Friday, October 13, 2006

The First Hard Freeze

The weather forecasters project that tonight will bring the first hard freeze of the season. Earlier this fall a freeze was forecasted and I quickly ran to find cover for my tender annuals, especially my herb garden. An old blanket was carefully placed over my plants in an attempt to prolong the gardening season. Since then the urge to garden has gone dormant, just like the perennials will soon do. I hate saying goodbye to my garden at its most lush, but I am ready to say goodbye for this year and allow my desire to beautify my yard to rest until spring. I am not searching for a blanket tonight; I will just let nature take it's course.

This fall has been rainy and warm. A perfect combination for my annuals to flourish in a way that the dry summer heat slows them from doing. This year my annuals are at their best in mid October and this is not totally unexpected. I plan my annual garden with growth in mind. After the flower show that is spring in my back yard, I have little room for annuals until mid June. The flowers I do plant, I do so with the optimistic hope that they will mature quickly and spread throughout the increasingly empty spaces created as my spring plantings fade. This has not happened during the last two gardening seasons but I seem to forget this when I am buying annuals each May.

I have a rather extensive bulb and perennial garden that pokes its head out in early spring and does not stop blooming until mid June. A handful of crocuses and daffodils in my back yard can been seen while there is still snow on the ground. I always mean to add more crocuses to my garden so I can get the early thrill that comes with flowers blooming in the snow, but they are hard to grow in my yard due to the presence of squirrels and a Black Walnut tree. Hopefully I will remember to plant some this fall but it is difficult when the ground is hard and the urge to garden dormant.

I have not planted many daffodils in my back yard because I dislike allowing the foliage to grow for as long as it seems to in my yard. The current garden wisdom is to allow daffodil leaves to grow until they turn brown, so as to feed the bulb for the next year's bloom. While a daffodil garden is attractive in early spring the leaves can grow until July and they do not allow for subsequent plantings. If your daffodil garden is in full sun, day lilies can be planted for subsequent blooms. Additionally, the day lily foliage hides the fading daffodil foliage, no matter how long it stays green. If your daffodil garden is in an area that becomes shady once the leaves bloom on the trees, you are out of luck.

I do have a designated bed for daffodils but its success is under study due to the effects of a Black Walnut tree's toxicity on certain types of daffodils. Hopefully this spring I will have a front yard full of daffodils but I have to wait several months to see if my garden plan will work out. If I planted the right type of daffodils, not the type that die near Black Walnut trees. In the back yard I have only planted a few of these cheery bulbs and I most likely will not plant anymore.

Tulips, Bleeding Heart, Lungwort, and emerging Hostas make up my spring garden. My Bleeding Heart plants last into July in my back yard. This is the first time I have ever had Bleeding Hearts perform so well for so long. I have read that they can last until fall and in some cases have a second bloom. This has not been my experience, and normally I cut the plants down by the end of June. This year they were healthy looking and blooming until mid July. I let them grow for as long as they looked decent, hoping this year they would thrive until fall and have a second bloom. It hasn't happened yet, but there is still hope since I've never had Bleeding Heart in July before.

My spring perennial garden does not leave much room for annuals found at May flower sales. I plant a flat of annuals, mostly impatients , among my still blooming tulips and emerging Hostas. I plant a few annuals around the bases of the numerous Bleeding Heart plants I have for when they fade. While a flat of annuals seems like a fair amount of flowers while you are planting them, in my back yard several flats are needed to give that finished look that I really desire. In May I really do not have the room to plant more than a flat of flowers, so I compensate by planting in containers. They add the bright punch to my garden, needed as the spring bulbs fade. I hang on to the futile hope that my annuals will self sow and prevent me from needing to purchase several additional flats of annuals, but somehow June is never wet enough and the dry heat of July seems to hit every year.

You will find me searching the bargain aisle for discount annuals come July. The plants do not look their best by July but I know with proper care they will flourish. I take them home; treat them well, and by October I have the lush annual garden I have been waiting for all season. I know I could quicken the process with daily watering and Miracle Grow, but most of my garden plan is drought tolerant and after one summer's water bill which exceeded one thousand dollars, I keep it that way. I keep the containers watered, but ground plants are only watered when absolutely necessary. I have considered installing barrels to collect rainwater so I can economically create a lush garden earlier in the season, but I have not committed to this method of irrigation yet. It is still under consideration.

A warm, rainy September ensures my summer garden looks it's best in October. It has a fullness, a lushness, a beauty, that it does not have the rest of the season. The smattering of fallen leaves amongst the flowers, only adds fall charm. This beauty can last until mid November in the Midwest, if we have a prolonged Indian summer. Mold allergies normally drive me inside when this happens, but the views from my window are spectacular.

Just as likely are snow flurries by Halloween. A freeze does not always kill the entire garden , a surprising amount of plants survive a light freeze without much damage. With protection, such as a blanket or newspaper, your garden will continue to thrive through several light freezes. A hard freeze, especially if the cold weather lasts several days, will end the gardening season. Even if a brief period of warmness follows Jack Frost's first significant appearance, most of your annuals will have faded and only really tough perennials, like chives, will still be around. I have had chives stay green all winter, much to my surprise. I am not sure of their continued freshness and if cut to the ground they normally wait for spring to resume growth.

Since the cold weather reduces fall mold, my urge to do yard work asserts itself. It is an urge to harvest and put the garden to bed for winter, not an urge to extend the growing season. I have already pulled my basil plants and prepared pesto to freeze. It will be an occasional dinner for the next few months and I will not need to go in search of fresh basil, which is not always available in my grocery store. The rest of the herbs will be harvested today though I am not sure if I will dry them in the microwave or attempt a more traditional method of drying. The annuals have begun to be pulled and the perennials cut down. I do this to control the slug population in preparation for spring. I am inspired to do this now and not wait until Jack Frost kills all of my plants. The slugs are easier to find and for me the growing season is over.

I have left the containers for last. I will let the freeze kill these annuals, so I have a good view out my window until the last minute. I know I still have a fair amount of yard work left since my Mulberry trees still have green leaves which are only now beginning to drop from their branches. Furthermore, I want to lay cypress mulch on my garden beds to cut down on my dog and cat tracking mud through my house all winter. I know this will impede my efforts at slug control but a mud free house all winter is worth the extra work of removing mulch from some of the beds come spring.

It is melancholy saying goodbye to the growing season, but I guess I am listening to the still primal part of my brain that says prepare the cave for winter. I want to harvest and store my herbs and put the garden to bed. I still have yard work to do. The leaves will need to be gathered and the lawn mowed for at least another month. The garden clean up work will not be accomplished in one day. I will still have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the fall weather and complete my outdoor tasks. What is dormant is my need to create, the need to beautify my outdoor environment. The need to garden.

In many ways gardening is a creative process for me . I have a challenging landscape to design due to the presence of numerous trees including two Black Walnut trees. I am an extremely frugal gardener and prefer to let nature provide me with my plants rather than buy them at Lowes or a nursery. I am willing to wait until my perennials can be divided to expand my garden rather than constantly buy new plants. While I will need to purchase some new foundation plantings due to an expansion of garden beds and the removal of years of ivy, which previously decorated my landscape, these plantings can wait until spring. This is prudent gardening on my part since mature trees create an odd sun /shade situation in my front yard. I am giving myself another year to figure which areas are sun and which are shade, important considerations when you purchase mature shrubs. Waiting will also let my creative juices simmer and hopefully produce an exciting landscape design for the front of my home which so far I have been unable to do to my satisfaction.

In reacting to the part of my brain which is telling me to prepare for winter, I do not want to fight nature. I have no interest in artificially extending the growing season with cold frames or moving plants inside to over winter. With the exception of my Fica tree, I have very little luck in maintains indoor plants and I have found inexpensive grow lights do not create an environment that produces quality plants. Kale, the only winter plant for this area, does not interest me. A greenhouse would be nice someday but right now I am more interested in interior projects that have put on hold during the gardening season. I want to prepare for winter, just like our ancient ancestors.

This dormant period ends earlier with me than with most gardeners. With the first snow thaw, I become excited once again about gardening. I am the lady you will see in a parka with gardening gloves clearing her garden beds as early as February. It is this early work that allows me to enjoy my spring garden and for some reason I do not mind the cold. These urges will not return until at least February so I have a little time to focus on other things aside from my outdoor garden. I can channel my creative urges elsewhere or merely let them rest until spring, or the hint of spring, awakens them once more.

It is time to put the garden to bed. The first hard freeze is on the horizon and for me the gardening season is over. There is still a lot of yard work to do during the next few months, but as the animals prepare to hibernate in a sense so do I. I am ready to rest until spring, until the first crocus springs from the ground.

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