In The Dirt...
The New England Fall Garden
How did your garden grow this summer? Loads of veggies or loads of weeds and pests? Let’s review and talk about putting your garden to bed as fall wears on.
Gardeners generally fall into two camps as the days get shorter: either you feel like a hardy pioneer who successfully provided for your family this summer, or you’ve decided that, really, gardening is just a hobby and those weeds surely will die under the winter’s snow.
If you gardened with some success this year, you likely have plants in the ground still producing as the weather cools. You might be harvesting kale, lettuce, chard, and spinach, and your carrots will love the cold and get even sweeter as the soil temperature drops.
Keep gardening! Some of those greens will overwinter and start growing again in the spring. Experiment. Leave the mighty kale stalks and watch next May, as they start to sprout once more.
Some veggies, like cold-hardy varieties of leeks, actually retain their flavor for months in the ground. Check to see that there’s ample soil around the base of each plant, then mulch with plenty of straw or leaves for the winter. You’ll enjoy those leeks until the ground freezes and again in early spring.
Your tomatoes probably look pretty ragged by now. As long as they’re still producing and aren’t diseased, leave them in the ground until you’ve picked your last tomato—when it’s time to pull the plant.
If your garden got away from you, you’re not alone. Even the most enthusiastic gardener can reach the point where even harvesting becomes a chore and the weeds, well, they’re plants, too. Right?
You may have planted too large a garden. Consider a smaller space next year, and plan to plant the empty space in a summer cover crop like rye. That will give you room for rotating your vegetables from year-to-year, which helps keep pests at bay. Or offer the space to your children or neighbors.
For now, cut the weeds down to ground level, either with clippers or by mowing. Cover the weedy areas with several layers of damp newspaper, topped with several inches of compost; the newspaper will kill the weeds, eventually breaking down and allowing the compost to filter into the soil. In the spring, you’ll have a lovely garden bed ready for planting.
Taking the time to put your garden to bed in late fall makes for a real payoff in spring. Spent plants must be pulled, removing places where pests and disease can overwinter. If the plants are healthy, showing no evidence of diseases such as powdery mildew, blight, or rust, they go right on the compost pile. Remember to add leaves for a green-brown balance. Diseased plants go out with the trash.
This is one home garden crop that can make you feel like the most successful gardener ever. Garlic, planted in the fall, is very easy to grow. In mid- to late-October, clear a patch for your garlic and separate the bulbs into individual cloves. Poke your finger into the soil about four inches deep and insert the clove with the pointed end up, planting the cloves six to eight inches apart.
Cover the area with four to six inches of winter mulch such as leaves or compost. When the January thaw hits, you want to be sure that your garlic is well covered and won’t sprout. In the spring, pull some of the mulch aside as the garlic beings to appear.
A little more time
Extend your gardening season by using one of these simple techniques.
As the overnight temperature dips, you can protect your more delicate plants with a simple sheet or piece of plastic. Covering veggies helps them conserve heat overnight and stay healthy longer.
Interestingly, watering your plants well in the late afternoon can offer protection. As the plant absorbs the water, its cells become plump, making them stronger during a cold spell. Additionally, wet soil stays warmer than cold soil.
Tilling your garden after the first frost will expose pests and disease organisms to killing temperatures, dramatically reducing their numbers in next year’s garden.
Best laid plans
Do you still have the garden plan that you drew in June? Pull it out of the drawer and take a look. How did it work out? Does the garden look anything like the plan? What will you do differently next year?
Rotating your vegetables is a good way to prevent soil depletion and to disrupt the life cycles of some pests and plant diseases. For example, if you rotate your tomato planting, next year’s tomato hornworms will hatch in the wrong place for making a meal of your Early Girls.
Sketch a plan for next year now, with notes about what did and didn’t work. Over the winter, you’ll have time to create a more detailed plan for next year’s garden.
Like any true love, gardening requires patience, compassion, dedication, and time and nourishes us in so many ways. Learn from your garden—and from other gardeners, too. Attend winter gardening workshops and read your seed catalogs. As you enjoy the pickled and preserved produce you grew and put by with your own hands, pat yourself on the back—and think spring. Another May, another garden beckons.
Tips and Tricks
- Be sure that you’ve signed up for a few seed catalogs for winter reading. Catalogs from Fedco Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Wood Prairie Farm are popular in Maine.
- If you’re feeling really confident about your growing gardening skills, consider applying for the Master Gardener program through your local Cooperative Extension office, part of the University of Maine system.
- Donate excess produce to your local food bank. Maine has Community Food Councils around the state, and the one nearest you will be able to point you in the right direction.
- If you have strawberries, thin the plants in the fall to give them some elbow room and be sure to remove plants with woody stems.
- It’s agricultural fair season in Maine, and many feature workshops about gardening, seed saving, and more. Go to to find a fair near you.
- Use a garden journal to note the successes and failures of your garden each year. Tuck your garden plan in, too. It’s useful to refer to them from year to year.
- When buying garlic to plant, be sure to check that it’s certified disease-free.
- Mulch your overwintering veggies heavily to prevent damage during winter thaws, when the ground can heave.
- Clean your tools well and oil them before storing them for the winter, and store your empty hoses inside to prevent winter damage.
- Construct a cold frame with a discarded window as the cover and you’ll have lettuce well into the winter.
Debbie Atwood gardens in Brunswick, Maine, and graduated with the Cumberland County Master Gardener Class of 2004.