This is the time of year most gardeners begin to browse seed catalogs and dream of warmer days ahead. Typically, January is the month that winter really settles in and delivers its coldest, nastiest weather. However, this past weekend was anything but. Temperatures reaching into the mid-70s provided all the motivation I needed to get outside in the garden.
My garden to-do list is always long and one quick look around the yard confirmed that. Regardless, I decided to focus my attention on the spring vegetable garden. While planting is still a ways away, there are things that can be done now to get the soil conditioned for the spring planting season. This is the time to put all those shredded leaves I’ve collected this fall to good use. Leaves are packed with trace minerals and when added to the garden, leaves feed earthworms and beneficial microbes. They lighten heavy soils and help sandy soils retain moisture. And best of all, they’re free!
Once piled on the garden, I lightly work them into the soil. This will help them break-down even faster.
In addition to adding organic matter to the soil, turning the soil this time of year helps to keep winter weeds from becoming established and unearths burrowing pest that will hopefully be lapped up by the birds.
And speaking of birds – be sure to keep those feeders cleaned and stocked with fresh birdseed. Birds are more dependent on seed this time of year and can really benefit from our feeders, not to mention the satisfaction that we get from watching them!
It won’t be long before the rest of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be leaving my yard and traveling south to warmer regions for the winter. Many of the adults, especially males, have already left for the summer. They have been very active in the garden and around my feeders this summer, but I never get tired of watching them.
Many think that hummingbird feeders should be removed this time of year because it will interfere with their fall migration. For those unaware, that’s a myth. Hummingbirds will still migrate even if you don’t take down the feeders on Labor Day. It’s not the availability of food; it’s in response to hormonal changes, which are triggered by decreasing length of daylight.
Unless we get an early freeze, I’ll keep my hummingbird feeders up until Thanksgiving. It’s not uncommon to see migrating hummingbirds here in SE Virginia in late fall on warm days. They welcome the extra nourishment to help fuel their long flights.
In fact, hummingbirds will often return to the same feeder on the next trip north or south, just to see if it’s still there. Studies indicate that hummingbirds have great memories.
The recipe for hummingbird nectar is 4 parts water to 1 part sugar (no substitutes). I heat mine in a pot on the stovetop until the sugar is dissolved, and store any extra in a pitcher placed in the refrigerator. And don’t add red dye to the mixture. Most feeders are already red. If it’s not, tie a red ribbon or place a red bow on the feeder until they find it. Once they find it, they will keep coming back as long as it’s kept clean. Also, be sure to replace the sugar water in the feeder every few days.
An alternative to feeders is the use of flowers to attract hummingbirds – especially flowers that continue to bloom until frost. Check out some of their favorites in my garden right now.
Cardinal climber, also referred to as cypress vine, can twine 20 feet or more, but the little red tube like flowers are pretty small. The hummers are thankful that the flowers are still in bloom.
Nearby the cardinal climber is another favorite, Salvia guaranitica, ‘Black & Blue’ salvia.
Another salvia that’s on the menu is Salvia microphylla, 'Hot Lips' salvia.
And probably their favorite in my garden at the moment is Lonicera sempervirens, Coral honeysuckle.
Whether you provide a feeder or flowers to attract hummingbirds, take time to enjoy them in your own yard!
If you haven’t started yet, now is the time! I’m talking about fall gardening. It’s actually my favorite time to garden. After being shut-up in the AC during the dog days of late July and half of August, it’s time to venture back out in the garden to clean-up and make space for the second half of the gardening season.
Late summer is the best time to start a fall garden, especially when planting from seed. Getting an early start allows the plants to establish before the days grow short and cool. However, when possible, I prefer to start with seedlings when it comes to fall gardening. Look for seedlings of cool weather crops, including kale, collards, Asian greens, Swiss chard, lettuce, mustard, broccoli and cabbage at your local nursery or farmers market. Seedlings give you about a six-week jumpstart on seeds and require less work, since you don’t have to thin them. You can stick seedlings in around larger summer vegetables that are still producing or clear an entire bed for fall crops—either way, be sure to dig in an inch or two of compost before planting for the best results.
Once you have your fall garden established, consider extending the season. All of the vegetables I mentioned above thrive in cooler weather. You can leave the plants exposed, but mulching around them with a thick layer of straw and building a simple hoop house over your bed and covering it with plastic or a heavy row cover will help to extend the growing season and protect the plants from frost. (Click here to get plans for building a simple hoop house).
As our autumn days grow shorter and cooler, the plants slow down and by mid-winter they’ll just sit tight and wait for better growing conditions. At this point, patience is called for on your part. Arugula, kale, collard greens, and Swiss chard often survive the winter and put on a big surge of growth in early March, which means you can start harvesting homegrown salads before most people plant their peas!