October – the last month of summer?
October – the last month of summer?
How ironic to be welcoming the fog again! Those intense blasts of afternoon heat, seeming to try to make up for what we missed all summer, were a bit much. Some tomatoes and peppers got sunburned, but we are finally into their peak harvest, and for many it is abundant. It certainly has been a challenging season this year; I’ve heard that some growers had significant disease on their tomatoes and poor melons and eggplant due to the cold. Other warm season crops have been late, but in spite of the erratic weather, I’ve seen excellent harvests from many gardens and farms. It seems that if one had good growing conditions one generally had a pretty good season, but if some factors were much less than ideal, it was harder for the plants to overcome the obstacles and produce well. Some examples of poor conditions I’ve seem were plants too close together, planting in too much compost rather than amended soil, over watering, too much shade, and letting squash and cucumbers go unpicked too long. However your garden has performed this year, one of the most important things you can do is to write it down – NOW! Record keeping is one of the hardest and most important tasks to keep up with in the garden. Your garden will be your very best teacher, but you need to be a good student and take notes! Your records can be as casual as entries on the kitchen calendar that you save from year to year, on complex spreadsheets in your computer, or in cute garden diaries. What is important is to do it and include: variety, date planted, first harvest, last harvest, and comments. Often the last harvest and comments are when you can really evaluate how successful a crop was and what you would do differently next year. Perhaps you didn’t like the variety, or it should have been planted earlier, later, farther apart, different supports or training, more consecutive plantings, etc. You think you will remember or will do this tomorrow, but tomorrow so often becomes next week or month, and then it is so easy to forget crucial details. This is the best way of fine-tuning your timing, spacing and generally getting better results each year. Keeping a map of each year’s garden is helpful too as a reminder and so you can rotate your crops.
The other crucial aspect of improving your garden each year is winter soil care. Although above ground activities slow down in late fall and winter, as our rainy season begins, soil life can get to work breaking down crop remains and other organic material, integrating minerals, and creating the air spaces and aggregates that are hallmarks of fertile soil. It is our job to create the best conditions possible to increase this thin mantle of fertility upon which all terrestrial life depends. As John Jeavons said, “we need to grow soil so it can grow food.” Please see the new document on the iGROW site, “Feed the soil – so it can feed you”, with more information on this subject. (BTW, watch for a new film early next year, “The Symphony of the Soil”, which will reveal the amazingly complex and mysterious soil ecosystem with cutting-edge soil scientists and dedicated farmers.)
Back to the current garden, I hope your young fall crops made it through the heat. Have you looked at them closely recently? This is the time when cabbage “worms” descend on the young brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) and may need to be picked off almost daily. This is quite the vision exercise. I look at the green leaves and the little green “worms”, (actually caterpillars from those pretty white butterflies), are invisible until suddenly I see them, often along the midrib of the front of the leaf, but sometimes on the backs. In my small garden I just do the rounds as often as I can; in a larger garden or farm I would use row cover to protect the plants or spray with BT – a natural bacteria that is specific to caterpillars and will not hurt other creatures. In a diverse garden with many beneficial insects, the cabbage worms are usually only a problem for a short period of time. Another pest I’ve been in a real battle with recently is black aphids on the chard. There have been some of these all summer and I was just rubbing them off the young leaves with some success. Then a couple of weeks ago they got totally out of control and I had to fight back more aggressively with Dr. Bronner’s soap diluted in a spritz bottle. It seems that I’ll need to keep this up every few days until the aphids diminish again. Cooler weather may help with this too. Another pest issue we’ve discussed here are leaf miners on chard, beets and spinach. We learned yesterday at Tierra Vegetables they have had no problems with leaf miners since they started encouraging frogs on the farm by keeping a “pond” of sorts filled in the middle of the field. The frogs are eating the flies whose pupae are the leaf miners! Mother Nature comes to the rescue once again!
Can you still plant a fall garden now? Sorry to say, in most locations and with most crops, the answer is no. Well, you can plant them, but the odds of good results are low. Day length is getting short very fast now and most plants will not be able to mature. Exceptions are very fast growing crops like radishes, bok choys, and mustard greens. If you plant spinach seeds now they usually grow slowly until early February, then you can get a quick harvest before they go to flower as days lengthen.
Enjoy the wonderful taste of summer while we move into fall! Wendy