In the Garden:
New England
October, 2006
Regional Report

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Your spring garden will benefit from any leaves you rake up and shred this fall.

(Almost) Ready for Winter

After last week's wet snow and an overnight power outage, I'm having to face the fact that gardening days are nearly over. I'm ahead of past years in some respects: most of the bulbs are planted (I sometimes don't finish till around Thanksgiving), leaves are piled where they can begin to decompose, my dahlias are dug and drying before they go into storage, and all the annual flower pots are dumped into the compost bin. But I still have much to do and I'm no longer fooled into thinking I have all the time I need to finish the jobs, which makes me a bit impatient. I do not go gentle into that long winter's night! (Apologies to Dylan Thomas.)

We may feel pinched for gardening time in these shorter days of fall, but time is even more elusive at the beginning of a new gardening season. So here's what I'll be doing this fall to save me double the time in spring.

Starting New Beds
When I want to start a new bed, I begin in the fall, layering moist newspapers on top of the grass and covering them with several inches of compost or composted manure or shredded leaves. By spring, the sod will be decomposed and the bed will be ready for planting. In the past when I've tilled under grass and weeds to start a new bed, I've made much more work for myself in fighting the persistent roots.

Mulching
Bare soil is an invitation to weed seeds, and they will surely get going before you will in spring and all too soon get out of hand. So cover bare soil with some type of mulch this fall. You can spread sheets of black plastic mulch or shredded leaves or compost (more on this in a minute) over veggie beds, bark chips around trees and shrubs, and shredded bark mulch or cocoa hull mulch or shredded leaves in perennial borders. (I neglected mulching a large perennial border last fall, and I won't even divulge how tall some weeds were before I got to them this summer ... ok, towering.)

Cleaning Up the Veggie Garden
I used to till under old vegetable plants every fall, and then till under organic matter in the spring. But I've happily kicked the tilling habit. Now I pull spent plants, leave the leafy parts (if free of disease) on the soil to decompose, and add the rest to the compost pile. Then I spread composted manure and shredded leaves over the beds and let it sit over the winter. Come spring, I only need to loosen the soil with a garden fork.

It turns out that this practice is good for our chief soil enrichers, too -- earthworms. Research at a U.S.D.A soil lab found that if organic matter has been tilled into the soil at least 6 inches deep, earthworm tunnels tend to be horizontal. On the other hand, if the organic matter is left on the surface, the earthworms create vertical tunnels as they travel upwards to find food. Turns out these vertical tunnels provide the best pathways for air and water penetration, and curiously enough, the soil beneath vertical tunnels contains more beneficial microbes than the soil beneath horizontal tunnels.

Another benefit of no-till gardening is you avoid the risk of damaging the soil structure. The pore spaces that contain air and water in the soil are susceptible to damage from tiller tines, and when they collapse, the soil can't hold as much air or water. I saw this effect years ago when I got antsy to get into the garden early one spring and didn't wait until the soil was dry enough. After tilling, the soil behaved like clumps of concrete, and it took a lot of effort to save it. I learned that patience is especially a virtue in spring.

So I'll appreciate these crisp fall days (once it stops raining) and finish the last of the garden clean-up as the geese serenade me overhead. My plans for making gravel pathways in my vegetable garden this fall and edging the beds will just have to wait until spring. It's time to turn my attention to my indoor garden. And after receiving a beautiful abutilon (also called flowering maple) houseplant from a friend, I'm just about ready.


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