My father was not a hunter; he was a gatherer. In early spring he'd dig up horseradish roots growing in drainage ditches around our onion fields. In June, he collected wild raspberries growing in hedgerows. In July, he picked low-bush blueberries growing on rock outcrops in a nearby lake.
In October, he'd traverse the back roads (truthfully, where we lived, all the roads were back roads) to gather fallen hickory nuts. He'd fill as many as three large onion bags with the husked nuts and then spend his evenings in fall and winter cracking open the shells and removing the delicious nut meats. My mother would place the nut meats in the freezer and use them in baking cakes, cookies, and other desserts through the winter.
As I drive the back roads of Berkshire County this month, I see not only fallen hickory nuts, but also butternuts and black walnuts. I rarely see anyone but squirrels gathering these nuts. My father would have been disappointed to know that I am among those who rarely gather the nuts. Yet, there's still some time to be a gatherer, though the squirrels will not wait.
Yes, nuts abound in Berkshire County and many are gardeners looking forward to these weekend tasks:
n Shred fallen leaves with your mower. Use the leaves as mulch in flower beds, or spread the leaves over vacant areas of the vegetable garden and till them into the soil. Pine needles don't need to be shredded. They make excellent mulch for flower beds and shrub borders. Contrary to popular belief, pine needle mulch will not acidify soils.
n Sow seeds of spinach now for an early spring harvest. The spinach may come up this fall, but will survive through winter, especially if given some protection. That protection could simply be a cover of snow, but we can no longer count on a persistent snow cover all winter. Therefore, place a floating row cover over the seeded area once night-time temperatures are consistently below freezing.
n Plant garlic any time from now until the end of the month. Unlike onions sets and shallot bulbs, which are planted with their necks just protruding at ground level, garlic cloves should be planted at a depth of four inches, that is, the base of the clove should be four inches below ground level. If your soil is heavy (high clay content), plant garlic in raised beds. Cover the planting with a four- to six-inch-deep layer of straw.
n Hurry and plant winter rye as a cover crop in the vegetable garden. The rye will need some time to germinate and grow before the onset of cold weather. It can be planted in vacant areas and between rows of late fall crops.
n Dig up dahlia, gladiolus, canna, and other summer flowering bulbs as soon as their leaves turn yellow or they are hit by frost. Cure the bulbs in a dark, warm, airy location for 10 days. Then shake off loose soil on the bulbs -- do not scrub them clean -- and store the bulbs in peat moss, sand, or sawdust.
n Make regular applications of animal repellent to shrubs. Our yard is known to residents of the Wild Kingdom as the Deer Diner. Deer favor plants in managed landscapes because the plants tend to be more tender and succulent than the slower growing plants in woodlands.
n Don't wait until spring to get soils tested. Most people do and, as a result, soil-testing labs are flooded with soil samples. Collect soil samples now from lawns, shrub and flower borders, and vegetable gardens. Send the samples to the UMass Soil Testing Lab (For info: http://soiltest.umass.edu/). The results should be back in time to add amendments to correct soil fertility problems this fall.