Between the Rows: Is your garden put to bed?
Recently, my gardening chats with friends all begin with “Have you finished yet? Is the garden put to bed?”
The answer usually comes with a groan, or a noncommittal “Mmmmmm,” letting you think they might actually have done all the jobs on their fall clean-up list. I certainly have not.
Cleaning up in my garden begins with cutting back. I’ve cut back the astilbes, veronicas, delphiniums, Artemesia lactiflora, lilies, Achillea “The Pearl,” various other yarrows. I’m almost done with the Peony Hedge. Along with cutting back comes weeding. It only makes sense to clean out around these established plants while I am down on my knees, anyway.
Weeding always means I am removing some soil, so clean up means time to top dress with compost. I also often add a bit of greensand. Greensand is made from a sandy rock that adds potassium to the soil. It improves soil structure, encourages root growth and general plant health. Greensand is a slow-release natural fertilizer so it can be added at any time during the year.
My soil is quite acid. I moderate acidity by spreading lime. I’m not very scientific about this, but roses in particular like a soil with a pH between 6 and 6.5. Every year or two, I sprinkle some lime on the soil all around the roses, on the Rose Walk, the Shed Bed and the Rose Bank. I try to do this when I am expecting rain to wash the lime into the soil.
There is cutting back to do in the vegetable garden, too. Spent vines go into the compost pile. Spent raspberry canes need to be cut down. It seems every time I check the raspberries, I find more old canes to be taken down.
I received the gift of a dozen bags of leaves from a neighbor. Some of these go on the paths between the raspberry rows. The leaves don’t blow around very much because they get caught in the canes and get packed down when the rains come. They act as both mulch and fertilizer. I always remember my old Greenfield neighbor, the late John Zon, who had a beautiful and productive raspberry patch on Grinnell Street. He said the only fertilizer he ever used was autumn leaves.
The other leaves go into the compost piles.
If I wished, I could also use some of those leaves and create a cold compost planting bed. This is a technique I have used after a lesson from the late Larry Lightner of Northfield. The cold compost bed is made of fencing or chicken wire, put into any shape or size you desire. It can be a raised bed of 2 or 3 feet. The wire frame will hold an amazing number of bags of leaves because the leaves will start to break down almost immediately. You can add and pack down bags of leaves as the fall progresses. In the spring, the leaves will have shrunk even more, but you can add more leaves if you have them. If not, you can plant seedling starts in the bed as it is. Just make an indentation in the packed leaves and fill it with a quart or so of good soil. Plant the seedlings and keep them watered. A cold compost bed like this does need to be kept well watered.
A cold compost bed can be kept going from year to year, or you can dig the composted leaves into the garden wherever you need compost.
I do not cut back the roses! There is bound to be winter kill, so I wait until spring to see what needs to be cut back.
Fall is another planting season. It is a good time to plant peonies and bulbs.
In the olden days, fall was the only time to plant peonies, but nowadays you can buy potted peonies in the spring. Still, if you want to divide your peonies or are getting peonies from a friend, fall is the best time to do this.
The only bulbs I am planting this year are garlic bulbs. I have been so happy with my home-grown garlic. Garlic should not be planted until after a good frost, which I have not had yet. I am prepared, however. I saved the very best and biggest garlic bulbs from my harvest and I have cultivated a bed. Each bulb has four or five cloves that will be planted 3 inches deep, 6 inches apart, in rows 8 inches apart. Then, I will mulch the bed with old hay.
In other years, I have planted grape hyacinths, scillas, snowdrops, glory of the snow and a whole variety of daffodils. It is always a joy to plant these bulbs on gray autumn days while I dream of the bright harbingers of spring blooming on sunny spring days.
Because I have planted so many bulbs in the lawn, my husband is willing to do a final mowing very late in the season so those very small spring flowers will show up to be easily admired.
I don’t know that I ever complete all my fall chores before cold weather shuts me down, but I know that the more I do in the fall, the happier I am in the spring.
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.