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October can be such a confusing time for new gardeners. Though the sun certainly isn’t quite as warm, the golden color of autumn light can fool us into thinking that it is still late summer.  Fall is the time of year for two of our favorite garden activities-harvest and reflection. Without the harvest, we can’t reap the rewards of a summer well spent. And without reflection, we’ll never learn from our mistakes and successes.

The benefits of an extended growing season like this year are obvious. Some of us still have tomatoes on the vine, though the cooler temperatures aren’t ripening the fruit. Other more cold-hardy crops, like crucifers and greens, are still going strong. Even light frosts don’t harm those. Winter squashes should be harvested now. They’ll be nice and sweet from the extended good weather.

Once the ground starts to freeze, mulch your strawberry patches with a 4 to 6-inch layer of straw. Don’t use your fallen leaves as mulch here. They tend to mat down when wet, trapping molds and fungus.  And now that temps are beginning to tumble, go ahead and plant some garlic, making sure to mulch with a thick layer of straw as well. The new plants will winter better and the heads will be bigger next summer.

As fruit trees defoliate, be sure to rake underneath, removing any diseased foliage or fruit that could harbor fungal problems. This definitely includes crabapples, serviceberries, and ornamental pears and cherries. Old leaf litter could re-infect your plants next spring. Take a good look at the skeleton of the tree and note which branches should be removed in January. You can use a little spray paint or a length of masking tape. Watch for branches that are rubbing against each other, those with wounds and any that are growing straight up and down.

If your raspberries bore fruit in June, selectively remove canes that fruited this year, making sure to leave the un-fruited ones in for next summer. If your patch had berries in August, mow the entire thing back to the ground.

Harvest any remaining root crops before the ground freezes. Don’t get caught with frozen carrots, potatoes or leeks that are trapped in your garden. It’s hard work to dig them out, and messy too.

Shred those fallen leaves with your lawn mower and dig a 3 to 4-inch layer into your vegetable garden. They’ll decompose over the winter, adding nutrients and improving drainage. If you want an extra early start next spring, lay a sheet of dark plastic over the bed and weight it down. This layer will help the soil to absorb the heat of the winter sun, speeding up decomposition. It can also kill weed seeds that may be in that very top layer of soil.