WASHINGTON — Afternoons spent biting into fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes and collecting buckets of basil from the backyard are now a distant memory.
Summer’s bounty is gone, and the cold-weather months are officially here.
But just because frost is in the forecast doesn’t mean you need to abandon the garden. Kathy Jentz, editor and publisher of
Washington Gardener Magazine, said fall is a great time to plan and plant for spring. Here are her top tips for gardening in the off season:
Savor the last of summer
If a few summer herbs are still hanging around, now is the time to rip them out of the ground and hang them to dry. Store them properly and use them to cook with throughout the winter.
Have a few tomatoes that are still going strong? Pull out the entire plant from the roots and hang it upside down in a cellar or shed. Jentz said the tomatoes will continue to ripen on the vine.
By November, it’s a little late to plant fall greens, but if you’re dying to get your hands dirty, there are a few veggies you can start this time of year, including radishes. Jentz said from seed to salad, radishes are incredibly fast and only take about 30 to 45 days, as long as the region doesn’t experience a deep freeze before they are ready. The same goes for other root vegetables, such as turnips and beets.
Crank out some carrots
Mid-Atlantic gardeners can plant carrots this time of year, since the cold weather only makes them taste better.
“They’ll be forming underground all winter long, and then you can just go out and dig them in January and they’re actually a little sweeter at that point because the frost and freeze makes the sugars rise,” Jentz said.
Get garlic in the ground
Garlic is also good to go in the ground in late fall. Jentz recommends breaking up a head of garlic and planting each clove, pointy side up, in a hole that’s a couple of inches deep in a spot that receives good sunlight. By May, garlic scapes will pop up and lend a fresh flavor to pastas, pestos and pizzas. By early July, each clove will have formed into its own head of garlic.
“And then you just dry them in a warm, dry space for a couple of weeks and you have your cured garlic heads. It’s like magic,” Jentz said.
Just be sure to give the garlic its space: It doesn’t like anything crowding the root zone.
“So just know that what you’re planting now in mid-fall is going to go through July, and you wouldn’t be able to interplant with tomatoes or anything else. So you’re sacrificing that space, but it’s such an easy crop and it’s pretty much set-it-and-forget-it, so I don’t see why anybody with a sunny spot wouldn’t try it,” Jentz said.
Bury the bulbs
Now through December is the window to start on spring-blooming bulbs. Jentz suggests going to your local garden center and touching the bulbs before making your purchase. The best ones are firm, not mushy.
When you go to plant them, the general rule-of-thumb is pointy side up in a hole that’s twice the height of the bulb. And Jentz has a timesaving trick:
“You don’t need to plant each in its own little hole,” she said.
“You can dig out a 2-foot by 4-foot section, 6 inches deep or so, and then put an odd number of bulbs in. The bottom layer might be tulips or daffodils, then cover that with a bit of soil, and then do a second layer of the minor bulbs, which are the small ones like crocus and muscari, and then cover that.”
This creates a more visually appealing garden, come spring.
Leave a mess
You may be tempted to clean your garden for the winter months, but Jentz said being a “messy gardener” has its perks.
“You want some of that leaf litter to cover and make a nice bedding and insulate the soil around most of the roots of your plants,” she said.
Plus, leaf litter and the hollow stems of native plants (black-eyed Susans and echinacea) provide shelter for insect friends and pollinators.
“If you really like the look of a neat garden and you don’t want all that vegetation and all the seed heads sticking up all over the place, I would say cut it off and then make a little pile, like a brush pile to the side, so that in the spring when (the pollinators) emerge, you still have them in your garden,” Jentz said.
The frequent frosts and thaws in this region can ruin gardening tools, including your hose and terra-cotta pots, which expand and constrict with the fluctuating temperatures.
Jentz recommends draining your hose spigot and turning off your home’s line of water to the outside. If you have a space to store terra-cotta pots during the winter, bring them in. If you’re without a shed or basement, Jentz said stuff the pots with leaves and pull them against a brick wall for a little bit of protection.
Set your sights, and seeds, on spring
Look back on last year’s garden and note what did and didn’t do well. Washington Gardener hosts a seed exchange event in January, right around the time mail-order seed catalogs circulate.
“And then by mid-February, you’re starting up your pepper and tomato seeds indoors for planting out in late spring,” Jentz said.
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