Fall is for harvest
Only the laziest gardener thinks leaves changing colors means the year is over
In his prosaically named but classic Northern Nevada gardening book, Secrets to Success with Intermountain and High Desert Gardening, Mr. Vegetable says September is “Mother Nature’s way of telling us to get the wood, let your hair grow, and make more cider.”
That’s Mr. Gene Klump’s way of saying that the gardening season is winding down. He then goes right ahead and dismisses that notion with all the things that need to be done to finish one year and begin another, such as freezing, drying or canning, taking excess squash to the homeless shelter, putting container trees in holes, planting lawns (or lawn patches in the newly arid city), cleaning and adding compost or manure as plants die with the overnight killing frosts.
Before fall is over, serious gardeners will have begun to plant for the next season. For example, garlic, which will grow throughout the winter and send little green fingers above the snow to remind us of the inevitability of spring, is best planted in October.
Klump is not alone in his frenzy come fall. September only changes to October, and the best time to plant spinach seeds—for those who want to be the first on their block with fresh spinach come spring—is in November. At G&G Nursery, Pyramid Way, Sparks, horticulture consultant Ron Gustafson is busy giving customers advice on how to work the garden in autumn and prepare for the coming winter.
Gustafson says now is a great time to plant those early spring salad crops, like lettuce, spinach, carrots and radish. Now that the afternoon temperatures are cooling, you’ll get a few more weeks of fresh salad ingredients until the real chill sets in.
“The spinach, the lettuce, carrots, radish, probably onions and garlic can go in in the fall,” he says. “That’s about it as far as fall gardening goes in the vegetable-gardening line. You keep things going as long as you can. It depends on when that first frost hits, which could be around the 15th and 20th of this month. That’ll pretty much put a kibosh on the vegetables, but this is a great time to clean the garden up and work some organic compost into that soil—leaves, grass clippings, anything organic you can work into that garden. That’ll help improve the soil, to hold water, keep those clay soils broken up. It’s a great time to do soil conditioning.”
Indeed, Gustafson is a big believer in amending soil with organic materials—although, to be fair, many organic gardners would remind us that lawns are often fertilized with chemical fertilizers, and people concerned with such things shouldn’t add grass clippings to garden soil.Often, garden life can be extended into late fall by watching the thermometer and weather predictions. There are a few tricks to prevent frost damage. When it looks like it may freeze, water the garden thoroughly before nightfall; cover everything with newspaper, cardboard, plastic tarps, bed sheeting or any other lightweight material before dark—you might drape it over a frame—and add a few electric fans because even a slight breeze will prevent cold air from settling to the ground. Some gardeners will fill plastic milk cartons with water, paint them black and leave them around the garden to collect heat during the day and release it at night.
“Once those vines [like tomatoes and squash] have been killed, you take them in,” Gustafson says. “But there are ways of protecting them through the first couple of days of killing frost, then we’ll go into a nice Indian summer—usually—although you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve seen vegetable gardens keep producting clear through November. It just kind of depends on the weather. But once those vines and things get killed and they’re done for, then go ahead and clean them up. If they don’t have any disease, they can be chopped up a little bit and put into compost.”
It’s not a good idea to add anything with disease to the compost pile. Also, tomato plants, which are likely still covered with green tomatoes, may be cut off at the ground and hung upside down in the garage. The green tomatoes will continue to ripen for weeks.
Flowers and lawns, trees and shrubs
Gustafson says he likes to wait until the perennial garden plants die back to the ground, and then he clips the stems back. Fall is also the time to add a bit of compost or organics to the soil around the plants. Don’t dig too deep, or you’ll disturb the roots.
“A good, heavy, deep watering going into late fall on those perennials, on your shrubs and things like that, will carry you through the winter. Trees, you just enjoy them as long as you can. [And don’t forget to winterize evergreens, which may include tying branches or winter watering.] There’s a school of thought that likes to leave the leaves on the ground for warmth and protection; I don’t think it works that well. I go ahead, clean them all up. Put them in the compost pile, work them into your vegetable garden, your flower beds, wherever you can. I’m a great believer in organic material, by the way.”
No kidding. Gustafson also says not to add any more fertilizer to trees or shrubs until spring.
However, the horticulturist says this is the time for the third application of fertilizer to lawns. The final application for the year should be in November, which will keep the lawns green and healthy through winter.
There is another benefit to fall lawn fertilizing. During the summer, lawn growth goes into growing the blades of grass. But that turns around in the fall, and production goes into root development in late September and October. As far as mowing is concerned, he recommends keeping those lawns 2 to 2 1/2 inches high over winter.
And that’s about it for fall gardening. Soon the snow will fly, and the seed catalogs will begin to arrive in the mail. But it’s as Mr. Vegetable wrote, “From the time the snow is flying in January, through the holidays in December, believe it or not, there’s always plenty of gardening activity going on in the intermountain West.”