October in Gardening Through the Year (GTTY)
When we first moved here (early '70's), I believed that the gardening season was over when the weather turned cold. Each year I tried new things to get a few more weeks of fresh produce. I would like to share those experiments and some of what I have learned. Also October is the "get ready for spring" month. The weather is still pleasant to work outside and the organic matter for improving your garden is abundant.
Coming to the End of a Season:
Extending the growing season
One of the most effective ways to extend the growing season is to plant hardy crops that can stand the cold and even grow a little during October and November (see below). The other ways all involve different physical barriers to the cold. I will describe several, from simplest to most complicated.
Frost protection can be as easy as putting an old sheet over the plants that you wish to preserve. Other simple covers are old blankets, bedspreads, dropclothes, and garden quilts or row covers. These should be placed on the plants mid to late afternoon and removed the next day as soon as the air temperature is above freezing. Dry covers provide the best protection and do not weigh down the plants. Simple supports for covers can be made from heavy gauge wire, sections of fencing bent into a tunnel, old tubing from radiant heat or plumbing, or supports for this purpose purchased from a garden supply store. Clear 4 or 6 mil plastic can be used over the material for extra warmth and to keep the material dry. When you add the plastic, hardy crops can be protected into the lower teens.
Of course, you can also consider a greenhouse or hoop house. These will allow you to harvest more easily, provide more protection and with added light and warmth, you will be able actually grow vegetables and herbs through the winter. Cold frames are easy to construct and can be used both spring and fall. With a little fresh manure in the spring the cold frame can become a hot bed and many cool loving plants can get off to a fast start.
Choosing plants for late harvesting
Planting hardy crops is the most effective way to extend the season. They like it cool and the shorter days slow their growth, but still provide enough sun to keep them healthy. The most hardy are kale, collards and Brussels sprouts. They survive most winters here even unprotected. With moderate protection cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard, leaf lettuce, beet greens, parsley, cilantro, celery, all do well and can be harvested well into December. The trick is to plant a second crop of many of these in August, so the plants are at peak when the weather starts to chill.
Storage of produce outside
Root crops can stay in the ground with a heavy layer of mulch to keep them from freezing. This includes carrots, beets, leeks, turnips, rutabagas, and Jerusalem artichokes. If you notice that burrowing rodents have found your food, then either wash the roots/tubers and put them in plastic in the refrigerator or layer them in damp sand or compost in buckets or root cellar. Keep them all as close to 40 degrees as you can. We keep the buckets outside until the garage cools down. Once in buckets you can move them to the best location for the temperature.
Closing down your garden
After the frost, those dead plants should be removed to the compost pile and tender bulbs should be dug to store inside for the winter. As you pull up the spent plants, also pull the weeds that are either perennials or biennials. If annual weeds are still holding their seed, pull them as well. This is a good time to plant garlic and potato onions (ones that you harvested back in July, eating the larger ones and keeping the small ones to replant). I also sprinkle a few lettuce and spinach seeds on the bare ground to germinate in the spring. Leave Echinacea and hyssop flower heads for the finches. If you make your own Echinacea or any other tincture from the roots, this is the time to dig them because the plant has stored the energy to carry the plant through the winter along with its medicinal properties. Put away fence posts that have supported plants or secured tomato cages. Fold netting and bag it for next season.
Keeping records of varieties, locations, productivity
As you pull up plants and clean up each area, it is good to record which varieties did well. It is good management to rotate the crops, so note the location of each type of plant so you don’t plant there again for at least two years.
Getting Ready for the Next Season:
Interacting with neighbors
One wonderful October activity is collect leaves that neighbors put out in bags. The leaves are useful for both compost and mulch. Most neighbors will ask what you are doing and telling them will perhaps promote gardening, but will definitely grow friendships. We empty the bags right away and leave the same number of empty bags at a house as full ones we take. People really appreciate this simple jesture. We have neighbors that take their leaves to the town dump and are delighted to drop them off here instead. The advantage to them is not only the short distance, but also the long hours our yard is open. They can come early or late and empty their trailers, bypassing the whole bag fuss.
It is also a very neighborly thing to do to help start a small garden for someone that might be interested. Using the weedless method, you can get a plot ready for the winter in just a few minutes. Decide on the location (plenty of sun) and size. Sprinkle the area with an organic fertilizer. Collect a few bags of leaves from the roadside. Split open the brown leaf bags to provide a light barrier for the grass or weeds below. The leaves will decay some and hold the bag in place. In the spring, all that is needed is a couple of inches of compost and the garden is ready to plant. A few branches can keep the leaves from blowing away before the snow comes.
Your compost pile will be especially big this time of year. It is a good idea to layer some leaves between the kitchen waste and spent plants. A few shovelfuls of dirt is also a good addition. Any finished pile should be relocated to the garden beds. If you have a pile that is not quite finished, turn it and it will be perfect in the spring. Be sure to use the compost that you have made. If it didn’t heat up enough to kill seeds, use it in a lower layer of a lasagna bed or under the light barrier in a weedless garden .
Expanding or starting a garden
This is the time to begin a garden or expand your existing garden. See the second paragraph in “Interacting with neighbors” and here for suggestions.
What to collect now for spring use
There are so many items that are useful in the garden. Watch for new construction in your neighborhood or in your travels. As for scrap lumber for cold frames, tubing for tunnels, plastic sheeting that has been use for protection, etc. Large pieces of cardboard and newspapers will be needed to start a new plot or expand an old one. Leaves and hay have many uses. No matter what you see that is free, think “can I use this for the garden?” So often the answer is “yes”.