This organic gardening article was originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, the hometown newspaper for Kodiak, Alaska. You can access the archive page for my past columns, written each week since 1986.
The summer of 2020 has been like no other: Good weather plus more time than usual to spend in the garden; or fish for silver salmon, go for long hikes, and… okay, so the berry harvest wasn’t so great. Yet, more than once I heard people say, almost reverently in a hushed voice, “Where did the summer go?”
“One moment it’s April and then it’s the end of August,” a friend remarked the other day over a cup of coffee. “What happened?”
Busy. That’s what we were; busy connecting the dots. And now it’s time to plant garlic, clean out the greenhouse, put hoses away, and make compost. It doesn’t stop unless you put your foot down…
You may have heard the story about a South American tribe went on long treks. That’s not unusual except that periodically, they would stop walking and then make camp for a couple of days before going any further. When asked about why they stopped for no apparent reason, they explained that they needed to rest so their souls could catch up.
Our long summer days seem to taunt us into packing it with activity. I take some of the blame, listing things to do in my weekly columns. We fall into a spell, overfilling our waking hours with too much activity, often to the point of warping natural rhythmicity.
Savor the fruit
“We do not gauge the value of the seasons by how quickly they progress from one to the next,” writes Wayne Muller in his lovely book, Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest. “Every season brings forth its bounty in its own time and our life is richer when we can take time to savor the fruit of each.”
So as we inch our way to winter, we smoke salmon, split wood, gather the harvest, rake leaves, make jam and pickles, homeschool kids, take pictures of fall colors, and hopefully, give thanks. And then, come winter, we, like plants, slow down. It’s a time for reflection, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, birdwatching, and looking for light in the midst of celestial darkness.
Fall though is my favorite time of year. After a summer like no other, the autumnal equinox yanked me back to reality. It’s not June anymore. Still, I welcome the change, and as I search for exquisite light in autumn’s sunrises and colorful landscapes, it gives my camera purpose. It reminds me of something that photographer Galen Rowell used to say: “The edges of nature are where you’ll find dynamic light and landscapes.”
What happens to plants when it freezes
Have you thought about frost and what to do if and when it looms? No need to twirl around in a panic because freezing temperatures don’t always spell disaster. Just have a prevention plan in place: Old sheets, spruce branches, move containers to protected areas, and so on.
When temperatures dip a little below freezing, the air is moist enough for water vapor to condense (in the form of ice crystals) on the ground as well as on the plants. Then, when the water condenses, it gives off just enough heat to warm the air around plants. This warm envelope acts as a protective micro-climate.
On the other hand, when the temperature falls more than a few degrees below freezing, frost can damage leaves, shoots, and flowers no matter how humid the conditions are because water, whether in lakes, ice cube trays, or cells, expands when it freezes. Thus, as water within plant cells freezes, it ruptures the cell walls like a water balloon bursting under pressure.
When it comes to freezing temperatures, not all plants—or parts of plants— are created equal. For example, pansy and nasturtium flowers might wilt like wet paper bags at 31 degrees, but their leaves remain firm and undamaged.
Remember, plants that are native to northern regions have built-in antifreeze, mechanisms to survive the cold. Take rhubarb: Rhubarb leaves die back each fall, but the roots and crowns, which are buried in the insulating soil, remain alive to sprout again the next season. Applying mulch in the fall adds insulation.
Hazards of bringing plants indoors for the winter
Then there are couch-potato plants such as the Jalapeno peppers that have spent the summer in my greenhouse. Even though the stubby green peppers hang like Christmas ornaments from the stems, it’s too cool to expect full-sized peppers by mid-October.
So I brought them indoors to soak up the heat and light on the windowsills in our living room. Before setting them into position though, you can bet each plant got a warm shower and a good looking over. Aphids suck, literally. And I don’t want them discovering my houseplants.
Why mulching is awesome
So, another fall garden activity: mulching. Here’s an important reminder about mulching: Follow Mother Nature’s cue: Leaves falling around tree bases provide a protective—and nourishing—layer, right? In the garden, we can emulate Mom Nature by applying a 2 to 4-inch layer mulch around the base of shrubs, trees, and perennials in the form of leaves, compost, kelp (or a combination of all).
Mulching is one of the best defenses against freezing temperatures. Distribute the mulch toward the trunk, but not up against it. For perennials, mulch is usually applied later in the fall directly on top of the plants after the main plant dies back.
How to take a walk
I’ll close today’s column with this thought:
It also pays to follow Nature’s cue when it comes to rest. Just like the South American tribe that would camp for a couple of days so that their souls could catch up with them, consider applying this kind of rest the next time you go for a walk.
Here’s what “Sabbath” author Wayne Muller’s recommends:
Walk slowly and silently for 30 minutes. Make it an amble or a stroll. Simply walk without any purpose, letting your soul catch up with you. Let your senses guide your walk. If you are drawn to a leaf, a stone, a color, or the fragrance of the tall grass, simply stop and linger. Thoroughly experience the moment with all your senses.
Then, when it feels right, simply move on. When you’re called to stop, stop, and investigate. When you’re called to begin again, move along. That is all.
“At the end of thirty minutes,” says Muller, “Notice what has happened to your body, your mind, your sense of time.”
And if, after your walk of mindfulness, you want to bring plants inside, be sure to check for aphids.
Would you like to read more of these garden columns? Slowly but surely I’m posting over 1,200 articles that you can access here. For personal updates, sign up for my newsletter, the Garden Shed: All Things Organic Gardening. As a thank you for signing up, you’ll receive a FREE PDF: 220 Things You Can Compost. (I’m also on Facebook and Instagram). To get in touch by email: marion (at) marionowenalaska.com