Fall Gardening Tips: Late Fall Planting and Composting Leaves

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ILLUSTRATION: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
The USDA climate zone chart can be a big help with fall gardening.

Crisp, frost-nipped leaves crunch underfoot as the
fragrance of woodsmoke again fills the air. The tart
sweetness of apples is captured in cider’s amber brew, and
the stored bounty of the garden fills the holiday table.
Reflect for a grateful moment on gardens fulfilled, and
then turn your thoughts to the ever beckoning promise of
next year’s harvest. To get you started, here are some tips for fall gardening.


Late Fall Planting

By this time of year, vegetable growers in Zones 3 and 4
are reduced to pulling an occasional parsnip or cutting
some kale from the bedded-down garden. You folks can toss
another log on the fire, negotiate with the cat for space
on the sofa, and plan next year’s crops.

In Zones 5 and 6 (where the first frosts are due October 10
and 20, respectively), growers can safely transplant two
garden perennials, asparagus and rhubarb, until the third
week of November (do your digging before the ground freezes
solid, though). Year-old asparagus roots should be planted
about a foot apart in foot-deep trenches. Cover the roots
with several inches of compost-enriched soil, and
gradually, as the plants grow, till in the rest of the
trench.

Rhubarb roots can be spaced from two to four feet apart and
set so that the crowns are two to three inches below the
surface of the soil.

Don’t harvest either asparagus or rhubarb at all during the
first season of growth … let the plants build up a
healthy, extensive root system. A light harvest is possible
in the second year, and after that you should be able to
cut the stems for up to eight weeks annually.

In Zones 7 (frost by November 1) and 8 (freezing weather
commencing about the 15th), only the very hardy greens like
corn salad and cress stand a chance of producing at this
late date in unprotected ground … but
gardeners who use clothes or cold frames can still raise a
respectable crop of leaf lettuce, mustard greens, or
spinach. To learn how to build an easy-to-store knockdown
cold frame, see “Cold Frame Plans for the Garden” by Peter Wotowiec and Clarence
Kinkelaar.

Zone 9 gardeners, who face frost around December 1, can
still grow many greens: cabbage or collard transplants,
and–from seed–endive, kale, kohlrabi, leaf and head
lettuce, mustard, and spinach. In addition, you might have
luck with late crops of carrots, radishes, turnips, beets,
and peas (if you get ’em in early).

The fortunate folks in balmy Zone 10 will find the weather
cool enough now to plant a winter crop of garden peas.
Along with those tasty green globes, you can also sow
string beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and all of the vegetables listed for Zone 9. Imagine:
fresh peas for Christmas!  

Composting Leaves

In most parts of the country, this is the time of year that
nutritious, mineral-rich fertilizer falls to
earth free. Yet (it’s hard to believe) some folks
actually pay others to haul all that garden
goodness away to the dump. These heavenly
gifts, of course, are leaves. It’s a
snap to compost nature’s annual
gift into a rich soil amendment that will both
add nutrients and improve tilth. The key to quick,
effective composting is to increase the amount of
surface area available to those workhorse bacteria, and the way to do that is to shred those sheddings.
Just rake the leaves into foot-high
piles, and then chop them up fine with several
passes of a rotary lawn mower.

To construct the compost heap, alternate six-inch
layers of diced leaves with one-inch layers
of soil (to provide the bacteria). Since this
late-season compost pile won’t have any nitrogen–from rich green organic
matter–in it, you’ll also need to add some of
that nutrient. An ideal compost heap has a 30:1
carbon/nitrogen ratio. You can approximate the
proportions by incorporating about a pound of
blood meal to each two bushels of leaves. If you
have a source of manure, a leaf-to-manure
ratio of 5:1 (by volume) should do the trick
as well.

After you’ve constructed the pile, water it thoroughly
and cover it with a piece of black plastic. Then,
every month or so, remove the plastic and turn the
mound with your garden fork. By the time
spring planting comes, you should have a heap of
goodness for your garden.  

Compost Footnote

A few months back, we told you about a new method of
composting that greatly speeds up the breakdown of the
organic material. Well, we’ve been unable to reach our
original Canadian source for more details of this good
news, Du Pont has more information on where you can obtain the Tyvek bags used in the
process.