Food gardening between growing seasons

Late fall feels like a bridge between growing seasons. Walking in my garden I love to feel the earth and see the big and small day-to-day changes. I also think about the ups and downs of the 2020 growing season and what I’d like to change in the coming spring. The pandemic and the social, political, and economic turmoil have made me even more certain of the specialness of food gardening spaces. They feed people and connect us to the land and each other. Here are some chores, tips, and thoughts for this time of year:

Prep areas for planting small fruits, like blueberry, gooseberry, and blackberry in early spring. Soil testing is especially important if it’s a new bed or if you are growing blueberry and need to lower the soil pH.  Cover turf and weeds with cardboard, compost, and mulched leaves to create new beds. Research the types and cultivars of small fruit plants you are considering. 

Blueberry leaves turn purple, red, and mahogany in fall.

It’s too late to plant cover crops. Instead, protect exposed soil with a thick layer of tree leaves (preferably mulched or shredded leaves). The mulch can be pulled aside to plant in spring and then re-applied around seedlings and transplants.

Overwinter the growing mix from vegetable containers by emptying the containers on a tarp and removing leaves, roots, and other debris. Store the growing mix outside in heavy-duty black trash bags or trash cans. Re-use the growing mix next season by mixing it 50:50 with fresh soilless growing media and/or compost. Fertilize container plants as needed. 

Garlic- to mulch or not to mulch? Most gardeners and many commercial growers mulch fall-planted garlic with organic mulches, like straw and chopped leaves. Mulch can prevent erosion, smother weeds, and protect young plants from heaving and extreme cold weather. But thick mulches can also slow growth in spring, reduce bulb size, and possibly improve conditions for bulb diseases and pests. There are few published studies comparing mulched and un-mulched garlic. Warming winter temperatures may be making mulch less crucial in warmer areas of Maryland. 

Comment below or email me (jont@umd.edu) about know your experiences growing garlic with or without mulch.

Ground ivy and weeds
Ground ivy and other weeds need to be removed in this garlic bed whether or not mulch is to be applied.

Extending the season– leafy greens stop growing around November 15th when day length is less than 10 hours. But higher fall temperatures due to climate change has increased garden productivity- there are more tasty and tender leaves to harvest per square foot of garden space. Kale, spinach, mizuna, beet greens, and other semi-hardy leafy greens can be harvested into December when protected with floating row covers.

A double layer of row cover material accelerates growth in fall and protects plants over the winter. 
Arugula planted in early October is ready for harvest and will re-grow in early spring due to row cover protection.
It’s a great time to clean tools with a wire brush, file the cutting edges of hoes and shovels, and protect wood handles with linseed oil.

Online gardening hacks– one can get lost for hours in the world of “look no further… this is the absolute best way to ______ in your garden.” There are lots of good tips out there if you can ignore the ads and snake oil. I found a site from a small urban grower that extolled the virtues of plastic Ts for trellising plants that I happily used this year.

These 1 ½ in. PVC T-fittings are perfect for setting on top of metal fence posts to accept horizontal supports, like 1 in. electrical conduit. The posts, fittings, and conduit will last many years. 
The fittings (circled in yellow above) just sits on two T-posts 9 ft. apart. The 10 ft. piece of conduit extends over the ends and easily supports cucumber plants.
The fittings (circled in yellow above) just sits on two T-posts 9 ft. apart. The 10 ft. piece of conduit extends over the ends and easily supports cucumber plants.

Reflect on the 2020 growing season: What major problems did you have? What caused them? Can they be prevented next year? Re-think crop choices and plant locations. Did I really need to grow 30 tomato plants and three kinds of eggplant that no one in my house will eat? 

Grow it and give it– plan to share more of your garden with people in need. Contact local food banks and feeding programs this winter to find out how you contribute your fresh produce. 

Keep on learning…

Many new and revised pages have been added to the HGIC website. Examples:

Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

One Comment on “Food gardening between growing seasons

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