By Marty Ross
One of my most important fall and winter gardening tools doesn’t come from the tool shed: I keep it in my closet. A few years ago I bought an old wool overcoat at a thrift shop, and it has become my gardening coat. When the temperature drops, I bundle up to check on the garden.
Fall is a great season in Midwestern gardens. The air is crisp, and the colors, spectacular. It’s time to plant bulbs, rake leaves, stack firewood, and set up a bird-feeding station outside the kitchen window. A canvas barn coat with a wool liner or a sturdy old overcoat really doesn’t get in your way and—if the sun is shining—you can peel it off once you warm up.
Fall-blooming flowers, and plants with colorful leaves and bright berries keep my garden going long after the last daisies have faded. Chrysanthemums, asters, and pansies sparkle in the flowerbeds. Sedums are at their best in fall too; their russet-colored flower heads stand out among tawny ornamental grasses and the fading foliage of hostas.
Handsome clusters of purple beautyberry (Callicarpa) fruit gleam like jewels and draw me out every day for another look. Native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bursts into bloom in November. For a month strange, bright-yellow flowers cover its branches like clusters of ribbons.
Deciduous hollies number among my favorite season-extending plants. All summer long I watch their berries develop, and by early October they start to turn red. These winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) thrive in sun to part shade and do not mind heavy soils. ‘Winter Red‘ is one of the showiest. It grows slowly up to 9 ft tall, and its large, bright-red berries last for months. ‘Maryland Beauty’ is more compact, only 6 ft tall at maturity; and ‘Red Sprite‘ is even smaller, only 3 to 5 ft tall. All these hollies produce berries only on female plants. They need a male pollinator to encourage fruit set; for the best results make room close by for the male plant.
My vegetable garden also keeps going when the weather cools off. I wear my overcoat—and a pair of warm garden gloves—for harvesting trips to my community garden plot, where I pick kale, Swiss chard, beets, and broccoli. Usually I’ve harvested the broccoli crop by the end of October, but kale and Swiss chard are surprisingly cold-tolerant. Last year I picked kale until the holidays, and had plenty to share. By the time I filled one last bag full of ruffled kale leaves, it was time to order seeds for spring.
How do you appreciate your garden in fall and winter?
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