Gardening with Laurie:

The vegetable garden in autumn

By Laurie Brown
Reader Columnist

The days are noticeably shorter, the geese are flying south and there is a different feel to the air. It’s still officially summer, but autumn is coming on fast. Time to prepare the garden for winter.

Before you dive in, take notes of what worked well for you this year and what didn’t. Come spring, in the frenzy of seed ordering and planting, it’s hard to remember that sort of thing.

Leave carrots, parsnips, and turnips in the ground; cover thickly with straw. This is one place you don’t want the soil to freeze solid before mulching. With the ground unfrozen, you can go out in winter, push the straw aside and harvest fresh root vegetables.

Photo by Grey Gezer.

Photo by Grey Gezer.

Cut back herbs like mint, chives, and lemon balm when the foliage turns yellow, but if you want to harvest for drying or freezing, cut BEFORE they turn yellow. Woody herbs like sage and lavender use the same woody scaffold every year, so don’t cut them back except for harvest.

If tomato leaves are yellow, pull the plants and hang them upside down somewhere it doesn’t go down to freezing (preferably a basement  or garage, not Los Angeles), and harvest fruit as it ripens, or harvest and put fruit on windowsills to ripen. Harvest pumpkins and winter squash after some light frosts; do not leave until hard frost.

Hardy cole crops like cabbage and Brussels sprouts can remain in the garden until hard freeze; sprouts will actually taste better if they take light freezes. When hard frost approaches, cut off, put the crops in frost free cold storage, and pull the stems and roots. Remember to pull and compost wild mustard plants- they serve as winter hosts for cabbage worm pupae.

Put all dead plants, weeds, stems and leaves in the compost. If the foliage is diseased, put it in the trash or burn it rather than composting. Take a spading fork or shovel and loosen and turn the soil in the vegetable beds. Leave it rough; you’re not planting now. Insect eggs and larva will be brought to the surface and the birds can eat them. When the ground freezes, spread compost, straw, leaves or even manure over the beds so it can get a head start on breaking down into the soil.

Now is a good time to start a new bed- cut down any woody weeds, put a couple of layers of cardboard over the bed, and then cover that with compost or mulch. It won’t be ready to plant in early spring, but it’ll be a month or two ahead come early summer.

Now is also the best time to plant garlic. Planted when frosts start hitting, they’ll make roots but not start above ground growth until spring. You can take a chance on a small area of salad greens (I do mine in containers by the porch- stays warmer and it’s easy to reach)- lettuce usually doesn’t do well in autumn, but some of the Oriental greens do very well, as does corn salad. Whether it thrives just depends on the weather we get.

Outside the veggie patch, there are also chores to deal with. If heavy rains don’t start soon, deep water trees, shrubs and hardy perennials. They need to be fully hydrated going into winter. Remove leaves from the lawn. Drain the fuel out of the lawn mower and string trimmer. Yank annuals, and cut back NONevergreen perennials. If plants like asters, zinnias and sunflowers have seed heads on them, leave them standing for the birds.

It seems like a long list of things to do, but soon enough the ground will freeze, the snow will fly, and greenery will be but a fond memory.

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