12 October 2012

The autumn garden - winding down and planning ahead

What do you do to extend your gardening season, 
or get a running start on next year?

The autumn garden might seem deceptively devoid of activity, but many simple projects can help gardeners enjoy extended harvests now and less work next growing season.
When frost chills the air and leaves begin to glow, gardeners usually resign themselves to clean-up and harvest preservation. However, autumn is an ideal time to put creativity to work, both to extend this growing season and for a head start on the next.

Most years, I dream, scheme, transplant, and mulch like crazy - trying to deny winter's finality as much as possible. Thanks to years of gardening experience, and reading everything I could get my hands on, I've gleaned some tips which are effective in holding the 'last harvest' at bay. In the following QCT article, I've outline a few of my favorites - simple, accessible, and viable for most growing zones.

Cold frames and hoop houses are easy to construct (layers of plastic supported by lightweight frames), and act like mini-greenhouses. They capture warm air while still allowing light to reach plants and soil. Protected crops can be enjoyed well into winter. If used in late summer, a second harvest can be had from cold frames employed to shelter new plantings of lettuce, broccoli, spinach and other cool weather crops.

Garlic is classically planted in autumn. As with many bulbs, a period of cold dormancy is required to grow good garlic. When choosing seeds, select the best bulbs - large and firm with thick layers of papery skin. Separate each bulb, taking care not to split the cloves. Till a generous amount of mature compost into the soil. Plant cloves with the narrow tapered end up approximately twice as deep as the size of the clove, spacing 8 inches (20 cm) apart.

In a similar fashion, on-going and early harvests can be assured by planting some vegetables right now. Potatoes, if planted with rich compost and covered in a thick layer of mulch, can overwinter and produce much earlier next spring.  

Right now, trim the tops off of beets, carrots, parsnips and turnips still in the soil, cover with a tarp and then thick layers of mulch or bags of leaves. Such insulation will prevent the soil from freezing, and the tarp makes it easy to lift the mulch and snow. Some gardeners recommend similar storage, in deep, insulated trenches, for onions, cabbage, and other vegetables, allowing for freshly harvested vegetables all winter long.

Seed crops should be harvested soon, if they have not already been. Any beans, peas, or other seeds left to mature and dry should be brought indoors, cleaned, dried, and stored carefully for next year. Consider setting aside some seeds when cooking tomatoes, peppers, and squash, as well.

Bulbs meant to overwinter outdoors should be planted in early autumn; they must be well planted, mulched, and insulated from the cold. Now is the time to plant roses, asparagus crowns, and even fruit trees if you want to save effort next spring. Berry bushes can be pruned by cutting out old, dry canes. Fruit trees should be pruned only after they are fully dormant; wait at least until the leaves drop.

Perhaps most importantly, gardeners intending to start or expand gardens next year can save a lot of time and energy by starting this autumn. The ‘lasagna gardening’ method popularized by Patricia Lanza takes much of the effort out of installing and maintaining a garden. In brief, Lanza recommends outlining the area you plan to cultivate, and then covering this area with thick layers of wet newspaper. No tilling or grass killing is required - just pile on whole sections of newspaper, followed by alternating layers of leaves, compost, grass clippings, and other organic materials. For small plants or flowers, the pile need only be 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) tall; for larger plants and perennials, a minimum of 1 foot (30 cm) is advised.  Cover the entire pile with a solid layer of black plastic, weight it down with rocks or stakes, and wait. In the spring, most of the material will be broken down, thanks to the help of worms and other microbes. Plant directly into the beds, and enjoy your garden knowing you successfully enlisted natural processes to reduce your workload.

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