Arts & Leisure

Judith’s Garden: The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

THIS CLUMP OF hardy buttery yellow hardy mums in Judith’s blueberry bed reflects the colors of the season. Photo by Dick Conrad

Autumn is surely Vermont’s most beloved season. 
For me, the early morning view across the misty valley to nearby Mount Moosalamoo, alive with the colors of fall — reds, yellows and oranges — is a sight I will treasure all winter. 
And, as I walk through the autumnal forests, all around I see lots of little birds busily seeking out nourishment — seeds, fruit and insects — in anticipation of their upcoming journeys to warmer wintering grounds.
My garden too seems perfectly in tune with the season. The blueberry bushes and Miss Kim lilacs have turned a glorious bronze, and the serviceberry trees are tinted red. Meanwhile the leaves of our well-known perennials, including monkshood, Solomon’s seal and many kinds of hostas, have become beautiful shades of yellow. 
The tree hydrangeas are also especially lovely, as their panicles gradually change from creamy white to dusky pink. Meanwhile, right outside my study window, an unusual small tree called “Seven Son Flower” is covered with white flowers that are full of late-season bees. 
There are even a few stalwart perennials that only recently started to bloom — including a huge mound of hardy chrysanthemums with buttery yellow flowers called “Mary Stoker,” as well as several clumps of New England and New York asters with their purple or pink daisy-like flowers. 
And my amazing periwinkle-blue “Rozanne Geraniums” — that began to bloom back in July — are still going strong despite our recent light frost. 
Also, by early October the fruits on the winterberries around our driveway are now bright red — a clear signal for the cedar waxwings and robins to arrive en masse for an easy feast. Meanwhile, up in my veggie garden, several dozen winter squash are waiting to be harvested. 
It is no wonder the well-known “Ode to Autumn,” penned by John Keats at another time and in another place, still rings so true today:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Fall also ushers in beginnings of gardens still to come.
But, even as this year’s garden fades into memory, slowly next year’s garden comes into focus. 
With memories of the season just past still fresh in our minds, it is actually fall, rather than spring, which is the most opportune time to rejuvenate our gardens for the seasons yet to come. And, since every gardener is a born optimist, it is also the perfect opportunity to correct the omissions of the past and to plant for the future. 
Thus, in so many ways, autumn is indeed the gardener’s new year.
So let’s take look at some of the activities of fall in our gardens, both those associated with the old year just ending, as well as those that lay the groundwork for the one that is now beginning.

In the vegetable garden
My last “old year” activity in the vegetable garden is to harvest every last remaining edible vegetable.
First I gather up all the winter squash, storing them in the basement on wire mesh trays to promote good air circulation and prevent rot. 
I also harvest every last tomato, setting each one on the kitchen counter to finish ripening. Eventually I will slice and spread them in a pan with a little olive oil, chopped garlic and herbs, roast them until nicely soft, and store the results in the freezer. Soon I have lots of 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 eight-ounce portions for easy additions to stir-frys or soups.
Next I focus on the seasons yet to come. I start by I weeding everything, carefully chasing down any roots of perennial weeds like witch grass and dandelions. 
And then comes the 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 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).
Finally I cover each section of the vegetable garden with a tarp carefully held down by tent pegs; this will help the soil warm up more quickly next spring while also preventing early weeds from sprouting.

And in the flower beds
Each fall I like to tackle my flower beds one at a time. I start by cutting back the leaves and stems of most perennials which get added to the compost pile. However I leave the perennials with seed heads, like Echinacea and Rudbeckia standing; not only do they provide food for over-wintering birds as but they also create winter interest for people. Then, after raking aside any remaining bark mulch, I carefully weed around all the plants, often digging in a little seasoned compost as I go.
Next I carefully analyze the current plant mix, if possible consulting pictures of the garden as it was at different dates last summer, and consider what needs changing, expanding or even removing all together.
Contrary to popular belief, the best time to lift and divide perennials is in the fall, after the tops have died back, but while the ground will remain unfrozen for a few weeks so that the roots have time to reestablish themselves. 
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 then be replanted or shared with a gardening friend. 
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. 
And, 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. 
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. My garden is already home to thousands of daffodils, both in the beds and also in the rough grass at the edge of the garden. But this fall I will plant a few tulips. I have grown them in the past but gradually many have died out. So next spring I will have some bright colors to greet the coming season.

Autumn is the gardener’s new year
By now the seeds are set and the fruit is ripe — and this year’s garden is fulfilled.
Gradually we 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 a wonderful time be outdoors. The air is cool and crisp yet the soil is still warm and soft. 
And this is when my optimism for the garden yet to come knows no bounds.
Judith Irven and her husband Dick Conrad live in Goshen, where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com
You can reach her at judithirven@gmail.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see his pictures at northcountryimpressions.com.

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