It is challenging to try to assess the direction this autumn is taking. A person might wonder if “Indian summer” can actually refer to the first warm spell following the first crazy nor’easter that strikes in November. The only approach I can think of, as a gardener, is to roll with the punches.
My bulbs are not yet in the ground, nor am I panicking – yet. Experience tells me it is better to plant them when the ground is good and cold, so they don’t get confused and start sprouting before winter even arrives. I don’t add fertilizer, bulb food or soil additives such as bone meal to the planting holes. Bulbs are a specialized type of root that contains all the energy the flower needs for the coming season. After that first year, compost or fertilizer is a good idea – as is leaving the foliage to ripen in the sun.
This is also the time to plan your beds for next year, if you are going to expand the garden. After marking the area with lime or light fencing, you can put down a layer of newspapers or cardboard, then top that with shredded leaves, wood chips or compost. When spring comes around, the newspaper will be so decomposed that you can plant right through the mulch into the ground. Whatever plant life had been in that spot will have been smothered by the newspaper and mulch.
Many fall-blooming flowers still have tall seed heads waving in the breeze, and I like to leave some for the birds. It’s remarkably cheering to see a chickadee pecking away at black-eyed Susan seeds while the rest of the garden snoozes under frost or snow. Likewise, a good layer of leaves, mulched or not, will encourage ground-feeding birds to scuffle about in the garden, eating small creepy-crawlies before they eat the roots of your plants.
Soon, all the deciduous trees will be dormant, and it will be a good time to do a little pruning. Apples, crabapples and pears all benefit from thinning while they are dormant. The more sunlight that penetrates into the center of the trees, the more resistant they will be to leaf fungi. Over-long or crossing branches can be cut back, either to the trunk or to a side-bud that will grow in a better direction. Shorter branches are less likely to break under the weight of snow or from heavy fruit production next year. Fewer fruit buds will produce less fruit, but the remaining fruit will be larger and heavier.
If you have the wonderful deciduous holly known as winterberry, it’s good to cut some berried branches now before the birds strip them. If you want to use them for holiday arrangements, a shot of hairspray now will help to keep the berries fresh. Old, established English ivy has beautiful inky berries now too, and will add some real style to a pre-made evergreen wreath. Ivy will stay fresh if cut and stored with its cut ends in a pail of water till you’re ready to decorate.
For those who would rather just enjoy nature now, a stroll near a stream or river will likely reward you with a display of native witch hazel, which will have a soft yellow haze when seen from a distance. Less gaudy than forsythia, witch hazel’s flowers look like tiny yellow ribbons. Later, when its seedpods form, watch for this plant to spit seeds up to ten or twelve feet away.
Whatever chores we've left undone in the garden will probably get done before snow falls again. But last week’s snow was a rude reminder that time’s a-wasting, so don’t get too complacent. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Winter is a-cumen in / Lhude sing goddamm!”