Nasturtiums at base of pole beans, left; heart-shaped leaves of purple morning glory, right; carrot bed partly cleared and butternut squash beyond; tomato hedge, background. September 20, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

NATURE’S TURN: Autumn – savor and seed the turn-of-the-season garden

We are fundamentally light farmers. Harvest as much sunlight energy as possible by having as much green leaf as possible — therefore as much of the year as possible.

September 26 – October 9, 2016

Mt. Washington — The lofty summer garden is slowing, going to seed, and still, in some aspects, going strong. It’s like being in an airplane during landing: the brakes are on, there’s so much forward momentum, so much resistance to the slowdown it feels like going in two directions at once, but then we’re startled by touchdown and the ride gets bumpy and the craft and all its occupants come to a halt – and break into applause.

Castor bean, an annual shrub in northern climates. September 20, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.
Castor bean, an annual shrub in northern climates. September 20, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

In my turn-of-the-season garden, morning glories are open all day and late-planted bean vines display delicate, pink flowers between extended leaves that are their solar collectors floating on the breeze. Annual castor bean shrubs keep increasing in vigor, their outstretched starburst leaves reaching around spikes of glowing red blossoms that grow heavier each day. Late-planted cucumbers bear juicy surprises. Kales, chard, lettuces and many colors of peppers grow luxuriously and tomatoes yield ripe fruit and yellow blossoms as if there will be sunlight and heat enough to go on producing.

At the same time, there are dry and browning corn stalks; shrinking squash and cucumber vines; and overgrown, early beans on fallen, tangled stems. Leaf mulch covers beds where shriveled foliage of potato plants was removed, the underground tubers yet to be dug. Where the ground was left bare after the last onions were harvested, I dug compost into the soil and planted winter wheat last week. I sprouted the grain to test for viability (it was five years old) and to get a jumpstart on growth.

Sprouted winter wheat grains broadcast over raised bed, background; grains mostly covered with earth, foreground. September 20, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.
Sprouted winter wheat grains broadcast over raised bed, background; grains mostly
covered with earth, foreground. September 20, 2016. Photo: Judy Isacoff.

It’s time (and, in some cases, over time) to clear the garden of spent annuals, both ornamental and food crops. For the health of our gardens and of our planet, it is essential to conclude the summer season by adding detritus to the compost heap and to sow seeds of winter cover crops, even in small areas. Winter wheat and rye may be planted through mid-fall in Zone 5B. Recommendations vary widely, so be aware that the seeds need moisture and above-freezing temperatures to take root and begin to grow leaves before hard frost. I have sown winter rye through mid-October and watched the grass blades come up, turn green, and stand a few inches tall before snow fell.

As stated in the Johnny’s Seeds catalog, “Winter is a good time to be working on soil improvement, and you don’t have to go out in cold weather to do it. By planting a cover crop in summer or fall and letting it overwinter, you can improve soil organic matter and soil fertility, suppress cool-season weeds, prevent soil erosion, and create a better seedbed for spring planting.”*

Let’s also keep in mind and in our practice the carbon sequestering function of our gardens, introduced in my March 28 column. Be guided by the words of soil scientist Dr. Christine Jones: “We are fundamentally light farmers. Harvest as much sunlight energy as possible by having as much green leaf as possible — therefore as much of the year as possible. …. Soil should always be covered with plants, either crop plants or cover crops.”**

Resources:

*https://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-library-farm-seed-winter-cover-crops.aspx

** https://theberkshireedge.com/natures-turn-21st-century-gardener/

https://www.fedcoseeds.com/ogs/search?item=8097

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/vgen/cover-crops-garden.htm