October can be such a confusing time for gardeners. This year is no exception. Some areas saw a very early frost and then? Right back up to the high 70s and low 80s! And no night temperatures below 40 degrees are forecasted until the last week of the month. Some things are constant though. Days are definitely shortening and the color of the light has changed. Fall is the time of year for two of my favorite garden activities-harvest and reflection. Without harvest, you can’t reap the rewards of a summer well spent. And without reflection, I can’t learn from my mistakes, as well as the successes.
The roller coaster spring certainly got many of us off to a slow start this year, but this autumn’s gentle slide means that some of you still have tomatoes on the vine. Other more cold hardy crops, like cabbage, kale and greens, are still going strong. Even a light frost won’t harm those. Winter squashes should be harvested now. They’ll be nice and sweet from the extended good weather.
Once the ground does begin to freeze, mulch your strawberry patches with a 4 to 6-inch layer of straw. Don’t be to tempted to use your fallen leaves as mulch for strawberry patches. They tend to mat down when wet, trapping molds and fungus. And when temps start 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 or trimmed when you prune in January. You can use a little spray paint or a length of marking tape as reminders. Look 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 once the canes stop producing.
Harvest any remaining root crops before the ground freezes. Don’t get caught with frozen carrots, potatoes or leeks 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 cleaned-out 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.