NEW MARKET, Va. -- The grass is going dormant and the last of the tomatoes are picked. Summer is slip sliding away, ushering in the cooling comfort of September. Many gardeners consider this a second planting season, rivaling spring.
"Autum is definitely better for certain garden things," says David Robson, a University of Illinois Extension horticulturist based in Springfield.
"The weather start warm and goes to cool rather than following the springtime pattern of starting cool and going to warm. That means the accumulation of sugars in the so-called 'cold crops' are much better, enhancing their taste."
Under "unfinished business," you may still have a narrow weather window for growing another crop in your vegetable garden. Typical cool season vegetables include kale, spinach, lettuce, turnips, broccoli, carrots, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Unlike tender, soft-skinned vegetables (corn, beans, cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes and peppers), these crops thrive in cool weather and can survive light frosts.
Timing is critical, though. Know the average date of your first killing frost and match that against the maturity date of any varieties you choose to plant.
"I have lettuce growing in my perennial flowers and make some other plantings in October," Robson says. "I harvest vegetables well into November, depending upon our first frost. I often have fresh broccoli on the Thanksgiving menu if the weather's been right."
Fall also is a good time for planting new spring bulbs and perennials as well as trees and shrubs. "What it offers is an early start," says Ron Wolford, an Illinois Extension horticulturist in Chicago. "Even though the weather cools, the root systems continue to grow until soil temps fall below 40 degrees. There may not be any top growth showing, but the root systems are still going strong."
Sanitation is all-important for healthy yards, so fall cleaning should be a major part of the exercise. That includes winterizing tools, picking up and storing trellises and stakes. So much requiries your attention in the yard this time of year that it takes some organization. Here's a typical "to-do list" for late season gardeners:
Lawns: Aerate lawns, especially sections overlaying compacted soils. Reseed bare spots. Cut the grass one last time, using the mower bag to collect clippings and leaves. It's easier than raking and shredded leaves decompose more quickly in compost piles.
Fertilize with a slow release mix to promote root growth and prime the lawn for an early spring start. But avoid applying too much fertilizer too soon. "What usually happens is that fall rains green up the grass again and the fertilizers kick in, prompting growth" Wolford says. "Or it stays dry and the fertilizers burn things up."
Vegetable gardens: Protect perennials -- asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb and roses -- with a top-dressing of straw, compost or mulch. Cut back spent raspberry canes and other dead plant stalks. This also is a good time to build your soil with compost or other bulked up materials like sawdust or farm manures. Late fall tilling helps rid your garden of diseased and insect-ridden plants along with adding nitrogen to the soil. Turning the ground over also exposes corn borers, cucumber beetles and squash bugs, among others, to the chill winds of winter.
Flower beds: Dig up tender bulbs like gladiola, canna and dahlia for winter storage. Gather seed from poppies, marigolds and sunflowers to scatter on the ground come spring. Plant new spring bulbs and perennials. Plant or transplant trees and shrubs.
Many gardeners are by necessity good note takers. What worked well in your vegetable garden or flower beds this year? What didn't? What changes did you make to the micro-climate? Did you remove any trees, requiring a shift from shade tolerant plants to those demanding full sun? Now is a good time to make the conversion.
Can you save any money by changing the way you garden next year? Get a running start at many of the end-of-season sales offered at nurseries or garden departments of hardware stores. Gather your own seeds; split mature bulbs.
If your memory needs an occasional prod, try keeping a journal. Augment it with pictures to help you keep stock of how different things fared. "Digital cameras are a wonderful new tool for gardeners," Robson says. "You can take pictures of the labels as well as the plants."
Robson generally follows a three-year rule with plants in his garden. "If you've tried something for three years and it fails, that's a pretty good indicator you should move onto something else."
On the Net:
For more about late season gardening, see this University of Illinois Extension Web newsletter: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/greenline/99v5/gl9905.01.html