Take stock as you harvest the last of the tomatoes, eggplants, beans, and more in this prelude to colder weather. Think about what worked and what didn't. For instance, when I ordered seeds last winter, I selected "Whippersnapper" cherry tomatoes, mostly because I loved the name and I like growing cherry tomatoes. True to the catalog description, it was a sprawler, and so I planted the seedlings in containers. The results were mixed: Two out of the four containerized tomato plants were good producers; the other two plants survived, but didn't thrive. In the end, the flavor didn't compare with my reliably self-seeding, true-to-its-name "Super Sweet 100" cherry tomatoes.
Start a garden notebook or journal to record your successes and failures (a.k.a. learning experiences). Whether handwritten or in a computer file, it's helpful to have a place to jot down how the plants grew, reminders of what you want to grow again or avoid forever, and how the weather affected the garden overall. I keep my notes in a black-and-white composition book where I track which seeds were started early indoors, their transplant dates, as well as those that I direct-seeded in the ground. The notebook is especially helpful for remembering which vegetables I planted where so that I can rotate crops each year. This helps prevent pests from getting too comfortable in any particular part of the garden from one season to the next. I also make "to do" lists as reminders of plants I want to move or unfinished chores, like pruning the long azalea hedge along the driveway or removing the poison ivy under the deck.
Collect and save seed. With luck, the goldfinches have left a few sunflower seeds for you to save for next year's garden. I collect seeds and store them in small envelopes, labeled with the plant name and the month and year collected. I grew a wonderful short, bright orange cosmos called "Little Ladybirds" this summer that has produced great amounts of seed. I recently sprinkled some on the ground, hoping these will be self-seeders. If they do germinate, I'll have to wait until next summer to find out if they seed "true," meaning the plant would retain its short stature and the flower would again be a vivid orange.
Know your invasive plants. While I love the bright pink of garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), a native perennial that thrives in our garden, I avoid its prolific spread by cutting off the seed heads when bloom time is over. On the other hand, I encourage the self-seeding of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), another native, because we can dig and pot this very popular perennial for eventual sale at our nursery.
Gather and dry herbs. Whether you have a separate herb garden or have tucked a few favorites into a mixed border, now's the time - before frost arrives - to cut and dry herbs for cooking or for a warming cup of tea. I grow several different kinds of oregano, and the one I like best for cooking is the winter-tolerant, dwarf oregano (Oregano vulgare 'Compactum'). On a recent morning, I waited until the dew had dried and then cut a good handful of stems from the outer edges of the plant (by taking from the periphery, I prevent the plant from interfering with its neighbors). I caught the stems up in a rubber band and hung the bundle on a drying rack in a well-ventilated area indoors.
I next turned my attention to lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). This lemon-scented herb is too tender to remain outdoors in winter and benefits from a good pruning before being brought inside. Whether fresh or dried, lemon verbena makes a fragrant and relaxing tea that's especially comforting on a cold winter night. I'm a devotee so I must have at least one pot of lemon verbena in my plant collection at all times. For the first few years I grew the plant, each would die before winter's end. With a heavy heart I would then replace my fallen friend with a new one purchased at the annual sale of the Philadelphia Unit/Herb Society of America (www.hsaphiladelphia.org). Eventually I learned that lemon verbena goes dormant and starts sprouting new leaves in mid-winter. Now I have three plants, and you can be sure I never run out of lemon verbena tea.
Savor the season. It's my newest autumn resolution. Yes, the weather is cooling down and the days are noticeably shorter, but the sunlight has a special quality this time of year. The leaves, the berries, and the late-season flowers seem to be more vivid in color. And although there's still work to be done in the garden (raking, mulching, mowing, weeding, pruning, composting, etc.), we're surrounded by the beauties of the season and comforted by the knowledge that there will be time to rest and rejuvenate, until we start wondering what hot, new trends and new plant selections will be available for the 2013 growing season!
Patricia Schrieber is director of education for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (www.phsonline.org), and co-owner of Valentine Gardens (www.valentine-gardens.com). Contact her at email@example.com