Ron Kujawski: Labor in the garden this Labor Day
In contrast to Memorial Day, which is perceived as the time to pick up the pace of our gardening endeavors, Labor Day is often viewed as a time when those labors are waning. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least as far as Labor Day is concerned. Not to belabor the point, but Labor Day is aptly named as it is a good time to labor at these tasks:
- Make daily treks around the vegetable garden as crops are rapidly ripening. Potatoes, onions, beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and the first pumpkins, melons and winter squash are likely to be ready for harvest. With the bulk of the harvest occurring now, get out the canner and canning jars, freezer containers and food dehydrator in order to preserve fruits and vegetables for winter consumption.
- Divide rhubarb when the leaves begin to die. Normally, rhubarb plants may go from 5 to 15 years before needing to be divided. However, if the leaf stems were very slim or weak this year, divide the plants.
- Divide summer blooming perennials after they have completed their flowering. At this time of year, air temperatures are cooling down — this past week notwithstanding — but soil remains quite warm, often warmer than the air. Under these conditions, the plant's energy is diverted from vegetative growth to root growth, allowing the divisions to become well established before the onset of freezing weather. Whether or not a plant needs to be divided can be determined by evaluating certain aspects of its performance this year. Poor flowering, smaller and pale-colored foliage, and a hole or dead area at the center of the plant clump are signs that the plant needs to be divided. Some perennials, such as chrysanthemum, need to be divided almost every year, while bay's breath (Gypsophila paniculata) are never divided. By the way, there always seem to be more divisions than are needed. So share or trade some with friends.
- Plant, plant, plant! Cooling temperatures, warm and moist soils favor establishment of trees, shrubs and perennials. Also, there is the advantage of finding great buys as most garden centers and nurseries have much reduced prices on these plants at this time of year. Prior to planting, prepare the soil by working in organic matter, such as compost to a wide area where the plants are to grow and not just to the backfill soil. Water the soil a few hours before planting and then after setting in the plants.
- Seed new lawns or reseed bare patches. This is even a better time to seed turfgrass than in spring. As with the plants mentioned above, weather conditions going into autumn favor growth of grass, especially growth of their roots.
- Fertilize existing lawns. Research has shown that if you fertilize your lawn only once a year, Labor Day is the best time to do it. There is reason why the grass species recommended for our climate are called cool-season grasses — they thrive in cool weather. Also, grasses which struggled through a hot summer, pick up the pace of growth now and benefit from an application of plant nutrients.
- Collect seed pods of early blooming perennials, such lupines and columbines. Store the seeds in the refrigerator for sowing next spring or sow the seeds now in a cold frame, but be prepared to mulch any seedlings that develop prior to the onset of freezing weather.
- Sow seeds of dill, cilantro and parsley for growing indoors this winter.
- Dissolve one teaspoon of baking soda in a quart of water and spray this solution onto the leaves of pumpkin plants and winter squash to protect them from powdery mildew.
- Begin garden clean up by removing spent crops in the vegetable garden and worn-out annual flowers. Add these materials to the compost pile. No compost pile? Start one somewhere in the garden. There's no need to build extravagant bins or buy expensive compost barrels. Just pile up leaves and organic debris in an out-of-the-way corner of the backyard, or front yard if you have a proclivity for organic exhibitionism. Rate of decomposition of the organic matter can be hastened by turning the pile once a month. Don't bother to buy "compost activators" that claim to speed composting. In university studies, commercial activators were found to have no effect on the rate of composting.
- Plant a winter cover crop in areas of the garden as they become vacant through mid-October. Winter rye is an excellent choice as a winter cover crop and the seeds are readily available as garden centers and farm supply stores.
Hmmm! Maybe I've misunderstood the concept of celebrating Labor Day. Perhaps, we should put side our gardening labors for a day and go on a picnic.
A NOTE TO MASSACHUSETTS GARDENERS
The Western Mass Master Gardeners are looking for applicants for their class of 2019. Registration deadline is Sept. 21. Applications and FAQs can be downloaded directly from the website at www.wmmga.org.
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