In October the sun travels a low arc, barely making it above the tree line surrounding Marjorie’s Garden. Long shadows crisscross the garden throughout the day. In the wild border at the foot of the drive all of the goldenrods have gone to seed, leaving only small clouds of fall asters and a few white campion flowering amid the brown stalks and seed heads. The campion’s bright white flowers were with us through the summer and now most of the branch tips carry upright brown capsules, miniature urns filled with poppy-like seeds ready to spill out with the next strong wind.
In October, leaves and fruits bring color to the garden. Winterberries sparkle in the early morning sunlight; crimson leaflets of Virginia creeper fall on golden pine needles in the garden footpaths.
In late October, long after most of the birch and maple leaves are on the ground, while the oaks paint the hills with dark reds and browns, the witchhazels bloom in a corner of the garden. Their yellow leaves persist, as do the leaves of blueberries and viburnums.
It will take another rain to weigh them down, another wind to carry them off. I am always saddened by it, all of this color gone in one stormy night.
There is still plenty to do in the vegetable garden, tasks focused on either putting the garden to rest for the winter or preparing for the coming gardening year. For example, now is the time, while memory still serves, to make a map of where every vegetable crop was grown this year, a key tool for making next year’s crop rotation plans.
After the first killing frost you can spend a chilly morning pulling out all of the freeze-killed vegetable plants, chopping them up with a sharp spade before adding them to the compost pile. Gather up all of the mushy fruits and add them to the pile; you don’t want to be pulling all of those tomato and squash seedlings next spring. If you have some composted manure handy, add it in layers with the chopped plants and fruits.
To help control bacterial spot, canker, early blight, alternaria, and other tomato diseases that can survive the winter in the garden, tomato cages and stakes should be cleaned of soil and plant debris, then disinfected with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water for five minutes. Rinse well and let them air-dry before storing for winter.
Unlike the above diseases, the organism that causes late blight on tomatoes and potatoes does not survive winter above ground. It is, however, carried through the winter on live plant tissue, so be sure to dig up and destroy any infected potato tubers, those with brownish purple spots that become a wet or dry rot. Start fresh next year with certified disease-free seed potatoes. Do not compost infected tubers as some plant tissue could survive the winter in the center of the pile.
Keep weeding! Frost-tolerant winter annuals, such as henbit and chickweed, as well as perennial weeds such as dandelions, can be pulled now rather than waiting until spring. This is also a good time to tackle quackgrass and other persistent grasses that creep into garden beds from the edges during the growing season. Use a sharp spade or an edger to cut a straight line, then pull out the grass, making sure to get all of the roots.
Two types of garlic grow well in Maine, hardneck and softneck. Along with many other New England gardeners, we prefer the hardnecks, noted for their stiff stalks and large cloves. They produce a scape, or flowering stem, that bears tiny aerial cloves called bulbils. These can be saved and planted but will take two years to produce a bulb.
The number of bulbs produced by a hardneck variety are relatively few in number but huge in size. Hardneck varieties do not store as well as the softneck types which is why some gardeners grow some of each.
As the name suggests, softneck garlics have a more pliable stalk. They produce smaller bulbs, each bearing 12 to 20 cloves. Since they do not produce a scape, they can be braided for storage.
Most garlic sold at the grocers is of the softneck type, though you should not use grocery store garlic for planting as the varieties typically come from California or China and are not suited for growing in New England. Also, they may have been treated with a sprouting inhibitor to lengthen storage life.
On the other hand, if you see garlic for sale at a local farmers’ market, ask the grower which variety they are growing and consider purchasing some for planting. Locally-grown organic garlic will be a type hardy for the area and will not be treated with sprout inhibitor. Good softneck varieties for northern New England include New York White, Artichoke, and Silverskin.
It is possible to plant garlic too early. Cloves planted into warm soil will sprout and then be killed by a hard freeze. Rather than planting by the calendar, be sure to wait until two weeks after the first hard freeze. The planted cloves will have time to develop some roots before going dormant for the winter.
Begin planting by preparing a well-groomed bed enriched with compost or composted manure. Break each bulb into individual cloves, then plant the cloves with the pointed end up, four- to six-inches apart, covering the tip with two to four inches of soil. If planting in rows, allow 12-18 inches between rows.
About four weeks after planting, as the ground begins to freeze, cover the planted area with six to twelve inches of straw. This will prevent heaving with freezing and thawing through the winter and ensure survival of extreme cold.
As the ground thaws in spring, look for green shoot tips beneath the straw. When they emerge, pull the straw back but leave it in place between the rows to smother weeds and retain water in the soil. If you have planted in a wide row or bed, completely remove the straw.
Author’s Note: The above post is from our upcoming book, The New England Gardener’s Year, coauthored by Marjorie Peronto and published by Cadent Publishing, Thomaston, Maine. For more information about the book, visit us on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/negardener. Look for the e-book in December of this year, the print version in February, 2013.