As a newbie gardener — this was the first year I attempted to grow more than basil and cherry tomatoes — I am sad to see the end of the growing season on the horizon (a truth made starker by the Farmers’ Almanac’s prediction of a bitter winter). Tending to my veggies, among them chard, peas, peppers, and tomatoes, has been one of the summer’s greatest joys.
Fortunately, I don’t have to put away my garden gloves just yet. Never mind that my heirloom tomatoes still need time to ripen and my second batch of peas is just starting to creep up the trellis. The fall garden can be bountiful and hardy, filled with cool-weather-loving plants and over-wintered crops like garlic. Some of the best vegetables to plant from seed now include greens (mustard greens, lettuce, arugula, and spinach), radishes, and turnips. Broccoli and cabbage seedlings will also flourish by late fall.
Garlic should be planted between late September and early November, which gives the roots a chance to establish themselves before the ground hardens. Garlic enjoys well-drained, nutrient-rich soil, so now’s a good time to use that compost you’ve been cooking all summer. Cloves planted this fall will be ready for harvest next July.
Other garden tasks to complete in September:
--Mulching, a/k/a putting your garden to bed. Those areas that you’re not putting to use with fall crops should be covered in some type of biodegradable material such as leaves, pine needles, or straw. This technique is important for protecting your garden beds from erosion and building organic matter that can be tilled into the soil come spring. A more ambitious alternative is to plant a cover crop such as oats, rye, or ryegrass. Known as “green manure,” cover crops “can protect [the soil] from erosion caused by rain and melting snow,” according to Maine Home Garden News, published by the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension. “They can also take up any unused nutrients, particularly nitrogen. When the cover crop is incorporated in the spring, the nitrogen is released.” You can and should mulch the garlic beds, if you planted them.
--If you have one, now is the best time to plant or re-seed your lawn. It’s also a great time to separate and transplant peonies, irises, and bulbs.
--Late-summer to mid-fall is a good time to plant trees, if you have space for them. (Bonus: Many nurseries have trees and shrubs on sale this time of year.) According to horticulturalist Amy Witt of the UMaine Cooperative extension, ash, crabapple, horse chestnut, and elm trees are all good candidates for fall planting; make sure to give them about an inch of water per week until the ground freezes. Witt also suggests wrapping “the trunks of thinned-bark young trees in late November to prevent frost cracks, sun scald and animal damage.” Fall is also the best time to prune trees and bushes.
--Prepare for next season. This year was such a success, I plan to expand my growing area next spring; my vision includes transforming a backyard slope into a set of tiered garden beds. A smart idea is to build and prepare your raised beds now, then cover them with newspaper, cardboard, or organic mulch to prep the soil and prevent weed growth. This way, they’ll be ready to go as soon as the ground thaws.