Last fling for gardens

By Tom Seymour | Sep 13, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Pick winter squash before the first frost.

September arrives on a bittersweet note, at least for gardeners. While it’s still officially summer, we can see fall nipping at summer’s heels. And with the arrival of autumn comes an end to many of our flowers and most of our vegetables.

Winter squash

Winter, or “keeper,” squash need monitoring now. While it is yet growing season, we need to allow our squash to take up every bit of nourishment possible and grow as large as they can before the inevitable frost takes its toll.

The question of when to harvest our winter squash becomes something of a balancing act. Is it OK to just cover our squash when a light frost is predicted? Or is it better to take no chances and harvest at the first suggestion of frost? Which scenario we choose will have a direct bearing upon how long our squash keep in storage. I’m convinced that leaving winter squash on the vine when the first frost hits, even though covered by tarps or blankets, leads to premature rot.

Several years ago I conducted a comparison test. I harvested my own squash the day before the first frost. And then, a bit later, I bought some squash from a local farmstand. The results were stunning. My homegrown squash lasted well into the following spring, while the commercially raised squash began to rot in a matter of months.

The farmers who grew the squash that I bought had left them out, covered by a tarp. We had several heavy frosts during this period and the result was that though supposedly protected, the commercially grown squash suffered from the cold, even though the frost didn’t actually form on them. So I can say with some degree of confidence that if you plan on keeping squash through the winter, it is way better to pick your squash before the first frost.

Fall flowers

Hardy mums are an all-time favorite. These stand frost even better than New England asters. Most of us buy these as potted plants and after blooming, just throw them in the compost. But since they are perennials, sometimes rated down to Zone 4, why can’t we just put them in the ground, to bloom again next fall?

I’ve planted hardy mums in the ground and with heavy mulching to discourage frost heaving, the plants grew again the following year. But never have these overwintered mums rewarded me with a full display of flowers. Instead, like tulips, repeat performers have only sparsely populated flower displays.

So it seems that hardy mums aren’t really all that hardy at all. At least here in Maine they aren’t. So try transplanting if you are so inclined, but don’t expect much the following season.

Putting up

The last month has seen many gardeners working feverishly to preserve the fruits of their labors. Freezing and pressure-canning remain the two most common methods of food preservation, while dehydrating becomes more popular each year.

But for some products, simpler preservation methods work just fine. Air-drying, for instance, remains a time-honored method of putting up herbs. And for some vegetables, freezing without blanching makes our work that much easier.

In late summer and early fall, various herbs hang in bunches from a beam in my kitchen. When fully dried and after removing stems and other hard material, the dried herbs can go in a glass jar, where they will remain viable for up to a year.

Dill, for instance, keeps its flavor when air-dried. But simply putting fresh dill weed in a plastic freezer bag and throwing in the freezer works well, too.

Summer squash, too, can be preserved by slicing and then placing on a baking sheet in the freezer. The individually frozen slices then go in a freezer bag or container.

Basil, another favorite cooking herb, can be dried, but my favorite method is to put layers of basil leaf in an airtight container. First add a layer of basil, then drizzle with oil. Then add another layer of basil and so on. Keep this in the fridge and it’ll keep for several months.

Blueberries are another easily preserved food. I pick loads of high bush blueberries each year and after picking out any sticks or other debris, the dry berries (do not rinse them) go into a freezer container, to be used on oatmeal and in fruit dishes throughout the winter.

Tom’s tips

Dandelion lovers have a second shot at their favorite green after the first heavy frost in fall. Freezing dispels the bitter principle, rendering them sweet as in spring.

Dill weed is good dried or frozen. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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