“No cook who has attained mastery over her craft ever apologizes for the presence of garlic in her productions.” Ruth Gottfried, ‘The Questing Cook’
Fall has arrived with its cool temps and shorter days. For many people, the tomato season was cut short by the excessive moisture leading to fungal problems commonly called “blight”. Still, I don’t know anyone who wasn’t able to put up massive amounts of tomato sauce, salsa and plain ole tomatoes. Now is a good time to record where in the garden the tomatoes were grown so as to avoid growing nightshades in those areas for a few years. This will allow the blighted soils to come to balance again. (Other common nightshades include potatoes, eggplant and peppers.) Also, one more precaution, I keep spent tomato plants in a separate compost pile that I will not use on other nightshades next year. So…good recordkeeping now is very helpful!
September-October is big cleanup time in the garden. Spent tops of all healthy crops are generally used to make compost. One exception can be asparagus tops. If you have had asparagus beetles this year, it is best to discard those tops so that the critters do not take up winter residence in your patch. Most annual vegetables and flowers can be removed with their root ball which provides a multitude of microorganisms beneficial to their breakdown in a compost pile. Beans and peas however, are best cut at the soil level so that their underground nitrogen nodules remain in storage for use by the next crop.
I like to clean the beds thoroughly–remove the plant residues, rake aside the mulch, add some rough compost and then seed a fall cover crop such as oats. The crop is lightly raked in and will begin germinating after a good rain. Typically no watering is required this time of year. Fall cover cropping prepares the soil for spring planting by (1) holding the topsoil (2) suppressing weeds and (3) improving the soil structure. The oats will grow until a hard frost and then, in the spring, the oatstraw can be easily pulled out or left in place as mulch for transplanted crops such as peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.
Speaking of cleaning up, soon it will be time to rake leaves from the many small to huge trees we have around. With the exception of walnut (whose leaves carry a compound that inhibits vegetal growth,) all the deciduous leaves will be very useful next year as mulch for the vegetable and flower gardens. Rather than burn them, collect them in bags (or bring them to my house in bags!) If you don’t think you will use them for mulch, you can make compost or take them to the City wastewater and light site where they make compost for the community. Burning leaves is quite toxic to the environment and shouldn’t be necessary.
One last and very important fall chore is planting garlic! For me, garlic is a staple food for its flavor and its immunity enhancing properties. I also enjoy that it is the very first crop to come up in the spring (edible weeds notwithstanding) and visitors to my garden who see the dark green garlic leaves are always asking if I have onions already in April. (Actually I do have perennial onions but they come out of dormancy a little later.)
Garlic is a heavy feeder and responds well to rich, well drained soil. With our clay soils, raised beds (incorporated with compost, well rotted saw dust or aged manure) is the preferred option. Choose bulbs with plump cloves as the clove size, in general, determines the future bulb size. Most store varieties of garlic are the soft-neck type which store well however are better adapted to temperate, southern climates. I recommend buying organic bulbs from a catalog such as Southern Exposure Seed Exchange or FEDCO for the first crop and thereafter you can save your own seed. These catalogs feature both soft-necked and hard-necked varieties that grow well in our area. I prefer the hard-necked as the cloves are larger, the flavors more complex and they produce the aerial bulbils known as “scapes” which are edible midsummer, ahead of the main harvest.
Planting garlic in the fall results in much larger cloves than spring planted garlic. Break up the bulbs into the separate cloves just before planting when the bed is ready. Leave the skin on the clove and plant with the tip upright, about 1 inch below the soil surface, spacing each clove approximately 6-9 inches apart. Then add 4-6 inches of straw mulch and the garlic will begin to set roots and then poke up a little top growth before the hard frosts throw it into dormancy.
One last note, if you are considering expanding your garden area, now is a good time to either till up a new section and plant a cover crop mix of oats and vetch (vetch for nitrogen fixing properties) or use the no-till sheet mulch method of cardboard and aged straw to create new growing areas for the spring.
Till next month, enjoy the beautiful weather and caring for your garden areas!
Gigi Wahba is a devoted organic gardener with a deep appreciation for the wonders of nature. She also manages the Memphis Farmers Market which runs Thursdays 3-6pm at the Courthouse Square.