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There’s frost on the pumpkins—and the tomatoes, hibiscus, and everything else. How do we keep gardening through the dark months?

Story and photography by Jodi DeLong

By now, most of us have enjoyed most of the bounty of our vegetable gardens and fruit plantings. The ruby-throated hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies have left for warmer climes. The hardwood trees and shrubs are slipping into their fall finery, and if you haven’t experienced a frost yet at your home, you know it’s coming soon. And then… (cue ominous music) November, the darkest, bleakest month of the year.

The good news is, we can keep our green thumbs exercised and our gardens (outdoors and inside) bringing us joy all year long. So, don’t put away your garden gloves and your tools just yet—put on your work boots, gloves and a sweater, and enjoy the fine autumn days.

Now is the time to dig up non-hardy bulbs like dahlias and store them.

Do some cleanup pre-spring—but not all of it

Because many beneficial insects over-winter inside the stems of perennials or in the ground of our gardens, I rarely do any cutting of dead perennial stems in the autumn, preferring to wait until mid-spring. And I don’t rake off the garden until spring, either—in fact I often add well-mulched leaves and grass clippings in the autumn to help protect the marginal perennials, and to also deter nosy squirrels from digging up my bulbs. If you see a deep red Subaru with a wild-haired woman loading your bags of leaves into her hatchback, that could be me. I don’t have nearly the hardwoods that other gardeners have, so I collect bags of leaves and compost them out behind the garden for a year or so then mulch/top-dress with them.

The main gardening chores that get done in the fall with regards to cleanup have to do with actual cleaning and putting away of tools, planting containers and seed flats, hose and attachments, and so on. When not run off my feet, I make an effort to clean the hand tools, pruners and full-sized implements like rakes, shovel, etc, and disinfect them with a mild bleach solution. Wooden handles get oiled and I prevail upon a friend or two to sharpen the pruners and other tools that need such treatment. They all get stored away in the shed, out of the way of winter tools. If I’m really ambitious, I clean the whipper snipper and lawn mower too, so they’ll be ready to go come spring. Then, because I don’t feed any birds except hummingbirds in the summer, I clean and disinfect the bird feeders and put them out in late October or early November.

Divide perennials and replant or share with friends.

Certain perennials with fleshy roots, like peonies, Oriental poppies, Siberian and other irises, and early spring bloomers like creeping (moss) phlox prefer being divided in autumn once active top growth and blooming is done. Many other perennials are perfectly happy being divided in the autumn as well: there’s more moisture available in the soil, the days are warm and the nights cooler, and there’s less stress on the plants.

But if you do go gung-ho into autumn division, do make sure that you get this done between four and six weeks before the ground is going to freeze hard. These days our autumns tend to be nice well into November and a hard freeze might not even come before Christmas, but I like to have these tasks done by mid-November, just in case. Because as we all know darn well, often in spring it’s unpleasant weather for so long, wet and cold and muddy, and then suddenly boom, it’s nice and things are half-grown, and we have too many tasks to do.

Keep planting!

We’ve talked before about the importance of autumn and winter interest in your garden and garden—having beautiful shrubs and trees with interesting bark and foliage, seedheads and other aspects that last long after the last flower has fallen off. If you’ve been taking notes (literal or mental) since last winter, you know where you have gaps in bloom period and in all season interest. As we noted above, autumn is a perfect time to plant perennials, trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses, because while the days are warm, the nights are cool, allowing plants to settle in with minimal stress.

For interesting fall and winter appeal, try dwarf or standard conifers, shrubs and trees with peeling bark like Ninebark and paper birch, tall perennial grasses like Miscanthus that keep their seedheads well into winter, and plants like coneflowers, baptisia and irises that often have interesting seedheads.

Now is the time to dig up non-hardy bulbs like dahlias and store them, and plant spring bulbs like hyacinths.

Plant bulbs—indoors and out

Every spring, I look around the garden and take photos of where there are bevies of bulbs, and where there should be bulbs added in the fall. Usually I order what I want online to get the best variety selections, but occasionally I get bulbs at local garden centres, too. Although not plagued with deer here, I rarely plant tulips except those I bought as forced bulbs from a local nursery in the spring, when I just had to have some early colour indoors.

You can also force bulbs indoors. Forcing is a technique where we subject our bulbs to weeks of chilling temperatures, because they need that period before they break dormancy, sprout and bloom. You’ll need a good quality potting medium, containers with drainage holes, and a cool site for chilling. Don’t let the bulbs touch in your pots, and don’t completely bury them in the potting mix: leave the bulb tip showing above ground. Water the containers well so that the soil is moist but not soggy.

Some types of bulbs can be forced using only water. Hyacinths are often set into specially designed glass vases that support the bulb and leave only its roots in water. You can also plant crocus or daffodils without soil by setting them in clear glass dishes on a bed of pea gravel, marbles, or polished glass stones.

Once you’ve planted your bulbs, the next step is to put them in a consistently cool location for the required number of weeks. An old refrigerator, a cellar or unheated garage can work well, provided the temperature is above freezing and below 7-10 degrees Celsius (45-50 degrees F). Check them occasionally but don’t overwater the containers. And remember: wherever you decide to chill your bulbs, remember not to plant or store bulbs anywhere near apples and other fruit. Ripening fruit gives off ethylene gas, which is harmless to humans and most plants but will kill the flower embryo of bulbs.

Grow some veggies and herbs indoors

In recent years, many people have gotten into windowsill growing of herbs and vegetables, and some have gotten into hydroponics in particular, especially for the growing of one “herb” (nudge nudge, wink wink). But hydroponics is excellent for more than just your legal pot supply—it works beautifully for growing vegetables and herbs in a tidy, controlled spot.

A sunny windowsill may not always be enough for growing foods, and that’s where terrific grow-lights also come in. There are LED lights which cost pennies to operate and do a superb job of providing light for growing greens, herbs… even tomatoes! Subscribers and regular readers may well remember the SucSeed hydroponic system developed by young people in St. John’s, Newfoundland for growing salad stuff and herbs all year long—I have one of the smaller of these kits and grew fantastic romaine last winter.

As of this writing, my salad greens are still in containers outside, but before we know it, we’ll be craving fresh green things indoors. Among the easiest edibles to grow are lettuce and salad mixes, beet greens, chard, as well as herbs like chives, parsley and basil. You can grow them from seed, or you can buy plants, often at the grocery store in the produce section. These tend to do very well and provide me with enough fresh basil and parsley to get me through the winter months; together with the pesto and other frozen herb mixes I made in summer! 

Potted herbs and salad greens grow well in a bright spot indoors.

Grow funky houseplants

One of the few positive things that have come out of this year of COVID-19 is that people have been staying home in their bubbles more and have been looking for ways to beautify their homes indoors as well as out. Most of the plant nurseries, speciality plant shops, and even department stores cannot keep houseplants in stock: they come in and are sold out in a matter of days.

Gone are the days of just having a snake plant, a spider plant and a jade plant in your home; new and savvy gardeners are getting hooked on all sorts of exciting houseplants. Oh sure, those three varieties are terrific (I have one or more of each) because they’re tolerant of so many home conditions, but there are also new and exciting species available, plus a dizzying number of varieties of various species. Whether you have a fondness for flowering tropicals, orchids, cacti and succulents, African violets, air plants, colourful foliage plants, ferns—or all of the above—there are so many terrific choices out there…

Some of us put some of our houseplants outside for the summer months to give them a boost of real natural light and rainfall and fresh air—the big thing is to remember to bring them in before the risk of frost. All of my hibiscus shrubs spend the summer outside, but in mid-September they get checked for aphids and spider mites (and treated with insecticidal soap if necessary) before coming in until next June.

Catch up on your garden-related reading

Whether you read online, or physical books and magazines, seed and plant catalogues, there are always new offerings to feed our green thumbs while we get through late autumn and winter. Relax. We got this!

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