Unless you’re a demon composter, the fall chores of raking leaves; grubbing out garden trash; gleaning mummies from the fruit trees; and dragging tomato stakes, cucumber trellis, and all to the barn can be downright depressing. It’s a requiem for the joyous season of life and growth, and a harbinger of the winter to come with leaden overcast, chill rain, sleet — and in the north country where I come from — snow. Lots of snow. Month after month of snow. I like to brighten the fall clean-up blues with a good dose of spring-of-the-year cheer by planting and seeding now for next year's garden bounty and lawn and flower beauty.
The Fall Garden
First—beginning as soon as the last crops are harvested—comes the vegetable garden.
I want to avoid disease buildup by not planting the same vegetables to a plot for two years running, or more often than every third year. For example, never following cabbage with broccoli or any other brassica, which would encourage a buildup of the club-root plant pathogen in the soil. Before I begin raking, composting, and tilling, I sketch a plan from memory (still fresh but likely to fade by next spring) of what varieties went where during the year's largely unplanned succession planting. During the year, we follow one crop with another to enjoy up to three harvests from each part of the garden—say, early radishes followed by bush beans followed by late chard or early lettuce. I hold the tomatoes up off the soil on stakes so that I can plant late (winter-keeping) beets or carrots under them.
With the memory of last year's crops refreshed, and keeping in mind that I'll soon be planting for next year, I can almost work up a little enthusiasm for cleaning up the garden trash, pulling the stakes still supporting dry bean and tomato vines (then burning them to kill off wilt spores and mosaic viruses—adding the ash to the compost), tilling in wilted plant residue, shredding and composting the old corn stalks and any picked-clean Brussels sprouts stems.
Once cleared, the garden gets a rough, once-through rototilling. Then I let it rest a while. Birds attracted to the fresh-turned soil will scratch around after exposed insects and weed seeds that had planned to over-winter in the soil. If we have rain followed by a few warm days, some weeds will germinate as well—but will be eliminated when I fine-till the surface again in a week. I continue with a fast, shallow tilling every week or two—each gleaned by birds—till the cold is settled in firmly enough that the animal's water bowls are rimmed with ice most mornings. I don't want my fall-planted seeds to think that spring has arrived, so they'll germinate—only to be killed with the onset of deep winter.
Indications will be different where you live, but it's time to do the fall planting on my place when a thin crystalline rind forms on the garden loam in the morning that makes a crunching sound as I walk over it. I prefer to do my fall planting early in the day while the garden surface is still crunchy, as the soil turns to slippery mud when it thaws.
Varieties For Fall Planting
First I round up half-used seed packets where I've absentmindedly left them on window sills in the barn, under the bench in the tool shed, and in odd jars and boxes in the pantry. I winnow out seeds of the subtropical nightshades: tomato and eggplant; the cucurbits including squash, melons and cucumbers; plus corn, beans, and other warmth-loving plants. Planted into winter-dry soil, such seeds might winter over all right (otherwise, how would we get one or two "volunteer" tomato or squash plants in the compost every year?). However, all but a very few lucky or super-hardy seeds would rot, fail to germinate, or die from damping-off fungus
The only varieties that I find to be consistently reliable are those that do best during the cool of spring and fall, including fast-growing species whose leaves (lettuces and spinach, for example) or stems (kohlrabi, chard) are eaten in the early vegetative phase of growth, or biennials (carrots, beets) that produce roots that over-winter and go to seed their second season. Most plants grown to maturity for their fruits (tomatoes, cukes) or seeds (beans, corn) aren't suitable.
And I will admit that-in fall planting, as in all else-some years are better than others. By and large, the longer we stay in the deep freeze in winter and the rainier the spring, the lower the success rate. But, if a fall-planted row fails, I just hoe it in and replant in spring.
For the most part, I find that old-fashioned rank-growing, non-hybrid "heirloom" varieties do best under hard conditions of all kinds-fall planting included. Production may not be as great or quality as refined as the fancy inbreds, but open-pollinated varieties are closer to their wild forbears, thus hardier and better adapted to weather extremes.
Lettuce. For a lot of years now, the star of my off-season plantings has been Oak Leaf lettuce. You never see the big-lobed leaves of this loose-leaf variety in stores, as it isn't particularly attractive (looks like pin oak), gets tough and leathery in warm weather, and is quick to bolt to seed. But in my garden, the seed will withstand the worst winters, and the succulent young leaves are tolerant of spring frost. The plantings can be spared spring frostbite if-once they are up and growing-they are covered during a severe spring cold snap or late snow with a sheeting that can be held up off the leaves. Best are floating cloches: half-tubes of clear plastic sheeting on wire hoops (I use a length of clear plastic held up on coat hangers with the hanger straightened and stuck in the soil. With luck, I can be picking a few leaves from the fall-seeded Oak Leaf lettuce plants before the neighbors have even bought seed of their fancy Butter-Bibb types. Old-fashioned Black-Seeded Simpson is another loose-leaf lettuce that usually does well.
Peas. Traditionally, the most rot-resistant seed peas are the small, smooth-seeded kinds-as opposed to large, wrinkle-seeded. However, wrinkle-seeded Little Marvel is reliable in my garden. A happy surprise has been Oregon Sugar pea, the original eat-it-pod-and-all variety. Seed is small and smooth and the vines grow more vigorously than the new improved edible-pod peas, so I plant them in a long row at the back of the garden, and supply them with an eight-foot-high chicken wire fence to grow on once the vines are a few inches above ground and beginning to put out their curly lit¬tle climbing tendrils. If you don't give the aggressively growing vines something to climb on so they can reach sun, they'll try to climb up one another and will form an impenetrable ground-mat.
Carrots. Old-fashioned short, thick-shouldered New England-bred Danvers varieties do better in my fall-planted garden than French-originated varieties-either blunt-ended Nantes or long, slim Chantenay types. I avoid hybrids and fragile super-sweets. Getting to the often muddy super-early spring garden to thin too-close-planted carrots can be difficult. So, I mix one part of the tiny seed to ten parts fine sand and shake it like table salt into the soil. The sand can only improve drainage in the row.
Beets. I plant the big, rough seeds of Detroit about an inch apart in the row and plan to pull every other one to cook as greens as soon as leaves fill in the row. Since every beet seed will produce several seedlings, a second and often a third meal of greens comes off the rows before the most vigorous plants are left to grow bulbs.
Onions. I've had no luck with sets. Most rot, and if they do survive the winter, the flavor is savagely strong; I suspect that they want to go to seed. I do well with seed of bunching onions-the kind you pull green and use as scallions. The round, black seed is large enough that you can distribute it easily by rolling be-tween your thumb and forefinger-seeds about a quarter inch apart so the little onions won't be too crowded. For a variety that holds up well under fall planting conditions, see page 56 for a short feature on the Welsh Onion.
Spinach. The big seeds are best distributed an inch apart in the row and thinned as soon as the soil is dry enough to walk on. The old favorite Longstanding Bloomsdale does best for me.
Kale. Winterboris a new, super-frost-hard variety that I plan to try in place of traditional Blue Scots types. Kale is slow to grow, but can be harvested for months if you continually pick outer leaves before they get too high (up to 3 feet), and let the inner leaves grow. I have heard that gardeners in less chilly regions treat this variety as a perennial, protecting it against severe chill by packing it in straw under a bushel basket. I will try that.
Radish. Any red radish will succeed if we have a quick, relatively dry warm-up in the spring. But, plant very thinly as they need a good inch in the row to produce bulbs and are up and growing first of any fall-planted seed.
Assorted Greens. The seed catalogs are full of exotic greens these days and I try one or two each year in fall plantings...with varying success. Raab and most other fast-growing leafy-type broccolis are worth a test. Some of the 45-day peppery mustards such as Rocket Salad or Regula do well. I've never had much success with chards, even though they hold up well to fall cold at the end of the growing season. New Zealand spinach is no good at all.
A side note: If you garden in a less severe climate than we do, I suggest that you look through the specialty seed catalogs for over-wintering seed varieties. In the relatively balmy winters of England and continental Europe, they have been over-wintering brassicas and other hardy varieties for years. Though most of their offerings are best suited to Northern California and the balmy Pacific Northwest, Territorial Seed Company (PO Box 157, Cottage Grove OR 97424¬0061) lists several overwintering varieties worth a trial anywhere-including Merida, a Dutch carrot that I will try out this year for the first time.
To be on the safe side, I deep-freeze-test seed that I'm not sure of. I fill small multi-compartmented planters with starting medium and-recording which varieties go in which mini-pot-plant seed at the same depth it would go in the garden (three times the seed's diameter as a rule). I soak the medium good, let it drain till dripping stops, and then each tray goes in a plastic bag and into the freezer. I let them stay at least a week, so the contents freeze solid. It makes
Only seed that germinates well-a high proportion popping to vigorous life-goes into the garden. Note that I do not let the seed soak long enough to begin germination before freezing, as this can be sure death and does not replicate the experience they will have in the garden.
The greatest danger to winter-sown seed (worse than frostbite) is becoming waterlogged and succumbing to rots and molds in the wet of early spring. To avoid this, I try to provide the best soil drainage possible-and I take a hint from nature.
In the wild, most seed isn't properly "planted" under the soil surface unless It is fortunate enough to be hidden at the appropriate depth-and forgotten-by a squirrel, mouse, harvester ants, or a pack rat.
Take as an example Queen Anne's lace (wild carrot) that graces summer meadows everywhere with its three- to four-inch-round lacy, umbrella-shaped white flowers. When the flower head dries out, its seeds aren't planted three times their minuscule width deep in finely tilled loam, but are shaken free and blown away by the fall winds. They settle to the meadow floor and, with luck, by spring
have been driven by rain, snow melt, and passing critters into the mat of dead plant fiber that covers the soil. This natural mulch is partly decayed and on its way to moldering into loam, but is not yet compressed enough to compost thoroughly. It is still a loose, fibrous mat that permits easy gas exchange with the atmosphere, contains a small supply of available nutrients, absorbs water quickly... but also drains well. In short, the seeds are self-planted in a near-perfect starting medium.
So, I plant my freeze-tested seeds in a trench of man-made meadow litter: the same peat-moss/vermiculite/compost mix that I use to start seeds indoors in the spring.
To encourage drainage further and improve spring warm-up, I make mini-raised beds by hoeing soil into approximately eight-inch-high/six-inch-wide ridges, plowing a furrow down the center of each with the edge of the hoe blade, and filling the furrow with planting mix. Into it go the seeds. I cover the mix with soil and tamp with the flat of the hoe so as to retain moisture and to firm the seeds in place-but not so hard that the mix is compressed or the ridges flattened.
The seed, then, is contained in a core of good-draining starting mix that is elevated slightly above ground level in a ridge of soil to guarantee good drainage and freedom from standing water in even the wettest spring weather. Rows are arranged east-to-west in the garden so they will get the most hours of full sun.
I've tried any number of tricks to get fall-planted seeds warmed up as early as possible in the spring. The best idea to date is to wait till the first good snow after hard freeze in the fall. I go out and sweep snow off the mounds and cover the sun side of each with a foot-wide strip cut from a roll of infrared (IR)-permeable black plastic mulch.
Available from nursery supply houses, if not available at the local garden supply outlet, this new development is an improvement on conventional black plastic sheeting, which blocks all sun energy, so keeps weeds from growing, but also blocks heat-the IR radiation at the bot¬tom of the light spectrum. The new sheeting keeps out visible light, so it keeps weeds from growing but admits the IR heat rays to warm the soil.
If strips are laid out on the south side of the planting mounds (not covering the tops and the seeds), they will heat up and begin to thaw the ground even under the snow when sun starts getting strong in early spring, and can give your early crops an added week or more head start. This can keep me gardening into January. And since celery is started indoors in February, it often keeps me gardening all 12 months of the year.
Since the plastic won't be left on long enough past snow melt to be exposed to wind, I don't need to dig edges into the soil or weight it with rocks or anything but snow, so it peels right off the ground in the springto be turned and sun-dried, shaken free of adhering soil, rolled up, and used again. Hint: Leave the plastic on till opening day of the spring fishing season. Worms delight in surfacing under its protection to make castings and warm up. Invite them to go along on the fishing trip.
The Orchard Most trees begin to emerge from dormancy in late winter-sometimes as early as late January even in the North-when there is still snow on the ground. Nurseries couldn't dream of getting their digging equipment onto the land before then, which means that near-convenient time in mid-spring, most are held in artificial dormancy many weeks (or even months) longer than they would remain somnolent in nature. How much more natural it is to plant in late fall, per-mitting rain and snow melt to compact soil around the roots...and have your trees awaken slowly in their new home rather than all at once, months late, and in much warmer weather than is natural?
ly all live plants and nursery stock sold by mail, and much that comes from lawn and garden centers, was dug, de-soiled, sterilized, and packed for shipment the previous fall... then stored in coolers over winter. To be suitable for planting at a
No matter when planted, a little bareroot tree has been ripped from its nursery, leaving behind its original feeder roots¬the microscopic hairs that grow from rootlets and make the actual connection between plant and soil. It must grow an all new set, and if given the chance, will get started underground long before any top growth is visible. A fall-set tree can have as much as a year's head start on a spring¬planted counterpart...if it is set in right.
First of all, don't treat a newly acquired bare root tree tenderly by "heeling it in" moistening the roots, packing them in damp soil or moss, and leaning the tree in a shady spot-as you would in spring. This could break dormancy, initiate growth, and severely set back or even kill the tree. Keep it as dry as it came, in the dark, and as cold as possible while you prepare a planting hole.
The Hundred Dollar Hole
As the old saying goes, you oughta "dig a hundred dollar hole for a ten dollar tree." Of course, top-quality fruit or or-namentallawn trees cost more than $10 these days, so the hundred dollar hole is worth more. In truth, it costs nothing like a hundred bucks, though. It is the work that you put into preparing a planting hole for a new tree that gives it value¬offering a good start and firm foundation for decades of growth and production.
Most bare-rooted specimens-from a foot-tall slip to a 24-inch sapling or a yard-high two- to five-year-old-will come with a root mass no bigger than your two hands formed into a fingertip-to-fingertip basket. Small as it may be, dig it a hole the size of a bushel basket, about 18 inches around and deep. For a larger tree, or any specimen that comes with roots baled in soil, make the hole two feet around and two feet deep.
First, cut out sod and set to one side. Remove dark, loamy topsoil and put in a pile. Then, dig out and discard light-colored subsoil down to planting depth.
If any tree roots are growing through the hole, grub them out mercilessly. Though if the roots are so big they require an ax or saw, you may want to spare their parent tree.. .and you are probably planting too close to an adult tree anyway. (Many trees-poplars and nut trees in particular-actually secrete plant poisons in the soil within their drip lines to deter com-petition.)
You can return the sod to the hole, bottom-side up, but you must compact it exceedingly well or the grass and roots can cavitate under the tree as it decays and the soil will sink. Better is to knock off as much soil as you can and compost the sod itself.
Now, on a mixing board made from a sheet of old plywood or a length of that blue plastic tarp, mix up a
Set in the tree according to the insbuctions that came with it, dish the surface arolDld the outer rim of the hole to hold rain water, and stake it for suPporl big batch of "SuperSoil:' Toss on the retained topsoil. Remove rocks and roots. Add in as much compost as you can spare and/or well-rotted stable manure and/or sacks of composted cow manure to a pile no more than one-and-a-half times the volume of the hole. Add a quart-size sack of cottonseed meal (for nitrogen), green-sand (for potassium, aluminum, and iron) and seaweed meal for boron, magnesium, and 20 or so other trace elements that all life needs in small and varying amounts, but needs absolutely. Have on hand, but don't mix in yet, a quart of bone or blood meal for phosphorus.
Top the pile with equal amounts of water-retaining peat moss and vermiculite to make a pile of loose soil mix that's twice the volume of the planting hole. Sprinkle with enough wood ash or ground limestone or a combination to make the surface a dirty gray-white (but not so thick that the soil mix is so well-coated it is obscured). Mix thoroughly with shovel.
Fill the hole a quarter-full with loose mix, add half the bone meal and mix that in. Stomp this first layer ofloose-!TIix well. Make up another batch with the rest of the meal and stomp. You will be burying the meaty-smelling animal meal so your dogs and wild creatures won't dig it up and possibly die from phosphorus poisoning. The hole should be about half full. Then add bone-meal-free mix in layers, stomping well between each till the hole is full.
Now, dig a planting hole in the com-pacted SuperSoil and set in the tree ac-cording to instructions that came with it. In general, you want to set the tree a little deeper than it grew in the nursery, spread¬
ing roots at the bottom of the hole and firming soil around them well and soaking the soil thoroughly. Most grafted trees must be set with the graft well above soil leveL. but requirements vary. So, follow instructions.
When the tree is in, dish the surface around the outer rim of the hole to hold rainwater. Pound a stake into the soil beside the tree and fasten trunk to stake every few inches with lengths of twine tied tight to a notch whittled in the stake, but looping loose around the young tree. If you are planting a larger tree-say a six-foot-tall lawn specimen, guy the tree with three twine cables fastened to stakes sunk in a circle at least six feet out from the tree, and looped through soft fabric or foam-rubber tubing where it bends around the trunk.
One danger to fall-set trees is dehydration through the still-tender young bark due to dry winter winds. A second hazard is rodents-mice, voles, rabbits-that are especially fond of sweet fruit-tree bark and will gnaw it down to bare wood, girdling and killing the tree. Field mice and voles will attack under the snow and you won't see the damage till too late.
To prevent desiccation, enclose the tree in trunk-wrap plastic strips or tar paper that comes in an easily applied spiral. This will keep moisture in, but let the trunk breathe (or "transpire;' to be botanically accurate), as plants constantly exchange gases with the atmosphere just as animals do. To deter the destructive little creatures, remove both ends from several tin cans (small-size tomato paste cans are ideal for young trees). Slit them up the sides with metal shears. Spring them open just enough to clamp around the trees (being extra careful not to let the sharp cut edges gouge tender bark). Apply duct tape all around if they don't close back up. Push the bottom can well down into the soil and stack others atop it two feet above the ground-or three feet or more if your part of the country gets a foot or more of snow for hungry bunnies to walk on top of. It is best to remove the cans once more conventional wild rabbit food is greened up in spring-re-installing them each fall. Lengths of aluminum flashing (allowed to keep the natural curl they have coming off the roll) will serve as well as cans, but not as cheaply. Nurseries sell anti-rodent trunk-guard, but that is more expensive still.
The Lawn Finally comes the lawn, the plantation that benefits most from fall-season attention. But first-like more and more homeowners these days-I'll admit that I am letting the edges and corners of our once-postage¬stamp-square front and back lawns go back to nature. The objectives are to promote plant diversity, attract wildlife, create a barrier to block winds that blow past the house sucking out heat energy in winter...and to minimize the noise and air pollution, repetitive sweat labor, and downright boredom of pushing a power mower back and forth over the same ground every week from May to September.
Not to put down the grasses. They are marvelous plants-uniquely capable of surviving after being destroyed clear down to ground level. Grass grows up from the stem.. .not out from the tip. If a grassland is continually trimmed short¬as are what remains of the savannas of Africa by gazelles, zebras, and wildebeest, and as once were the once-Great Plains of North America by antelope, deer, and bison, as are your lawn and mine by Lawnboys and Sears Eager Ones¬seedlings of herbaceous plants and trees are continually trimmed out, creating a "sea of grass."
The dense underground mat created by millions of individual grass plants's interlocking roots serves to hold soil parti¬cles together-making the difference between good land and a dirt pile. Mice and bugs and worms can burrow in it around tilling and aerating, your kids can dig forts in it, and you can chew it up with the tractor or 4x4, but the grass-root-filled soil will hold together. Plus, the fibrous roots absorb water, storing it between rains, and parsing it out as plants get thirsty. Roots also store energy to regenerate the plant following winter dormancy and after mowing, fire, or grazing animals remove the tips.
Natural grasslands are continually fertilized and built up by droppings, but-especially if you collect and burn, discard, or compost the mowings-your sod can be sapped and diminished by the end of each growing season. This is the best time to condition a lawn. When the cold fall rains threaten, but well before ground freezes, you should add lime to sweeten the soil, fertilize, condition bare patches, and reseed.
But first... initiate a controlled burn that will kill bug eggs and weed seeds, and convert the thatch-a half-inch-thick mat of dead stems and roots just under the green growing plant tips-that will self-perpetuate by making grass leaves stretch for light. Too thick a hatch lets water escape, harbors insects and disease, and encourages bare patches. Best to thin it, at the same time converting it into ash which will filter down over winter where the alkaline potash it contains will sweeten soil and nourish the roots.
Pick a windless day when the upper layer of thatch is dry, but the sub sod is moist. With a garden hose on and quick to hand to keep the blaze from getting out of control, burn small segments of lawn at a time. If there is a chance of a pickup in the wind, light off at the downwind edge of the burn area lest wind get behind the fire line and spread it faster than you can handle it. If thatch is dry enough, the fire will move steadily across the lawn, consuming thatch but leaving green leaves browned around the edges but still alive. If the fire races and leaves smoldering hot spots that burn down to soil level, it is too dry. If the fire dies or sputters and won't move right along, it is too wet. Either way, wait for better weather.
Next-unless your soil is naturally sweet-spread on finely ground limestone. A hopper-type lawn spreader is easiest, but you can fill a pail with the heavy, dry powder and spread it with a trowel or by hand if your lawn is small enough. This natural pH-lowering agent will react slowly and in proportion to the acids in the ground, so application needn't be precise. You seldom need to lime more frequently than every other year. To check, buy a small pH test kit at any lawn and garden outlet and follow directions. Tip: Don't cover the little test vial with a finger to shake it; the natural acids on your skin can bias the test results.
If the lawn is too large to lime by hand, you can rent or buy a spreader for your truck or tractor. Or you might consider hiring the local farm bureau to lime it with a big hopper-truck carrying a field spreader. But, if you want a naturally grown lawn, do not call in one of those lawn-chemical firms. They'll want to dope your sod so that every living creature in it turns belly up (if worms have bellies, that is). Some states require them to poke little Chemical Hazard signs around the lawn's perimeter following applications.
Sod in bare and yellow spots caused by beetle larvae, the dogs, crabgrass, or an¬other noxious weed should be burned twice, dug out as deep as your shovel will reach, turned bottom-side up, stomped, and raked smooth.
Now apply fertilizer. Best by far is a good half-inch of compost, raked out evenly. If you have com posted your clippings, you are just returning nutrients (that you could have left in place by using a clipping-chopper-type composting mower). Compost is always in short supply, so apply it first to dead spots and problem areas. If compost or stable manure is commercially available, a truck load will do your lawn a world of good.
Lacking compost or manure, you should spread a hi-nitrogen fertilizer. Natural materials such as cottonseed meal are best, but expensive to apply to a large lawn. However, if I had to compromise organic principles and use chemicals, I'd rather do it on the lawn than in the vegetable garden. Plus, chemical fertilizers such as 10-5-5, formulated for lawns, are easy and cheap. The most effective dissolve in water to be sprayed on with an applicator attached to the garden hose. Be sure to spread any granular chemical lawn food evenly or you can burn the sod.
Like sod, grass seed and seedlings can survive about any temperate-zone weather conditions except extended periods of standing water. However, seed will get the best start if spread several weeks before the temperature falls below freezing. Plan to reseed before spreading compost, or after newly spread manure or chemical lawn food has been rained on several times.
Don't indulge in false economy by buying a plastic bag of cheap no-name lawn seed from the grocery or a mall store. Brand-name seed such as Scotts is more expensive (often a great deal more), but lawn seed firms thrive only if their seed performs. You can be sure that it is fresh, packed for high germination in mixes formulated for your climate and lawn type, and with guaranteed viability, trueness to type, and top quality.
Hand-throw or use a spreader to sow the seed thinly and as evenly as possible, following container directions. Rake vigorously to distribute seed and work it down into what remains of the thatch.
Finally, rent a water-fill, drum-type lawn roller and compact the new-spread materials so the seed is encapsulated and firmed securely in growing medium.
Then lean back and wait for the seasons to run their course. All plant growth slows when days shorten and temperatures fall, but grasses are remarkably frost-resistant. During any warm snap, e¬posed leaves will begin turning sun energy into sugar, and your new seed will put out roots (but not top-growth) so the lawn will be set to join your fall-planted garden seeds, flowering bulbs, and trees in the renewal of life with the first warm days of spring.
Fall is the best time to transplant most hardy perennial bulbs and tubers-including the Jerusalem artichoke or Helicanthus tuberosus, a native N. American sunflower-long cultivated by Eastern and upper Midwestern Indians-that develops edible tubers along the roots. .. They are crisp and celery.heart-like when eaten rcJN and a cross between kohlrabi and watery boiled potatoes when cooked. But they lack starch so are a traditional potato substitute for diabetics (they store carbohydrate in the form of inulin , which converts to fructose sugar rather than glucose). You can buy tubers from seed houses, or in a few specialty vegetable markets, or get them from gardening neighbors (the beds are prolific, spreading and hard to eliminate once established).
It is easy to find gone-wild stands-characterized by six to nine-foot high stalks topped by sprays of two to ten 4¬~ inch-wide sunflowers-in fields and around old farms and homesteads. In late fall, the yellow petals will be gone and the minunflower seeds long eaten by birds, but stalks I will remain standing, topped by dried-out miniature versions of the pitted sunflower hearts you see atop garden sunflowers left for the blue jays at summer's end.
With a garden fork, dig deep to loosen the soil around each stalk and you'll pull up a cluster of delectable tubers. Plant them six inches deep and six inches apart both ways along the back of your garden. The sunflowers will grow and spread and become a nusance unless you grub the tubers out each fall. Harvest as many edible-sized tubers as you can find.. .enough will remain to renew the stand no matter how thoroughly you glean.
The tubers should be scrubbed well but needn't be peeled. You can slice and eat them I rcJN out of hand, or in salads or a lemon marinade, or cook them as you would carrots or potatoes. One warning: They do give some people gas. If you have any food sensitivities (especially if cukes or cabbage gas you up good), try small amounts at first and chew well to get that inulin well on the way in its conversion to sugar.
To me, the purest delight in fall planting is setting bulbs. Every year I overdo it and order more than I can afford. Not tulips; they can be glorious in large plantings, but are too formal for my woodsman's taste. I prefer to "naturalize" bulbs-plugging them into the woods all around the house, in the meadow that borders the driveway, and here and there on the brushy hill that rises behind the garden. I plant clumps of crocus around the base of lawn trees, too. They bloom in plenty of time to rejuvenate themselves for next year before the first lawn mowing that might snip off their spiky leaves.
Snowdrops and Siberian squill often poke up their white and blue blossoms through the rotting snow. Jonquils, daffodils, and narcissus add bright yellows, whites, and oranges to the woods weeks before the trees leaf out. A generation ago when I still worked in town, I'd pick bouquets on beautiful spring momings and take a little reminder of the country in with me. Most were distributed around the office. But if spring had my own sap rising, I'd hand out a few choice blooms on the street while walking from the parking garage. The looks of hostility, then raised-eyebrowed surprise, then truly delighted smiles and the "Why...why, thank you" I'd get in return from the jaded city folks are with me still.
Planting bulbs is a snap. The Dutch growers do all the work for you and each bulb contains everything the plant needs to flower beautifully but good-draining soil and a place in the sun.
I use a long-handled foot-powered bulb-hole digger. It has a shovel handle on one end and a hole-cutting tube with foot pegs on the other. Down on the soil goes the tube; I stomp good on a foot peg, twist and remove the tool along with a cylinder of soil. A bulb is dropped-pointy end up-into the hole. The soil is poked out of the digger with the handle of a trowel, inserted back in the ground, and stomped in. I can plant 200 bulbs in an hour of easy exercise and twice that if I make work of it.
In early summer, you can go around and dig up the bulbs-their positions betrayed by witt¬ing leaves and the remains of any flowers you've left unpicked. You'll find one or two large bulbs that will bloom next year and several bulblets that can be planted in nursery rows to grow to flowering size. Frankly, I don't bother. It's too much fun leafing through the bulb catalogs each summer and sending off for all new bulb collections. The new bulbs slowly lose vitality too. . .but are always being replaced, so they aren't missed.
Oh yes, I always order several clumps of paper narcissus or "paperwhites' and one or two hyacinths in the new colors of violet, light yellow, and salmon in addition to traditional shocking pink, white, and Delft blue. Rather than planting them outdoors in the fall, I put the bulbs in sawdust and store them in a mouseproof tin box under the bulkhead door leading from yard to cellar so they'll get the cold needed to maintain dormancy.
When winter begins to get depressing after the holidays, I pull them out in succession and "force" them into bloom by bringing them up and setting them in dishes of pebbles kept just filled with water. They put down roots and bloom gloriously-the hyacinths in particular filling the snow-bound house with the heady perfume of a spring that is still months away. When
their blooming period is past and foliage begins to die back, I pack them in moist sawdust, keep them cold, and when the weather warms, set them out in the woods where they take a season off, then join the flowering cycle of the other naturalized plantings.