Today is one of those mini-marker days in my annual round, a day when there is a tangible sign that the dark season is here. Sunset here in my part of the world is just before 6pm today and, same day, sunrise is just before 7am. Day length is exactly 11 hours, so exactly one more hour than is minimally necessary to grow most plants. It is time to move on to the next season.

So the garden is put to bed now. As much as I am able to do that anyway. I do tend to putter about as long as I can get to a patch of soil because I like to putter but also because this puttering produces my food and that seems like a good reason to keep the puttering going even when it doesn’t feel outstandingly productive. Not that this past summer was all that outstanding in the productivity department. I might have the rather unsettling experience of getting a better winter harvest out of these beds than what was pulled out in the middle of the more traditional harvest season.

New England asters

As I was ripping out spent vines and blackened stems and covering much of the garden in maple leaves (free mulch!), I harvested the last of the summer veg. I have a bin each full of carrots and beets in the basement. There were more squash than I thought, though none would sell at a farm stand. It’s all been chewed on to some degree. But I think I can get some use out of them, the seeds if nothing else. I got no sweet potatoes, though, which left me fairly inconsolable. The vines were spectacular, but that was it. The roots were only somewhat thickened here and there. I grew red pencils, not potatoes. I think I need to start these under row cover in the early spring in order to get in the very long growing season required for sweet potatoes. I think it’s worth it though. Sweet potatoes are so nutritious and delicious. I eat them all winter long. And while there is never a lack of them at the food co-op, they do get more pricey and rather lower in quality as the winter progresses.

Mums in a bucket

I started roasting the winter squash this week. As I said, I got more out than I thought, but I also went around picking up cheap pumpkins and squash at the various farm stands and markets. Plus the co-op’s member sale for October is 20% off all the winter squash and gourds. I’ve filled up the baskets in the basement. I won’t leave these down there all winter because I think it’s a bit too cool and damp for good squash storage. I’ll be roasting them and freezing the mash. Or, like today, using it immediately. I made four loaves of pumpkin bread and froze them instead. When I put the loaves away, I realized that I’ve really got that freezer full this year. The squash mash might have to live in the freezer attached to my fridge. Which is fine, since the bags are slippery and not fun to carry upstairs from the freezer if you need more than a quart. And I usually do. I probably ought to use gallon bags because that is the size I tend to use when making stew or baked goods.

I’ve got cold-tolerant greens and a few roots — radishes, carrots and beets — planted in the new cold frame bed just outside the kitchen door. I think this bed will be used pretty much in the inverse of the regular growing season. In the cool months, I’ll fill it with greens and a smattering of roots, enough to have veg for the stewpot and fresh greens for salads and eggy dishes. In the warm season, I’ll probably let it rest rather than fight the heat, though I suppose I could put a few okra plants in there if the mood strikes. Still, it’s probably better just to let it rest through the summer. In any case, I think I’ll not be growing anything but nightshades on this side of the road as long as there is a groundhog in residence. She’ll wipe out whatever I plant near her burrow… and then knock on the kitchen door demanding more.

Cold frame in its raised bed

I also planted thyme and hyacinths in the part of the raised bed that is not covered by the cold frame. Our local flora haven’t quite figured out the new climate change schedule, and the local bugs seem to be erring on the opposite side, coming out before the snow is even gone. The plants tend to use day length as the indicator for when it is safe to open up fragile buds, and day length hasn’t changed. So there are months of hunger for those critters that depend on flowers, and I’m trying all sorts of things to fill in that gap. Unfortunately, not many day neutral plants, those that come from places closer to the tropics, will grow in our cold climate. So I’m trying bulbs and spring-blooming perennials that I know make scent and color — usually plants do this to attract pollinators — and choosing varieties that are as close to a wild state as possible. I’ve seen bees in the hyacinths, and thyme is everybody’s favorite plant. So I figured these were a safe bed. Since I needed a filler on that raised bed, preferably one that might provide a bit of insulation as well as weed suppressant, I decided to fill it with flowers that will make the bugs happy.

In the veg garden, garlic is planted in one raised bed with fava beans, cabbages and kale (which are really the same thing, but I keep up the pretense otherwise because I just don’t like most kale varieties as much as I like cabbage). This gives me two harvests of nourishing staples out of one bed. The greens will grow very slowly through the dark season under a hooped row cover and a thick layer of straw. Then, when the day length increases again, they’ll take off, producing a harvest months before most other warm season veggies are even planted. Then later in the summer I’ll pull up the garlic. When the garlic is done in July or so, that bed will get a dump of compost and a top-dressing of seaweed, and it will be left alone through next winter.

There is another bed with row cover. This one has the bulk of the over-wintering roots. Rutabaga, carrots, and beets. Like the cabbages and kales, these roots will muddle along through the cold season and be ready for harvest in the early spring. But since there is no garlic in this bed, I’ll be planting it with a summer round of something — likely beans, but maybe potatoes — as soon as the roots are harvested and the soil is warm enough.

This is about as rigorous as my crop rotation scheduling gets. For bigger farms, the primary goal in rotation is to rest the soil and allow structure and microbe communities to develop for a season or two. In my tiny garden, I don’t have space to fallow any of the beds, and I don’t need to do so as much. I’m not plowing these beds, so I’m not breaking down soil structure. And I add lots of compost, straw and other mulches, and dried seaweed as top dressing each year, so I don’t draw down soil nutrients when I take a harvest out of the bed.

In terms of soil, I could just plant the same things in a bed each year. However, the other benefit of rotation is that it keeps pests and diseases from building up. When you plant tomatoes in the same place year after year, all the nasty critters and molds that love to destroy your tomatoes don’t even have to go looking for the plants. They just bed down in the soil or mulch, infecting and infesting every tomato plant that comes to them. Moving things around at least makes that critters work a bit to find their favorites — and, more importantly, come to the soil surface where they stand a good chance of being eaten by predators. (All except squash bugs… only black widows eat those nasty things.)

The difficult part of rotation to avoid critters is that most pests and diseases will prey on not just one specific species but a whole family. So it’s not enough to move the tomatoes, you have to plan on keeping all the nightshades out that bed for at least a year. And the nightshades are a big family! It includes all my chiles, the eggplants, the potatoes and the okra. So it’s not a matter of just keeping the tomatoes moving. The geometry has to account for all those other plants too.

Calendula flowers: pest control and also makes for really good hand cream

Similarly, if a pest eats pumpkins, they probably also eat all the other cucurbits, though I have noticed that there isn’t much cross-over between pumpkin and cucumber predation. And only the idiot squirrels eat the gourds. But this is where my rotation plans fail. I have a mound that is dedicated to squash. I don’t have room for squash anywhere else. The squash will be in the mound every year that I plant squash. Which is probably every year since I live on squash in the winter. So to try to combat that, I will use companion plants to draw pest predators. I use nasturtiums and calendula heavily. These not only draw all sorts of beneficial birds and bugs, but the scent confuses squash bugs. I also grow my annual flowers in the squash mound. These might not attract specific beneficials, but I’ve found that the more flowers there are, the more of all kinds of species there are. Color often serves as a reliable proxy for biodiversity. A bright garden feeds and shelters many, many critters, many of which also will eat pests or at least pest larvae.

So this is my pest control toolkit: rotation and companion interplanting. It works as well as the chemicals do, and in many ways it’s more reliable than the chemicals — because pests can adapt to the chemicals (unless you are using brand new chemicals every year… which is what industrial agriculture has to do these days). I don’t have many pest or disease problems. Not even squash bugs. The only pestilential critter that I have to cope with is… squirrels.

And nothing puts them off… not even poisonous bulbs… they’re idiots.

 

Teaser photo credit: Alyssum: still going, also still feeding bees and hover flies