The Fall Garden

Increase your fall plantings and try to get a head start on spring crops.

| October/November 1999

  • Fall Garden
    Planting in the fall with the right crops can yield a more plentiful spring harvest.
    Illustration courtesy Joanna Roy
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  • Fall Planting
    Carrots are the perfect candidate for fall planting.
    Illustration courtesy Joanna Roy

  • Fall Garden
  • 176-082-01-the_fall84
  • 176-082-01-the_fall88
  • Fall Planting

Seasons of Earth and Sky

The growing season is at an end for the year, for The decade of the 1990's and for the century, if you can believe it. But a late-fall walking tour of the snoozing garden is in order to prepare for the first harvest of the new millennium .

Before a final tilling it's good to go over the land carrying a stout shovel. A nursery spade with a narrow, foot-long transplanting blade is best if you have one. If you've let much of the soil grow up in weeds (and don't we all once the growing season becomes too short to mature even a fall crop of leaf lettuce?), you may have admitted burdock (the source of those infernal prickleburrs that dogs like to "harvest" with their coats) or other tap-rooted biennials or perennials that will outgrow any new-seeded crop next year. Look for circular (basal) rosettes of leaves lying flat to the ground. They are one to six or eight inches across and are different shades of dusty gray-green in color. They are alive, if dormant, and sleepy looking, even by plant standards.

Sink your spade straight down, deep and close beside each rosette and dig it out with as much root as you can get. Rototill the crowns under; they won't sprout from chopped stem and rosette, and the remaining deep root will rot away to nourish your future crops. If you can identify the plant absolutely as burdock from its rhubarb-like leaves, try cooking the peeled root for 30 minutes or so. It eats like parsnip.

This is also the best time to kill the season's worth of weed seed the wind has blown into your garden soil. A fall tilling will bury many but not all, and buried weed seed can be disinterred with spring cultivation. Before bringing out the rototiller for the last time, go over bare ground and weed trash with a propane flame-weeding torch if you have one. if you don't, they go for $20 and up in the Harbor Freight and other discount tool merchants' catalogs.

Burning old plant growth will reduce it to ash, which will help sweeten the soil for next season. But before you light up, be sure the surrounding vegetation is wet from a fall rain or early snow so that you don't cause a wildfire.

To protect any carrots or spinach you are over wintering in the sod from the desiccating winds the coming months are sure to bring, put on a weed-seed-free winter mulch of salt hay, wood chips, pine needles or long lasting oak leaves. To keep leaves or other loose mulch from blowing away, cover the pile with green brush cut from the edges of a nearby wood. Choose leggy branches and next April you can 'plant" them beside your earliest green peas to support the vines. To give over wintering crops a gentle warming boost in spring, you can interlayer between the natural mulch and the green brush cover with sheets of black plastic mulch, which you'll have to retrieve in spring, or else with landscape paper, which can later be torn (to let plants emerge), composted, burned or tilled under. Lacking brush, the sheeting must be held down with rocks along the edges and saplings or tomato stakes laid across, to keep it from flapping and tearing away in the winter winds.

A Head Start on Spring

We've increased our experimental fall plantings to try to get a head start on spring crops. It's no guarantee — some years work well, others not so well, largely depending on what kind of weather spring brings. But it's generally worth a try.

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