Getting ready for the next planting

Published 8:29 pm Saturday, October 30, 2021

By Felder Rushing

While knocking around the yard, admiring late butterflies passing through, picking a few hot peppers to dry for winter use, the busy ant in me is thinking ahead to next spring.

It isn’t just the leaf raking, or the tool cleaning, or the neatening of the garden shed that I built to look like an old outhouse. Or pulling down weedy vines and pressure washing the dark stains on the deck and flagstone from dripping tree insects.

It’s scramble time, getting the last tomatoes picked, and potted plants cleaned up to bring indoors. And to take cuttings and collect seeds of heirloom summer plants that I can’t buy next spring.

Cuttings of cold-sensitive basil, coleus, ornamental sweet potatoes, and semi-hardy perennials such as confederate rose and angel trumpet can be rooted in vases of shallow water before frost damages the stems. I keep the prettiest in jars on my windowsill, the others get set on the floor in buckets near a sunny window.

I took advantage of the cool weather to clean off a big part of my four-foot wide raised bed, pulling up faded zinnia and tomato plants and digging a few sweet potatoes.

But then I smoothed the exposed dirt and sowed crimson clover seed to grow over the winter.

This “green manure” captures nitrogen from the air, so when I cut it down and turn it under next spring it will both enrich and fertilize my soil. And it’s pretty.

And I’m gathering seeds of zinnias, cosmos, cleome, okra, and cockscomb, letting their faded flowers dry in paper bags. Seeds from fleshy fruits like tomatoes, peppers, and the like should be scraped out and dried before saving in little paper envelopes.

I label and date everything to avoid mixing them up with stuff saved long ago that never got planted (am I the only one?).

Lots of old timers put seeds in the freezer, which is not necessary at all and can damage some seed.

I can see putting them in the regular part of the ‘fridge, but there’s no need if you plant on sowing them next year, just keep them in a cool, dry spot.

The huge seeds of my native red buckeye tree are already planted in pots, and should sprout within a week or so; I usually have small tree seedlings up to six inches or more tall by December, which I leave outside in a protected place all winter.

They will be ready-to-plant give-away trees by Arbor Day in February.

A lot of tree fruits, including apples, peaches, magnolias and dogwoods, have hormones in their fruits that prevent seeds from sprouting too early, and require being digested by wild animals and then exposed to cold, moist conditions for several months. You can mimic these natural winter rhythms by cleaning the seeds under running water, then either plant in pots to be left outside all winter, or put in plastic bags with barely moist paper towel and put it in the ‘fridge for at least three months, and planted in the spring. Fresh oak acorns can be planted this way as well. 

All this sounds a bit horticultural, but saving seeds and cuttings is one of those Autumnal things we do to keep our fingers dirty while thinking ahead about gardening and sharing our beloved plants with others.

And cleaning up the yard before Daylight Saving Time kicks us indoors for the dark months does more than just make sense; it makes me feel like I’ve actually earned the opportunity to sit back and relax, and wander around the neighborhood enjoying the Autumn.