October is my birth month and I love the crispness in the air and the sense of turning down the year like a bed ready for sleep. In Colorado, winter makes an initial appearance in full costume for Halloween — a flurry of snow or a hard frost to ease us into winter. Then the sun comes out and I relax, only to be surprised by a sudden November snowfall.
Fall slows me down, makes me think about what I want to happen in the garden next year. Yes, there are necessary activities to complete, but these have to be balanced with a more contemplative attitude. Rather than the frantic activity of spring and summer, fall asks that we let time slow and expand.
Sensing the Whole
At the fringe of winter we step back a little from major gardening projects, take stock of the year and ease into shortening days and quiet evenings. Wander around your garden and greenhouses every few days with no agenda. Even if you have a very small plot or growing situation, it is good to take a tour and let impressions sink in deeply. Look at the plants as they get ready to seed or hibernate. Remember what grew where and how. The trick is to observe those things that tend to slip out of awareness because we have seen them so many times. Only when we really notice are we open to new insights.
On some of your wanderings, carry a notebook and pencil to record your impressions. Avoid immediately creating a to-do list. That tends to act as a spur to action and get you immersed in the next project. The first intention is to sense the whole of your growing environment and allow new insights and ideas to arise spontaneously. It is also an opportunity to examine your normal practice and preconceptions.
Let questions arise naturally about what you are seeing: Is it really necessary to control every weed; maybe some are helpful and natural? Is that perennial in the right place; would it benefit from a move? I tried four different environments for my lavender before it took off. What would happen if I planted that crop out of season — peas sown in August? What about all that old potting soil in used containers? How do I revitalize it with microbial life and energy? Which plants grew well or badly over the season? Do I know why?
With a quiet and open mind, let the garden inform you of what it needs. Knowing your ecosystem from the inside out adds a new dimension to your skills. Plants communicate their wants and needs in the way they grow, in how they look. Their voices are not loud so we have to be quiet inside to hear what they say.
Learning from Success and Failure
Gardening is full of surprises: this year my carrots failed to germinate but the cabbages were enormous. I have yet to work out what factors were involved. As you visit the various parts of the garden, make a note of what grows or grew there and how well it did.
My memory needs quite a bit of prompting, so I often have to be in a particular place for images and information to come to mind. Standing near a bed, I remember the look and feel of the soil in early spring, the way plants germinated and seedlings sprouted. I recall the vagaries of weather and moisture and how the plants responded. Putting it all together, I make my intentions for the next season, a promise to be more skillful in my caring and cultivation.
Last fall I made an agreement with myself to pay particular attention to fava beans and leeks. I grew four varieties of favas and three of leeks and got a wonderful harvest of produce and new learning. Did they grow better simply because I paid them more attention? I now know that it is fun to plant favas in October but they do no better in my zone than those planted in February.
The previous year I focused on snap peas and garlic. Unlike favas, garlic needs to be in the ground with lots of mulch over winter. October is the perfect month to pop a few cloves in the soil, ready for a rich harvest the following July. I plant hard-neck types for flavor and soft-neck types for longer storage.
Garlic is the great protector. It keeps noxious insects off nearby plants and is the main component of concoctions that kill pests and keep critters off the garden. I imagine which plants will need protecting and plant random strips of garlic as the impulse takes me. Aphids infested one corner of a greenhouse last spring; that area will get an extra large dose of garlic.
The To-Do List
Once you have filled your notebook with random jottings, you are ready to create your garden to-do list. After contemplating the whole, now focus on the parts. Personally, I strive for a balance of efficiency and ease. I get satisfaction from accomplishing what needs to be done, but an endless list is overwhelming. A garden should be a place of pleasure and beauty, not stress and exhaustion.
Organize your notes to highlight essential tasks but make sure these are interspersed with some that are pure enjoyment. I find that if I mix up my gardening activities, I actually have more energy for the heavier jobs. Clearing spent plants and putting them through the shredder is hard work, so I do it in stages and may plant a few seeds in the cleared bed at the same time. That way, I experience less burden and more satisfaction throughout the day.
My list acts as a container for loose thoughts and intentions. Having a written record seems to keep unfinished tasks from rattling around in my brain. I consult it now and then to be reminded but try to resist having it dictate what I should do. I believe every task has a right time and space. When I find where it fits best, it flows easily. Forcing a task makes it harder and more tiring.
Here is a small sample of what goes through my mind this October. When I have a moment, I may organize it into a real list! There is always too much to do. Still, it can’t be bad if it gets me out into the garden and greenhouses.
- Have I got all the space I need? I could rehabilitate the wild North area. And then there is the question of keeping chickens and bees. Too much to deal with now — I’ll see what I feel like in March.
- The extension to the South greenhouse is so much better and the greens are looking strong. I need to think about extra insulation: what about straw bales?
- Harvest the last squashes. That bed will need a cover crop to keep it nourished and protected. I could use the standard rye and alfalfa but I wonder if clover and buckwheat would work. Maybe it’s too late for buckwheat.
- Turn off and clean the gray water system. I should take up all the T-tape lines; last spring they got in the way of early cultivation.
- Where did I put those floating row covers? I need extra covers and plant protectors for the salad seedlings and pea greens. If I doubled them up would they work better?
- I need to collect more bags of leaves from town; they kept the carrots so sweet and make great compost. The garlic is up already and needs extra mulching.
- If I can get the whole family to do final harvest and clean up, it should not take long. We can leave most of the stalks and stems; they look wonderful in the snow.