiplier and walking onions.
These are only a few of the companies that sell these types of seeds and bulbs, and this based on 2014 catalogs I have at home now. I have no doubt that other companies sell cool season edibles; this was just to provide a snapshot of what is possible to grow in the fall in the Mid-Atlantic area. Don’t assume that what you see in your garden center is all there is to grow. The world is full of possibilities!!
October is a busy time in the garden; the cool weather and moist soil make it possible to enjoy a multitude of gardening activities. In anticipation of frost, I threw away the eggplants (they don’t fruit anymore) and the remaining cucumber plants, but left the peppers and Swiss chard in the ground.
My zinnias and Japanese anemones are still blooming, the yellow mums are happy with the purple asters (a great color combination), and (finally!) the roselle is blooming (see my September 13 post).
Plants are starting to change color, my favorite hydrangea, oak leaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), has a few red leaves. The panicles of tan and bone flowers are fragile dry but still very pretty (makes great cut flowers for vases that cannot hold water). However, my Annabelles (Hydrangea arborescens) have turned on me; their round flower heads are so black I cut them off and threw them away. The stems will get it in March next year to keep their shape.
Fall is a great time to get rid of the plants that are just getting out of hand. A few years ago I would have praised balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus) as a great kid plant. Just before the petals open, the purple flowers inflate and my kids would pop them like bubble wrap. A perennial, balloon flower emerges every year and grows to about 2-3 feet tall with arching stems. In the fall, the leaves turn gold and the large seed pods disperse across the garden. Now, years later, I guess my garden has reached the point of significant mass of seeds, I can see small balloon flower plants all across the front garden, taking up space and creating havoc. I ruthlessly cut the original plants back to prevent any more seeding and pulled out all the small, baby plants I could find. If you see a plant getting too aggressive, don’t be afraid to cut it back or pull it out.
Fall is also a great time for bean stew and I throw whatever greens I have into the crockpot. This time, I added Swiss chard (leaving a few leaves on the plants so the plants can still photosynthesis and grow) plus dried rosemary and thyme. For another dinner, I harvested the spinach, a cool weather green, and the red peppers to cook with chicken in a skillet.
Fall also is the time to lift and divide perennials. The previous owner had planted purple flowering, bearded irises and when we first moved here, I had divided them to the point that I had enough to fill the two front beds. Every April, a mass of purple would color the house for a few weeks but then for the rest of the summer, the green leaves would just sit there. Sure, they provided a green background for the front garden but now that I want more space for edibles, I decided to re-design the two beds. I cut the iris foliage back to 6 inches, pulled the rhizomes out, cut off the old & diseased parts, and gave the rhizomes to staff at the kids’ school, friends, and coworkers. I re-planted a few irises and I will lift and divide the yarrow (Achillea), red hot poker (Kniphofia), and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) from other beds to add color. In the spring, I will plant herbs and vegetables. Because the beds look a little empty now, the kids and I went to Grist Mill Park in Alexandria, Virginia, to fill bags with wood mulch to cover the beds. In Fairfax County, you can help yourself to free wood mulch year round at certain parks. Later, as the county picks up the autumn leaves, you can get free leaf mulch, which is good for increasing organic matter. Since we don’t have a truck, we double bagged the Fiskars Kangaroo garden bag with 45 gallon plastic bags (get them at the hardware store). Wood mulch is heavy, we could only fill the bags half full but the leaf mulch should be much lighter, which we will get in November. November is a busy time in the garden; the cool weather and moist soil make it possible to enjoy a multitude of gardening activities . . .
It’s October — time to plant shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials. Fall is a great time to plant in our Washington, DC, metropolitan area. The cooler temperatures, increased moisture, and decreased sun/heat allow the plants to settle in the ground, send out roots, and get established. While the soil is still warm, roots continue to develop until the ground actually freezes so the plant’s energy goes into getting firmly settled in the soil, not on top growth. The shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials you buy now can be planted with minimal stress to them as well as to your wallet. Many garden centers are concerned with moving their inventory, especially the container grown plants that are outside. As winter approaches, discounts increase thus increasing the possibility of finding bargains.
Fall is such a great time to plant that today, October 1, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Terence R. McAuliffe, recognized October 2014 as “Fall Is for Planting Month” and “calls this observance to the attention of all of our citizens.” Governor McAuliffe recognizes that “trees and plants support a healthy environment and are essential to human well-being.” For more on this proclamation, see https://governor.virginia.gov/newsroom/proclamations/proclamation/fall-is-for-planting-month/
Visit your garden center this month to enhance your landscape, support a healthy environment, and boost your well-being! For a list of garden centers in the Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC, area, view the “nurseries” tab at the top of my blog, http://www.pegplant.com.