Falling into Winter
As fall sets in, we welcome blustery winds, low ochre suns, and that timeless sweet-sour smell of decomposing leaves. Many of us invite traditions of warm spices and beverages, cozy sweaters, and trips to farms and orchards to select pumpkins and apples—some of our last big harvests of the season. Yet in many ways, fall is a time of saying goodbye—to our summer gardens, to the dog days of swimming, and to many of our migration and hibernation-destined animal friends.
While some home-growers would make every day pumpkin spiced if they could, others of the gardening ilk may need some extra encouragement to get through these waning days and nippy nights.
Here are some ways you can have fun and stay active in the garden throughout fall:
Garlic is typically planted between mid-October and mid-November in our region. Softneck varieties have a mild flavor, a long shelf life, and are often the type found in grocery stores. Hardneck varieties produce larger but fewer cloves, peel easily due to their thick skin, and tend to have a spicy and nuanced flavor. Depending on the variety, garlic can keep for 4-12 months, lending itself to many a favorite sautée, soup, and sauce!
Create a Welcome Mat for Migratory Pollinators
Fall is a great season for planting, as the water demands are low and soil is still workable. While it’s sad to see the monarchs and hummingbirds go, it’s the perfect time to plant some natives such as bee balm and milkweed to make sure your yard is simply buzzing with these lovely pollinators next summer.
Get Ahead of the Game
Doesn’t it feel amazing when you clean the house before you leave for a trip, and return to everything all tidy and ready to go? You can also give yourself this gift in your garden. Now is the time to remove weeds and dead organic plant matter from vegetable beds—those skeins of skeletonized summer crops which can host insect and fungal pests for the upcoming season. Toss them in the compost pile and replace the top layer of your beds with a generous amount of fresh compost, finishing off with an organic mulch such as fall leaves or straw. The compost will promote beneficial organisms and soil nutrients, and the mulch will protect this moist, warm microclimate through the cool months. Come spring, the compost will be broken down and you will have rich, weed-free soil in which to plant your early vegetables. One important note: Many beneficial insects and their eggs depend on dead leaves and stalks for overwintering, so when it comes to your perennial (particularly native) flowers and grasses, it is generally best practice to wait until spring for cutting back.
Add Vibrant Colors to Next Year’s Fall Garden
Are things looking brown and monochromatic in your garden this time of year? Then go ahead and plant some vivid fall-blooming natives such as asters and ironweed, so that this time next year, your eyes will dazzle at the blues and purples which become rare at this point in the season. These flowers, in addition to others such as goldenrod, are also incredibly important as one of the last nectar and pollen sources for bees and other pollinators preparing themselves for winter.
I often refer to Ira Wallace’s “Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast” for its wonderfully organized month-by-month guide to planting in our local region. What’s amazing is that there is really no wrong time to plant, as long as you know what to plant! While cold hardy greens (kale, spinach, mustard, chard, et al.) are best sown in late summer or early fall for a robust crop, you can still get away with sowing them later into the season if you give them a good microclimate. If you don’t have a greenhouse, a cold frame or row cover is easy to acquire! Now is the time to plant onion seeds, and before we know it January will be here, which is when we start early spicy peppers from seed (indoors). Tomatoes and cole vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.) come next in February and before we know it, spring will have arrived! Fall is also an ideal time for planting cover crops and most flower bulbs, shrubs, grasses, and trees.
As the killing frost approaches we are beckoned to our garden winterization checklist. Have the tropicals been brought inside? The basil and green tomatoes harvested? Are the hoses drained and water bibs cut off? For those plants on the edge of our hardiness zone, such as our beloved Mediterranean figs and herbs, adding a nice blanket of dried leaves will offer some of nature’s best insulation for which they will thank you.
Make Shrunken Zombie Heads!
Yes, that’s right. Just in time for spooky fall crafting is the amazing black walnut fruit. Black walnuts are sustenance food for the gray squirrel, a delicacy for humans, a de-worming medicine, and a traditional dye. But did you know that you can carve them into jack-o-lantern-like faces? Take a toothpick or any other sharp tool (knife, stick, pencil) and carve a few millimeters deep into the green walnut fruit. Set it on a windowsill or porch. Then watch as the scored areas blacken and curl inward as they oxidize and rot. Try a variety of expressions and see how the facial features naturally morph with time!
Don’t Forget to Sprinkle Some Magic
At the end of the day, my personal favorite part of gardening is the magic of it all. We never quite know what will pop up next year, how our efforts will fare, what sightings we’ll behold. Since winter can get pretty dreary, I like to sow some extra magic by randomly casting desirable seeds throughout the garden. But really, the process is not so random. I select seeds which have a compact or upright growth habit, so they don’t compete with other crops or plantings, such as fennel and leeks. I also consider plants which make good companion plants, or have a critter-repelling quality, such as marigolds and holy basil. But most fun of all, I like to sprinkle flower seeds, such as calendula, zinnias, crimson clover, violas, and poppies, many of which have medicinal properties in addition to being a surprise splash of color and pollinator food. It’s wise to fill in the gaps in your garden, as these volunteer plants will shade out weeds and help keep the soil cool and moist under summer sun. It’s also much more enjoyable to weed flowers, aromatic herbs, and food than the alternative of invasive or noxious weeds!
I hope this list generates some excitement and creativity for your fall gardening, and we wish you a cozy, restorative home-grown season!