For me September is always a time of reflection on time. This is especially true now that I am older. Some things wither and fade, while others are just coming into their glory. The strawberries and the cherries are long gone, but the apples and pears are just beginning to bear. The flowers that blossomed in spring have put down their seeds and spread out their roots, already prepared to winter over and grace us again next year. The zinnias and golden rod are dressed in their finest while the mums are just getting ready for their debut.
It is also a time when squirrel gather and geese fly. “A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silent and a time to speak” (Eccles 3:6-7) all in a single day.
What do you see when the shadows begin to lengthen?
I see the meeting place of time and eternity. As the Preacher said, “He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccles 3:11). There is no time that I hear the echo of eternity more clearly than in the passing of a brief autumn day.
This morning was exhilarating: I went to check on the seeds I planted and found that the first pepper had sprouted. Oh, the joy of it! I’ve been observing the sprouting of seeds for around 50 years, and it still fills me with delight and wonder. I grow my own food for many reasons: I was brought up to do it. (I’m incredibly grateful for that. Sorry, Mom, for all the times I complained about weeding and canning… ) I grow my own food because I like to have at least some direct control over the stuff I need to live. I do it for the shear delight of having green, growing things at my fingertips. Are you thinking of growing things this year but aren’t sure where to start? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to find the answer.
What do you like?
There isn’t a point in planting tomatoes if you don’t like them. Maybe you like tomatoes for their aesthetic value. They are beautiful, but if I’m going to plant something purely for aesthetic value it’s probably going to be flowers.
What will you use?
I never met a vegetable I didn’t like, but I use some of them more than others. I don’t eat a lot of corn. I find it makes more sense to buy it from the neighbors than to plant it. If I’m going plant something I’m not going to use, I’d rather plant flowers.
I do eat a lot of lettuce. However, lettuce doesn’t preserve well, so I don’t plant much. (You can actually blanch it and freeze it for soup, but that’s not usually how I use lettuce.) Even if a food does freeze or can well, there is only so much of it you will be able to use. Frozen vegetables and home canned goods don’t keep indefinitely.
What do you have time for?
Spring planting is hard work, but it isn’t nearly as time-consuming as preserving a harvest. I always plant too much; then I hate myself in late summer. I can’t stand to see good food going to waste, so I usually spend the time to preserve it if I can. But as I said above, home preserved foods only keep so long. Sometimes I end up wasting the time and the food.
The moral of the story is don’t plant too much.
How much sunny space do you have?
Most vegetables aren’t going to do well with only a few hours of sunlight a day. If your sunny space is limited, you will need to plan your garden out more carefully. Seed packets will give you the spacing requirements of a plant. Choose compact varieties if your space is limited. For example, a bush variety of squash will take a couple up a couple of square feet while a vining variety may take a couple of square yards.
One way you can maximize sunny space is by gardening vertically. A few pole beans will produce a nice crop of beans. Cucumbers can be grown on trellises. Plant the tallest plants on the north side of the garden so that they do not block the sun for shorter plants. You might do something like plant pole beans on the north side of the garden, with cucumbers on a trellis in front of them, followed by tomatoes then smaller things like beets and onions.
You can maximize space by using intensive gardening techniques. If your soil is well prepared, you can plant things more closely together. This requires a bit of thinking ahead. I’m not doing it this year because I didn’t start soon enough.
What’s your growing season?
When buying seeds, pay attention to the days to maturity and frost hardiness of the plant. Some species such as radishes and spinach have a short growing season and do well in cool weather. Tomatoes, as a general rule, have a longer growing season and require warm nights to ripen well, but some varieties are better adapted to cool weather and short growing seasons than others. If you are new to gardening, consider going to a gardening center and purchasing plants. Most garden centers will sell the plants that are adapted to the region. If you haven’t started tomato and pepper seeds yet, you’re better off going to a garden center anyway. It is getting late to start them now.
Go out and play in the dirt!
Go have fun playing in the dirt! Don’t wait till you have it all figured out. Garden is a matter of trial and error. If you enjoy the fresh air and sunshine and the wholesome way to get a bit of exercise, you win even without a great first harvest.
I have a hard time getting myself outside in winter, but it is always worth the effort. I do enjoy going for a walk or messing about in the yard or garden with various clean up projects. I love the subtle beauty of winter with or without snow. Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to see the beauty that is there. That makes winter the perfect time to train your eyes for seeing nature and to plan for the upcoming growing season.
A winter garden takes some planning ahead. Now is the time to do it. One of my favorite things to do in winter is to snuggle next to a fire and read seed catalogues. As I’m are doing that, I dream about my summer garden but also think about plants I can continue to enjoy in winter.
There are few vegetables that will survive into January in my location. On rare occasions, Brussels sprouts and kale will make it. Parsnips will make it through the winter, but if the ground freezes solid, they can’t be harvested. I can’t count on being able to dig them in January, but there is something especially rewarding about winter harvesting when it is possible.
Some ornamentals plants remain beautiful even after a frost. These include ornamental grasses and plants with ornamental seed pods or berries. What fun to go out in the snow and pick a bouquet of seed pods to grace your house in winter! Some weeds such as teasel and cattail can also contribute to a winter bouquet.
Here is your challenge for the weekend.
Go out in your back yard if you have one and notice whatever beauty is there. If you don’t have one, take a stroll through your neighborhood or a local park. Do you see anything that retains ornamental value in winter? Do you have trees of shapely form or gnarly bark? Can you identify them by their form and bark? Do you have any interesting weeds? Do you see anything you can gather for a winter bouquet? (If you aren’t on your own land, make sure you have permission.) Are your neighbors’ gardens more interesting than yours? Do you see anything that you might like to try growing in your own garden?