Squash For Autumn And Winter

91030thumbWinter squash are not exactly the sort of cool season vegetables that their designation implies. They grow through the summer just like summer squash do. Both winter and summer squash are warm season vegetables that get planted early in spring. The difference is that summer squash get harvested regularly through summer, and winter squash get harvested only once after summer.

Zucchini, crookneck, pattypan and other summer squash are very productive as long as the weather is warm, and their fruit gets harvested. Fruit that stays too long and continues to mature gets big and tough, and consumes resources that would otherwise be diverted to newly developing fruit. Therefore, regular harvesting of the more desirable juvenile fruit actually promotes production.

Pumpkin, acorn, butternut and other winter squash grow all summer, but each plant should be allowed to produce only a few fruits each. Some pumpkin vines produce only one fruit each. Once the desired number of fruits are developing, fruits that start to develop later should be culled to concentrate resources into the primary fruits. These fruits mature all summer to get harvested after frost.

So, by the time that summer squash stops producing, winter squash is about ready for harvest. Where autumn weather is cooler, the tender foliage shrivels after frost, exposing the richly colored but formerly obscured ripe fruit. Winter squash is supposedly best if slightly frosted prior to harvest, which might take a bit longer here. After harvest, they should be left to cure for two weeks or so.

Winter squash vines are more rampant and somewhat shabbier than those of summer squash. Those that produce smaller fruit might be able to climb trellises or onto firewood piles that are not in use through summer anyway. Female flowers tend to shrivel sooner than male flowers, but all flowers that are big and turgid enough to bother with are edible. Bloom continues through summer.

If properly stored, even without canning or freezing, intact winter squash can last for months, until summer squash start producing the following season.

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These Bulbs Are Not Incandescent

41015thumbIt may seem to be too early to be concerned with narcissus, daffodil and grape hyacinth, but this is when their bulbs go into the garden. Once established, these familiar examples, as well as early bearded iris, can be the most reliable for colorful bloom at about the same time early each spring. Crocus and freesia bloom just as early, but may not naturalize as reliably. Lily, tulip, hyacinth, anemone and ranunculus really prefer cooler winters to bloom reliably after their first spring, even though they are worth growing for just one season.

Bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, can be found in nurseries when it is time for them to be planted. Gladiolus are not yet available only because they are summer blooming bulbs that should be planted a bit later than spring bulbs. None of the bulbs are much to look at while dormant, and are even less impressive once they get buried out of sight, but they have already stored up everything they need for the blooms that we expect from them next year. Once hidden below the surface of the soil, seemingly dormant bulbs secretly disperse their roots into the surrounding cool and moist soil to be ready to bloom as soon as weather allows.

In their first year, some bulbs can be planted in groups at different times to coincide with the expected durations of their particular bloom cycles. For example, if the flowers of a particular type of bulb can be expected to last two weeks, a second phase of the same bulbs can be planted two weeks after the first phase. As the first phase finishes bloom next spring, the second phase should begin bloom. However, phasing is only effective for the first season, since all bulbs of any particular variety will be synchronized by their second season.

Anemone, ranunculus and bearded iris each bloom synchronously, regardless of when they get planted, so are immune to phasing. Fortunately, the many varieties of bearded iris have different bloom seasons. Some bloom as early as narcissus. Mid-season varieties bloom shortly afterward, and are followed by late varieties. Some modern varieties bloom early, and then again after the late varieties!

Spring Bulbs Get Planted Now

91023thumbTo those who do not enjoy gardening, the process of planting dormant bulbs must seem to be blatantly unproductive. Those of us who know what we are doing are so dutiful to select the bulbs we want, only to bury them in shallow graves in the garden, with nothing to show for all the effort. Knowing that the bulbs are buried at specific depths and orientations makes them no more exciting.

Only cool season annuals that might get overplanted after the bulbs get tucked in will provide any degree of color between now and when the freshly planted bulbs bloom early next spring. Light mulch might be added in conjunction with the overplanted annuals. Thicker mulch can be added without overplanted annuals. Otherwise, there is no immediate gratification with bulbs planted now.

We plant them because we know what they will do next spring. After their boring dormancy, spring bulbs will provide the most spectacular blooms in the garden as winter becomes spring. As they finish, summer bulbs that we might plant a bit later will continue through summer, with the latest continuing into about this time next year. There are no annual bedding plants that do what bulbs do.

Dormant bulbs become available in nurseries when it is time to plant them. Right now, it is time for the early spring bulbs like daffodil, narcissus, tulip, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, freesia, anemone, ranunculus, montbretia, crocosmia, crocus, most lily and some types of iris. We should get them into the garden soon so that they can slowly disperse their roots through the cool and rainy winter.

Summer bulbs such as gladiola, dahlia, allium, calla and canna, will become available later because they should probably be planted later. Although some might not mind getting planted early, a few, such as dahlia and canna, would likely be damaged by frost if they started to grow too early. Many of the summer bulbs bloom through a long season, rather than just once for a brief season.

Bulbs and bulb-like plants that bloom only once can be planted in phases every week or two through their season in order to prolong bloom.

October Brings Cool Season Annuals

41008thumbAs the name implies, ‘annuals’ need to be replaced ‘annually’. What is worse is that they do not even function for an entire year, but only for a specific season. Cool season annuals mostly work from autumn to spring. Warm season annuals mostly work from spring to autumn. Calendula is a popular cool season annual that may not last even that long, since it can mildew half way through winter.

Now that it is time for cool season annuals, it can be unpleasant to remove warm season annuals that are still performing well. In mixed plantings, new annuals can be phased in through autumn as older annuals deteriorate. Busy Lizzie (impatiens), wax begonia and other warm season annuals that are actually perennials can get cut back and overplanted with cool season annuals. The cool season annuals that temporarily overwhelm them can provide shelter from frost. As the cool season annuals finish next spring, the warm season ‘annuals’ can regenerate

However, not all cool season annuals need to finish next spring. Sweet William, cyclamen, chrysanthemum and the various primroses are popular cool season annals that are actually perennials. When the time comes, they can be overplanted with warm season annuals, so that they can regenerate the following autumn. In cool spots, sweet William and some primroses can actually perform all year. (Some people are allergic to primroses like poison oak.)

Alyssum and nasturtium really are annuals, but can function both as warm season and cool season annuals. They sow their own seeds so that new plants can reliably replace old plants without being noticed. The old plants only need to be pulled as they deteriorate. Alyssum is white, or pastel hues of pink or purple. Nasturtium is just the opposite, with bright hues of yellow, orange and red, with only a few pastel options.

Pansies and smaller violas are the two most popular of cool season annuals, since they function like petunias for cool weather. They lack few colors. Most have two or three colors. Ornamental cabbage and kale produce big and bold rosettes of pink, white or pink and white foliage. Kale has weirdly distinctive foliar texture. White, lavender, pink, purple and rose stock is the most fragrant of cool season annuals, and taller varieties are great for cutting. Iceland poppy has delicately nodding flowers on wiry stems. They can be pastel hues of white, pink, yellow, orange or soft red.

Annual flowers For Cooler Weather

91016thumbAll that unpleasant annual business of removing warm season vegetable plants to relinquish space for cool season vegetables applies to annual bedding plants too. Those of us who do not grow vegetables were spared the agony of pulling up tomato plants that might have still been producing a few tomatoes, just to make room for broccoli. Now, it is time to replace petunias with pansies.

There is a reason why annuals get removed this time of year. It is the same reason why those that get planted now to replace them will be removed later. Annuals are annual. They are expected to perform for only part of one year. True annuals naturally complete their entire life cycles in about a year. Those that have potential to be perennial are too unappealing to salvage through dormancy.

Removal of aging warm season annual bedding plants should be less distressing if they are already deteriorating. By now, most of them are. They tend to wear out faster than some of the warm season vegetable plants. Impatiens can be potted for next year, or, for mixed beds, cut down and overplanted. Most cool season annual bedding plants are already blooming when newly planted.

Because the weather gradually gets cooler through autumn, cool season annual bedding plants appreciate an early start. It is easier to disperse roots before the soil gets cool. Only those that are sensitive to warmth, such as cyclamen, get planted later. Ornamental cabbage and kale might bolt and bloom early at the end of their season if they get too warm at the beginning of their season.

Marigold and chrysanthemum are short term autumn annuals that work very nicely until it is time to plant cyclamen or ornamental cabbage and kale.

Pansy, viola (including Johnny-jump-up), stock, sweet William, Iceland poppy and various primroses are now in season. Some could have been started from seed earlier. Otherwise, it is most practical to plant these cool season annual bedding plants from cell packs. Cyclamen and ornamental cabbage and kale that get planted later are best as more expensive four inch potted plants.

Pumpkins Exemplify Ripening Winter Squash

41001thumbZucchini is probably the most reliable of warm season vegetable through summer, even when tomatoes are having a bad year. A single zucchini plant produces enough for a household. Two plants produce enough to share with neighbors. Pattypan, crookneck and other varieties of summer squash may not be quite as reliably productive individually, but can be assembled as a delightfully variable team that produces early in summer, and is just now finishing.

The fruit of summer squash is best when immature and tender. It gets tougher and loses flavor as it matures. Because development of seed within maturing fruit exhausts resources, plants are actually more productive if the fruit gets harvested while immature. In other words, they can either make many small fruits, or a few large fruits. The plants have coarse foliage on big but relatively confined annual plants.

Winter squash is very closely related to summer squash. The shabby annual vines sprawl over much larger areas, and can even climb fences and shrubbery. The main difference though, is that each plant produces only a single fruit or only a few individual fruits that are allowed to mature completely through summer. Their ripening fruit is just now becoming available as summer squash are running out. The fruit is supposed to be best after frost has killed the foliage, which could take a while here.

Hubbard, acorn, turban, spaghetti, kabocha and butternut squash, as well as the many varieties of pumpkin, are the more popular types of winter squash. Unlike summer squash, winter squash can be stored for quite a while, and need to be cooked to be eaten. While winter squash do not produce as many fruiting female flowers as summer squash produce, they seem to make at least as many male flowers that can be harvested while still fresh.

Male flowers can be stuffed, battered and fried, or simply fried. After they have been pollinated and set fruit, female flowers are typically too wilted to be eaten. All squash produce more male flowers than female flowers. Even the most fruitful of summer squash produce about three times as many male flowers as female flowers.

Fertilize For The Last Time

91009thumbFor many of us, this might seem to be irrelevant. We do not apply fertilizer to our landscapes and gardens. Some of us who use fertilizer do so mostly for seasonal vegetable plants and flowering annuals. Such plants will either not be around long enough to get fertilized again this year, or are cool season plants that are on a completely different fertilizer schedule through autumn and winter.

Two other main exceptions that that might continue to get fertilizer after summer are lawns and houseplants. Some types of turf grasses, particularly those in older lawns, can get a bit pale through the the cooler parts of winter, so appreciate a boost. Houseplants are mostly immune to the cold weather outside, so continue to to crave nutrients, even if slowed somewhat by shorter day length.

So, except for lawns, houseplants, and incoming and outgoing annuals and vegetables, most other plants in the garden do not need to be fertilized again until weather begins to warm next spring. Not only do they not need fertilizer, but some could be inconvenienced by it. They know what time it is, and that they should now be slowing down for winter. Fertilizer can interfere with the process.

There are a few reasons why plants slow down or go dormant through winter. Some of the nutrients that they need to maintain active growth are less soluble or otherwise less available to them at cooler temperatures. There is less sunlight too. Plants from climates with cooler winters tend to be more proficient with winter dormancy. Many are deciduous to limit damage from wintry weather.

Some plants might use a late application of fertilizer to get ready for winter dormancy. Others might just ignore it as it leaches through the soil. Those that are from milder climates might try to use it to continue growing later than they should. For plants that are potentially sensitive to frost, growth that develops too late will not likely mature soon enough to be resilient to even mild winter frost.

This is why fertilizer can be applied to many plants one last time about now, but no later.

Gardening For The Birds

40924thumbSome of the most convenient bird feeders in the garden are some of the many plants we grow. Since so many plants exploit the birds as much as they get exploited by the birds, they naturally produce something that the birds want, when they want it. Right now, meaty seeds cater to migratory birds that need to plump up to travel, hoping that some of the seeds get dropped elsewhere or buried for later (hence ‘sown’ if forgotten, as they often are).

Since the climate is so mild, there is always something blooming to provide nectar for both migrating and overwintering hummingbirds, which inadvertently pollinate the flowers that feed them. Later in the winter, colorful berries feed hungry overwintering birds, in exchange for the dispersion of the small seeds within. (Digestion of the seeds does not harm them, and promotes germination.) Robins do not seem to do much for the garden, but certainly do enjoy digging for worms in unraked leaf litter.

Those who enjoy birds often intentionally plant pyracantha or cotoneaster to provide berries for birds in winter. Various salvias that bloom at various times likewise make nectar for hummingbirds. Fading sunflowers can be left out this time of year until birds that eat the seeds are finished with them. Alternatively, bird feeders can actually provide more food, and extend the seasons through which such food is available. Suet feeders provide something that plants can not provide.

The problem with plants or bird feeders that attract birds is that they can also attract less desirable guests. Squirrels and rats are the worst. Some bird feeders can be protected with exclusion devices. Cats have no interest in the plants or bird feeders, but can be a serious problem for the birds, and are not so easy to dissuade. Fortunately, hawks are rarely a threat in urban gardens, especially where there are trees to inhibit their hunting from above.

Contrary to popular belief, providing food to migratory birds does not interfere with natural migration. Cooling weather and shorter days are enough to convince birds to leave. The extra food actually helps them on their way once they get going. It also helps those that naturally stay here through winter. Some birds actually migrate to here from colder regions to the north. With winters so mild, there is no need to go any further.

Get Cool Season Vegetables Going

91002thumbThe difficult part will be removing the aging warm season vegetable plants while they are still trying to produce. That is one of the disadvantages of gardening in such an excellently mild climate. It would be easier if frost or cooling weather caused them to start deteriorating by now. Perhaps some are already getting tired. Regardless, their space is needed for new cool season vegetables.

Some of us like to amend the soil in between some of the lingering warm season vegetable plants, and add seedlings of cool season vegetable plants. Then, there is less of a rush to remove the warm season vegetables as they succumb to autumn weather. Some of us just wait for the warm season vegetables to finish, which is a delaying compromise for the new cool season vegetables.

Whatever the preferred technique is, it is now getting to be time to plug in seedlings of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Kale seedlings may be added as much as a month later. Seedlings can be purchased from nurseries. Those of us who want particular varieties that are unavailable in nurseries might have sown preferred seed in flats a month or so ago, to be ready for planting now.

Beets, carrots and turnips, like all root vegetables, should be grown from seed sown directly into the garden. Roots get disfigured if grown in flats or cell packs, and then transplanted. Besides, so many individual plants are needed, that such quantities of cell packs would be expensive. Seed for turnip greens, although not grown for their roots, likewise gets sown out directly, and about now.

Seed for leafy lettuces, spinach and peas should have been sown already, but it is not too late. Kale can alternatively be grown from seed sown directly now, rather than from seedlings plugged in later. If preferred, larger heading lettuces can be grown from seedlings plugged within the next month or so. Cucumbers can be risky. If seed has not yet been sown, seedlings can still be plugged.

Whether grown from seedlings or seed, this is only the first phase of cool season vegetables. For some, later phases will prolong harvest.

Autumn Simply Will Not Wait

40917thumbReady or not, it will be autumn in just a few days. Formal hedges can be shorn one last time if they need it. They will not grow much until spring. Actually, photinia and the various pittosporums should not be shorn much later than now if they exhibit any dieback. Some of the diseases that cause dieback are more likely to infest freshly cut stems during rainy weather. Citrus and plants that can be sensitive to frost should not be pruned later, since pruning can stimulate new growth that will be more sensitive.

For the same reason, most plants should not need fertilizer as their growth naturally slows. Through winter, new growth is likely to be damaged by wind or discolored by nutrient deficiency. Even if the nutrients that keep foliage green prior to autumn are in the soil, some are less soluble at cooler temperatures. It is really best to allow plants to get some rest. Only plants that are active through winter, like cool season vegetables, cool season annuals, and some cool season turf, will benefit from fertilizer.

However, some plants that are generally dormant through cool winter weather will not be completely inactive. Many plants, particularly tough evergreen perennials like lily-of-the-Nile, African iris and many ferns, continue to disperse their roots to be ready to sustain new foliar growth next spring. This is one of the reasons why autumn is the best time to get such plants into the garden, even if they do not seem to do much until spring. Autumn is also a good time to seed lawns or install sod.

The other reason for planting in autumn is that, as the weather gets cooler and rainy, new plants that have not yet dispersed their roots will be less likely to dry out than they would be in spring or summer. Some bulbs that will soon be available in nurseries want to be in the garden before winter because a bit of cold weather promotes healthier bloom.