Once Upon Tending Your Autumn Vegetable Garden
Updated: Sep 30
When I was younger, we had two small children, a big vegetable garden, chickens, and always a beef calf, hunting dogs, cats, and guppies, so I’m not a total newbie when it comes to keeping things alive. Recently I became a Board Member at The Learning Fields, but today's lifestyle isn't as earthy, so at the very least, I'll need some garden gloves!
I remarried some 40 years ago and home is a loft apartment in downtown Fort Smith that we share with two potted plants on our dining table and a Rosemary on the balcony. They aren’t doing nearly as well as my long-ago vegetables, so I'm going to dig into the knowledge and enthusiasm of Learning Fields' volunteers and get back into gardening. My little plants will appreciate it. And since I'll be studying, I'll let you know what I find out.
So, now what?
The Learning Fields has beautiful demonstration gardens, trial gardens, a greenhouse, raised beds, and of specific interest to me right now, a Family Vegetable Garden! Since I’ve forgotten more than I knew (not really) I'm ready to dig in and find out what needs to be done to a vegetable garden from September to first frost.
Things to get done pretty soon!
Depending on your energy and the weather, you may have already tackled some of these projects. Here's three basic groups of things to do, and you'll probably end up doing some of everything at the same time in different areas of the garden.
Harvesting and end-of-season planting
Clean-up and soil preparation
Expanding and planning for next year
1. Harvesting and end-of-season planting
Tomatoes: Winter tends to look bleak and bare to me when I think about NO TOMATOES, so they get the #1 position! Pinch out the tips of outdoor cordon tomato plants to concentrate the plant's energy into producing ripe fruits. They'll produce a little longer, just keep your eye on them.
What's "cordon growing"? This is the method of training the plant on a single stem, tying the stem into a cane, and removing all the side shoots that start to form between the stem and leaves. This method puts all the plant's energy into flowering and fruiting rather than throwing out side-shots.
Sweet corn: To test if it’s ripe for harvest, pinch a kernel. If it releases a milky sap, it's ready! If the kernels are starchy you've left it too late. Watery? Wait a day and test again.
Is sweet corn too good to be true? Is it healthy? Your gonna' love this! It's loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that promote healthy vision. Besides helping with weight loss, the insoluble fiber in corn feeds good bacteria in your gut, which aids in digestion and helps keep you regular. So, short answer is YES, sweet corn is GOOD for you and delicious, to boot.
Potatoes: Pull or cut off the foliage of maincrop potatoes at ground level three weeks before lifting them. This will prevent blight spores from infecting the tubers when you lift them and help to firm the skins of the potatoes. Harvest often before the plants begin to die back. Gather potatoes on a cloudy day and spread dug potatoes out to dry for a few hours before storing them in a cool, dark place. Store them in paper or hessian sacks to allow the crop to breathe while in storage. Only store undamaged, disease-free tubers. One rotten potato can ruin your whole crop!
What are hessian sacks and why use them? Hessian is a densely woven fabric traditionally used for storing vegetables and dry goods. Hassian keeps light out and allows air to circulate freely. More recently it is being used in a refined state known simply as jute, a eco-friendly material for bags, rugs, and other products.
Pumpkins: To help your pumpkins ripen before Halloween, remove any leaves shadowing the fruits. The ripening process requires sunlight, warmth, and time. If your pumpkins are still on the vine, probably better to leave them there! If you expect frost, cover the pumpkins and vine with plastic sheeting. If the weather takes a cold turn, keep your pumpkins covered all day.
If the weather has ended the season before Halloween, here are some tips, but sadly, success is not guaranteed. A very green pumpkin is less likely to ripen and turn orange in whatever time you have remaining until Halloween. Here is what to do:
Remove the pumpkins from the patch and wash off the dirt.
Place your pumpkins on a warm, sunny deck or patio.
They can also be brought inside. If you bring them indoors, make sure there is good air circulation to minimize the chances of mold and rotting.
Turn the greenest side of the pumpkin towards the sun.
Rotate the pumpkin from time to time to allow the sun to reach the greener parts of the pumpkin.
If left outdoors, bring them in at night to keep the pumpkins' temperatures warmer.
Squash: Raise squashes off the ground to prevent rotting. Place them on a piece of slate or wood. Summer squash won't ripen or mature once picked, but you can keep them for a day or two in the refrigerator.
Beans: Keep feeding and watering French and runner beans to make the most of them. Continue harvesting little and often to prevent them from setting seed. Once the plants have finished, cut them down at ground level. Cut bean and pea plants away at ground level when they have finished cropping. Leave the roots which will slowly release nitrogen back into the soil as they break down. Leave shell bean plants in the garden until the pods become brown and dry. If wet weather comes, pull up the plants and hang them to dry by their roots in an airy shed or porch.
Herbs: Pot up some mint and parsley for the kitchen windowsill, for fresh herbs through the winter. Go ahead and sow parsley and chervil for a spring crop. Divide and replant clumps of bergamot; about one foot apart, preferably in rich soil. Take cuttings of bay, lavender, and rue and root them in sandy soil in a shaded frame or cloche.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard, kale, or turnips: To prevent birds from making a meal out of them, cover with netting. Be prepared to protect from early cold weather. Turnip greens get tastier when touched by frost, so be ready to pick them!
It's not too late to sow and plant vegetables. Sow spinach and spring cabbage for next year, and have sheets of horticultural fleece, bubble wrap, or straw ready to cover the ground from October to protect the seedlings from frost. Plant onion and garlic sets now for early harvests next year. Choose onions suitable for autumn sowings, like ‘Troy’ or ‘Radar’.
My favorite? Plant bush beans! You'll need about 45 days of frost-free or frost-protected weather. Any remaining seeds you have from summer are still good. Ran out? Your garden center probably has some left and they should be "on sale." Good choices for this fall project are Tendercrop, Contender, Top Crop, or any bean with "early" in the name! EZPZ
Winter crop protection: Reduce losses during winter and hasten maturity in spring by putting hoops in place now so that crops can be covered quickly with sheets of horticultural fleece or bubble wrap when frost threatens.
2. Now is the time for cleanup!
Begin garden cleanup as crops come out of the garden. Remove all dead plant material and any rotten fruit or vegetables. Add only healthy vegetation (including weeds!) to your compost pile as most compost piles don't get hot enough to destroy disease or fungus. If your plants were unhealthy with mildew, mold, or blight, dispose of the foliage with the household trash or burn it to avoid spreading it to your compost pile.
As to compost and mulch, it gets a little tricky. Once you've cleaned things up, including remaining mulch, add a 1-2-inch layer of finished compost. Lightly cover the beds with the old mulch to help suppress weeds. But it's too early to insulate heavily. Many diseases and pests are killed when the soil freezes in winter. Mulching the beds too thickly could prevent the soil from freezing completely. Once the ground freezes, add another layer of mulch to perennial herbs and flowers.
Now is also the time to get your soil tested. The results will tell you:
Levels of potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S)
Level of organic matter
Further, the test will recommend how much lime and fertilizer to add to improve your soil. Lime will adjust the soil pH, and adding lime in the fall gives it all winter to dissolve into the soil. Other nutritional amendments can be added in the spring at planting time. Soil testing is provided free to Arkansas residents through individual county Cooperative Extension Offices.
3. Expanding and planning for next year
Now is the perfect time to walk around and think about ways you can add to your garden or make it easier for you to handle. Consider adding a few raised, long narrow beds with walking space between for easy walking.
If there were areas that didn't perform well, begin thinking about changes. Keep a garden notebook, make maps, take notes while details are fresh. Remember, you'll have some cold winter days and long winter evenings to research for solutions to any problems you had. Have fun planning next year. There are more ideas out there than we could ever think up alone. Between your computer, the library, television, clubs and organizations (including The Learning Fields), you'll come up with loads of ideas. Here are a few suggestions:
Crop rotation, move crops around for companion planting.
Figure out where to plant that strange vegetable your neighbor keeps talking about!
Order seeds and other cool things you thought about during the summer.
Clean and repair tools. Decide you're going to get the tiller you always wanted.
Want a new greenhouse, harvesting station, or a labyrinth garden? Start looking at designs so you can get started early!
Remember to relax. Most of the winter gardening is mental, not physical, so you've got some downtime to recuperate!
If you haven't visited The Learning Fields at Chaffee Crossing, any season is a good season! See how specific plants look at different times of the year, and you'll end up meeting volunteers.
Thank you for your time! Hope you enjoyed this and it helped you.
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