Why Now?

For the past week or so I’ve been getting parts of the garden ready for next year. Too soon, you say? No, says I.

Pole beans

Pole beans

A bed of corn and a bed of bush beans are finished for the season. Not that that’s the end of either vegetable. I planted four beds of corn, each two weeks after the previous, and the two remaining beds will be providing ears of fresh Golden Bantam — a hundred year old variety with rich, corny flavor — well into September.

The bed of bush beans will be superseded by a bed of pole beans, planted at the same time. Bush beans start bearing early but peter out after a couple of harvests. Pole beans are slower to get going, but once they do, they keep up a quickening pace until slowed, then stopped, by cold weather.

Why, you may ask, ready those beds now for eight months hence? One reason is that the garden is always such a flurry of activity in spring that I welcome one less thing that needs doing then. Also, part of garden preparation is thorough weeding (which I also keep up with, though less thoroughly, all season long). Any weeds checked now means less weed seed to spread around the garden and, in the case of perennial weeds, less opportunity to gain a foothold.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

And later in the season…

Planted bed, endive, lettuce

And, later in the season

And beds prepared now need not sit idle till spring. Right after getting the old bean bed ready for spring, I’ll plant it with vegetables that thrive in the cool weather of fall, vegetables such as lettuce, endive, turnips, Chinese cabbage, and winter radishes. The bed will be ready as soon as fall vegetables are harvested and out of the way.

And How? Simple.

No magic potions or secret techniques ready my beds now for next year. What’s needed, besides weeding and fertilizing, is to maintain or increase levels of soil organic matter. Organic matter is integral to good fertility, maintaining a diverse population of beneficial soil microbes, and improving soil aeration and moisture retention. It’s what put the “organic” into organic gardening.

The way I provide all this can be summed up in one word: compost.

Okay, there is more to it. My vegetable garden is laid out in beds that are 3 feet wide with 18 inch wide paths between them (and a 5 foot wide path up the middle of the garden for rolling in cartfuls of compost). Soil in the beds has not been tilled or otherwise unduly disturbed for decades, which has many benefits that I delve into in my book Weedless Gardening.

First step in getting the garden ready for next year is to remove all existing plants, be they corn, bean, or weed plants. I excise most plants, including weeds, by grabbing each near its base and giving it a slight twist to sever it from its fine roots, which are left in place. Coaxing with my Hori-Hori knife is sometimes needed. Corn plants definitely need coaxing, which I do by digging straight down around the base of each plant and then giving it a yank. After all this, I smooth out the ground, if necessary, with the tines of a rake or pitchfork.

A one inch depth of finished compost should provide all that intensively grown vegetables require for a whole season. That one inch of compost is laid down like a rich icing right on top of the bed. Finished!
Composted garden bed
Okay, there’s sometimes a little more to it. I noticed weak growth in one of the later corn beds, possibly due to nitrogen deficiency, although untimely, temporary malfunction of my drip irrigation system at a critical growth stage for the corn is another possibility. Just too make sure, I will sprinkle some organic nitrogen fertilizer (soybean meal) in that bed when I prepare it.

(I could test the soil for some other nutrient deficiency, but after years of using compost made from diverse feedstuffs, some other nutrient deficiency is doubtful. There’s no good test for nitrogen because of its evanescence in the soil.)

Okay, there’s sometimes even a little more to my soil prep. If a bed is finished for the season and I have enough cleared beds for all the cool season vegetables, I could just prepare the bed, as above, and that would be the end of the story. But I don’t like to look at bare ground, so beds cleared and prepared early enough in the season, which is about the end of September here in Zone 5, get planted with a cover crop. Cover crops protect soil from wind and water erosion, latch onto nutrients that would otherwise leach down and out of the ground, and crumble the soil to a fine tilth with their roots. And going into winter, I’d rather look at a lush, green cover crop than bare ground.

Cover crop in autumn

Cover crop in autumn

My usual cover crop of choice is oats or barley. Both thrive in autumn’s cool, moist weather. They mesh well with no-till because they winterkill here in Zone 5.

This year, especially for my beds of corn, which is a nitrogen-hungry plant, I’ll mix crimson clover in with the oats or barley. As a legume, the clover will enrich the ground with extra nitrogen that it extracts from the air. And the vivid crimson flower heads, sitting atop stalks like lolliopops, will look nice.
Crimson clover

End of Summer? Enter the Fall Garden.

Fading Summer Brings in Fall Greens, and Hollyhocks for Cheer

There’s a flurry of seed sowing and setting out of transplants going on here. Am I deluded that it’s springtime? No. Autumn is around the corner and there are vegetables to be planted.

For many gardeners, summer’s end and the garden’s end are one and the same. But planning for and planting an autumn vegetable garden bypasses the funereal look of waning tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other vegetables that thrive only with summer heat and long days of sunshine, and puts plenty of fresh vegetables on the table. Having an autumn vegetable garden is like having a whole new garden, one that gradually fades in, like a developing photograph, as summer vegetables fade out.

Autumn vegetables come to the fore as tomatoes fade away

Autumn vegetables come to the fore as tomatoes fade away


Which is why today I tucked two dozen endive transplants into a double row of holes spaced fifteen inches apart in a three-foot-wide bed. And which is why, in a different bed two weeks ago, I sowed a row of Watermelon winter radishes (the resemblance to watermelon only in the color of their innards), a row of turnips, and a row of Chinese cabbage. Also, why back in March, seeds of Brussels sprouts were sown, the seedlings of which were transplanted to yet another bed last May.

Not that the time has passed for planting any autumn vegetables; plenty of vegetables that enjoy the cool moistness of autumn are still to be sown. This week, I plant to sow lettuce, spring radishes, arugula, mustard, and spinach. 

Edamame Out, Endive In

The question might arise as to where to plant all these autumn vegetables when the garden is already overflowing with summer vegetables. Overflowing, really?
I planted the endive transplants in a bed that I had just cleared of edamame plants; edamame bear over a period of a couple of weeks and then they’re done, which they were. Likewise, a whole bed of onions and a first planting of corn are finishing up, freeing up space for planting. Even the bed from the second planting of corn will be freed up the end of August.


Endive transplants go where edamame once grew

Endive transplants go where edamame once grew

Harvest of bush beans does not halt as abruptly as that of corn, onions, or edamame. Nonetheless, the bean harvest does begin to taper down after two or three weeks, so out went the first planting of bush beans a couple of weeks ago. A second planting, sown in a different bed three weeks after the first planting, took up the slack, and today I’m pulling even those plants out of the ground. Pole bean plants will keep green beans on our plates until frosty weather, which it what it takes to put a stop those plants.

Can’t Help But Smile With Hollyhocks

My garden isn’t only about food. I’m also sowing some flower seeds now, not to blossom in autumn but to get a jump on next spring.
This past spring I sowed seeds of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks (from Right now, the plants’ seven-foot-high spires are studded along their length with frilly blossoms in delicious shades of apricot and rosy-peach. I want more.

Spires of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks add a smile to the garden.

Spires of Apricot-Peach Parfait hollyhocks add a smile to the garden.


Hollyhock self-seeds so future population growth could be left to the vagaries of nature and weather. But overly diligent weeding or mulching might quash newcomers, so I’m going to sow more seeds. Hollyhock is a biennial or short-lived perennial so that self-seeding habit is welcome.

As either a short-lived perennial or biennial, hollyhocks tend to grow just leaves their first year and flower their second year — then die if they behave like a biennial, or go on to flower for more years if they are perennial. I was able to get flowers this season from spring-sown seeds because I planted the seed early and the seedlings spent their first few weeks of growth in the greenhouse. (Through breeding, some varieties of hollyhock behave as annuals, and bloom reliably their first year — but not as seven-foot-high spires.)

Planting the seed in late summer guarantees that the plants will bloom next year, and earlier than spring-sown plants. Cool weather of late fall and late winter helps trigger the flowering response.

Delphinium is another flower to sow this week. In addition to the advantages of enjoying spires of blue flowers earlier and more reliably next summer, delphinium seeds sprout more reliably if fresh, which they are more likely to be in autumn than the following spring. Chilling the dry seed — some sources suggest stratification, that is, chilling the moist seed — for a week or so also is said to help wake it up.

Once seedlings of hollyhocks and delphiniums get going, they’ll need special accommodations to get through winter. After all, they’ll still be tender, baby plants when the weather turns frigid. The goal is to keep them alive and growing slowly going into winter. I’ll either tuck the pots close together in the cold frame or in the slightly warmer large window in my barely heated basement.