I’m looking out the window at the 8 inches of October snow that we got and thinking that the growing season is officially over. Like all things 2020, this was a strange year culminating with the snowstorm that came after several early frosts and a hard freeze. All before Halloween!
My gardens are at the lowest spot for miles around which means that if there is any frost to be had in the area it will hit my garden. This year the first light frost here was Oct. 4, which was way too early to give up on my annuals. The hummingbirds, migrating monarchs and other butterflies were still visiting the tithonia, red salvia and other annuals and the tree leaves were just starting to turn color.
I mentioned to a friend that I have never had good luck covering my plants with sheets and blankets. No matter how I try to secure them they move around and I still get a lot of damage from frost and from the weight of the wet covers crushing the plants.
My friend had once worked at Disney World and suggested hosing the plants down with water in the early morning before the sun comes up. She said that’s what they did at Disney World when they had a rare freeze. I was skeptical, but also tired of dealing with wet blankets and sheets so I really had nothing to lose.
And it worked! This is purely anecdotal evidence from my own experience, but I did this for three more frosts before a hard freeze a few days ago finally took everything down.
It was pretty exciting in my family’s Red Wing front yard this summer. They see quite a few raptors flying overhead but imagine my grandkid’s surprise when they looked out the front window and saw a red-tailed hawk trying to catch a garter snake next to the front porch.
To the garter snake’s credit, it gave the hawk a good fight before it succumbed. In fact, to the delight of my grandkids, the hawk stayed for at least a half-hour before it finally took off.
The second brush with wildlife occurred not far from where the hawk attacked the snake.
My family first noticed tunnel holes by the sidewalk and soon after saw a very large wasp attacking a big bug next to the holes. The wasp was at least 1-1/2 inches long and had a shiny black abdomen with bright yellow bands.
After a little research we identified the wasp as a cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) which is a solitary wasp native to the U.S. As the name implies, they hunt and capture cicadas. Although extremely scary-looking, the male wasps cannot sting and the females rarely will sting humans.
But they do sting and paralyze cicada. The female wasps haul the large insects into their burrows underground where they have their eggs. When the larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed cicada as they develop into adults. The new adult wasps emerge from their burrows to mate the following summer.
Hawks, snakes and cicada killers … my grandkids are living in the Wild Kingdom!
When I was doing the research for my article on native vs. non-native plants this season, I discovered something surprising about one of my favorite cut flowers, the annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
I have planted many different varieties of sunflowers in my kitchen garden, but none resembled the multi-branched sunflower that re-seeds itself all around the garden every season. I assumed that one of those cultivars I had planted before had reverted back to its wilder origins, but I really didn’t think that those origins were in North America.
Well, they are. The wild annual sunflower is native to the contiguous U.S. and can be found right here in Minnesota. In fact, wild sunflowers were a common food crop for the indigenous peoples of North America and they were the first to domesticate the annual sunflower into a single-headed plant.
My June article on Victory Gardens talked about the many people this year who have taken an interest in growing their own herbs and vegetables. I also mentioned in the article that one of the easiest ways to install a vegetable garden was by building raised beds.
“Instead of starting with soil in an area that likely is aging turf compacted from constant foot traffic, you begin your garden with rich friable soil that immediately supports good plant growth.”
A few years ago, local resident Nancy McKay worked with her son to design and build a very attractive and productive vegetable garden using a layout of raised beds. When I visited Nancy in early October her gardens were still going strong with Brussel sprouts, dinosaur kale, tomatillos, pumpkins and squash.
The sturdy wood and metal fence they built around the raised beds keeps the deer and other animals away from the crops and also gives Nancy more vertical growing space.
This year they added small pea rock around all the raised beds which keeps most weeds from popping up in the paths and adds a finished look to the gardens.
Nancy tells me she was not a gardener before her son took the initiative and installed her gardens. The moral of this story is that gardening is for everyone and you don’t have to be an expert to grow and harvest your own herbs and vegetables.
I hope Nancy’s gardens inspire you to design and install your own vegetable garden in 2021. It’s going to be a long winter so you have plenty of time to make a plan!