There is a tried-and-true wake-up call every October that alerts me to the fickle nature of autumn gardening. Right on cue, it happened this week.
It’s not the colorful tree leaves floating in my water garden or geese flying southward or other natural phenology events. What gets me going in earnest is the State Fair, which starts out hot and dry, with attendees wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts, and then we get our first truly chilly evening causing the kids to put on jeans and jackets.
And it reminds me that autumn is here. We’ll get another “Indian summer” warm spell before a really cold snap melts cannas, bananas and elephant ears into slimy goo and burns coleus and other heat-loving summer stuff to the ground.
That reminds me of an incident in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy, trying to douse Scarecrow’s fire, splashed the witch who, with her classic “What a world, what a world” lament, melts into the ground.
Sorry, back to gardening. Main point is, we are all facing the dilemma of what is most expendable right now, and what can stay till winter hits hard, and what to do in between.
My zinnias are still glorious long-stemmed cut flowers swamped with butterflies, so they’ll stay till frost browns them out. Ditto with peppers, basil, ornamental sweet potatoes, angelonia and a scraggly tomato on its last gasp.
But to make a smooth transition for winter, I’m already gently working up dirt between the plants I want to hang in a little longer and plugging in small winter plants so they will get established and start flowering by the time I need to pull the larger summer plants.
There’s another way to bridge the gap between summer and winter, especially for those who are too warm-hearted to pull stuff ahead of time, waiting until summer stuff has already died down to start planting for winter. Containers can be started to one side, then placed strategically later. I plant super-easy hanging baskets of lettuce and other cool-weather plants.
This brings up an interesting phenomenon concerning heat and cold tolerance. We all can rattle off flowers and vegetables that love heat and die quickly in a frost and those few that grow better over the winter. But there are some in-between ones that don’t really like either our summers or our winters and have to be coddled through one or the other.
These “half hardy” gambles, which include snapdragon, Siberian wallflower, lettuce, hollyhocks, larkspur, burgundy mustard, tall types of dianthus and parsley, grow best in areas with long, cool seasons; they get damaged, stunted or even killed by the sudden hard freezes that hit Mississippi after several weeks of mild winter temperatures.
Horticulturists have bred new varieties of those that can tolerate a wider range and can limp through the summer and perk back up in the fall, or which tolerate temps down into the teens.
But in general, I plant those for summer in my terrace garden in northern England, and in Mississippi I plant them in the fall and hope they do well before a hard freeze. Those that don’t make it I sometimes replant in middle to late winter so they can perform before it gets hot again. Sometimes I luck up and enjoy them longer than expected.
There is another warning signal to be careful: newly emerging foliage of red spider lilies remind me that other spring bulbs are down there somewhere needing to be dug around, not sliced into.
But the State Fair says it’s hard decision time. Gardeners who want a smooth summer-winter transition, get started.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.