Brian Minter: The cycle of gardening
If you are lucky enough to have a garden, now is a time of transition and an opportunity to prepare for spring. In large gardens there is a constant growth sequence at any time of the year: some plants complete their cycle; others are in their prime; and new plantings are just beginning in anticipation of what’s next.
Many plants are made in food gardens; So it’s time to pull them out and use their leaves for compost. A tired looking garden is always a bit depressing. Changing that look into something promising is psychologically uplifting. After cleaning the area, you can either replant or prepare for the next year by enriching the soil.
It’s a little late to transplant annual vegetables, but 4-inch pots of Swiss chard, kale, and hardy lettuce can still get in in milder areas. In many gardens, winter vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, turnips and parsnips are growing at their peak in maturity. Root crops like carrots, turnips, and beets are viable until really cold weather arrives or can continue through winter with a little protection.
Hardy herbs such as chives, parsley, oregano, thyme, marjoram and sage provide fresh flavors all winter long. Rosemary needs some protection.
Some perennial vegetables such as Jerusalem artichoke, horseradish and one or the other rhubarb stem can be a real treat at this time of year.
Small fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and thornless blackberries can now be planted where they are still available. Although their tips are dormant, their roots will develop in winter and by the next spring they will be ready to produce fruit.
It is time to cut to the ground the “always-bearing” raspberries. Clean up the busy season varieties by cutting out older sticks while preserving previous season’s new growth and training it along the wire frame.
Overgrown grapes and other grape berries should also be cleaned up now to prepare them for an abundant harvest next year.
One of the best things you can do before it rains heavily is improving drainage by working in fir or hemlock bark mulch to break up heavy, clay-laden garden soils. An agrologist recently told me that these two bark mulches are among the most valuable organic substances to improve the soil. I asked about nitrogen being stolen while bacteria were breaking down the bark and he said the loss was negligible. A handful of Ammonia Sulphate 21-0-0 quickly replaces any nitrogen lost.
Well-degraded compost or fertilizer applied now will help build your soil for the next season. A few weeks ago I presented Shahzad Nazir Khan in an article. After completing his Master of Science degree in agronomy, he recommends adding humic acid and seaweed meal to soils to feed beneficial bacteria.
Green crop blankets can still be planted in milder areas. The value of autumn rye, an attractive winter soil cover, only comes into play when it is worked back into the soil as green manure. However, this rejuvenation process can delay the start of spring gardening. A mixed legume mixture of rye, winter wheat and winter peas binds nitrogen in the soil as it grows.
Applying lime is important in humid areas because the pH of the soil remains high during long periods of rain and the calcium component of lime is important for organic farming. Lime should now be applied to both lawns and gardens. One 10 kilogram bag of Dolopril lime will cover 200 square meters.
At this time of year, lawns must also be ventilated. With today’s smaller lawns, a hand aerator is a valuable garden tool. In both fall and spring, when the soil is soft, thorough aeration followed by the application of washed sand improves drainage, especially on heavier soils, dramatically and allows the base to go deeper. The more you aerate and grind the better, as you are creating a condition where moss will not thrive.
Cut your lawn much shorter this time of year and always mow in different directions to let more oxygen into your base and reduce the development of straw.
Perennial gardens also need attention. Messy herbaceous perennials should now be pruned deep to the ground, including peonies, irises, phlox, and other perennials that have completed their cycle and the nutrients in their leaves have returned to the roots. Give lavender a light cut and leave the hard cut until it sprouts again in spring. Cut tired sedums to the ground and within a few weeks a rosette of new growth will appear – another promise of things to come. Plant some early perennials now like Arabis, Aubrieta, Candytuft, and yellow Alyssum for extra February pop.
Cut back sloppy-looking ornamental grasses. Most grasses, however, are a rich straw color, which gives our gardens an element of winter beauty.
After pruning, apply additional fertilizer around each perennial lump to prepare it for next year’s performance. If it’s in a lower area or if the soil is heavy, work in a fir or hemlock bark mulch to prevent root rot.
Unsightly ornamental vines such as late-blooming clematis can be cut back to improve their appearance. Early and winter-blooming clematis must not be pruned because their buds have already been set.
By cleverly cleaning, pruning, and improving the quality of our floors, our gardens will be ready and waiting for the promise of spring. With winter pansies and violas, adding strategic blocks of color, and adding a few crocuses, snowdrops, and muscari, your garden will look better in winter and early spring. The anticipation of the things to come is one of the best gifts our gardens can give us, and the art of the garden is to keep this cycle of renewal going.