Archives for posts with tag: fall clean-up

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.


Leaves, leaves, leaves.

In an ideal world, they would all turn bright shades of orange, yellow and pink before falling.  Then, they would take a week or two to gradually flitter down from the trees in whimsical patterns across the sky, presenting a dynamic autumn tableau outside my window, before settling—just so—onto the landscape.  Somehow, the leaves would manage to avoid pathways, cars and rain gutters.

Once nestled artistically on the ground, there they would lie snugly, like an especially beautiful blanket over the hillsides, increasing the aesthetic value of the view as I walk from my house to the mailbox.

Then, in late October or early November, the leaves would gradually and magically dissipate, slowly fading from view, possibly in conjunction with the year’s first snowfall (an ideal version of which might be the subject of a future post).  Their disappearance would coincide nicely with the appearance of new mounds of fresh compost in the previously depleted bins (which, in this ideal world, have already been constructed).

In reality, there is a lot of raking and blowing to be done this time of year (and I still need to build those compost bins).

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

The string beans weren’t the only plants that got pulled out this weekend.

The tomatoes, about which I have been obsessing lately, have not been improving despite my pruning of several days ago (see September 27, 2013).  Once infected with late blight (the suspected culprit), the plants have little hope of recovery without the use of fungicides.  Late blight is caused by oomycetes, non-photosynthetic fungi (perhaps that’s redundant?) that spread through the production of millions of oospores.  Oomycete is a cool word but it is a very uncool organism.

I have read about using a baking soda spray in several publications and websites (see, for instance, Late Bloomer’s Episode 2.16) and will probably try that next year, starting early in the season to prevent onset.  We’ll plant the tomatoes in the west planter—the best we can do, in terms of crop rotation—and keep everything as clean as possible.  However, given the ease with which the oospores spread and their ability to survive, underground, through severe weather, we are at a disadvantage (and greatly outnumbered).

It’s much too late for any kind of spray this year so I pulled out the spindly vines of the Sungold, Black Cherry, Brandywine (red and yellow) and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes that remained.  There were plenty of green (i.e., unripe) tomatoes but none that were fit to eat.  On all of the plants suffering from blight, the disease had spread to the fruit.  I don’t mind a rotten spot or two or even the occasional wormhole or bird peck, but the brown lesions, with their white spore sites, make even the best looking tomato unappetizing.

I’m happy to say that the plants were otherwise healthy and had produced extensive root systems (which required a fair amount of effort to pull out).  I was also pleased (and surprised) to see that the Country Taste Beefsteak tomato vines continue to resist the late blight; there were no signs of the lesions or brown spots on the leaves or stems.  This makes them a very good candidate for next year’s garden.

Of course, they are suffering from something else, possibly Septoria leaf spot (my hypothesis is based on review of photos of afflicted plants online) or maybe early blight.  Unfortunately, all of these conditions are spread by spores, the production of which is favored by the cool, humid weather that occurs in the fall.  I left the beefsteaks alone (well, I may have trimmed a few branches) in the hope that we will be able to harvest the dozen or so ripening tomatoes that are still on the vine.

Having harvested the last of the string beans (see September 25, 2013), we decided it was time to clear out the vines and start readying the west planter for winter.  Some gardeners would chop up the vines and till them into the soil to decompose and add organic matter (so-called green manure or green fertilizer).  Others might cut the stems off at the ground surface and leave the roots in place, hoping that symbiotic bacteria (if present) would continue to fix Nitrogen in the soil.

But neither of these ideas appeals to me.  Even though the planter is not that big (four feet by 12 feet), turning the soil would be a lot of work.  And anyway, we are following the no-till approach, which moderates decomposition, improves drainage and minimizes weed growth by leaving the soil surface undisturbed.  Somewhat ironically, it also maintains better aeration by eliminating compaction and encouraging the earthworm population.  In fact, our soil is essentially turned over several times a year by an abundance of energetic Lumbricidae.

Leaving the roots in place would require less effort—even less than pulling them out.  However, we do not necessarily have Nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it is not clear that they would have enough time to make a significant contribution to the properties of our soil.  Besides, it is more likely that we have too much Nitrogen rather than not enough (see June 22, 2013), as evidenced by our crops of carrots, beets and radishes which produced more leaves than roots.

Being completely honest, it probably wouldn’t matter if either alternative had a scientific justification because pulling the vines out is more in keeping with my nature.  I have been described as a neatnik and it is a characterization I do not deny.  At a certain level, getting the planter tidied up for its long winter nap is much more important to me than ensuring that the soil has a proper concentration of Nitrogen.  Our soil’s nutrient distribution can be adjusted in other ways and at other times but I have to look at the empty planter all winter long.

Well, the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, so there was no real danger of frost.  Yes, 40 degrees is cold—more wintery than autumnal—but not low enough to damage anything.  Still, everybody (people included) will be moving slowly until the sun warms us up again.

Of course, the frost warning underscores the fact that we are in an end-of-season race with the weather.  We have plenty of fruit—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans and squash—that could potentially ripen if given enough time.  The question is, will a damaging frost or freeze occur before the vegetables are ready for harvest?  It’ll be a closer finish than I think because the days are shorter and the garden more shaded than in summer.

If the summer squashes froze, it would be no great loss; they have yielded many fruits already this year and, in fact, this is the first season that we have actually had enough.  The same is true of the string beans.  We will make one more search through the vines to collect the stragglers before pulling the vines out.

There are many tomatoes left and it would be a shame if most of them cannot reach maturity.  On the other hand, there is plenty that can be done with them when green.

We didn’t get many bell peppers but we did enjoy the few we had (with sausage and onions).  There are several in the earliest stages of development (right now, they are green miniatures of their full-grown selves).  It would be nice to have a few more but I consider this year’s experience to be research into ways to achieve better success next year.

My main hope is that the eggplants can survive until they are ready for harvest.  At their current size of about three inches in length, they would not make much of a meal (although I’m sure that they will be delicious at any size).  If we are lucky, however, they will continue to enlarge until big enough for us to throw on the grill or roast in the oven.  Two of them have a good chance; the others are questionable.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

We have reached—and moved beyond—the point of diminishing returns on the basil.  It has grown much faster than we can use it and now, the leaves are starting to deflate and turn yellow.  The plants still smell divine—this has been by far the most aromatic basil I have ever grown—and their flavor remains bold and clear.  But the basil won’t be getting any better and could easily start to degrade.

Therefore, we decided to end the season for the original planting (at the southeast corner of the east planter) and clear-cut the lot.  Doing so produced a huge pile of leaves, enough for several batches of pesto.  In addition to the usual recipe—with pine nuts and parmesan—we will vary the nut and cheese options.  One batch will use walnuts or pistachio nuts and another will include Pecorino Romano.  We’ll also make what might more aptly be called basil paste, with neither nuts nor cheese.

The basil’s corner of the planter now looks a bit ravaged, like a miniature tornado tore through it.  Eventually, I will pull out the stubs and roots as part of my fall clean-up.  Meanwhile, the more recently planted basil in the southwest corner of the planter will provide enough green leaves to add to salads, etc., until the first frost.  If we get enough warning (the National Weather Service is not always timely), we will clear-cut this basil as well.

Because I already had the clippers out (and I had to use the big ones; the basil stems were large and tough), I took yet another pass at pruning the tomato vines.  My periodic cutting and trimming has been keeping them partially in control although the branches are still more tightly entwined than I would like.  It is reassuring that the plants remain healthy and robust.

I had been holding my breath, hoping that we might make it through the year without seeing a tomato hornworm.  But, really, what was I thinking?  Sure enough, as I was untangling a couple of Brandywine branches, I uncovered a large hornworm, calmly munching away.  It hadn’t done much damage but I shudder to think of how many leaves it could have eaten if it had been left undiscovered.

This is the latest in the season we have made it without finding any of them.  Last year, the first hornworm appeared in mid-August; in 2011, we had two broods, one in mid-July (which seems very early) and another in late-September.  After three seasons of vegetable gardening, I have concluded that the presence of this particular pest falls into the “inevitable” category.  If you grow them (tomatoes), they (hornworms) will come.

At the other end of the garden, the Purple Amethyst and Roma II string beans have been quietly producing an abundance of beans.  Perhaps stealthily would be a better description.  A casual glance at the plants—a wall of leafy vines clinging to the trellis—might mislead one into thinking that no beans were present.  But after reaching into the vines and pushing the leaves aside, a multitude of ripening beans is revealed.  They dangle vertically, parallel to the vines and protected from the sun by the leaves.

We are growing purple beans, which aside from their color look quite typical, and Italian-style beans, which are wider and flatter with larger lumps (the actual beans).  Rachel grew up with the latter but they are relatively new to me.  They have a distinctly vegetal flavor—their taste might be the definition of green—and are delicious steamed and/or sautéed with lots of butter.

We’re not the only ones who like them.  Several of the beans had been tunneled through by creatures unknown.  They are some type of worm, judging by the entry and exit holes, and left the beans looking like Swiss cheese.

I don’t know if our remaining parsley has been to hell and back (we grew it from seedlings) but it has been through a lot:  a long, dry summer; an early freeze; Hurricane Sandy (which came, bizarrely, after the freeze); and Winter Storm Athena.  It is the only plant left in the vegetable garden and it is shows no sign of stopping.  But I think it might be getting lonesome down there.

The problem is that the parsley needs to get out more.  It has spent too much time at home and might benefit from a short trip.  So I replanted the parsley into terra cotta pots (we have several spares on hand) and moved them upstairs to the adjunct herb garden.  There, its fellow herbs will keep the parsley company and with luck—and fair weather—it will survive at least until Thanksgiving.

Back in the main garden, I removed the trellis (in one piece; it will be easy to reinstall in the spring), raked out the leaves (many of which were deposited by Hurricane Sandy), pulled out the weeds (that had taken advantage of the otherwise empty beds) and scooped out the old, decomposing mulch.

With the top surface now clean, I dumped four bags of compost into each planter and raked it out until level.  On top of this, I sprinkled blood meal at a dosage of one pound per 1000 sq. ft., as recommended in the soil testing report (see October 4, 2012).  I think that I probably should have done this sooner (while there were still plants growing) but better late than never, I guess.

At this point, I decided that the soil level is still a bit low—I wonder whether the planters will ever be full—and I will need to get more compost before putting the garden to bed for the winter.  It was just as well.  Due to the return of Standard Time (and my late start), it was getting dark.

The early frost decisively ended the year for most of the vegetables in our garden.  And although it was not a violent weather event (such as last year’s hurricane) and did not last very long (unlike the snowstorm last October), the cold weather left behind a mess of frost-damaged vines and vegetables.  The sight of them is not very uplifting—it is the complete opposite of the promising appearance of spring growth—and it is time to clean up and start getting the planters ready for winter.

So we disentangled the string beans from their trellis and pulled up their roots, some of which extended completely across the planter.  The bedraggled tomatoes, mesclun, bell pepper, eggplant and basil received similar treatment.  I was impressed by their extensive and deep root systems, which was reassuring even if not all of the plants produced as much as I would have liked.

Likewise, we pulled up the stakes and cages, cleaned them off and stored them on the back porch, next to the firewood.  We left the trellis in place (it is a more elaborate construction) but will probably have to move it next spring (we’ll be rotating our crops).  Until then, we’ll enjoy its rectilinear orderliness (and maybe we’ll hang Christmas lights on it).

Everybody talks about spring cleaning and making a fresh start but fall clean-ups are just as important.  As the warmth of summer fades, we are spending less time outdoors.  The chair cushions, umbrellas and hammocks need to be washed, dried and stored inside.  The grill, in constant use through the summer, wants to be tidied up and tucked away on the back porch.

At the same time, the windows that have been open continuously since June must now be closed at night (and, eventually, all day) to ward off the chill.  We will vacuum a summer’s worth of gnats and no-see-ums from the screens and bring in the fans that brought cool air into the house.  These, too, will be cleaned and stowed in the basement.

In short, all of the summer paraphernalia must move indoors for the winter.  And the more effort we take to get it all organized, the better.  It won’t get in our way over the next several months and when spring comes, and it is time to move it back outdoors, it will be ready to go.  I’d much rather deal with it now than later.

It’s also a good time for us to exercise the three Rs, which in this case are:  reduce, reduce, reduce.  Unwanted books go to the library.  Clothes that no longer fit (but are still in good condition) go to charity.  And the inevitable bag or two of unusable or unsalvageable items—things for which we can find no other place—go into the trash.

Our goal in the last few years has been to make these reductions permanent and only replace those items which we find absolutely necessary.  We are not minimalists by any stretch of the imagination (a quick tour of my workshop would prove that) but we have embraced a less-is-more mentality that feels good.

Of course, fall clean-up is also important in the garden (but that’s the subject of another post).