By Kaz Haykowsky
Autumn is a time of mixed emotions for the gardener. There is the joy and satisfaction of the harvest, with its ripe ears of corn, colourful heirloom potatoes and tomatoes, squash ripening on the vine, and abundant zucchini.
At the same time, there is melancholy at the passing of another warm season. The leaves begin to yellow and the plants’ growth slows. The mornings are colder and the night comes ever earlier. We watch the forecast for the first signs of frost so we can rush out and cover or harvest our precious crops. We know the blanket of snow is ready to be pulled over the soil to sleep for another cold season. The heady and energetic (sometimes frenetic) activity of summer begins to give way to the more sedate and inward-looking winter.
Still, there is much to do in the autumn garden. This is the time to tidy up in anticipation of next spring’s planting, cutting down the dried stalks of corn, the finished tomatoes, and the bare pumpkin vines. Nothing needs to be wasted, and the stalks can be chopped into mulch to protect the soil, or added to the compost pile to become next year’s fertility. We can spread last year’s aged compost over the soil to replenish nutrients and integrate carbon into the soil, and cover it with a protective layer of straw or leaves.
This is the time to prune trees to ensure a healthy plant and a consistent harvest. When the yellow leaves finally fall, and the sap stills in the wood, careful cuts may be placed with a clean blade to open up airflow in the canopy and promote erect, fruit-bearing branches within the gardener’s easy reach.
This is the time to follow the squirrel and stock our larders for the cold months ahead. We pick ripe apples to cook into jellies, butters, and pie fillings for canning. We crush and press apples for juice and cider to drink all winter-long. We pickle extra cucumbers, beets, carrots, and beans to enjoy the flavour of the garden all winter. We cut, dry, and thresh barley and oats for brewing and baking. We put up hard-skinned winter squash in the cold cellar for later roasting and soups.
This is also the time to plant certain crops to ready them for their early spring emergence. Fall is the best time to plant garlic cloves, sunchoke rhizomes, and tulip bulbs. While the soil is still warm, they can take advantage of the end of the growing season to give their roots a head-start into the ground.
With the bulbs planted, the garden tucked in under a layer of mulch, the trees pruned, and colourful jars and bottles glistening on the pantry shelves, we are ready to settle into home for the winter months. This cold, slow time offers plenty of space to begin planning next year’s garden over a cup of cider or a plate of pickles. We spend this time considering what crops to rotate through the different plots to maximize soil fertility and minimize pests, and eventually to start seeds under lamps in anticipation of the snowmelt. The joy of gardening really is a year-round affair!