What a great time of year – crisp mornings, warming up to comfortable afternoons, with the opportunity to have that outdoor firepit going after dark.
October also signals the annual trip to the pumpkin farm or farm stand for fall outdoor decorations. Tradition seems to say that is for pumpkins, mums, flint corn with or without stalks and an array of colorful gourds in weird shapes and textures.
Pumpkins should have at least a couple of inches of stem on them and be blemish free. Blemishes can signal something as simple as a bruise or the start of rot. You might be able to carve away the bruise, but rots go deeper and show up again later, limiting the life of your carved pumpkin. (A trick to keeping those carved pumpkin cuts from shriveling is to coat them with petroleum jelly.)
Mums come in a variety of colors these days – white, yellow, dark reds, oranges and more. Select mums that are about 50% open so you will have plenty of bloom show throughout the month. If possible, keep them in a bit of shade as the sun will begin to fade those older flowers. Potted mums likely were grown using drip irrigation and always had available moisture. You have a large flowering plant with lots of foliage in what is now a small pot. Be sure to check for adequate water daily, more often if the mum is in full sun.
Cornstalks usually are sold by the bundle and look great tied to the mailbox post, porch posts or other favorite place, such as around a tree trunk or the edge of an arbor. Not much to do after that, but you can expect squirrels to visit, looking for the ear of corn.
Our gourds we display can be a combination of edible and decorative-only gourds. Any of our hard-rind squash, such as acorn, butternut and others, can be included and saved after the decorations come down for table use in November or later. While a soft-rind zucchini is not a typical fall decoration, there is a use for that long-lost and forgotten zucchini the size of a baseball bat.
If you have used bales of straw in the decorations, that same straw can be used to winter mulch tender or newly planted perennials. Mulching the vegetable root crops such as carrots or parsnips for harvesting in the winter is another option. If you are considering planting a live holiday tree, straw mulch can be used to prevent the ground from freezing where you are going to dig the planting hole later.
Lastly, if you feed the squirrels, place those undecorated pumpkins along with the gourds in the backyard and enjoy the antics as they burrow in to get the seeds. Come spring, you will only have orange, flat frisbees left. Cornstalks can be added to the compost bin if chopped up. You likely won’t have to worry about any ear corn or flint corn, as the squirrels will have snacked on that weeks earlier.
• Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. This column originates on his blog at http://go.illinois.edu/overthegardenfence. To get more tips from Hentschel, watch his “This Week in the Garden” videos on Facebook and YouTube.