Late Fall Gardening: Cleanup, Compost, Planting

Garlic holes around the parsley and lemon verbena and mess of overgrown green onions.

Garlic holes around the parsley and lemon verbena and mess of overgrown green onions.

I'm not going to wax poetic about politics and garlic in this post. Well maybe just a little bit. I promise it will be quick. But first, what's going on in the garden for early November (!!!) in St. Paul, MN (aka zone 4a) with no season extension assistance... yet.

Truth be told, these things should generally have been done around Halloween but we've had such a flux of warm spells I've had the luxury of slowly adding garden tasks each week instead of freaking out while simultaneously trying to avoid the inevitable rotting vegetables I never got around to preserving.

In my personal order of importance:

  1. Weed and add a bit of compost or granulated fertilizer to any remaining kale, collards or other really cold tolerant plants that you are still harvesting.
  2. Harvest the final beans, tomatoes and any other warm weather crop (think peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, etc). A lot of people enjoy pickling or fermenting green tomatoes. Mine are in the fridge waiting for me to make them into Green Tomato Cake. I tried the whole relish thing years ago and it's just not my jam. This week I harvested one giant lemon verbena plant, stripped the leaves, left the stems for compost/mulching on the bed, and pureed equal parts leaves and sugar to make a lemon verbena sugar for turning into syrups or body scrubs. I took overgrown green beans and saved the seeds to cook up.
  3. Break the tomato plants into smaller 6" - 18" pieces and put into a separate pile from your compost. Since many tomato plants have bacterial or fungal diseases by the end of the season, it's best to keep those in a second heap for non-edible plant compost next spring.
  4. Weed any remaining unwanted plants. Feel like leaving those dandelions for next spring to get some early greens? Leave them be.
  5. This would be your time to throw down any seeds that can bear the cold so they get a jump start next year: cilantro, cold hardy lettuces, spinach, kales, collards, etc. Just remember where you've planted them. I find drawing a map of each area helpful. Don't listen to yourself when you say you'll remember. You won't.
  6. Determine your allium (onion-y bulbs) area and plant your garlic. Basically garlic/onions/chives are delicious but don't get along with peas, beans, peanuts or other legumes. Plan on moving your tomatoes or other heavy feeders to an area where those legumes grew last year and plant your garlic here. Come spring, you should plant those legumes where you grew tomatoes, okra, corn, cabbages, collards, kale, broccoli and cauliflower.
  7. Planting Garlic: Choose garlic from the farmers market or seed company or from a farmer you know hasn't done anything to the bulb to inhibit growth. Johnny's Seeds has a great sheet with all you could ever want to know about growing garlic including the basic spacing and depth:
Good luck buddy.

Good luck buddy.

Plant individual cloves approximately four to six inches apart in rows 18-24” apart. Push the clove, root end down, about 1-2” into the soil, or place cloves in a furrow and cover with 2” of soil. Sow in well drained soil. Mulch with grass clippings, hay, straw or leaves to a depth of 4-6” directly after planting

That brings us to leaves...

Notes on Leaves

Leaf Duty: This is a tricky one. For your lawns it's actually best to run the lawnmower over your leaves and allow them to mulch the grass, give food to the earthworms and microorganisms, and help build soil for next year (this will mean better water absorption and happier lawns). So yes, do this.

BUT - you'll also want to take some for: saving bagged, dried/crunchy leaves in a dry place for composting in the Spring/Summer when you run out of brown matter; mulching your winter seeds and garden beds, starting a new compost pile while this season's does it's work over the winter. I find asking neighbors and friends for bags of leaves helps.

Plant Killing Residues: Remember you should avoid leaves that have been in contact with a lawn sprayed with weedkiller (think RoundUp). Ask your source if they spray. As a general rule I don't use any if the owner has ever sprayed.

The poison of black walnut leaves: Black Walnut roots, stems, and leaves (really all the tree) have a chemical compound called juglone (which I imagine looks like a Jugalo when magnified but that's just conjecture) that impedes tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, potatoes, and eggplant from growing, causing their leaves to yellow and die. The general Internet agreement is that composting the leaves for 2 months or so breaks down the juglone enough for safe application to plants in the spring. Some gardeners recommend testing a tomato seedling in the soil for a week or two to see if it survives before you add it to your garden. Read more about the whole thing here.

(My new home has two giant black walnut trees and I am terrified my compost will end up being a serial plant killer but at least I get to see about tapping them for syrup in the spring, right?)

Planting garlic this week meant a small stoppage/distraction from the fear of what the next four years will do. The act of placing 18 cloves into the ground and remembering that they will come up in spring was beneficial in that it reminded me of the comfort of planning for the future. Focusing on what we can impact, and continuing to make concerted efforts to invest in our future is what I think we should all be reminded of once in a while. Here's to investing and growing together.