Mums have had a bit of a hard time of it the last couple of weeks, thanks to the weather fluctuations. They don't seem to know whether to bloom or if it's all a big joke. Normally, you'll get massive blooms at this time of the year -- out of mums that are in the ground, as well as potted plants. This year, it seems that if they hadn't already been forced into blooming under greenhouse conditions when you picked them up at the garden center, like the groundhog in February, they're increasingly inclined to wait for better weather.
I have one handsome plant full of buds that really has remained unchanged coming up on three weeks. Still, this is Washington, and there could be a scorching (by fall standards) Indian summer that will push out the color before the snows.
OCTOBER LIGHT: October is an ambiguous time in the garden, especially here. On the one hand, the days are shorter and the mornings crisper, so it feels as if a frost could descend any night now. On the other hand, the sun is still hot, and you still have to worry about making sure the garden gets enough water. In the barnyard, the chickens take to hatching out a late brood of chicks, and ewes drop early lambs on the ground, all of which makes you -- and the animals -- think it must be spring.
In the vegetable garden, fall can be much like spring. Sugar snap peas are ready for picking this weekend. Radishes and green onions planted in August are picked to add a little bite to a salad. Like September, October in the garden is heavy with the scent of basil and thyme. The night-blooming jasmine comes into its full flower and intoxicating perfume.
NICE TOMATOES: Don't foget those tomatoes. Just because you've already put up more than two dozen jars of sauce and a dozen quarts of whole tomatoes, don't let the rest sit on the vine to rot. This is when gifts of tomatoes are most welcome -- unlike August, when the surplus appeared to be bottomless. Roadside stands are closing up, and those that are still going strong are peddling apples an early pumpkins. Take an hour out of your weekend to pick off all the tomatoes you can. What you don't want to process in your Cuisinart (with plenty of basil, of course), bring in to the office on Monday to hand out to friends. Keeping tomatoes picked is, at worst, a healthy garden practice. Rotting vegetbales of any kind will encourage pests and bacteria to find and establish a home. Around here, you can't always count on a cold winter to kill off evil critters that you have encouraged in your garden.
A PIECE OF THE SUN: If you're lucky enough not to have lost all your sunflower seeds to birds (after all, why else plant them?), now is the time to harvest the seeds for salting lightly and nibbling on later, or for shelling and air- drying for adding to winter salads. Clip the flower at the base, allowing four to six inches of stem to remain. After putting the flower- head in a paper bag, hang it upside-down, so the seeds can fall into the bag as the flower dries. You can put more than one flower head in a bag, as long as there's plenty of room for air circulation so the flower heads don't rot. You can save seeds from most sunflower species to re-use in the spring.
DIVIDING DAY LILIES: This job is really a pain in the neck, and you're better off hiring a strong kid down the road to come and do it for you. Luckily, it's only a once-every-five-years-or-so job. But it does take a little expertise to do it right, so you may want to stand over him and give him instructions as he works up the sweat.
If you're going to do it yourself, a word to the wise: Don't do it this weekend because the ground won't be wet enough for easy digging. If you must, water the day lily area heavily the night before, allowing the ground to soak through thoroughly before you begin to dig. This doesn't affect the plants one way or the other, but you'll find the job a whole lot easier.
You'll need two large garden pitchforks. Borrow one from a neighbor -- who keeps two spading forks around? Jam the two forks down into the root sytem back to back. Don't worry. It may seem a little uncivilized, but the plants are tough (and so, literally, are their roots). They won't mind. They may pay you back by not blooming quite as well next spring, but you'll be amazed at how beautifully they will blossom in future years. Divide the roots into clumps as big as you can hold in your hand and replant them about a foot apart.
Of course, you can just ignore day lilies, no matter how old they are, and let them go on blooming year after year without division. It certainly won't hurt them, but you'll find that if you do divide them at the right time, you'll get a consistently spectacular show. If you leave them alone, they will bloom less and less each year. If you have any of the more rare day lilies in your garden, this rather rigorous exercise is worth it. And the kid down the block can pick up a little spare change, and maybe a lesson in gardening.