The wise gardener who sowed his fall crop in August is now reaping the harvest, as it were. October's abundance can equal summer's height, and, to my mind, it comes at a better time -- there are no vegetable- munching creatures and, certainly, the weather is more conducive to gardening.
Fall harvests include just about anything you'd get in the spring -- chard, spinach, lettuce, peas, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, radishes, turnips -- plus the last of summer's tomatoes, corn, eggplant and peppers. October is also the month to harvest winter squashes, some of which may be ready to pick this weekend -- butternut, acorn, spaghetti, pumpkin.
Since this is a carefree gardening month, it's a good time to get organized for next spring. Plant bulbs for spring flowering; start clearing out spent sections of the garden and loading them down with a good layer of mulch. The asparagus bed should also be tended: Weed it now and give it a good four to six inches of mulch to encourage early shoots in the spring. Asparagus thrives when the roots are given a good covering, and spring-plucked shoots will be longer and more tender.
This is also a good time to make notes on what you'll do differently next year. My eggplant crop, which has been average in the past, this year surpassed itself, and I have vowed to grow it in cages in the future, assuming it continues at this level of success. The fruit was so large and plentiful that many of the bushes bowed so that the eggplants were touching the ground. The same was true of my peppers, and I lost more than I should have to rot. I'll grow peppers in cages next year, too. Pepper plants that were sluggish during the summer should be making up for that now -- they tend to require a long growing season.
When you're choosing what to pick this weekend, keep in mind that the official frost date is October 10 for the whole area -- the District and parts of the Virginia suburbs still have a few weeks. What the frost date really means is that you must begin paying attention to weather reports. Summer crops are the ones susceptible to early frosts -- tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and summer squash. Better to get in all your tomatoes than worry about picking broccoli.
If your dahlias are still blooming, don't worry about digging out the tubers before the first frost. It's the more severe winter weather that will kill off the roots. Wait until the plant has died back and then dig the tubers promptly for winter storage.
HERBS IN WINTER: Several readers have asked about wintering-over herbs. Such annuals as basil, marjoram, summer savory, dill, fennel, camomile, caraway, borage, coriander and verbena should be thoroughly harvested and air-dried soon, because they won't survive even a light frost.
Tender perennials, including rosemary, bay, scented geraniums, myrtle and jasmine, should be brought indoors. I like to grow these in pots anyway and then replant the pots in the garden in the spring. Grown this way, there's a minimum amount of shock to the plants when they come in for the winter. If they aren't already in pots, they can be uprooted and planted in a pot large enough to accommodate well-developed root systems. Many herb gardeners prefer to take cuttings. When transplanting, cut some of the growth back before digging the plant up. These sprigs can be dried to insure a supply of the herb should the plant go into severe shock for a few weeks before readjusting to an indoor existence. Cutting the plant back also helps promote new growth in a new environment. It's especially good for geraniums, which can stand to be trimmed to one short stalk before transplanting.
Such hardy perennials as lavender, thyme, sorrel, chives, Greek oregano, winter savory, French tarragon and sage will do fine over the winter. They, too, should be harvested at some point, although you don't have to do it right this minute. I've harvested fresh thyme, chives and oregano well into the winter. But give these a fair mulching a little later on. Many hardy perennials will develop unpleasant, woody growth if not harvested before the winter hits. I'd make an exception for lavender, which looks so handsome if left alone to grow tall and hedge-like with great spears of purple blooms in the summer.
Many annual herbs will reseed themselves if allowed to go to seed before harvest. Dill, camomile, fennel, lemon and sacred basil are among these. Parsley is a bi-annual, which means that if you planted it new this year, you're advised to leave it in place and it will come back next year.