It’s fall, and it’s really starting to feel like it. The first signal was when the days became noticeably shorter. Now, temperatures are dropping, and leaves are changing color. Geese are flying high in long Vs, heading south.
After a hectic and scattered summer that kept me away from gardening more than I wanted or expected, I have a lot to do yet this year. Before the snow flies. In two or three months.
Here’s my current list of fall garden projects, which is certainly incomplete:
Removal of invasive barberry using herbicide (need to research too)
Site visits of a few friend’s gardens (consultations)
Learn to chainsaw/Help take down trees
Innoculate mushroom logs
Plan and plant cottage foundation area
Transplant silver maple seedlings to woods
Protect seedlings from deer browse (need to research too)
There may be 2 feet of snow on the ground, but the 2018 gardening season is here! I finally ordered my seeds this week and I also planted my raised bed hoop house with greens and am hoping for an early harvest of greens like I was able to get last year. This is an exciting time of year, and I have so many ideas in mind for this coming gardening season. Writing down my major goals for this year will help me stay focused!
1. Grow More of Our Own Food
I didn’t do my annual garden review last year, but 2017 turned out to be a good garden year even though the entire summer was extremely cool and wet. One major breakthrough was that I started a second garden (approximately 20×30 feet) at our cottage; I grew potatoes and squash in this new space, which freed up my fenced-in vegetable garden for the plants that need more tending or regular picking—the lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, and everything else.
This year, I want to grow a lot more of our own food. I don’t typically put a lot of food up in the summer or fall, but I feel like my gardening and eating habits are becoming more aligned (i.e., I’m finally eating my vegetables!!) that it’s seems realistic that I will be able to grow more of what we will actually eat.
Specific things I need to do:
Increase the amount of garlic (I planted a ridiculous amount last fall), onions, and potatoes that I plant, as well as try planting some leeks and squash. These will all go in the cottage garden (which will probably need to be expanded) where they won’t need a lot of tending.
Focus the primary home garden space on the things that we eat most and on some things that can be frozen. I anticipate allocating more room to beans, kale, carrots, and beets.
Use the square foot gardening method to better allocate space in my garden and to plant seeds more efficiently. Also plan for succession planting.
The vegetable garden fence will need some major repairs…
Purchase floating row cover fabric and get more hoops for season extension. Also consider whether it would be helpful to build a very small greenhouse.
Coordinate with a friend to “borrow” some space in their root cellar.
Do the research and then implement a fertilization schedule on the fruit trees and shrubs.
Inoculate logs with mushroom spawn so that I can grow my own mushrooms.
2. Improve My Garden Soils
A friend told be recently that her biggest question at a newbie gardener was learning about her garden soils. “All the books say it’s so important,” she said. It’s so true—a garden is only as good as its soil.
And yet, I’ve been the biggest slacker when it comes to improving the soils in my garden. It’s been holding be back for a few years, and I really have a lot of work to start addressing all the issues that I have with my soils: the acidity and lack of organic matter and everything else.
Specific things I need to do:
Get a soil test. I even have a soil sample from my vegetable garden in a container in my basement—I just need to mail it in. I need to do a soil test on my cottage garden bed and on the perennial beds too.
Start adding amendments early. I’m sure more lime will be needed to raise the pH, and I might need to add nutrients. It would have been good to do this last fall, so I’ll have to add amendments early in the season so that they can start to be worked in before planting.
Up my compost game. My non-food compost pile needs to be moved to a better location so that I can be turned more regularly with the tractor. And I need to add a lot more to it too, which might mean growing more of some plants (like comfrey) that produce a lot of material that can be composted.
Get a plastic barrel for a compost tumbler. This will be especially handy for collecting compost next winter.
Continue to play around with green manures and cover crops, particularly this fall.
3. Expand My Perennial Gardens
This is lower priority that my vegetable gardening, but there are a few places where I would like to expand my perennial beds and strategically kill my lawn in areas that are harder to mow. I am hoping to expand my prairie garden to get rid of a small strip of grass and to cover the septic mound. I also want to expand the foundation plantings on the east side a bit to make mowing a bit easier, but I’m not willing to devote much time or energy to that.
Specific things I need to do:
Look up which prairie plants that are okay to plant on septic mounds, and then determine which I can get from my own garden (transplants or seeds) and what I might need to buy.
Do more research on sheet composting (lasagna gardening), and then use that method to smother grass in the areas where I want to expand my garden. Ideally, I’d do this early in the garden season, so that the areas are ready to plant in late summer or fall when I might have more time.
Consider whether I should be growing more herbs in the front garden bed so that they are convenient, and if so, determine which perennials should me moved to the new areas.
4. Tend Trees and Shrubs at the Cottage Property
There’s so much I want to do at the cottage, and I think this year will mostly be determining where to start. We want to remove some existing trees (before emerald ash borer does it for us) and plant a wider variety of tree and shrub species that will diversify the forest and enhance habitat for wildlife.
Cut and poison the stumps of the box elder trees that I cut down last winter, and prepare the area for planting the oak trees we have in mind. Then get the trees, plant them, and protect them from hungry deer and beavers.
Do research on how to propagate shrubs using rooted cuttings. Gather wood at the right time from shrubs like elderberry, ninebark, and red-osier dogwood and start experimenting. Plant bundles of willow at the Point and protect them (last year the beavers stole the cuttings I planted!).
Determine where trees need to be thinned and make lots of firewood.
Make a wish list of plants that I want on the property (e.g., elderberry, silver maple, basswood) and go on scouting trips to find places where I can gather seeds or cuttings of those plants. Look for silver maple seedlings along sand bars on the river.
Continue work to remove invasive honeysuckle and barberry.
Improve fencing in the orchard. This probably involves making a large number of tree cages that can be moved around the property as needed over time.
Identify the mystery plant I found last fall!
5. Create Demonstration Gardens for My Master Gardener Project
Last year I worked with a few friends to start rehabilitating some neglected garden beds at the Marsin Nature Retreat as part of our work for the Extension Master Gardener volunteer program. We made good progress, hosting 3 workshops and getting a large garden ready for planting. The work this year will be to plant this garden area and then decide which derelict beds are next.
Specific things I need to do:
Work with my gardening co-conspirators and others to create a wish list of our desired plants for the area. Then host a “plant drive” to get donations for what we want.
Plant the area that’s been prepared with the plants that we receive and establish nursery beds to hold extra plants that can be propagated for future use.
6. Teach Others How to Garden
Do you ever have it happen where you don’t realize something about yourself? For years I knew that I liked gardening, and it seemed pretty normal because lots of people I know have gardens and grow a bit of food. It has only been in the past year or two that I realized that I love gardening, and that I spend way more time on it than most people. This became most apparent to me when I realized that I love talking to people about gardening, and that I often find myself answering gardening questions for my friends.
One of my friends bought a house last year and she wants to have her first garden this year—she knows almost nothing about gardening and is truly starting from scratch. And I have a handful other friends who are looking for advice on how to improve their veggies gardens this summer. And, for me, it’s all really exciting.
To start answering all these questions, I made an online course, A Beginner’s Guide to Gardening in Cold Climates, using the awesome online education platform Udemy. The course is designed to help people with no experience (and living in places that have a true winter season) create their first gardens. I posted the course as soon as I had the minimum materials, but there are a lot of improvements that could be made.
Continue improving the course by adding new material and making the existing lectures better. And publicize it too.
Do a few garden visits this year to help my friends get their gardens going. I think I can be especially helpful with soil testing and helping people figure out what soil amendments they need since I did that in the demonstration garden last year and will be doing it in my gardens this fall.
Post more information on this website, or on other gardening sites, to address common questions and stumbling blocks.
Wow! That’s a lot of things to do! I’m pretty confident that I’ll be able to do most of it, even though it is a major list. And I’m excited for all of it. Happy gardening!
There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.
So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.
I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.
Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.
I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).
The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.
It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.
When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.
A few years ago, I enlisted some friends to design and build two raised garden beds* for a local nursing home. The goal was to design a raised bed that would be easily accessible for elderly people who were working while standing or seated. I haven’t given this a lot of thought since then, but wanted to revisit it now that I’m in the Master Gardener class.
Tonight was a totally gorgeous night, so I took the time to take a slow walk around our property and see what trees are out there as part of my quest to record all the plants on our property. I feel pretty sheepish that I’ve never done this before in the six years that we’ve lived here. I’ve definitely been across most of the property, but I’ve never just done a lap at one time. It’s pretty nice, and with only 2.75 acres, it doesn’t take very long. Continue reading “All the Trees in our Woods”→
When I woke up this morning, I sat up in bed to look at the sun coming through big, beautiful leaves on the tress in our woods with the kind of perfect low, yellow light that makes everything look super pretty. And the first thing that come into my mind was Cat Steven singing “Morning has Broken,” which seemed both a little funny and oddly appropriate for a Sunday morning.
I’m extremely busy with my garden; it’s such a joy to me, and on fine days like those we’ve had recently I am in raptures at the wonders of nature. (Claude Monet)
As I predicted last December, I planted tomatoes yesterday. Actually, I spent pretty much all day yesterday getting my vegetable garden ready for the summer. True gardening generally doesn’t start until Memorial Day weekend for me becase Upper Michigan is cold and covered in snow 5months of the year, but you might start your garden at a different time based on your local climate Continue reading “Why you Need a Garden”→