Autumn efforts bring spring satisfaction for gardeners
It is hard for me to believe that we are already into mid-October. This week I have been emailing family members trying to decide whether to have our Christmas gathering as a brunch or dinner. Christmas! Already? I am an over-planner and tend to always be working months ahead.
While it sometimes even drives me crazy to be thinking about wreathes and reindeer in October, it certainly is a quality that helps me as a gardener. Gardening takes time, patience and planning. Unfortunately, you cannot admire your neighbor’s daffodils blooming in March and plant some for yourself that same year.
October is a bit like New Year’s in the garden. It is the time for resolutions, changes and big-picture planning. With much of the summer garden winding down but still intact, it is the perfect time to assess and correct your garden before cold sets in.
For instance, my vegetable garden is a constant work in progress. In 2010, I was a little too inspired by the urban agriculture movement of growing food in tiny spaces, and tried to grow about 20 varieties of vegetables in my 20x10 foot garden. I don’t care what any cool rooftop farmer in Brooklyn says — one simply cannot grow pumpkins in a three-foot square.
So then in 2011, I decided to focus on what I really wanted — tomatoes. I grew about 15 varieties of tomatoes. It was nice, but between trying to grow organically and being too stingy to put up any sort of proper fencing, most of my beautiful heirloom tomatoes were enjoyed by raccoons, rabbits, deer and even chipmunks. So this summer I decided to stick to what I know best — herbs, lots and lots of herbs. I even had some volunteer tomato plants that came up and seemed to produce volumes more than their parent plants had the previous year. The tomatoes came up between basil plants, and the old wives’ tale about growing basil with tomatoes must be true, no pest problems.
We have all heard the phrase “hope springs eternal.” Well, as gardeners, we notoriously prove this to be true year after year. And of course I think I have the perfect, balanced plan for my vegetable garden in 2013. This is the time of year to make those plans and start doing some of the work. For example, my vegetable garden is only a few years old, so amending the soil is a constant struggle. In the coming weeks I plan to spread a very thick layer of compost and leaves to decompose and enrich the soil all winter.
One of the best ways to stop weeds in the garden is prevent them the season before. Now that we have had a few frosts, weeds are weaker and easier to kill. My preferred method is simply covering with newspaper and mulch, because it adds nutrients to the soil and blocks out the weed without any chemicals. However, there are some weeds that simply require the big guns. Spray them now with a weed killer, mark the spot with a tag, and very early in the spring spray a pre-emergent herbicide. Getting a head start in the fall makes the process much easier.
Another great garden project to start this time of year is composting. While compost takes a little longer in cool weather than in the heat of summer, there are definite advantages. Compost is essentially decomposed organic matter. Sometimes decomposition is not a lovely aromatic experience. Your compost pile is far less likely to smell in cold weather. If you are a beginner and make a mistake, you have more time to correct it if you start now.
This is also a great time to work with trees — planting new trees or pruning existing ones. It is the ideal time to plant trees because the root systems have time to establish before going into dormancy and then producing new growth in the spring. And that branch that hangs too low over your patio or walkway? Autumn is also a great time for pruning. Mild weather and ample moisture will allow the tree to heal itself from even aggressive pruning.
Last but not least, bulbs. There are so many wonderful new hybrids of spring-blooming bulbs. A little bit of work in the fall provides so much in return come spring.
Fall gardening is much more of an investment in delayed gratification than going to the nursery in the spring and coming home with flats of vivid flowers. But it is some of the most important work for the well-being of a garden one can do. Taking the time to reflect on the successes and failures of your garden this year, making some changes, and planning for next year will make for the perfect garden in 2013 — I hope so, anyway!
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.