Autumn work prepares garden for winter, next year’s planting

Posted Sept. 25, 2009, at 6:03 p.m.

The garden in late September, before a killing frost, is filled with an exuberance that borders on desperation. Plants and insects alike, knowing what is to come, seem hellbent to get their work done, to ripen seeds, lay eggs, increase stores of nectar and pollen.

This past Monday, I walked gingerly on three legs — my new left knee still swollen and tender — out to the vegetable garden where I moved slowly through a tapestry of color woven by volunteer annuals. I was greeted at the gate by the fragrant white blossoms of a nicotiana. It grew from a seed dropped last September on one of our many trips to the compost bin.

Garden beds that earlier in the season were planted to summer crops are now given over to self-sown calendula, their bright orange and yellow flower heads swarmed by small native bees. On other beds, patches of trailing nasturtiums provide forage for bumblebees that disappear as they crawl inside the gold and red trumpets in search of nectar.

Summer squash plants that struggled through the cool wet summer as small seedlings are now filling a bed with massive dark green leaves and producing pounds of lemon-yellow fruits. Native sunflowers, planted to attract pollinators for the cucurbits, wave golden-yellow heads over the squash leaves. If the frost holds off long enough, there will be more sunflower heads from tight buds just beginning to unfold.

The air is cool and crisp and there is no better place to be than in the garden, preparing for winter and the garden season to follow. Standing in the middle of Marjorie’s garden on one good leg, I think about all the tasks that need completing before the snow flies.

There is still time to transplant those winterberry hollies that have yet to bear fruit, moving them into more sun, and time as well to plant the bulbs of daffodils, tulips and crocuses.

Exhausted plants, vegetable and ornamental, need to be pulled from pots and beds and tossed onto the compost pile. We will not hurry this process, however, giving the self-sowing annuals time to release their seed in the garden. And we will not compost tomato plants infected with the late blight, tossing them instead on a burn pile.

It is also time to sow empty beds with seeds of winter rye, a popular Maine cover crop used to prepare beds for warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and squash. When tilled into the soil next spring, this winter cover crop will enrich the soil with organic matter.

Winter rye seeds sown by late September (2.5 pounds of seed per 100 square feet) will produce a grassy groundcover that will continue to grow through fall and hold the soil together through winter. In early spring, after the snow melts, the still green rye plants will resume growth. We will wait until late May to till the bed, then wait two more weeks before planting to allow breakdown of growth-inhibiting chemicals present in the fresh rye.

The highbush blueberry beds need mulching with composted goat manure, a job best done in autumn, and that means a trip to Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine for a pickup load of the compost. Over the last few years I have come to know the goats personally, scratched them behind the ears with a “Keep up the good work!”

And so I’m standing in the middle of it all, thinking about the work I should be doing once my leg is up to it, when a robin drops to the ground, jumps into the sole winterberry holly getting enough sun to bear fruit, and begins to eat the berries.

We think of winterberries, those bright red holly berries covering naked stems poking out of the January snow, as a meal of last resort for birds, taken only when all other winter food has been consumed.

I’m glad I wasn’t working so hard that I missed seeing this unusual event.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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