Some of us enjoy the big fall garden cleanup after that first hard frost. Get out there and clear away all the dead vegetation and wipe the slate clean for the next year’s garden.
Some of us dread the big fall garden cleanup. Get out there and do a lot of drudge type work, with mold everywhere and no short-term reward.
As a former baseball manager stated in a popular TV beer commercial before many of you were born: I feel very strongly both ways.
It’s cathartic, in a big way, for me to wrap up the garden year. Yes, I have many, many perennial plants, so it’s not like my garden vanishes at the soil line in October. Plants maintain a noble presence even in hibernation. But let’s face it, we spend much of our time working with, and enjoying, plants that are growing, blooming, providing crops and otherwise shining today, right now. We crave that instant gratification. (And, by golly, we deserve it, for working so very hard.) So when everything dies or goes into hibernation, it can be a time to reflect on all those great days of the past season—and to look ahead
Cleaning up always provides little rewards. This fall, for example, after ripping up my dead zinnias, I found two clumps of young garlic plants that sprouted from bulbs that didn’t get harvested fully or properly during the summer. You know how it happens. So often, particularly after a long day on your knees or, worse, bending over, your back starts complaining before its work is done. So instead of using a trowel or fingers to get under the onion or garlic bulb, you just yank from the top growth. Sometimes you get nothing but stem. And you have such a big crop of onions or garlic or whatever anyway, you just decide to ignore the victim of your half-hearted harvesting. These subterranean, forgotten treasures bide their time, then start growing again in the late summer and fall.
My guest garlic plants are a little more advanced than would be ideal at this point in the year. The above-ground foliage is long and “leggy,” which is terrific in a significant other but not so good in a vegetable. One way or another, though, I’m sure the plants will survive the winter and do something productive next year. Onion family plants are notoriously impervious to weather, insults, the European financial crisis and basketball lockouts, among other disasters. They might not carry on spectacularly, but carry on they will.
Cleaning up is a good time to take stock of the poles, sticks, portable fences and other doo-dads that one utilizes until they literally fall apart. The wooden tomato stakes deteriorate each year, but at a low rate of attrition. Not so for my raised bed boards, though. After about four years, some are beginning to rot. No surprise. But for a few hundred bucks and a half-day of labor at most, I can replace them next year—or the year after, if I feel particularly lazy and/or cash-strapped in 2012.
The downside to cleaning up the garden is, of course, that everything dies or goes into hibernation. I hate this. I hate it with a passion. I rage against the dying of the light. Gardening is just so damn much fun, so damn rewarding, that I won’t let it go until the miserable frosts and freezes drag all remnants of it from my desperate fingers and fossilized brain matter.
This fall, I took notes about what I grew this year, and where, in my six raised beds. That will lead to next year’s planning, with a rotation of most sun-loving plants, such as lettuce (early spring sun), peas, tomatoes, peppers, squash and annual flowers, along with the butter beans, which can tolerate some shade. They produce a little later than if they were in prime real estate, but they usually manage two picking periods of two to three weeks each—weather permitting in October.
I had planned to cut my raspberry canes down at the ground level this fall. I still might do so. Usually, I cut these back in the spring just before the new year’s growth begins. I remove all old canes and keep three or four new canes per plant, at maybe 15 inches in height, spread around the center of the root mass. But my raspberries succumbed to disease this year, yielding almost no harvest after early August. Right now, there still some leaves on the old canes, so I will wait a while before decapitating them. Perhaps one mild day in December I will come out and cut them crisply at the ground level and haul away or burn the canes so that I minimize the chance that the plants will be diseased next year.
The real reason I envision that early winter chore, though, is that I just can’t stand to wait through three or four months without gardening of any kind—even if it’s the gardening version of “cleanup on Aisle Seven”. The difference between summer and winter is just too stark, my patience is much too limited, and the passion I concede for gardening is much too strong to ignore. It will nibble and bite at me all through the dark, end-of-year days, taunt me through snowy January nights, and tempt me on cold February afternoons.
Some of these feelings will be vented through this column. Most, however, sit and bounce around my mind like those balls with lottery numbers in the clear plastic cages before a few lucky ones get disgorged.
This fall, like every fall, I am completely amazed when I dig up my dahlia tubers, one of the last acts of the gardening year for me. It’s a tricky process, at least to do it right. These tubers grow below the ground line, attached to the stem by narrow necks. At the fragile point where the tubers connect to the stem, the slightest pressure can rupture the connection, damaging if not ruining the tubers so that they don’t sprout and thrive next year.
So I draw an imaginary box about a foot wide on each side around the stems and take a narrow spade and plunge it straight down on the edges of this imaginary box, trying to avoid hitting the tubers. Then I try to maneuver the spade under the tubers. I lift the stem with one arm and lift the shovel with the other. Then I inspect the tubers briefly, wiping away excess mud. Invariably, some get damaged. But most don’t.
But what amazes me is how absolutely ugly these guys are.
I won’t get all Freudian about them, but these guys could stop a clock. Fragile and ugly; what a combination. And then the obvious question: How can something so totally unattractive produce such exquisitely beautiful flowers?
Just one of life’s little mysteries.
Have a great winter, everyone.