Garden Diary 2020 - October 1-31
Though the summer garden is winding down, there is still plenty to harvest. Tomatoes continue to ripen on the heirlooms and succession planted determinates. The second wave of bean crops were ready, and the hot peppers hit their peak. Summer herbs are still fresh for picking, while cilantro and parsley are slowly making their return. New fall plantings were late, but worth the experiment. Preparing for winter is a joy in the cool weather. There is much work to be done. Check my intro article here, where I'll add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
Smart Pots Rule!
I was a little skeptical about whether the Smart Pots grow bags I purchased earlier in the year would be as good as they claimed. I can honestly say I'm super impressed! I planted four types of basil seeds in the pot in May. I planted other varieties in four clay pots. The ones in the clay pots only grew to less than half the size, and remained so spindly that I still haven't harvested them. Those in the Smart Pot grew so full and healthy that I was able to harvest the leaves multiple times and even transplant some of the stems into the ground beds. The roots were able to pass out of the fabric and grow into the ground below. They were never overwatered because any excess would seep out of the fabric. This gave me the idea of for using them to start seeds indoors next year instead of using the plastic pots, at least for the herbs. I lost a number of seedlings last winter, probably due to overwatering. I plan to order the small one gallon ones for seed starting. Growers House is my preferred vendor for price, selection and delivery speed.
Arborist Wood Chip Moisture Test
I've often heard organic gardeners talk about the importance of adding a thick layer of mulch to around plants because it helps retain moisture and reduces the amount of watering needed. Well, seeing is believing. My reserve pile of wood chips, about 1 1/2 feet deep, proved the point. After a rain, the top layer of chips would dry out in the sun within a day. But just below the surface, I could see that the mulch underneath - and all the way to the bottom of the pile - remained moist. It's not a sloshy kind of moist with puddling that would cause roots to rot, but rather an even moisture retained inside the wood. This greatly reduces the amount of water that evaporates, thereby conserving water. And, after just a couple of months, the thick chips had already substantially broken down. I love these arborist wood chips more and more every day!
Latest Tea Concoction
The lemon grass I started from seed in spring and the transplant I purchased from the garden center were finally ready to harvest. The base of the stems were now thick enough to cut. It served as the base for my latest lemony garden hot tea concoction - lemon grass, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lavender and ginger with a little agave for sweetener. It is so delicious and fragrant. It's fun to throw the garden delights into my Ninja Coffee and Tea Maker, experiment with flavors and find the best combinations. This is definitely a winner.
Tomato Seed Saving and Observations
I'm saving seeds from the German Johnson tomato, one of the two heirlooms that I grew this year. I was impressed by the size and taste, and will be planting one again next year. Tomato seeds have to be fermented to loosen the gelatin coating around the seeds. Here's a great video and article from Joe Gardener explaining the process.
I noticed that the fall tomatoes have been hit much harder by worms, and are more susceptible to splitting. Though the plants are not as productive, it is still nice to have a few fresh tomatoes coming off the vine. They are quite useful!
Hot Pepper Harvest
Yesterday, I harvested a basketful of hot chili peppers of several different varieties, most of which I started from seed. There were Carolina Cayenne, Dragon Cayenne, Big Thai, Serrano and Anaheim. Most of them were bright red and fully ripe, while a few I harvested while still green. There are many more developing on the plants, including some of the different varieties, and we will continue to enjoy them until frost. We have Jalapeno, Ghost, Habanero, Sriracha, and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which haven't produced much, possibly because of where they were planted.
The problem was that some of the labels got mixed up or removed somewhere during the growing season. The Anaheims, which are substantially bigger than the rest, and the Dragons, which are the smallest, were the only ones I could positively identify. Also, they were planted so closely together that it was hard to distinguish one plant from the next. Or the mix up may have happened while I was growing them indoors. The plastic plant tags often get buried or dug up, making it difficult to keep the labels in tact. Next year, for the plants that look so similar, I plan to wrap the label around the stem and group them by type instead of randomly mixing the order.
Oh, the Pain!
After sorting through my huge hot pepper harvest, I pulled some aside to save the seeds. I cut them open, dug out the seeds, placed them on coffee filters and set them out to dry. After I finished, I realized I'd forgotten a big safety precaution - to wear gloves! Hours later, my hands started burning. It was an intense heat seemed to begin under my skin. I washed and washed my hands, but each time I inadvertently touched my face, I'd burn that, too! Then bedtime came and it was time to take out my contacts. OOOOOOUUUUUCCCCCHHHHH! Burned my eyes! I tried to wash my eyes out, but that made it worse!
The pain finally subsided, and I finally fell asleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, my hands and face started burning again so badly that it woke me up. The pain continued off and on all day. My hands are also very sensitive to heat. While cooking, the burning would start again when my hands got near the oven and stove. It's really quite surprising that they are edible!
Hanging Peppers to Dry
With so many peppers, I had to consider my options on what to do with them. One option I found was hanging them up to dry. I strung most of them up with twine and hung them on my makeshift herb drying setup. They look like Christmas lights! And this time, while handling the peppers, I wore gloves!
Cardinal Basil is a Winner
Though most of my basil plants have faded our gone to seed, the cardinal basil that I planted from seed in May is still growing strong. The leaves are still healthy, green and upright, and have not been hit much with pests and disease. It never bolted, even in the intense summer heat. It has a stronger licorice flavor than some of the other varieties I've tried, and though not the ideal for making pesto sauce, it's still good. With all of the other varieties fading, I'll take what I can get!
More Leafy Greens
The pole bean plants and trellis were ready to be pulled and replaced. It's getting late in the season to be planting, but I planted arugula, a four seasons lettuce, and some green onions. I might experiment with some mini hoop houses to keep the leafy greens sheltered when frost hits, extending the season into November or even December. I don't think I'll have time to build a cold frame, but maybe next year.
I didn't put much thought or preparation into my fall garden this year, as life events took priority, so I will view this year as an experiment, not expecting much harvest but learning more for next year. For example, I would start these as seed indoors in late summer to be ready for fall planting to give them time to grow before it gets too cold. Still, I'm eager to see what happens.
Hot Soup on a Cold Day
It's raining and cold outside, definitely feeling like a fall evening. With my basket of harvested Roma tomatoes on the counter and a pile of hot red peppers in waiting, soup came to mind when it was time to cook dinner. I found this recipe for Roasted Tomato Basil Soup. I modified it a bit, but this was my starting point. I had plenty of cardinal basil still growing in the garden to come up with four cups of packed leaves. Half a slice of a hot pepper gave it just enough of a kick. Served with grilled cheese, it made the perfect dinner for a rainy night.
Using seeds I harvested from my spring batch of cilantro, I planted several groups of cilantro seeds. They are all happily sprouting in my garden. Not only am I happy to see these little leaves grow again after losing them to the summer heat, I'm also happy to see that my first cilantro seed harvest was successful. With any luck, I'll never have to buy cilantro seeds again.
As I was harvesting sage today, I decided to take a closer look at the leaves before bringing them inside. When I flipped one over, there it was - a green caterpillar suspended underneath that had spun itself into a part of a chrysalis. Ick! I think it's one of those pesky creatures that chews up my veggies - maybe a cabbage moth? I'm sure glad I looked!
With the cooler temperatures, the nasturtium that survived the summer heat have fully revived. Those I planted from seed in full sun dried out and died by mid summer, but those I planted in part sun stopped blooming but remained alive. Now the vibrant oranges and yellows are bursting out again. With more flowers in bloom I caught a whiff of its peppery smell. I'll be looking out for the seeds as they flowers expire so that I can plant even more next year.
Planter Boxes Complete
Let the DIY garden projects begin! I built two planter boxes for the front yard, which I wrote about here. As weather permits, I'll be doing more projects for next year's garden throughout the winter. Though I'm not an experienced woodworker, simple garden projects like this are a great way to learn.
Pineapple Sage Fall Surprise
In spring, I planted a little pineapple sage plant that I picked up at the garden store. I moved it several times and eventually planted it on my "Walk of Thyme" thinking it would grow about the size of a basil plant. By late summer, the little plant had grown huge, about four feet tall and wide, and into the footpath. By October, it was filled with red blossoms that added fresh color to the fading summer garden. Plus, it is edible! If the winter is not too cold, it may survive until next year, and if it does, I will plan to move it where it is not so intrusive. What a wonderful surprise. I guess I should have read the plant description first!
With overnight temperatures hovering just above freezing, I did some frost prep. I'm going to bring some herb and pepper plants inside for the winter to see if they will grow and survive. Last year, the dragon cayenne pepper plant we brought inside continued to produce peppers until we killed it in March, probably from overwatering. I was able to save seeds from it and successfully grew them in this year's garden. In addition to the hot peppers, I dug up basil, lemon verbena and lemon grass and placed them all in Smart Pots. I will only bring them inside when the temperatures hit freezing, but they are ready to go when they do.
As the leaves fall and pile up in my planting beds, I am taking more advice from my favorite organic gardeners. Over the years, we have typically raked our leaves to the curb where the leaf sweepers would suck them up every fall and spring. I would hold back enough to fill our two compost bins, which are only a fraction of the leaves that would fall on our relatively small yard. When I discovered organic gardening this year, and the wonderful benefits of composted leaves, I decided to change strategies and save all of them. Why throw away free plant food? I invested this leaf blower that vacuums and mulches leaves to a fraction of the size. The leaf mold will rot in my compost pile and I'll use it next spring to cover my tender seedlings. The wood chips are way too heavy for planting seeds. We'll see how this strategy works out.
Seed Saving Adventures
With more plants dying back, I've been actively seed saving from those that I intend to grow next year. The first step in the process is knowing what the seeds look like as they are all different. Some are them, like beans and sunflower seeds, are very easy to identify, while others are so small that they are hard to distinguish. The next challenge is figuring out the most efficient way to separate the seeds from the chaff using everyday items around the house. I have found using a this strainer from Dollar Tree to remove the chaff and this tweezer to pick out seeds are pretty effective.
There are plenty of books, YouTube videos and blog articles available to get ideas on seed saving for specific plants, but the close-up shots of the tiny seeds - the most important part - are sometimes not shown or are a little blurry. I've been photographing the seeds as I go so that I can publish a little guide next year. One thing I will start doing is photographing the seeds and seed packet when I plant them so that I remember what they look like when I go to save the seed at the end of their life cycle.
So far, I'm saving basil, calendula, marigolds, tomatoes, hot peppers, cucumbers, zinnias, coneflowers, amaranth, and more. I'm eager to see if I did it right. Will they germinate? Stay tuned!
Milkweed Bug Disappeared
The milkweed bug that swarmed the milkweed seed heads seemed to multiply in October, but then disappeared. I should have tried to actively remove them, but I'm happy that they removed themselves. I didn't not collect the milkweed seeds after their attack, as I was concerned that they might be damaged from the bug invasion. I'm glad they are gone.
Last Basil Harvest
I harvested the last of the basil plants that hadn't gone to flower. I am really going to miss going out to the garden and picking a big handful for pesto sauce. I've propagated a few remaining plants and will try to grow more indoors during the winter. That is one crop I'm not willing to let go for the season!
While most of the garden is winding down, the hot peppers are growing strong. Tomatoes are fading out, but there are still enough to make a delicious meal.
Some summer flowers continue to bloom, while some are fading.
Some flowers were revived with the cooler weather, while others that I direct sowed from seed outdoors, like cosmos and petunias, are now blooming for the first time.
Beautiful fall flowers are replacing the fading flowers, some basil plants are forming colorful flower heads, and the ornamental grass radiates in the afternoon sun.
Garden clean-up is slowly progressing in between rain and cold weather. There is no time to rest. DIY woodworking projects, planning, seed saving and seed starting will consume my time, all in preparation for next spring.