As the garden season yields to chillier nights and we tip into post-equinoctial darkness, breaking up is hard to do. The tiny seedlings we so tenderly defended from slug, caterpillar, aphid, bunny, woodchuck, drought and flood have become robust, even rank, and any day now they’ll be history. Frost’s leaden grip is slipping down the valleys with cold, Canadian air masses in tow. Sure, the cold is held off for the moment by balmy tropical depressions, but those turbulent summer weather patterns will soon chill and let down their guard. Ice cometh.
But take heart: It doesn’t have to be this way. So roll up your sleeves and grab some pots and a shovel. We’re going to yank some of the good stuff out of the garden and haul it inside. And while you’re at it, you might want to stick some ornamental kale or mums in the vacant slots. That’ll pretty up the autumn garden and buoy your spirits as we descend into winter. Pansies make nice fillers too, and if planted now they’ll be gorgeous in the spring.
First, though, a word about digging up plants. Remember that a plant’s surface area underground is roughly as big as what you see up above. It’s not that a 6-foot-tall sunflower has a 6-foot-deep root, but there’s a widely branched root system supporting the visible plant. So when potting up garden plants, use a shovel — not a hand trowel. Stick a shovel in on all four sides of a plant and you’ll have a dirt ball that will fill a two-gallon pot. That’s too big to fit on most windowsills, so once you pluck that sucker out of the ground, trim it back with a hand trowel until it fits a pot of your choosing. Most garden dwellers won’t be happy in anything smaller than a 10-inch pot, but you can use your judgment as you play with these plants. When you start knocking off dirt, the root structure will tell you all about itself. And remember, this plant would have died in the first hard freeze anyway, so any extra time you give it is a bonus. If you mess up, it’s OK — no penalties.
The New Guinea impatiens beside the porch, still loaded with blooms, show no sign of letting up: Pot ’em. And the non-New Guinea variety will happily take to indoor life, notwithstanding the dim winter light. Multicolored salvia is likely to flower through the winter as well, because it blooms in partial shade. (Purple salvia is reliably perennial hereabouts, so leave it in the ground.) Dig up some of the geraniums along the walk; ditto with the portulaca. Perched on a sunny windowsill, they’ll keep on blooming right through the winter.
Calendula is another easy-to-lift favorite of mine that will continue to bud for months. In fact, there’s one blooming within arm’s reach in my bedroom as I type this.
Many culinary herbs are equally happy to come in from the cold, leading off with basil — the least frost-tolerant of commonly grown flavor enhancers. And given half a chance, oregano, summer savory and marjoram will all be contented houseplants. The reliably perennial herbs, on the other hand, are happier where they are. You can continue to gather sage and thyme well into the cold weather and then tuck them in for the duration. Tarragon, too, will happily overwinter, as will French tarragon. The latter can be propagated only by cuttings and root division, and it’s generally best to do that in the spring. But you could try rooting some cuttings in the fall if fresh French tarragon is on your fetish list. Cilantro (coriander) can probably be kept alive as well (though I haven’t tried — and truth be told, you may be just as well off starting fresh seeds in pots).
Parsley is best left in the ground, since it is biennial and has a deep root. Second-year leaves aren’t as tasty as the first time around, which is why the plant is usually cultivated as an annual. But overwintered plants do yield an early crop while your newbies are just finding their vitamin C legs.
Cutting back foliage is a good idea whenever you pot a garden plant. And with herbs it serves double duty, because you can dry the trimmings. Clump the stems, and hang them top-down inside brown paper bags to keep dust off. Brown-bagging also makes it easier to collect the crumbly, dry foliage later.
Drying works particularly well with the mints, which you’ll want for tea during February bleakness. Unless you’re a fresh-mint fanatic, you probably won’t want to waste time or precious windowsill space potting the common mentha species. I readily admit that they’re my favorite invasive weed, because the roots smell so good when I’m ripping them out of garden beds, but invasive they are. I exiled spearmint and peppermint from the beds 20 years ago, and they (happily) persist in the paths, where they constantly attempt to reinfest the official “garden.” The closely related lemon balm, meanwhile, genteelly retreated on its own and set up camp here and there between stones along the border. The more exotic mints are weak-kneed by comparison, and the mutant ninja bergamot mints I’ve tried through the years — including flavors of orange, pineapple, chocolate and grapefruit — never seem to overwinter, so they might be worth digging and potting, space permitting.
Salvaging the eggplant, pepper and tomato plants is tempting but not likely to be worth the trouble. You can keep them going a bit longer right where they sit by side-dressing with compost and a smattering of fresh manure and protecting them with row covers or polyethylene on chilly nights. (The fresh compost will generate a bit of heat.)
Unfortunately, as bug populations drop, pollination will also fall off, so such season-extending efforts are mainly a labor of love. Then again, the longer one can put off that inevitable reversion to dining on tomatoes picked green and shipped from East Jeepers, the more in tune one’s chi stays with one’s karmic destiny — a critical consideration as the sun makes its annual night move.
Arugula: Would life be worth living without it? Probably not, and at my age it’s much too late to risk finding out. These days, arugula is widely available in grocery stores throughout the year, but the wussy “spring mix” variety — a sort of arugula lite — sold there pales by comparison with the rich nuttiness of leaves harvested from a mature plant. If you don’t grow arugula, you are missing out on one of life’s singularly delicious addictions — and if you do, you’ve probably already figured some way to maintain your supply line.
So get out there and dig.