The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the next best time is now.  ~Chinese proverb.

Gardening season slows down significantly as winter approaches.  There is still harvesting of broccoli, kale, chard, Asian greens and lettuce but the pace is so relaxed.  I’ve been reflecting on the bounty of the growing season and appreciating the dawn light (when it’s now too cold to garden).   I notice the autumn leaves falling and catching onto the raised beds and in the paths.  No need to rake them! They will break down over the winter and help build soil and shut out weeds.   As I dug out the last of the gladiolas, I got inspired to create two new beds and also was reminded how much I value gardening as a regular form of exercise in my week.

I look forward to the arrival of some Arbor Day Foundation trees that I ordered somewhat impulsively a few months ago.  The nice thing is that, for a small donation to this non-profit, I help many more trees get planted and they send trees that do well in our region.  Fall tree planting can be a little tricky because you need to insure that the seedlings get ample water throughout the fall and winter to establish a strong root system.  For this reason, the trees coming with a full root system (often in burlap balls) seem to fair best.  Nonetheless, with regular attention, the bare root saplings should make it ok as well.

Conservationists often recommend planting native species and these are available (in bulk) through the Missouri State Nursery at Licking.  A catalog can be picked up either on line or at the Missouri Department of Conservation regional office just south of Kirksville (across from Days Inn).  This relatively new facility is very impressive with its fish and wildlife exhibits, 1300 gallon aquarium, bird viewing areas and information center.  For smaller orders, I recommend the selections offered at local nurseries or online nurseries which grow the trees out in our tri-state area.  For the effort involved in planting and maintaining trees, we want to start with those that have the best chance of doing well in our area with regard to cold and drought tolerance as well as our typical heavy clay soils and big storms.

This is also a good time of year to pick up local fruit for canning as sauce, butter, jelly, preserves or chutney.  If you have the space, freezing fruit is very handy as well for future pie fillings or other processing.  My favorite recipe this fall has been to cook apples down with their skins and without any sugar.  I do add cinnamon, nutmeg and sometimes ginger and clove.  I mash it all with a heavy duty potato masher (or alternately with a food processor).  With long, slow cooking the skins become imperceptible.  This makes a delicious, nutritious, versatile snack, dessert or condiment.

Two apple orchards I can recommend are the Blue Heron Orchard in Canton (which has organic apples and cider) and West Orchards in Macon (which also features a winery downtown).  Local pears are typically available at our area grocers or just ask around to find out who may have an abundance of pears to share, trade or sell.

As I write this, I look out my window to the bird feeders I have set up.  I am new to this form of entertainment but I find it very fascinating.  Aside from the generic wild bird mix, I also have some sunflower heads that I grew as well as a suet cage.  Slowly the neighborhood birds are finding my offerings and delighting me with their antics.  The main piece of advice I’ve gotten is: don’t stop feeding as these birds do become habituated to their feed source.   Soon it will be time to hunker down with some gardening and recipe books by these windows which reminds me:  If you’ve never made pumpkin pie from Halloween pumpkins, you are in for a treat!

Gigi Wahba was produce manager at Sandhill Farm for 15 years.  She now pursues a variety of projects related to sustainable agriculture.