Fall is full of preparation for next year’s garden

Posted Sept. 10, 2010, at 5:50 p.m.

My favorite time of year has arrived. At the end of the workweek, after days of classroom confinement and evenings spent in front of a computer screen, I can spend blue-sky Saturdays helping Marjorie prepare the garden for winter.

I am enjoying the tall, elm-leaved goldenrods and fall asters that line our drive in early September. On slow morning walks with Reilly and Dixie, as they run back and forth, noses to the ground, reading their morning paper, I search the goldenrod stems for insect galls and watch the small native bees and butterflies sipping goldenrod nectar.

September will be a busy month in Marjorie’s garden. There is still time to plant new trees and shrubs, and move that struggling serviceberry to a better spot. As new plants get started, we will dump exhausted basil plants out of their pots onto the compost pile to join the remains of volunteer mullein plants that filled our summer with color. We will spread finished compost over empty beds. And we hope we will find the time to rebuild the raised bed surrounding the grapevine.

In late September we will harvest the last summer squash and tomatoes, and then sow these beds with seeds of winter rye. Tilled into the soil next spring, this winter cover crop will enrich the soil with organic matter.

Seeds of winter rye sown by late September (2½ pounds of seed per 100 square feet) produce a grassy groundcover that continues to grow into November. The deep roots hold the soil together through winter and into early spring when the plants resume growth. We wait until late May to till the beds, then wait two more weeks before planting to allow breakdown of growth-inhibiting chemicals present in the fresh rye.

Through October we’ll keep a close eye on the mapleleaf viburnums (Viburnum acerifolium) for signs of the viburnum leaf beetle, a serious non-native pest on many native viburnums, pruning away and burning any stem tips that contain the small, oval, brown egg casings arranged in straight lines on the newest stem growth. We are still managing to grow this lovely woodland viburnum, but only with this diligent pest management.

Late in November, when the soil is well frozen, we will end the gardening year by covering the perennial beds with evergreen boughs to keep the soil frozen during January thaws. This is essential for tender perennials, such as delphiniums and coneflower, which would otherwise lose some hardiness during a midwinter thaw and be killed by subsequent freezes.

After cutting back the plants to within 6 inches of the soil, we will lay the boughs down in an interlocking pattern, two layers deep, and hope for snow to fill the spaces, forming the perfect winter blanket. The boughs will be removed in early spring, when new growth begins. While we use whatever is available, we prefer white pine boughs because they keep their needles through the winter, unlike boughs of fir and spruce which leave behind a mess to clean up when removed.

By December, the garden’s work is done for the year. Looking out the window with our backs to the fire, dried seed heads punctuate the frozen landscape. We hunker down for the long wait.

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