This month can be one of drudgery as we begin the process of cleaning up our gardens. However, it can also be a fun time for those of us who like to trade varieties of garlic, dry beans and heirloom tomatoes.
Trading garlic is easy; I give you a bulb of a particular variety and you give me two — OK, one. Likewise, trading dry bean varieties is easy since all we have to do is shell the dry pods and trade samples of seeds.
On the other hand, tomatoes require a little more effort. Start by cutting open a tomato of a chosen heirloom variety and squeeze out the innards, i.e. gelatinous pulp and seeds, into a glass jar. To this glop, add a little water, about a shot glass or two. Set the jar aside to let the contents ferment. Beware; it'll stink. After several days, most if not all of the seeds will separate from the rest of the glop and settle to the bottom. At that point, pour off as much of the moldy gel as you can without losing the seeds. Then, dump the seeds into a kitchen sieve and rinse under the faucet to remove any clinging residue. Finally, spread the cleaned seeds onto a paper plate or a piece of wax paper to dry. Drying may take a week or two.
Don't bother saving seeds from hybrid varieties since they do not come true to form. By the way, you can still save seeds from tomatoes which have been turned to mush by the frost of Tuesday morning.
Winter prep continues
While on the subject of fun things to do at this time of year, here are other entertaining tasks:
• Collect seeds from mature milkweed pods, that is, those pods which are tan on the outside and silvery on the inside. Separate the seeds from the fluff and sow them in a prepared garden plot.
Why bother with this apparent weed?
For one, it is a native plant, and it is attractive to monarch butterflies and other pollinators whose populations have declined in recent years.
• Begin cutting back the leaves and dead flower stalks of herbaceous perennials hit by the hard freeze of last Tuesday.
Some gardeners prefer to leave the foliage of perennials intact through winter because, they claim, it captures snow which in turn provides a winter cover for the plants.
I may do that for some plants that have attractive seedheads on spent flower stems, but I will definitely cut back any leaves that were infected with disease this past growing season.
• Rake up fallen pine needles and store them in bags, garbage cans or other containers. Use the pine needles later this fall after ground has frozen to mulch flower and shrub borders.
• Be careful to neither over-water nor over-fertilize houseplants. As the days shorten and sunlight becomes less intense, plant growth slows and a plant's need for water and nutrients decreases.
On the other hand, increase the amount of light to plants such as potted geraniums, succulents, ficus species, ponytail palm, and aralias, by supplementing natural light with that from grow lamps or other artificial light sources.
• Pull up frost-killed stems and vines of tender vegetable crops and toss onto the compost pile.
• Wait until rhubarb, horseradish, and asparagus foliage has completely browned before cutting it back.
As long as the foliage is green, these plants will continue to produce and store food for next spring's growth.