Fall is officially here, although as of this writing, we still haven't had our first frost.
Cold nights have threatened, regardless, and all of our indoor plants are resting comfortably in their winter sites. Hanging plants that we bring indoors are doing just that, hanging, but this time they are on decorative ceiling hooks dug deeply into ceiling beams. Large plants, such as the Norfolk Island Pine, the dwarf banana tree and the rubber tree are resting in corners that suit them.
No repotting is done this time of year and the fertilizers have been put away. Plants are beginning to get the idea that their days of basking outside in the sun or under a shady tree, if that is the case, are over. Now it is time for them to slow down their growth during these shorter days and less than optimal sunlight.
As far as the vegetable garden, there are still some things we aren't yet ready to give up. The large, ruffled kale is still going strong and will continue to give us plenty of crisp, hearty leaves for cold-weather soups and pasta dishes well into winter. Brussel sprouts cling to the thick, twisted stems of their parent plant, even when the first few blankets of snow cover the garden. There is still some life out there.
This summer saw a surge in vegetable growers. More people than ever before made their first attempts at vegetable growing. Even my son, who avoided any type of garden work, got into the act this year and was delighted to produce mounds of cucumbers. He is already thinking of next year and planning to expand on his garden bed. I have yet to convince my daughter, but there is always hope.
Here are a few things to think about over the winter that might help encourage this season's new gardeners to keep going and help change the minds of those potential vegetable growers who might still be sitting on the garden fence.
If this was your first garden, you probably had a few good things happen in your garden and possibly a few busts. You may have learned not to put plants too close together as well as coming to the realization that perhaps your rows should be further apart as well. It is quite discouraging to have large, lovely plants, and then find you have to walk on stems and vines to get to the fruit.
If things didn't go as well as you hoped, the first place to start is your soil. The best soil for vegetable gardens is rich in organic matter and full of worms. The way to attract worms to your garden is pretty much the same way to attract just about anything that is alive: give them something to eat. When I was a child, we didn't know about compost piles and leaf mold. Each fall, my parents would spread manure on top of the garden. Chicken manure was the best, and since my grandparents had plenty of chickens, it was readily available. In addition to manure, it was my job to carry all the day's vegetable peelings to the garden and fling them around. I went out all winter long, to throw vegetable scraps as far and wide as I could, as long as they stayed within the garden boundaries.
Over the winter, the worms worked hard eating the scraps and recycling, so to speak, the rich nutrients back into the earth. In the spring, my father would rototill the manure and what was left of the kitchen scraps into the soil.
You may have learned this year that certain woodland critters enjoy vegetables as much as we do. This year, I learned that one of my dogs has a particular fondness for tomatoes. Grape and cherry tomatoes hanging over the sides of their containers were fair game for him. I also discovered that he is particular, only choosing the ripest, juiciest tomatoes, hiding the semi-ripe and still green ones under his bed where I would find them days later when I vacuumed his spot. Fortunately, the larger, plum tomatoes were in the garden surrounded by a fence to keep the likes of him, as well as other potential produce pilferers, out of the vegetable patch.
The best advice for any new vegetable grower is to not be overwhelmed. If your patch is small and you can't decide what to grow, choose first what you like to eat. No one said you had to plant dozens of everything, even though most garden centers sell plants in six packs and flats. Find a friend to spit the plants if you only need one or two.
Something I learned while planning my garden is to order seeds early. I've found myself waiting until March or even April to place my orders only to find my favorite choices were already sold out.
Most of all, don't give up. Just because you didn't have good luck with something this year, doesn't mean it was your fault. It could have been the weather, weak plants or expired seeds that caused the failure.