Prep Your Vegetable Garden For Fall

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Welp we did it.  Most of us are pretty much done the gardening season.  Sure we can look forward to cool season crops, but the wild abundance of summer is gone.  For me, in zone 5b New England the cooling nights for sure takes a toll, but in my urban garden surrounded by other folks’ houses it is actually the sunlight I lose first.   The low angle of the sun just can’t peak up and around the house, and so the sun hours are way down.  So it’s time to put most of one garden bed to…bed.

Let me show you how I do it- for the vegetable garden.

Here are 6 fall garden tasks to really set your garden ahead and ready for spring.

1)  Weed.

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In theory your garden mulching & targeted watering strategy have left not too many weeds.  But some always will poke their way through.  And while you probably can’t linger by your garden without picking an errant weed, by the end of summer things can get a little…wild.  Pull the weeds.  Get out a tool for the deep rooted ones.  You don’t want to add to the weed seed composition of your garden.  Ok, that’s easy.

2).  Don’t pull all of veggies out… at least… not all of them

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Wait, wah?  Let me explain.  First, you should try to remove as much plant material always at all times from anything that looks diseased.  I’m not talking a touch of powedery mildew on squash- that stuff is everywhere.  But in the fall, we should try to remove, root ball and all, plants that are prone to disease.  I’m talking tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes (though in theory you did this at harvest).  One year basil all had a wilt.  So I yanked it.  Anything that can give your trouble.

What you shouldn’t pull are plants that don’t often have disease issues and especially not nitrogen fixing plants like beans and peas.  As I wrote about before, the root system of plants represents a huge subterranean nutrient source- mainly carbon.  We gardeners go to great lengths trying to infuse more carbon into our soil, via compost and mulches.  So why yank it up if it’s in already there?  Like way in there?  Especially the legume family plants which will leave behind their big root nodules, full of nitrogen and nitrogen fixing bacteria.  What do we also love?  Nitrogen.  So leave all that in.  I typically cut those plants out at the base and toss them into the compost pile, provided again, they look otherwise healthy (if not wilty and tired)

3) Add Compost & 4) Mulch

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At the end of a long growing season the bed can be a bit depleted.  Especially a new bed that hasn’t worked up a ton of organic material from many previous years of leftover roots, as mentioned above.  What I like to do is add a one inch layer of compost down.  I’ll either use my own backyard compost, the commercial compost I get from our urban compositing provider, or composted cow manure.  These materials will continue to break down and compost in place through the next few months and pick up again in the spring.  Soil structure will improve over this time through the growth of mycorhizae, which if you had to pull up a lot of diseased plants will need some time to recover.

I then top it off with another inch or two of organic mulch.  This is mainly for weed suppression, but it will also minimize the critters picking away and a half-composted corn cob.  Hey, it’s been known to happen.  I use composted leaf mulch or composted bark mulch.

5) Covercrop

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I used to think that cover-cropping was exclusive to the realm of industrial or at least large farms.  Not my 12×12 urban garden!  But then I saw my neighbor doing it and I was hooked.  The advantages are numerous.  Less weeds, better water retention, better soil structure and if the varieties are chosen well, nutrients are added into the soil, not taken away.  Also, since this isn’t stuff that you eat (well, you could, but pressure’s off) You don’t really have to give it a lot of love or attention.  Just let it be.  In the spring, it will probably be dead and mushy.  Turn it into the soil.  Some folks are anti-till.  I say a little scratching around so a rotted radish isn’t making an eye-sore is ok.

Now, there are lots of covercrop blends out there.  So much fascinating research has gone into different plants or mixtures of plants.  I find it amazing and I really need to learn more.  But for my little garden I have kept is small and simple:  Snap peas and daikon.  Importantly, both growth in cool weather.  Both I can also get a seed packet or two for cheap (often times cover crop blends are sold by the pound… I don’t need that!) and they both add to the soil.  And that is the point.  Peas add nitrogen and daikons bio-drill.

6)  Winter Crop!

Image of rust-free aluminum frame with insect screen and solid polycarbonate panel pulled back to show screen

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Consider putting in a cold frame.  Maybe not this moment, but soon.  We’ve had intermittent success with ours.  I mean, there was that winter 3 years ago that snowed 7 feet in February.  Boston broke.  My cold frame did too.  But, when spring finally came, that cold frame, lodged in the snow, heated up.  And it heated up the bed around it too, not just the stuff inside.  So while I wasn’t able to get to my spinach through the blizzard, I was harvesting things way earlier than planned.  So even if you think you’d like to pass on January lettuce, even though your one friend in Maine boasts of doing it… think of how you’ll feel in early March when gosh darn it all you want is something green.  Trust.

And those are my 6 fall garden tasks I do to set myself and my garden up for a stellar spring.  What do you do?

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Grass to Meadow

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A while back I wrote about this.  Practically all summer I was waiting to start this project.  While I have been lamenting the loss of summer’s heat and long days, looking forward to this project has been the only good part of the cooling weather.  We ripped out our small, needless front lawn and replaced that space with native plants.  The plan was to make it look something like this:

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I love the look of the cone flower coming out from the grasses.  So much prettier than trampled grass scorched brown by the neighborhoods’ dogs. While I couldn’t source prairie dropseed or little blue stem for this project, I still managed to acheive the effect.

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Everything has a bit of transplant shock right now… most everything was divided from existing perennials and grasses around the yard.  Echinacea purpurea pop out around the grasses.  Rudbekia are interspersed.  Baptista dominates one corner (I think I have it in blue and white, time will tell!).  Shasta daisy and columbine are in the shadier parts.

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I put some butterfly weed in the sunniest parts.  I divided my stonecrop & hens and chicks- they hold the soil very well.  The yard has a slight slope, so the stonecrop serves to hold it all in place.

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I edged it with repurposed brick from an old bed.  This brick is easily 50 years old and now lines the garden at the edge of the sidewalk.  When placing the plants, I threw a handful of compost into each hole, then top dressed around them.  The soil was fairly compacted and as we ripped out the sod, organic material was lacking.  I finished off the whole production with several inches of composted leaf mulch.  This stuff breaks down fairly quickly, and is almost more like a compost than a mulch.  Next year I may need some more mulch, but I hope that it’ll fill in enough that mulch will become obsolete- the plants will serve as their own living mulch, and I’ll only sprinkle handfuls around when I have to divide something or pull out under-performers.

And boy do I still have plans for this space!

I have some bulbs to add (not native, but after a long New England winter I need daffodils.  Need).  I would love to add an extra bird feeder and maybe a bird bath.  I have plans to add some native bleeding heart.  – I have already put in some Dicentra cucullaria (dutchmen’s breeches) bare roots.  I will probably also transfer some Geranium maculatum (wild geranium) from the backyard in the spring.  I’ll probably also crumble some seed heads around and see what ends up popping up.  I like to shake out the Physostegia virginiana (obediant plant) and Monarda fistulosa (wild bergamot) and let them spread themselves as they please.  I’m not above annuals either.  Mexican sunflower will for sure make an appearance next year.

Can you tell from my rambling that I’m still exited about my new garden bed?  But now I need a brake.  I moved 2 yards of mulch around today and for that I need a breather.

Native Garden Inspiration: Alewife Brook Reservation

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A little way down the bike path from my house is a great bit of urban wild- the Alewife Brook Reservation.  Nestled on the borders of Arlington & Cambridge MA- between a rail line and a highway.  Doesn’t sound idyllic, but it is.  The state put in a lot of effort to improve storm water run-off in the rivers that ultimately feed into Massachusetts Bay.  Part of that project was to install bioswales & other water management features, along with an awesome year round beautiful native plant park- complete with boardwalks over the marsh, trails for running, granite amphitheater and informational signs about the plants and animals that call this area home.

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This morning I went for a run along the reservation, to see what had changed since the last time I was there about a month ago.  Everything has changed!  And I can’t seem to pick a favorite time of year here!  In the above picture you can see that the goldenrod is popping or about to pop (I can’t ever identify Solidago species… they all look the same to me).  Behind that the purple clouds are New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) looking like a boss.  Also some rudbekia, common primrose and boneset (I think Eupatorium perfoliatum).

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Each step requires closer inspection.  The monarda have lost their flowers, but the heads still look nice.  And even closer still reveals…

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A bumble having a grand old time on a partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata.

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More boneset in the foreground, with some GIANT Joe Pye Weed in the background & left.  And some red berried bush… I can’t identify because I’m terrible with shrubs.  But it was everywhere and looking fine.

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Maybe you can see the flashes of white above?  Beautiful swamp rose mallows (Hibiscus mosechuetos) in white and pale pink.  Also, I need to learn more about grasses, because I love all of these grasses.

Everywhere you look there is a wonderful and natural tangle.  An ever changing cast of characters.  Such is the glory of a native space.  This area was intentionally planted about 5 years ago, but now mostly left alone save some chopping back.  The year round interest and layers of plants is truly inspiring.  I can’t replicate this all in my garden- I don’t have that much sun nor is my yard partially a marsh! But I can take some cues.  I wonder what I’ll find during my next run through!

The Late Summer Garden

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Really I should call this the atypical late summer garden.  No, the toys above are very typical… what’s not typical is how green everything is.  I mean the grass is lush, verdant, and in need of mowing (I mowed a few hours after this picture was taken).  Halfway through August here in Boston-adjacent land we found ourselves already with more than our typical monthly allotment of precip and it is still coming.  I’m writing this post right now from my covered back deck while a steady rain comes down.  It certainly has led to some atypical garden behaviors this summer- but some pretty average observations as well.  Mainly- this time of year things get a little out of hand- a little explosive- and whether it’s the August heat or the declining light (it’s getting fairly dark by the time the kiddo is in bed, which is when I can find time to tend to the garden) the garden can get a little derelict…a little gangly.

Not that I mind.  Something about the profusion of life is very gratifying.  The squash vine that grows 3 feet while you’re at work.  The sunflowers covered in bees.  The Monarda that started as a small plug just months before that is now something that sprawls every which way.

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And this super-sized and sprawling perrenials look is going to really benefit me come September.  As I mentioned not long ago, we are ripping out our small front lawn and replacing it with a garden.  Many of the plants from this process will come from dividing existing plants from around our yard.  So robust growth will enable me to split things more ways, or transplant larger splits.  The plants above, which include Columbine, Shasta Daisy, Dianthus, Rudbekia fulgida and coneflower were started 4 years ago from small hacked off bits from my mom’s garden.  Before that, when we moved in there were three mostly dead azalea.  It’s time for these guys to be divided for their health and to make way for the Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey Tea) that I planted from Prairie Moon early this summer.

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The one aspect of garden gone wild that I don’t like is when plants flop into the grass.  It makes mowing hard and lots of times the best blooms become hidden.  The floppiness of plants is very apparent this time of year.  You can see it in this picture and the one below.  The hard rain beats them down (our raspberries are now sprawling like a giant octopus across the yard after the rain), but also lack of support plays a role.  Early in the season I staked some goldenrod & aster that always flop.  That has kept them looking fine.  Trying to stake floppy plants, like those Gaillardia after the damage is done is losing battle.

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And while I love looking out my dining room window to this wall of sunflowers, I probably don’t need this many next year.  The flop makes this narrow side yard impassable.  The sunflowers in their voracious reach for sun are shading out some of my new milkweed varieties that I planted this year like Asclepia incarnata (rose/swamp milkweed) and Asclepia viridis (spider milkweed).  But nothing bullies the common milkweed.  It is the very definition of a weed.

Right below my feet in the above picture were several juicy mushrooms.  That is an atypical late summer garden feature.  Especially in this side yard garden that is usually baked and crispy this time of year.  These mushrooms were massive.

Massive perennials?  Flopping plants every which way?  Totally a normal summer garden.

Green grass?  Mushrooms popping up?  Not a regular occurrence.

And thus why we do it my friends.  The ever changing newness of each year.  Our plants generally adapt year after year and so, do we.