Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness: Bidding adieu to garden past

It’s early October. The forests are ablaze in color and the valleys cloaked in morning mists. And in my garden the final flowers of the year — asters, chrysanthemums, bush clover and even the Rozanne geranium — having survived an early light frost, are sounding one last glorious hurrah for the season now ending. Any day now the first heavy killing frost will signal the end of this year’s garden.
But, even as the old garden fades into memory, slowly next year’s garden comes into focus. With beds to weed and compost to spread, autumn is also when we make plans and prepare the garden of the future. With memories of the season just past still fresh in our minds, it is fall, rather than spring, when it is most opportune to rejuvenate the garden with an eye to the seasons yet to come. And, since every gardener is a born optimist, it is also the perfect opportunity to correct omissions, look for better vegetables, or try new flowers. Thus, in so many ways, autumn is indeed the gardener’s new year!
So let’s take a look at some of the activities of fall in the garden, both those associated with the old year just ending, as well as those that lay the groundwork for the one that is now beginning.
My last “old year” activity in the vegetable garden is to harvest every last remaining edible vegetable.
First I collect the winter squash, storing them in the basement on wire mesh trays to promote good air circulation and prevent rot. I grow lots of butternut and acorn squash. Both are good keepers and between now and next April will become the base of many soups and roasted dishes. Next year I plan on growing some of the huge blue Hubbard squash as well, also reputed to be an excellent keeping variety.
I also roast any excess tomatoes with a little olive oil, chopped garlic and herbs. Stored in the freezer they become a ready-to-go pasta sauce that tastes absolutely delicious at dead of winter.
Next I turn my attention to the chard and kale, both excellent vegetables for growing in Vermont’s cooler summers. My harvest results in huge mountains of crisp green leaves in the kitchen. After stripping the stems, I wash and rough chop the leaves, before dropping them by the handful into boiling water for a quick blanch. After dunking everything in iced water, I squeeze out the excess liquid and freeze four ounce portions as easy additions to stir-frys or soups.
Now I can turn my attention to the season yet to come. First I weed everything, carefully chasing down the roots of perennial weeds like witch grass and dandelions.
And then comes my big fall ritual of spreading compost across the beds and digging it into the top few inches of soil.
In the world of gardening, compost is a truly magical substance and a wonderful investment for the years ahead. It adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil, which becomes softer and easier for the plant roots to penetrate. It also permits a sandy soil to retain water more effectively and, conversely, helps a clay soil drain better. If you do not have enough compost of your own, consider adding an organic commercial product, such as the composted cow manure mixture called Moo-Doo from The Vermont Natural Ag Company in Middlebury (you can get it in bulk with a pick-up truck).
My final activity in the vegetable garden is to cover the soil for the winter, thus preventing the weeds from sprouting the moment spring arrives. My tried and true method was to make a sandwich of about six layers of newspaper topped with hay.
Last year, however, I experimented using light-weight tarps, held down by tent pegs, as a winter soil cover. In springtime, the tarps helped the soil warm up more quickly, while still smothering the weeds. When I was ready to plant a particular section, I just rolled back the tarp, planted my seedlings, and then mulched around them with my usual newspaper and hay sandwich. My experiment was a success so this fall I will be using the tarp method again.
Each fall I like to tackle my flower beds one at a time. I start by cutting back most perennials, leaving just those that will provide seeds for the birds and winter interest for me. The cuttings become the basis of a new compost pile. Then, after raking aside any remaining bark mulch, I carefully weed around all the plants, digging in compost as I go.
Next I carefully analyze the current plant mix, often consulting pictures of the garden as it was at different dates last summer, and consider what needs changing, expanding or even removing.
Contrary to popular belief, the best time to lift and divide perennials is the late fall, after the tops have died back. If you do this in springtime you risk damaging the new green growth.
I find the easiest way to divide a large perennial root mass is to shove two garden forks, back-to-back, down into it. Wiggle the forks back and forth against each other, and soon the root mass will split into two or three parts, while still leaving individual roots intact. Each part can be replanted, either in this bed or elsewhere, or shared with a gardening friend.
If you are not ready to replant some of the root sections quite yet, they can easily be stored in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks to prevent them from drying out. And, if the roots have grass or other weeds running through them, just soak everything in water for an hour, after which you can usually pull the weeds right out.
As I contemplate a bed I often see the need for additional plants and a quick trip to the nursery. However at this late stage in the season be sure to check the quality of any plants before you buy. It may be preferable to wait for the new season’s stock to arrive in spring before filling the gaps in your reworked beds.
Of course, fall is also the time when we think about planting bulbs to make our gardens beautiful in spring. I already have hosts of daffodils, both in my beds and in the rough grass at the edge of the garden. But this fall I plan on planting plenty of tulips, fritillary and alliums. I have grown them in the past but gradually many have died out. So 2015 will be the spring for a renewal of bright colors.
But for gardeners, the transition from the old to new year does not come at a specific time and date when we congregate to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Instead, somewhere around the middle of October, we gradually transition from gathering the harvest and enjoying the remains of the season just ending, to actively planning and preparing for the season ahead.
Whether tackling a big project like making a new bed or just dividing a few perennials, this is also a wonderful time be outdoors. The air is cool and crisp yet the soil is still warm and soft. This when my optimism for the garden yet to come knows no bounds.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.
IN JUDITH’S GARDEN this splendid specimen of bush clover, seen here with the geranium “Rozanne” and the prairie dropseed grass, started flowering in mid-September and will continue until cut down or hit by a heavy killing frost. Photo by Dick Conrad

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