Fall Is Not a Time for Rest; Not Yet

Fall is a time of harvest in the garden and is considered one of the most beautiful seasons of the year.

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The beautiful patterns of spores on fern fronds make them beautiful, front and back. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

"Hippocrates calleth this Quarter the Mother and Nurse of deadly diseases."

While Hippocrates, the father of Greek physic, believed it was the weather that caused human illness during the fall months, we know now it was more likely bad water and mosquitoes.

The seed heads of wild and ornamental grasses can be harvested when ripe, bundled and saved for wintertime bird feeding. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
Press fern fronds before they die back and disappear for winter. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
Coneflowers and other perennials allowed to go to seed in fall feed birds and may result in self-sown seedlings in spring. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)
As fall nights cool, fruits of the rose left on plants take on bright red and orange coloring. (SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer / Do It Yourself)

Autumn in America ushers in one of the most beautiful seasons of the year, a time of harvest and maturation rituals in the garden. To some this may merely be a time when the trees turn to scarlet and gold, to those who labor in gardens and on farms this is the season full of activity as the natural world prepares itself for the long rest of winter.

It was an old custom in rural farmlands to save a bit of the harvest for the birds. Farmers growing wheat, rye, broom corn and millet would gather up sheaves of mixed grains and tie them to fence posts, where they are not so vulnerable to rodents. Many grains still grow by the wayside along with agricultural grasses and imported weeds. As autumn descends, gather seed-laden bunches, tie them together, and once the soil freezes, attach them to fences and tree limbs, luring winter birds naturally.

We prune our roses to encourage rebloom by preventing fruit from forming. But as the days begin to grow short, allow the green hips to remain and mature. They will brighten to red and orange with frosty nights, enriched with sugars that make them soft and sweet. Not only are the hips a most healthy source of vitamin-rich teas in this "quarter of deadly diseases," but they also make excellent jams and jellies.

If there is one reason to plant rugosa roses with their huge shooter-marble sized hips, it is for their fall brilliance. Ruby red hips stand out brightly in early snow, becoming highly visible to help birds zero in on them. You may choose to cease pruning your roses in August to ensure there are enough flower ovaries remaining to create a brightly colored display.

Likewise, it is good to allow flowers to go to seed. The bright cone-shaped seed heads of purple coneflower are incredibly beautiful if they aren't severed to encourage more flower production. Birds are also lured to these, perching on the cones and feeding with acrobatic moves that will amaze you.

Similarly, let your sunflowers go to seed along with your bee balm, hollyhock, cornflowers, amaranths, poppies, asters and gaillardia. This encourages the chance of their self-sowing, abiding the winter dormant only to spring up on their own when the spring weather is right.

We never remember to press flowers and leaves during the flurry of the growing season. But during the long winter days when letters and cards fly on postal wings, the addition of a pressed plant speaks volumes without writing a word. As the leaves turn, capture the most beautiful and slip them into books. Old medical volumes make excellent pressing stacks due to their sheer size and weight. They can be had for next to nothing at thrift stores and will hold many seasons of specimens until you need them. You can create a four-foot stack of books filled with pressings to tuck into the corner of a dark closet for tidy storage. Do not fail to consider pressing weeds, grasses, ferns or mosses; they are all magic when the world outside is snow and ice.

The Sept. 21 equinox, when day and night are of equal length, is a milestone of the year. It signals time for tasks from crop harvest to hanging storm shutters. You will see the plants respond, too. They will either set their final seed before death, or their sap will fall to the roots, where their essence of life lies protected for the coming winter rest.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at mo@moplants.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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