It is the middle of October and the sun now travels a low arc, barely making it above the tree line surrounding Marjorie’s garden. Long shadows crisscross the garden throughout the day.
All of the goldenrod has gone to seed in the wild border at the foot of the drive, leaving only small clouds of fall asters and a few white campion for flower color. The campion’s bright white flowers were with us all summer, and now most of the branch tips carry upright brown capsules, miniature urns filled with poppylike seeds ready to spill out with the next strong wind.
In October, leaves and fruits bring color to the garden. Winterberries sparkle in the early morning sunlight; crimson leaflets of Virginia creeper fall on golden pine needles in the garden footpaths.
There is still plenty to do in the garden, tasks focused on either putting the garden to rest for the winter or preparing for the coming gardening year. For example, now is the time, while memory still serves, to make a map of where every vegetable crop was grown this year, a key tool for making next year’s crop rotation plans.
After the first killing frost you can spend a chilly morning pulling out all of the freeze-killed vegetable plants, chopping them up with a sharp spade before adding them to the compost pile. Gather up all of the mushy fruits and add them to the pile; you don’t want to be pulling all of those tomato and squash seedlings next spring. If you have some composted manure handy, add it in layers with the chopped plants and fruits.
To help control bacterial spot, canker, early blight, alternaria and other tomato diseases that can survive the winter in the garden, tomato cages and stakes should be cleaned of soil and plant debris, then disinfected with a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water for five minutes. Rinse well and let them air-dry before storing for winter.
Unlike the above diseases, the organism that causes late blight on tomatoes and potatoes does not survive winter aboveground. It is, however, carried through the winter on live plant tissue, so be sure to dig up and destroy any infected potato tubers, those with brownish purple spots that become a wet or dry rot. Start fresh next year with certified disease-free seed potatoes.
Do not compost infected tubers as some plant tissue could survive the winter in the center of the pile.
October offers time to focus on composting. Gardeners who use stable manures in the vegetable garden should compost fresh manure for at least a year before adding it to the soil.
Manure that has aged for a year should be added to garden soil in October, allowing time for further breakdown by soil bacteria before planting spring crops. Following these guidelines will significantly reduce contamination of garden produce with the human pathogens found in fresh manures.
Keep weeding. Frost-tolerant winter annuals, such as henbit and chickweed, as well as perennial weeds such as dandelions, can be pulled now rather than waiting until spring. This is also a good time to tackle quack grass and other persistent grasses that creep into garden beds from the edges during the growing season. Use a sharp spade or an edger to cut a straight line, then pull out the grass, making sure to get all of the roots.
Strawberry growers should use October to stockpile weed-free straw for November mulching of the strawberry beds. Be ready to apply a 6-inch layer of straw before the snow flies, but not before the plants have acclimated to cold weather as indicated by the leaves lying flat. For most northern gardens, mid- to late November is strawberry mulching time.
Wheat straw is absolutely the best mulch as it is resistant to compaction. It holds the insulating snow in place, a real benefit for strawberries growing in raised beds where snowfalls are subject to drifting.
Now is a good time to straighten and secure raspberry primocanes, the canes that grew this year that will bear next year’s berries. By October, the primocanes are sprawling across the walkways in our garden. Marjorie lifts each one carefully and binds it to the lattice with Velcro tape. She leaves the current year’s fruiting canes intact until spring to buffer the primocanes from winter winds.
October, two weeks after the first killing frost, is the time to plant garlic. Begin by preparing a well-groomed bed enriched with compost or composted manure. Break each bulb into individual cloves, then plant the cloves with the pointed end up, four to six inches apart, covering the tip with 2 to 4 inches of soil. About four weeks after planting, cover the planted area with a 2- to 4-inch mulch of shredded leaves or straw. Remove the mulch after the threat of hard freeze is over in the spring.
For sure, there are plenty of reasons to spend warm blue-sky October days in our gardens, and well we should, for we know what’s coming.
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