Fall is as much about shutting down for the winter as it is about second chances.
That’s the theme at the West Junior High Garden Project, where Free State High sophomores Karen Schneck and Abby Schletzbaum crouched over tiny seedlings last week thinning things out so that a bed of tiny carrots could grow strong by autumn’s end.
The garden didn’t even plant carrots in the spring, but the girls and their supervisors, Dan Phelps, Nancy O’Connor and Lily Siebert, say that now is the perfect time for carrots and other “spring” crops. This is especially true if your garden was totally torn up by the extreme heat this summer.
“This is your second chance. The fall is a lot kinder,” O’Connor says. “I think last year we were harvesting ... the last week in November (with row cover). So, there’s still a whole season ahead of us.”
After that season, use fall’s slow cool down to your advantage and get things ready for spring, whether you’re a vegetable gardener, a flower gardener or a hybrid. The more work you do from now until winter, the better, our experts say.
“It’s good to get it ready in the fall because then in the spring all you need to do is maybe just lightly rake it and you can throw out your lettuce seed. You don’t have to do the massive tilling,” says Marcia Henry, owner of The Henry’s Plant Farm in Lecompton. “I think it’s really good to get all that hard labor done in the fall.”
Here’s how to deal with different garden scenarios this autumn.
First, decide if you want to have a fall garden and harvest.
It might be the first week of September, but it’s technically not too late to clear our your finished summer plants and seed in some for fall, says Henry. She recommends checking out the K-State Extension Vegetables Garden Planting Guide (www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/hort2/mf315.pdf) for ideas on what you can plant.
Ann Peuser, owner of Clinton Parkway Nursery, 4900 Clinton Parkway, recommends lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots — many of the faster-growing spring plants. You can also plant garlic and strawberries (well mulched) for spring harvest.
If you do plant too late, or if we have a few days of unseasonable cold, Peuser recommends creating a makeshift cold frame by covering the plants with an old window propped up on blocks.
If you’re not going to plant a fall garden, you might want to put away the garden as soon as your summer plants stop producing. Not sure what to do? Peuser has a very specific method for putting her vegetable garden away for the winter.
The tomato-lover lets her plants go as long as possible — she says she thinks it’s a sin to get rid of a fruiting tomato plant — and then gets to work:
First, she trashes the tomato plants because they can harbor diseases no one would want in their compost pile — same goes for most fruiting plants, she says — then till.
Next, she works a layer of leaves into the soil with the tiller and lets it sit.
In November, before the ground freezes, she repeats the till-and-leaves method.
Next, she covers the entire garden with loose leaves and spreads compost — either your own or store-bought — over that.
Peuser says that should infuse nutrients into your soil and keep it healthy and ready to go in the spring.
“The leaves will break down, the compost is there. Next spring when I go dig it up, you can till it or you can just plant right into it,” Peuser says. “It gets stirred up with the soil, I’ve added a bunch of organic matter and I haven’t taken the leaves to the curb or anything like that. People don’t utilize leaves they have near enough.”
If you’re interested in adding a nutrient-giving cover crop, Jennifer Smith, horticulture agent for Douglas County K-State Extension, suggests annual rye grass for home gardeners because it’s cheap and easily accessible.
“I like annual rye because you can walk into the hardware store and pick up a bag for $5 and seed it,” Smith says. “You can do it on the rest of the garden, just leave an area open where you have your fall crops. Or you can seed it in between rows, just depending on how you have your fall crops planted. Sometimes, I do lettuce in a block instead of rows, so then I would just plant around it.”
If you have a berry patch, Smith suggests adding extra mulch, and removing diseased canes. Though, don’t cut back the old canes unless you’re clear on the type of berries you have. Some plants will grow berries on older canes, while some only grow on newer canes. If you’re not sure, read up.
Got herbs in pots? Smith says you might be able to overwinter more of them than you think.
“I’ve successfully brought my basil in — it usually looks pretty scraggly all winter because of the light. But you can cut it back and bring it into the house,” Smith says. “I had a plant I kept alive for, I think, four years.”
Hardy items like mint can be mulched and kept outside over the winter. If you’re not sure, bring the plant in and keep it near a south-facing window or one that gets strong light, just to try to save it. Smith says to avoid repotting because it can be stressful to the plants. Instead, she recommends fertilizing and watering them well before bringing them in until spring.
Peuser says that if you have an annual flower bed, the procedure might be similar to her leaves-and-compost routine for vegetable gardens.
“It’s the same thing, do it the same like you do your vegetable garden. The only exception is if you want to plant tulips, daffodils and crocus, those need to be planted in the fall,” says Peuser who says she’d omit the second layer of leaves and plant those bulbs in October or November.
If you have a garden that’s just perennial ornamentals, mulch them and remove both diseased plants (and any remaining annuals) says Smith. It might be tempting to cut back these plants before winter, but Smith says you should only do it very late — December, at best — if you’re going to do it at all. That’s because you may end up encouraging new growth that won’t fare well in the cold.
“Avoid cutting them back from now until frost because it can encourage them to put on new growth that won’t harden off,” Smith says. “You’ll want to wait until frost usually to take out your annuals. Typically the first night that it’s supposed to frost, I’ll pull them out. Roses are the only thing I would cut back, and even with those, it’s just to prevent the wind from whipping the canes around and breaking them off and you do it late November, early December.”