list Nature Signals Us to Change Gears

One look at a more distant vista, the colors on the hillsides, the lengthening shadows, the frost that is imminent each approaching nightfall, the equinox just past, all of these are autumn's invitation to move with a different deliberateness toward new goals. Regular readers of my column know I try to present a garden calendar at least twice a year, especially one for spring and one for fall.

In another job, managing the Town of Denning's Recycling Center, I come in contact with a couple of hundred townspeople each week. The opinions about this summer are unanimously so favorable as to almost defy the statistics. Most believe, as I do, that this past growing season has been the most wonderful since childhood memory.

Sunshine, rainfall amounts, and temperatures have been near ideal excepting for a few uncomfortably hot and humid days here and there, typical of summer. This has been a real, traditional, old-fashioned summer. Only now, when most of the gardens and landscapes are beginning to slow to fall's natural pace, is it beginning to get a bit dry. Not a big problem, however, as the major work has been done, temperatures are beginning to cool, and the likelihood of more even moisture is higher.

These very conditions are motivation enough for us to get out there and dig into the very things that need attention. These provide closure for the past and insurance for the coming winter and spring. The fall is a lot like the spring: Day-length is the same, the air is crisp and charged with vitality, the sun is warming, and we can anticipate our accomplishments in the next few weeks. It is our twice-yearly reconnection with our earth.

I like lists. I like crossing off accomplished tasks on the list that I've created. Want to join in? The list is pleasant, challenging here and there, invigorating and health promoting. Most of all it is immensely satisfying as we check off a chore. This list will spill over into a second, follow-up column, one more geared to preparation for winter.

Start now! If you have an area dedicated to lawn, now is the best time to renovate an existing one or put in a new one. Any pH adjustment involving lime to raise the pH, or sulfur to lower it, might be done now as it takes several months to get down into the root layers and do its job. In either case don't fertilize now. It is better to wait to until late November. Then the grass won't be very actively growing above ground, but the roots will be growing and assimilating below. It's also a great time to de-thatch, over-seed bare spots, and core aerate if your soil is very hard and shy of organic matter.

Compacted wet leaves left on a lawn deprive the turf of light and air, and can even create excessively high temps when it's warm. Remove them as soon as seen. If you don't want to rake them, mow them.

Cut turf grass until ground is frozen. Make the final cut shorter than usual, 1-1/2". If using a mulching mower, leave the clippings. If not, mow them again, or remove them. The shorter final cut will discourage spring lawn fungus diseases.

After the final cut of grass, prepare the mower for winter storage and spring use. Clean out the undercarriage with a sharp stream of water. Sharpen blades, clean and dry undercarriage and spray with silicone. Wash and dry the top. Empty fuel or let it run out until dry.

Same with all your garden tools -- wire brush, file, thin coat of oil or WD 40, paint handles. Paint thinner removes sap and sticky pitch from pruning and other tools.

Snow removal equipment should be lubricated and the working surface coated with silicone spray or floor wax.

Don't be hasty to harvest your root crops. Hard frosts will sweeten them considerably. You can continue to harvest them well into winter. The cold ground benefits them. As long as the ground isn't frozen, you will be able to harvest parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beets, leeks, turnips, onions, potatoes, salsify and sweet potatoes. The horseradish will be (wow!) fantastic.

Weed always, whenever possible. Weed seeds aren't germinating now, but the plants are dispersing their seeds. If you are bothered by broadleaf weeds (plantains, ground ivy, dandelions, etc.), there is no better time to tackle them, usually after a good soaking rain. Grass is enjoying its favorite time to grow and spread vigorously. Spaces left by dead or removed weeds will fill in quickly. Collect weed seed heads and dispose of in the trash.

Plant now for indoor winter blooms. Midwinter blossoms and fragrance thrill on the cold and shorter dark days of winter. Paperwhites require no pre-chilling, so have at it. Others, maybe more desirable, include colchicum, crocus, anemone, iris reticulata, muscari and hyacinths. For all the extra color and fragrance, it might pay to have a spare fridge. Wish I did.

Create a new raised bed garden. It just keeps giving and giving. Don't forget to rotate your crops. Plan the rotation soon.

Harvest pine needles for mulch whenever you can. Store them in a dry place and use as needed. This is my favorite mulch.

Once frost has killed off the tops of your tender corms, bulbs, tubers and rhizomes, gently lift from the soil and prepare for winter storage. Wash off soil that clings to them, air dry them in a shaded area, then store in a cool, dry environment (40 to 50F degrees) in mesh bags in wood shavings. The fruit cellar of my youth comes to mind. See next.

Except, leave soil that clings to achimenes, tuberous begonias, cannas, caladium, and dahlias, and air dry in clumps. Store these in barely moist peat moss or sawdust in a cool dry place. Leftover flats from bedding plants, screen bottomed trays, or loosely constructed wood boxes will all work fine when stored away from direct sunlight. Shallow layers of no more than two deep work best.

Now is a good time to begin seed saving for flowers and vegetables. I prefer film canisters for saving my seeds, but almost any relatively airtight container will do. I also save the small silica gel packets from vitamins and medicines. One per container works great. Keeps everything nice and dry.

Clean up annual, perennial, and vegetable beds and remove all plant debris. You will defeat slugs and other over-wintering pests.

Create or feed a compost pile with lawn clippings and shredded leaves. Grass clippings provide the nitrogen component and should be mixed with the shredded leaves, which provide the carbon component, in a ratio of two to one respectively. This makes a great complement to your vegetable and fruit scraps, trimmings and peels.

Continue to rotate your houseplants a quarter turn or more each week. Take care not to over-water. Save the food for more active growth in a few months or so.

Watch for house invaders, especially ladybird beetles, Western conifer seed bugs, boxelder bugs, and field mice. Tightening up and caulking are the best protection. They'll all be just fine outside.

If you have a vacant garden plot, work in some clean and healthy organic matter and/or compost. Plant a cover crop of winter rye, too. This improves soil drainage, prevents erosion, improves microbial soil life, and adds green manure in the spring. It will be ready for your choices.

If you have nuts to harvest, finish up and dry them. Then shell them and freeze them for use over the coming months.

Enjoy the fall asters, the colorful foliage, the crisp air, and the full taste of autumn at the farmers markets and festivals, when you aren't busy checking-off another task accomplished.

Next column I will write about bulbs. But, don't think for a minute that the above list is complete. I have another one forming in my mind that's more cold weather oriented, but there will be time for you to prepare.

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on October 10, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.