Fall: My short list

Still at it? Or if not, can I cajole you back into the garden? To be honest, if I didn’t have commitments to my CSA members and the Wednesday-night Downtown Farmers Market, I might have given in and bailed (pun not intended — or even noticed till the 10th reread!) myself this year. So if you haven’t given up in despair, congratulations! But if you did bail, now might be a good time to wade back into the fray.

No matter how severely this summer’s deluge may have dampened (there I go again!) your gardening ardor, 15 or so weeks of winter should be enough to reinvigorate it. And getting started next spring will be a whole lot easier if you take the time to put this year’s garden to bed and cover it.

By this I mean chopping down the bulky remains of this summer’s garden, incorporating any available compost or composted manure and needed minerals (referring to those soil-test results I’m sure you have on hand somewhere), and then seeding your garden with cover crops. The classic cover-crop combo is rye grain (not grass) and hairy vetch (not crown vetch!). This combo will produce the most biomass and nitrogen for our area. Remember to always inoculate any legumes you plant — especially your cover-crop legumes, such as vetch clover or winter peas. For some folks, though, rye/vetch is a little too vigorous (and hard to work with the following spring). If this is the case for you, try barley and crimson clover, or winter wheat and Austrian winter peas. The winter peas work nicely as pea shoots — so you can have your cover crop and eat it, too!

This is also the one time of year when the average backyard grower, after clearing out the summer garden, actually has a sufficient volume of organic material on hand to build a compost pile that can really heat up. So if you do this now, it can reward you with a supply of prime compost when you need it — next spring. And that’s good news, because the combination of compost and cover crops, turned under before next year’s planting season starts, is a virtual guarantee of success — barring, of course, record rainfall or drought, hail, wind, locust plagues, etc. It takes about 125 cubic feet of material to reach the critical mass needed to attain and maintain temperatures in excess of 132 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining this temperature for 15 days while turning the pile five times meets government standards for “Process to Further Reduce Pathogens” (PFRP). Come even close, and you can be reasonably certain of killing weed seeds and plant pathogens.

Stalks and vines provide the structure needed to enable your pile to keep drawing in more oxygen to replace what teeming microbes in a feeding frenzy use up. I find that chopping the stalks into roughly 1-foot lengths makes it a whole lot easier to turn the pile. I do this by taking a pointed shovel to piles of stalks and chopping away. If the stalks resist this attack, I set them aside until time, microbes and weather have weakened them. Stalks more than a foot long invariably result in unmanageable fork-loads and strained muscles.

The detritus of an average summer garden will most likely have a fine carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (the ideal is about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen). If you crave reassurance, for $4 the state of North Carolina will analyze a representative sampling of your garden residues and tell you the “exact” C/N ratio. You can get a waste-analysis form at your local cooperative extension service office. The turnaround time is usually less than two weeks, and you can check your results on the Internet before they arrive in the mail.

Nitrogen sources include grass clippings, manures and food scraps. Carbon sources include just about anything that’s brown and will rot. Both hay (beware of major weed-seed issues if your pile fails to thoroughly heat up!) and straw are excellent. Straw is best because of its structure and relative lack of weed seeds.

Tree leaves mat down and inhibit needed airflow; remember to keep them in their own separate leaf-mold pile. Sawdust likewise is too dense and takes years to break down.

Aim for a moisture content that approximates a wrung-out sponge. Maintain this level by keeping the pile covered and watering (only if needed!) while turning. Keep the pile protected from soaking rains, but avoid covering it directly with plastic — the pile needs to breathe.

You can avoid having to turn your compost more than once by setting a pile that’s heating properly on rigid 4-foot PVC pipes with holes only on one side. These pipes are designed for the holes to face down. But by setting them with the holes facing up and being careful not cover the ends of the pipes, you can create a chimney effect in which the hot air rising out of the pile is replaced by cool air drawn in through the pipes. Follow these steps and there will soon be frost everywhere — except on your steaming compost pile.

Ah, the dreaded F-word. Few gardeners are willing to face the painful inevitability of frost, but it will come nonetheless.

Take heart, however: You can actually do something useful about the weather. Simple steps taken now can soften frost’s effects on your remaining summer crops. And if your fall crops are even half-hardy, you can render them impervious to winter’s onslaught. If the first frost results from temperatures dipping only into the low 30s/high 20s with virtually no wind (as is usually the case hereabouts), you can toss just about anything over plants that need protection. I’ve used sheets, newspaper, buckets, trash cans, tarps, recycled plastic sheeting, shade cloth and cardboard. Fellow Xpress garden writer Jeff Ashton favors lampshades.

Floating row cover, however, remains the most sensible approach. This lightweight, spunbound fabric retains heat yet lets air and water through. It’s called floating row cover because it can be loosely placed over a crop and the crop can push it up as it grows. And for the lightest of frosts, this is all you need to do.

If you anticipate any wind, be sure to secure the cover (rocks, boards and soil all work fine). But if you’re doing a significant amount of covering, earth staples are more convenient. These 6- to 8-inch, U-shaped wire staples are pushed through the cover and into the ground. In areas prone to really high winds, it’s best to put thin strips of wood down and set the staples over the wood to help keep the wind from tearing the fabric off the staples.

Remember: not too tight with the fabric. Keeping it loose allows for heat-retaining air pockets while reducing the number of heat-conducting contact points between fabric and plants. On those rare occasions when I’m actually prepared ahead of time, I set out my cover and staple it in place on the windward side of the bed or row to be protected. Then I roll the cover to the windward edge, creating a fat, ropelike bulge that I secure with staples. Come the threat of a surprise frost, I simply pull the securing staples, unfurl the cover, and secure the leeward edge.

If more intense cold threatens, I break out the heavy artillery: tunnels made with either 9-gauge wire or PVC pipe set over short pieces of rebar, which I drive into the ground every three feet or so.

A wire staked at one end of each hoop, wrapped around its apex, and then staked at the other end makes for a reasonably stable tunnel. I cover it with UV-resistant plastic secured by one of the above-mentioned methods. Combined with row cover “floated” directly on the plants on particularly cold nights, these tunnels should give adequate protection down to the low teens (or even colder). On the most frigid nights, I add a layer of heavyweight row cover over the tunnel. With this final layer of protection in place, I grab my pile of seed catalogs and curl up beside the wood stove, knowing I’ve done my best to defeat winter’s designs!

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