Garden Edition: October
by Linda Coyner
There's no denying Fall now. My reporters (read far-flung family) confirm this. In central West Virginia, the remaining green tomatoes were plucked when frost threatened. The leaves are showing color in the valleys and at higher elevations. The squirrels are busy gathering hickory nuts, which gives my brother a chance to collect the chestnuts. In New Jersey, the fall ritual is for my brother-in law to get the pontoon boat safely out of Lake Hopatcong and into storage. Large flower pots are dragged inside. The heavy rains last month took care of the harvest. The whiskey barrels full of tomatoes and cucumbers along the dock drowned when the lake rose four feet. And there are still a few last minute repairs to make to the house before all the hatches are battened down.
Another sign that autumn has arrived is the foliage report that weather.com regularly gives. From late September to early November the colors steadily advance down the states on the coat tails of Jack Frost. As I write this, the darkest finger of color reaches from Maine into Pennsylvania and another from Montana into New Mexico. You can track it yourself by region or across the U. S. at something definitely worth doing before setting out on a trip to see the foliage.
Even in subtropical Florida, fall is undeniable. The thermometer no longer breaks 90 degrees every day. After four months of unspeakably hot weather -- the equivalent of a New England winter but doubly cruel because everything keeps growing -- the birds are returning. In fact, bird migration reaches its peak during November in Florida.
But it's definitely not like the autumn I knew in the Northeast. Forget the amazing swaths of color in the trees and the crunching leaves underfoot while you rake. Most trees are evergreen or palms. The few trees that are deciduous are mostly flowering trees. They drop their leaves very gradually, sometimes without any color change. (Don't worry, you'll still need a rake for the flowers when they fall.) I'm told there is a show of sorts in Northern Florida, thanks to Florida maple, crape myrtle, dogwood, red maple, sassafras, shumard oak, sourwood, sweetgum, white oak, winged elm.
The fall planting season for Southerners begins with the sorghum harvest, much like tapping maples trees marks the beginning of spring for New Englanders. In October, fields in Georgia and the Carolinas provide the dried canes of sorghum grass that's cooked it down to a sweet confection called sorghum. It takes 10 to 13 gallons of juice to make one gallon of syrup. The resulting thick, rich syrup is similar to molasses, a general term for juice from sugar cane, while sorghum comes specifically from the sorghum grass.
The shorter days of fall mean slower growth, assuming, of course, temperatures allow. The decrease in day length is not as pronounced as it is farther North, but it is noticeable. For the flower garden, the cooler temperatures provide the opportunity to plant for fall and winter. Local nurseries are brimming with colorful flowers, some annual and some perennial (the distinction blurs in Florida). Impatiens still reign as the bedding plant of choice, although not too long ago it was geraniums and, before that, petunias. I've seen lots of chrysanthemums, but they may be just an example of northerners' wishful thinking and for short-term enjoyment. Old standbys like coleus, marigold, pansy, and begonia are well represented, but plants such as cleome, calendula, cornflower, dianthus, gaillardia, hollyhock, larkspur, lobelia, snapdragon, sweet pea, verbena, and torenia also do well.
In the vegetable garden, warm varieties go in the ground first because the temperatures are cooling off. Anytime in September you can plant -- beans, cukes, peppers, squash, tomatoes. And cool season varieties -- broccoli, cabbage, celery, collards, onions, and turnips, beets, lettuce, spinach, radishes -- follow shortly after in October as the temperature continues cooling. In other words, everything that goes into a spring garden in other parts of the country but in reverse order.
Since fresh vegetables are so abundant at the market, I've found it hard to get motivated to plant many vegetables. More exciting, I think, is what's possible to grow in the way of fruit. This time of year the local fruit harvest resumes -- avocados, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, papaya, persimmons, bananas, figs, and melons in an amazing range of varieties that put to shame what's on supermarket shelves. Flea markets and farmers' markets offer the best selection. They also sometimes offer a glimpse of the fall harvest of tropical fruit--sugar apple, velvet apple, atemoya, Barbados and Surinam cherries, miracle fruit, monstera, muntingia, natal plum, sapodilla, and sea grape, to name a few.