“For man, autumn is a time of harvest, of gathering together. For nature, it is a time of sowing, of scattering abroad.”
–Edwin Way Teale, Autumn Across America, 1990
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, the goldenrods are going to seed, leaving only small clouds of fall asters and a few white campion flowering amid the brown stalks and seedheads. The campions’ 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 color 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 oaks paint the hills with dark reds and browns, 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 weight them down, another wind to carry them off.
I am always saddened by it, all this color gone in one stormy night.
There is still much to do in Marjorie’s Garden before the snow flies, tasks focused on either putting the garden to rest for the winter or preparing for the coming gardening year.
Map This Year’s Vegetable Garden
If you have yet to get to it, now is the time to make a map of where every vegetable crop was grown this year. This map will be key tool for making next year’s crop rotation plan. For example, this season we are growing pineapple tomatillos in one of the garden beds, so we will want to avoid planting any member of the tomato family in this bed for the next two years in order to avoid insect herbivores and diseases of the tomato family that overwinter in the soil.
Collect Soil Samples for Analysis
October is a good time to take soil samples for later analysis by the University of Maine’s Analytical Lab in Orono. By collecting the samples in fall and allowing them to air dry until next year, you can take advantage of the Lab’s winter price break on Standard Soil Tests submitted between January 1 and March 1. 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 Lab that your garden is organic and they will respond with organic soil amendment recommendations.
Gather Autumn Leaves
Dried shredded leaves are an excellent mulch for vegetable garden beds as well as a source of carbon for the compost pile. We gather dry leaves from our driveway and the neighbor’s lawn, spread them on the drain field, and shred them with a lawn mower. The shredded leaves are kept dry in plastic bags until needed.
Turn Freeze-killed Vegetable Plants into Compost
Spend chilly October mornings pulling out freeze-killed vegetable plants, chopping them up with a machete or sharp spade before adding them to the compost pile. Gather up all the mushy fruits and add them to the pile; you don’t want to be pulling renegade tomato and squash seedlings next spring. If you have some composted manure handy, add it in layers with the chopped plants and fruits, mixing everything together as you go.
Disinfect Tomato Cages and Stakes
To help control bacterial spot, canker, early blight, alternaria, and other tomato diseases that can survive a 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 them 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 indicate 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.
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, the pull out the grass, making sure to get all the roots.
Stockpile Straw for the Strawberry Bed
Strawberry growers should use October to stockpile weed-free straw for a November mulching of the strawberry beds. Be ready to apply a 6-inch layer of straw before the snow flies, but not before the plants have acclimated to cold weather as indicated by the leaves lying flat. For most New England gardens, mid- to late-November is strawberry-mulching time.
Wheat straw is absolutely the best mulch, as it resists compaction and holds the insulating snow in place, a real benefit for strawberries growing in raised beds where snowfalls are subject to drifting. If you find wheat straw hard to come by, any baled straw will do, but do not use hay as it is full of weed seeds.
Straighten and Secure Raspberry Primocanes
Now is a good time to straighten and secure raspberry primocanes, the canes that grew this year and will bear next year’s berries. By October, the primocanes are sprawling across the walkways in our garden. Marjorie lifts each one carefully and binds it to the lattice with velcro tape. She leaves the current year’s fruiting canes intact until spring to buffer the primocanes from winter winds.
The best time to plant garlic is two weeks after the first killing frost, or so some experts say; others say anytime between October 1 and November 15 is good. Either way, the planted cloves will have time to develop some roots before going dormant for the winter.
It is possible to plant garlic too early. Rather than planting by the calendar, be sure to wait until after the first hard freeze. Cloves planted into warm soil will sprout and then be killed by a hard freeze.
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, 4 to 6 inches apart, covering the tip with 2 to 4 inches of soil. If planting in rows, allow 12 to 18 inches between rows.
About four weeks after planting, as the ground begins to freeze, cover the planted area with 6 to 12 inches of straw. This will prevent heaving of the soil with freezing and thawing and ensure survival of the planted cloves through extreme cold.
As the ground thaws in the spring, look for green shoot tips beneath the straw. When they emerge from the soil, pull the straw back but leave it in place between rows to smother weeds and retain water in the soil. If you have planted in a wide row or bed, completely remove the straw.
At the end of October, in Marjorie’s Garden, the vegetable gardening season is over for the year. Gardeners in southern New England, particularly those on the coast, have another few weeks, but for all of us it is a short growing season, ending too quickly.
It is difficult to turn my back on the vegetable garden, and I do so with reluctance. I still go there in winter, shoveling out the paths after each snow to walk among the the naked blueberry shrubs, spindly raspberry canes, windblown sunflower stalks topped by heads pecked clean of seeds. And I am not alone. There are footprints of mice, squirrels, rabbits, and turkeys. If I stop crunching the snow with my boots, I can hear the winter wind rattling the last few leaves still clinging to the oak tree.