This installment of a gardening tips feature provides advice on fall garden clean-up and ideas for gift gardening books.
November is the "in between seasons" time. On warm afternoons, in many parts of North America, drunken yellowjackets still circle the sticky sweetness of spilled cider, and then—one chill morning—you walk out and find that the leaves crisping under foot are covered with frost. Nature is slowing down and the year is dying, but there's still plenty to be done on nippy weekends in the November-December garden!
The coming of cold weather marks the time for the grand garden cleanup. The work that's done in the fall determines (to a large degree) the success of the next year's vegetable crop, so it doesn't pay to cut corners.
First, a thorough policing of the area is called for. Cornstalks, pumpkin vines, and all the other debris left behind after the harvest should be gathered up, shredded (the power mower does a good job on all but the toughest material), and either placed in the compost pile or set aside to be rototilled into the earth later. At this point, evaluate your garden's soil. Many county extensions offer complete testing services. And even if you don't have access to a full evaluation, you should at least run a pH check on the "brown gold." The ideal garden pH is about 6.8—slightly acid—and chances are that your loam will need some help if it's to reach this figure.
If the soil is too acid, add about five pounds of lime per 100 square feet to "sweeten" it. On the other hand, those folks (mainly living west of the Mississippi) who have a naturally alkaline growing medium should incorporate agricultural sulfur into the soil for greater acidity.
Next, cover your entire garden with a three-inch-deep dose of fresh horse, cow, or goat manure. Then top off the "nutrient sandwich" with the ground-up garden debris you set aside, and add lots of shredded leaves (mix in extra lime if you use oak leaves). Once that's done, rototill all the glorious nourishment into your garden soil to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. Make sure it mixes in well.
The final step in preparing the soil for the next season is to plant a green manure crop: winter rye or oats. (Seed for these living fertilizers is sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds. In the spring, simply till your cover crop under to improve both the fertility and the tilth of the soil.
Christmas is a wonderful time for giving gardening-related gifts—presents the grower wouldn't think of buying because of the expense, but would dearly love to have. Books are right at the top of the "planter's present" list this year. The Reader's Digest has recently published a superb guide titled Success With House Plants. At $17.95, the volume is not inexpensive, but the quantity of information given and the excellence of its presentation make the work a fine gift idea.
Onward and Upward in the Garden is a beautiful book by Katharine S. White, the late wife of E.B. White of Stuart Little fame. Mrs. White's gardening essays first appeared in the New Yorker, and they're both wise and elegantly clear. This is the book to curl up with in February, when it seems that winter is never going to end. The publisher is Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and the price is $12.95.
Another good entry in the Christmas reading list Is the newly revised version of Rodale's classic Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. This massive volume (which is available in most good bookstores stands as the basic reference tool for the organic gardener.
Or if you're serious about horticulture, you might treat yourself (or someone close to you) to a really outstanding Christmas gift: membership in one of the specialist plant societies. You'll have access to the latest research, you'll benefit from the trial-and-error experiences of others, and you'll participate in seed exchanges open to members only. The fees are modest, and the rewards are great. Here are several of the better-known groups:
Before the ground freezes, consider digging some rhubarb crowns for forcing. Take the roots and replant them in a soil-filled, plastic-lined bushel basket until they freeze. After the roots have frozen solid (late December is a good time for this), bring them into the cellar and allow them to thaw. Water heavily, and keep the sprouting stalks in a dark place. In a little over a month you'll have succulent tart fruit, just right for pies and sauces. Then, come spring, you can replant the roots in their garden bed and give them a good mulch of well-rotted manure to help them recover from the midwinter forcing.
Unless you live in the very coldest parts of the country, you can try sneaking in some very early spring vegetables by planting in November. Wait until a good killing frost before putting in a trial planting of one of the hardier smooth-seeded pea varieties such as Alaska (available generally) or Feltham First. Then mulch the soil to prevent frost-heaving, and look for those green pods earlier in the spring than you thought possible!
In areas where frost comes later, you might even try a fall planting of lettuce ... helped along, of course, with plenty of mulch. Evergreen is a cold-tolerant heading variety, and Grand Rapids Forcing is a loose-leaf type with a chance of wintering over. November is also a good time to plant garlic cloves (three inches deep, and spaced four inches apart), shallots (plant them about two inches deep), and leeks.