It’s incredible to realize how nature’s signals fit together, offering comforting assurance heading into winter.
As I walked last Saturday, seedpods on bald cypresses shone in the sun like Christmas baubles. The wind was tossing cottonwood limbs, and their leaves quaked like an ocean above the ground. (Who decided the ocean was more exotic? If we stop and look up into the sunlit branches and wonder at the beauty, our minds are no longer landlocked.)
After a couple of cold nights, coleus and basil went south with the slant of the sun.
I found myself, after the time change last Saturday night, looking for more light by walking on the sunny side of the street and along the edges of the tree canopies in the park, wanting as much sun on my face as possible.
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In the kitchen, where the view out the window is of a tree whose leaves look like they are on fire, I moved things from one side of the sink to the other to clear counter space so that I could see out more easily and work in more light. My brain seemed to like the change-up, too.
Adjustments have to be made for living with a different light schedule. For those of us who work during the day, walks at lunchtime take advantage of a warmer part of the day and some much-needed sunshine. Gardening also has to be fit into this time frame. Who wants to water on a frosty morning? Or plant bulbs in the early-evening twilight?
Even though there was a freeze warning last weekend, the temperature didn’t end up hitting the hard-freeze mark of 28 or below. Nevertheless, we did get our first frost, with many people picking the last tomatoes and peppers on the last warm day and pulling the plants as well. After the frost, the basil and coleus were ready for pulling too, though some things like begonias and petunias still look good and can remain until they don’t.
That may happen Monday night, when the forecast takes a decided winterly turn. We’ll see how low the temperature goes. You’ll know it without checking the weather service’s stats. Much of the plant material will look flat when you head outside in the morning. And you’ll get that flat feeling in the pit of your stomach.
And then it will be time for more pulling out. The main way to know whether to leave plant material or pull it for the winter is how good it looks. Leave it as long as it offers some interest; pull it or cut it when it suddenly starts getting on your nerves.
For example, ornamental grasses dry out but should be left to provide their swaying heads in the winter. Unfortunately, the heads of my grasses were partially stripped this summer — perhaps by grasshoppers, extension agent Bob Neier guesses — and while I’ll probably leave them, I see the defects more than the fluffiness of the plumes.
Seeds on some perennials are edible for birds, Ward Upham of K-State says.
“Normally, we recommend clear-cutting dead stems to help control insect and disease problems,” Upham writes in the Horticulture 2014 newsletter. “With herbaceous perennials that have been pest free, you might want to consider leaving some to provide structure, form, and color to the winter garden. … Perennials with evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage can provide color. Of course, some perennials are naturally messy after dormancy and should be cut back in the fall.
“Foliage can be left for other reasons. For example, foliage left on marginally hardy plants such as tender ferns helps ensure overwintering of plant crowns.” Stems that are left can also catch snow that falls, giving plants more moisture.
Some annuals and perennials reseed themselves if the seedheads are not removed. It’s up to you whether you want this to happen. (And sometimes it happens whether you want it to or not.)
Tender plants such as hybrid tea roses should be mulched, but mulching isn’t done until the ground freezes, because mice can snuggle in and chew on the roses over the winter, Upham says.
But by Thanksgiving, you can mound soil or compost about 8 to 10 inches high around each hybrid tea rose, Upham says. Once the ground has frozen, he recommends adding a 4-inch mulch of straw, leaves or hay for further protection. More soil can be spread on top of the mulch to keep it in place.
Indoors, we’ll be piling on more blankets. Right now a tree across the street from my house is orange just like the pumpkins on the porch in front of it. The sun hits the leaves at about 7:10 a.m., I noticed. I’ll have to move breakfast to the front picture window to catch that show. I’ll have to keep adjusting, though, as the days shorten and those pumpkin leaves fall.