It is nearly November and I am still finding plenty of reasons to be in the garden. While the birches and maples have lost their leaves, the lemon yellow foliage of summersweet clethra and purple-red leaves of mapleleaf viburnum more than compensate, bringing autumn to a different level. And we wait with anticipation for the leaves of the katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), a tall Japanese tree, to slip their hold and fall, all in one day, filling the air with the scents of vanilla, cotton candy, brown sugar, and caramel.
Leaves on the oaks in Marjorie’s Garden and along the lane, leaves that a week ago were painted red, orange, or yellow, depending on the tree, have dried to a common brown. These leaves will persist on their trees for weeks, even into next year, clinging to their branches through late autumn storms and giving voice to winter winds.
In the vegetable garden, mildewed squash plants, including a huge overlooked zucchini, and tall sunflower skeletons wait to be chopped up and tossed on the compost pile, then covered with a mixture of shredded leaves and composted manure. I like to finish the garden year with both compost bins filled to their brims and steaming on cold November mornings.
I’m waiting for the asparagus fronds to turn brown before cutting them off and topdressing the bed with composted manure. And I’m waiting until the ground freezes before mulching the garlic and shallots that I planted last week, laying down a blanket of straw to prevent the freeze-thaw cycles that can damage the bulbs.
There are still carrots growing in one bed, each harvested bunch tasting sweeter than the one before as cold soil temperatures enhance sugar production in the roots. We shred them and then combine them with fresh chopped apples and raisins for a quick supper salad.
And there is still July-sown spinach to harvest from a small raised bed covered with poly. I’ve never been one for moderating the natural course of things on a grand scale, but I want to keep this spinach growing into November by offering some protection from freezing temperatures. We just harvested baby spinach thinned from a mid-September sowing, also under poly, and a coldframe at the back of the garden covers spinach seedlings from a mid-October sowing. The later is a product of wishful thinking, I know, but there is little lost other than a few seeds.
Bright green annual ryegrass grows in the beds where onions and garlic grew until they were harvested in late August. Soon the first hard freeze will kill the grass, leaving a carpet of brown leaves as a winter mulch. I’ve come to think of annual rye as the best of cover crops for this region of New England. It is quick to germinate and develops lush growth before frost if sown by early September. In spring the carpet of dead leaves can be easily dug into the soil or used as a mulch around transplants.
I still have a few cedar fence posts to install around the vegetable garden before the ground freezes. And as long as the leaves on the ground remain dry, I can rake them up, spread them on the drain field and shred them with the lawn mower, then bag them for next year’s garden mulch.
While the past season is still fresh in my mind, I will record where every vegetable crop was grown before I make the crop rotation plans for next season. And I can take soil samples before the ground freezes, storing the samples until January when I send them to the University of Maine’s Analytical Lab in Orono. I use this approach so that I can take advantage of the lab’s winter price break on soil tests (for more information, including instructions on how to take and send soil samples, see the Analytical Lab’s website at http://anlab.umesci.maine.edu/default.htm. When you send in your samples, tell the Analytical Lab that your garden is organic and they will respond with organic soil amendment recommendations.)
November brings the first hard freeze, the kind that forms ice needles on the bright red and yellow leaves of highbush blueberries and the still-green foliage of raspberries, a freeze that rimes the tawny pappus of goldenrod and aster seedheads. In the woods at the edge of Marjorie’s Garden, the golden needles of tamaracks shine in the early November sunlight.
In early November, the dry brown leaves of the garden’s oaks persist, as do the fruits of garden shrubs like winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and American cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. trilobum). Some gardeners compete with the birds for the viburnum fruits, preserving them in jams or jellies with, I suspect, a lot of added sugar. After tasting these berries straight from the shrub, I understand whey the birds eat them only as a last resort.
Not all persistent fruits are red and showy. The waxy gray berries of northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) hug the twigs through the winter, eventually to be eaten by songbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. These are the same berries that people harvest for scenting of bayberry candles.
Not all persistent fruits are berries. The pale brown to red-brown seedheads of meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia) persist through winter, extending the usefulness of this native shrub in the garden. And I love to watch the snow build up around the summersweet clethra (Clethra alnifolia) in Marjorie’s Garden until only the uppermost dried seedheads remain exposed. I imagine a field mouse beneath the snow, snuggled close to the ground with a cache of seed, waiting for the thaw.
And so it begins, the long wait for the start of a new garden year. Hunker down, place your seed orders, read a good book or two, take care of the garden’s birds, walk the dog along the garden’s paths in your snow boots. Spring will be here soon enough.