Written By Anne Raver
I like the word “fall,” rather than “autumn,” because that’s what it is in Carroll County: a long slow fall into the pleasures of cooler weather. Especially now, with global warming, it is a long time before the leaves turn color and drift to the ground, and the golden afternoons are filled with the deafening buzz of leaf blowers.
(Whatever happened to rakes? They don’t pollute, they make a sweet, rhythmic sound of Americans keeping their weight and cholesterol down. So let’s get back to them. Remember how leaves smelled when you made a huge pile and jumped in them? Now, kids that age are texting. Hand them a rake and show them how it works.)
Fall is also a time for making compost. (Please don’t bag those leaves and send them off to the landfill.) And for planting thousands of bulbs.
Think of a doorstep bordered by snowdrops in January, a hillside of blue muscari in April, the brilliant flame-red and yellow Rembrandt tulips in May.
But first, let’s talk about the pleasures of August, when nights begin to cool, and we can imagine that such a thing as fall even exists. When summer nowadays means temperatures hovering in the 90s and even triple digits, it is even too hot to lie in a hammock, not to mention planting seeds of another round of vegetables.
But this is the beginning of a whole new season for vegetable gardeners. Heat-loving crops, such as carrots, chard and snap beans still have plenty of time to mature. Fall crops that founder in summer’s heat – spinach, kale, leaf lettuce, chard, Chinese cabbage, turnips and the like – will thrive as nights grow cool.
Most seed packets note a particular crop’s days to maturity, so if you plant snap beans, which take 50 to 60 days to mature, right about now, they will have time to flower and grow into tender delicious pods before frost.
Fall greens actually grow sweeter with the frost, yielding long into late fall and even early winter. And while it’s too late to start broccoli and Brussels sprouts from seed, healthy transplants can often be found in a good local nursery or farmer’s market. Put a few in the ground now, and you will be harvesting fresh broccoli and succulent sprouts for Thanksgiving.
My life as a vegetable gardener was changed after visiting Brett Grohsgal, an organic farmer in southern Maryland, who has bred cold-hardy kale, arugula and mustard greens that keep producing right through the winter.
His varieties slow down as temperatures drop, but I have harvested their tiny, succulent leaves in the snow. And although a deep freeze appears to kill them, it only takes a thaw to reawaken the bedraggled plants. Tiny shoots push out of the center of dead leaves, soon turning into tender new greens by late February and early March. I plant the seeds from mid-August through mid-September.
(A seed sampler of six varieties for $35, is available from Even Star Organic Farm, 48322 Far Cry Road, Lexington Park, Md., 20653, 301-866-1412.)
Cold frames and low hoop houses can also extend the season, of course. Our cold frame is made out of black locust planks, cut from a tree felled by one of those violent windstorms we have been having lately. It slants at a 45-degree angle to the south, is covered by two old storm windows, and is insulated by bales of clean straw on its north, east and west sides.
Sprinkle your favorite cold-hardy greens inside: miner’s lettuce, spinach, arugula, and harvest them through the winter.
Flower lovers can also take advantage of late summer by planting seeds of perennials, such as verbascum, lavender, and coneflowers, and biennials, like hollyhocks and foxglove, which can be expensive to buy as plants. If I start now, I can plant them in seed trays, placed in some part of the garden where I won’t forget them, and keep them moist as they germinate and grow.
I usually have to transplant them to larger pots, or a flower bed, before late September, when they will be ready to transplant to a more permanent part of the garden.
Do not rush to plant bulbs until the soil cools. Small bulbs like grape hyacinths and anemones are best planted in early fall; bigger bulbs like daffodils and tulips are better off planted in October or later.
Trees and shrubs thrive when planted in the fall, because roots grow best in cool soil, and the plants will be well-established come spring.
So take a stroll around your yard and think about what your space might allow: a flowering dogwood or silverbell tree, or a fragrant viburnum, like V. carlesii, the Japanese spicebush, which fills the air with a mix of clove and cinnamon.
Cooler weather invites outdoor work, so why not make a cold frame, or hoop house, for extending the seasons? My favorite resources for these winter arts are Eliot Coleman’s books, especially Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook.
There are also plenty of videos online, of course. “This Old House” had a good one on constructing a cold frame out of salvaged windows and rot-resistant wood (www.thisoldhouse.com). Just make sure you do not use any wood treated with creosote or other chemicals that could leach into your greens.
And about those fallen leaves: I still can’t believe my eyes when I see bags of leaves waiting to be taken to the landfill. Granted, that is better than the old days, when people just filled up plastic bags and left them for the trash haulers to take to the dump. (County regulations no longer allow yard waste to be mixed with trash.)
But why give up those leaves, when you could so easily turn them into black gold for trees and shrubs, as well as your flower and vegetable gardens?
Many people think composting is complicated, but it is basically a pile of alternating brown (leaves, chipped branches, shredded paper) and green (weeds, spent flowers, pulled vegetable plants, leftover vegetables, fruits and coffee grounds from the kitchen).
You can keep an informal pile going – edged by concrete blocks or hay bales, or nothing at all, if the neighbors don’t mind. Just don’t put out any meat scraps, bones or oil that would attract animals. Turn it once in a while, to get air to the critters and microbes doing the decomposing work, and spritz it with water to keep it as damp as a wrung-out sponge (de-composers need moisture too).
There are also plenty of readymade bins, of course. Gardener’s Supply Company (www.gardeners.com; 888-833-1412) has a good selection, as do many good nurseries.
The University of Maryland’s Home Garden Information Center (www.hgic.umd.edu; 800-342-2507) has an informative online publication on composting methods, as well as a rundown on various styles of compost bins. This site, by the way, is a gold mine for almost any kind of gardening, from planting trees and shrubs to insect identification. And their garden hotline (same number as above) will answer any question.
I always laugh when people say their garden is just about finished in August – except for that avalanche of tomatoes, of course. For me, it’s a whole new beginning.