Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: It's that time for fall perennials, preserving crops

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It is not unusual to see perennial flower borders with only a few plants in bloom at this time of year. Surely, one of the reasons is that many people shop for plants only in spring and are, of course, drawn to those that are flowering and showy. Who can blame them after having to endure an austere winter landscape? In spring, the juices are flowing and home gardeners are lured by the need to see vibrant blooms. On the other hand, it takes a great deal of imagination and a tad of wisdom to view leafy green plants devoid of blossoms in spring and conjure images of what they will look like when in flower at the later stages of the growing season.

Well, imagine no longer. Stop and shop at a nursery or garden center with display gardens or visit a public garden, such as the Berkshire Botanical Garden, and view their perennial borders for what is in bloom. Among the plants you can expect to see flowering now are: chrysanthemums, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), fall crocus (Colchicum speciosum), Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), boltonia (Boltonia asteroides), blue cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica), white mugwort (Artemesia lactiflora), sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) —"gesundheit" — and many sedums, including my favorite, sedum Autumn Joy (Sedum spectabile "Autumn Joy"). There are many others, but I'll stop there because, except perhaps for Latin scholars, such a list may put some to sleep.

GARDENING ACTIVITIES AWAIT

Try to stay awake for these gardening activities:

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- Consider dehydrating fruits and vegetables as a means of preserving them. Dehydration can be done by placing harvested items in the oven, but only if the oven can be set as low as 140 degrees F. Otherwise, invest in a food dehydrator. I prefer the latter since the temperature can be more easily controlled. Among the fruits and vegetables, we dehydrate are apples, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, and herbs, but there are many other food items suited for dehydration. For detailed information on dehydrating equipment and methods, go to the website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation: nchfp.uga.edu/how/dry.html

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• To speed up the ripening of tomatoes, place partially ripened or green tomatoes in a paper bag along with a very ripe banana or apple. The banana or apple gives off ethylene gas, which hastens the ripening of the tomatoes. As peculiar as that may sound, ethylene is actually a naturally occurring plant hormone responsible for many plant growth responses including ripening. So, gas up your green tomatoes.

• Save the seeds from pumpkins and winter squash. These can be converted to a tasty snack by roasting in the oven. The method is quite simple. First, wash the saved seeds to remove the pulp and then pat dry. Next, toss the seeds in a bit of olive oil and a tad of salt. Though we like to keep it simple, some folks will also toss the seeds with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice or other spices. Spread the seasoned seeds onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in a pre-heated oven at 300 degrees F and roast for about 20 minutes or until they appear brown. The next and final phase of the process is called snacking.

• Gather together some materials now to use for protecting vegetable crops from frost. NO! I am not saying that frost is imminent, but be prepared. Old blankets may be used to insulate tomatoes, peppers, squash and other warm-season crops from light frosts. Spun-bonded row covers can be placed over cool-season crops and will extend their growing season well into fall, possibly into December.

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• Harvest apples when they are ripe. Now that may seem so obvious that you'll begin to wonder what kind of idiot writes this column. However, determining the ripeness of an apple is not always easy. "Hey Bubba, when it's red, it's ripe!" Uh, not always; a better way to decide if an apple is ripe for picking is to hold it in the palm of your hand and carefully lift it. If the stem easily separates from the twig, the fruit is ripe.

• Take cuttings of sweet basil to start plants to carry through the winter on a windowsill. A 4- to 6-inch cutting will root in moist sand in about four weeks. You could start some plants from seed, but rooted cuttings will give you larger plants more quickly.

• Use a metal rake to remove excess thatch from small lawns. On large lawns, you'll have to rent a vertical mower. No, that's not one that stands on end. Rather, it has vertical blades that slice through the soil and pull up the thatch. "What is thatch?" you ask. It's the thick, spongy layer of unrotted remnants of grass, including stems and roots, which accumulate between the soil surface and the base of grass plants. How much is "excessive"? Use a knife or spade to lift a section of turf and measure the thatch layer. A thatch layer more than 1/2-inch thick is too much. Why? It interferes with movement of water and fertilizer into the soil. A little bit of thatch is desirable because it helps reduce wear and tear on heavily used lawns, and insulates soil from high summer temperatures, and reduces evaporation of moisture from soil. Too much thatch can accumulate on lawns which are over-fertilized, over-watered, or over-treated with pesticides.


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