Getting ready for fall

By Tom Seymour | Sep 15, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour New England asters are the parents of many named aster varieties.

Labor Day has come and gone, and now Mainers ready themselves for glorious fall. But the new season brings with it new tasks, new demands on our time, and the sooner we accomplish these, the better.

With cool nights on the way, homeowners should take steps to prevent mice from sneaking in for the winter. This year my battle plan for troublesome rodents changes dramatically. Instead of trying to kill mice before they can enter the house, I will attempt to repel them using a harmless commercial product, Mouse Magic, manufactured by Bonide.

Bonide is an old and honorable company that I trust. Mouse Magic uses peppermint oil and spearmint oil. Mint is known to deter fire ant infestations, so it makes sense that it will deter mice as well.

If Mouse Magic doesn’t perform as advertised, then it’s no trouble to set out peanut butter-baited traps. But I will give this new product a good try and after discerning whether or not it is worth the money, will report back to readers.

Fall flowers

Hardy mums ("hardy" is an understatement when applied to mums) are popping up at hardware stores, greenhouses and garden centers. These traditional fall flowers brighten any setting and for that alone, they are worth the money. As far as being winter-hardy, some mums will make it over winter if planted in the ground and mulched after the ground freezes.

I have carried mums over from season to season. But the quality of the blooms deteriorates and the flowers become spotty. Because of that, it really isn’t worth anyone’s time to keep mums through the winter. It’s possible that there is a mum variety out there that truly is winter-hardy. But I haven’t found it yet.

So for most of us, hardy mums are a seasonal plant that we discard when they are done blooming. But rather than disposing of the entire container, I like to remove the plant and save both container and potting soil. The soil can either be composted or, as is my habit, turned directly into the ground in any flower or vegetable bed. And the empty container has another use, which we’ll see next.

Some people do away with mums altogether and concentrate upon native wildflowers. And the showiest, best and most pleasing is New England aster. These handsome wildflowers are the parents of many named aster varieties. But despite all the wonderful hybrids, New England asters have an allure that can’t be matched.

An easy way to introduce New England asters to a landscape is to save the seeds and disperse them wherever you want them to grow. The seeds, like dandelion seeds, are normally carried on the wind by virtue of white, fluffy “parachutes.” But we can help nature along by spreading the seeds by hand. Even a slight breeze will help to disperse the seeds around any field or similar area.

New England asters transplant well, too. So while seed-spreading won’t result in flowers this year, transplanted asters will bloom as per usual, if they are transplanted on a cool, cloudy day. Water well after transplanting and water again a little later. And if you saved the containers from last year’s hardy mums, these will serve to hold the New England asters you wish to transplant.

Finally, New England asters are one of my favorite cut flowers. Their blue- to-violet petals and yellow discs make an excellent standalone choice for any vase or container.

Garden cleanup

Some garden crops, Swiss chard, for instance, keep producing even after being hit by light frosts. But others, such as cucumbers and bush beans, stop producing by early fall. And when that happens, the plants should be removed from the garden as soon as possible.

There are several reasons for clearing old plants out of the garden. First, even non-producing plants extract nutrients from the soil. It’s best to let these valuable nutrients remain in the soil, so that they can be available next spring. So try to make it a point to clear out any gone-by vegetable plants, as well as any weeds that got a foothold in this late season.

Also, old, dead vines and plants can and do host various plant diseases and should be composted (or in the case of obvious infections, burned) as soon as possible.

Seeing a nice, manicured garden bed lying fallow evokes a sort of melancholy, the sense that summer has truly ended and winter is just around the corner. But better to have a few fleeting regrets than to leave nutrient-leaching, disease-carrying dead or dying plants in the garden. And next year, those beds will be ready for tilling, no prior preparation necessary.

And speaking of tilling, I like to broadcast granular fertilizer on my now-empty garden beds and till it in. That way, autumn rain and melting winter snow will permeate the soil and by the time spring arrives, the fertilizer granules will have dissolved and stand ready to nourish next season’s garden.

Season extenders

For those who just can’t bear to see the gardening season end, there are a few options for keeping certain plants alive. Covering hardy plants, such as broccoli and chard, with plastic sheeting can keep these plants going well into December.

Make, or buy, some kind of hoops and lay the plastic sheeting over them so it doesn’t touch the plants. It is possible to cut some withes, or whippy saplings, and by placing both ends in the ground, make a serviceable hoop.

Leave both ends of your homemade garden tunnel open to keep water from condensing and freezing, and you should be all set for an extended garden season.

Some gardeners simply drape translucent garden fabric, available at most garden centers, over their plants. This isn’t as effective as plastic sheeting over hoops, but it does add weeks to the season.

Next, what about those annual flowers that, at the cusp of cold weather, appear to be yet in their prime? One way to keep them going is to transplant into a container and bring them into the house. I have a helichrysum, or annual licorice plant, that deserves a second lease on life. So my plan is to plant it in a hanging basket along with some yellow and orange marigolds. The helichrysum is a vining plant, and the long vines will look great when draped over the sides of a hanging basket.

The basket will hang from a hook just above a sliding glass door. There, it will receive ample sunlight and my ornamental basket should, with luck, persist for at least a few more months.

Tom’s tips

Any ears of sweet corn, especially late varieties, will keep on growing and getting tougher. It’s better to pick and refrigerate in a crisper drawer rather than leave them on the stalks. This will immediately cause growth and resulting toughness to cease, and if your corn is a modern hybrid variety, it will remain sweet for a week or more.

Or you could do as I do and with a commercially-produced corn cutter, parboil the ears, place in ice-cold water and when cool, remove the kernels from the cob and place in freezer bags. No matter how fancy a commercially-available frozen corn you buy, it won’t hold a candle to good, home-grown and home-frozen corn.

Mouse Magic repels mice, rather than killing them. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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