There is a tree on Bay Street in Sag Harbor that I think is the first to turn colors, based on the extensive driving I do in this area. At the end of last week, it was just beginning. Now it has fully turned and within this last week, many other trees have begun to turn. The first leaves are beginning to fall. It’s my favorite time of year!
We have begun removing plants from the gardens and pots; some that have worked so hard that they have given their all and are not looking pretty any more. Annuals have been tricked by dead heading to bloom again and again, and they are now bloomed out. Some perennials that have had that glorious first flush removed and have produced the smaller flowers down the stalk have given up and the stalks are dead or dying. New growth is coming on some of them and others are just tucking in for their winter rest.
Be merciless with those tired annuals and just pull them out! Cut down those stalks of perennials that are ugly! Yes, this will leave holes in the garden, but it will also let the ones that look good have their day. It is appropriate to leave stalks with seeds for the birds, however (echinacea and rudbeckias, sunflowers) and any that you want to seed for next year. These seed heads also add visual interest and, in my opinion, signal the coming season, which I like.
However, I don’t like to see the garden completely cut down for the winter. I like to see evidence that something went on there. I cut many perennials, leaving a stalk. I tie phlox stems into bundles about 10 inches from the ground and cut off the tops. Lilies get a 6-inch stalk left. Perennial hibiscus is left with a 6-inch stalk. I tie tall grasses very tightly, as low as the clump will allow, and leave shorter grass as they are. The garden in this condition provides winter interest, especially after a snowfall, and also reminds me of locations and plant types for next year.
In the vegetable garden, the bush beans are long done and removed, climbing beans may have late offerings. Cucumbers and zucchini are finished. Squash plants are done with some squash just hanging on until ripe. Some tomato plants are still green but you might pick any tomatoes on them to avoid losing them in a frost. Lettuces, carrots and beets that I planted late in August are ready for eating. Oh boy! The farmers markets will have offerings of fall fruits and vegetables.
I have taken over a vegetable garden that laid idle with no water for two years. I had worked there before these two years and had built the soil into a very nice fertile state. During the last two years, it declined in tilth and become weed infested. This week, we removed the weeds and applied compost. I will apply more in the spring. This is a good practice for any garden. It does not need to be “worked in.” Just leave it on the surface and the nutrients will work themselves in. Hopefully, there are earthworms in the beds, which will carry the compost in to the soil.
This garden has proved the rewards of consistent weeding. When I worked there in the past, the garden needed a good weeding about two times per season around the flower, vegetable beds and stone paths. Weeds were pulled and did not self-seed, leaving advantageous seeds below ground. Beds were densely planted, keeping the soil shaded. Without careful attention over the past two years, weeds were left to multiply and seed. We have pulled weeds two times, only to have a dense mat regrow. I don’t like mulch in perennial beds, but we applied it. When I use mulch, I use a product called soil conditioner. Next year when I plant, it will get worked into the soil, providing aeration and increasing moisture retention.
At this time of year, the last of the harvest is being brought in, gardens are being prepared for winter rest and preparations for next year are already being made. Ah…the cycle of the garden!
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067