Fall season brings gardening opportunities

Bees pollinate a cluster of asters on Sept. 7 in CJ Davidshofer's garden. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Gardeners Charles Davidshofer and LoAnn Swanson explored Davidshofer’s North End garden this past Saturday, sharing wisdom on how to put one’s garden to bed for the winter and prep it for the upcoming spring season.

Davidshofer said fall is an excellent time to redesign beds, as the plants are at their maximum size and shape, and many are in full bloom, so the gardener can easily visualize the perfect arrangement.

He stood near a raised bed at the edge of his driveway, edged in large native rocks. At least a dozen large plants sat perched, root balls exposed, on the dark soil of the bed. Davidshofer said he had dug them all up the day before, and arranged them in a way that shorter, deer-resistant plants formed the front row with taller, fuller plants such as phlox in the back.

He added that autumn conditions also contribute to the success of a redesign project.

“The soil’s still warm, but the air is cold, so the roots really want to go down,” Davidshofer said. “They’re feeding the top. Everything’s reversed right now, right? Everything in the springtime grows up and then as it cools down, everything starts getting fed back into the soil. The roots start digging down deeper.”

Davidshofer also said that fall is an excellent time to divide plants that have grown too large.

He demonstrated how he can easily chop tough roots apart with his sharp, narrow shovel.

Dividing old plants can invigorate them and improve their health, he added.

“Just like your irises — they get a big donut shape and they don’t flower anymore,” he explained.

Irises grow from tuberous roots, and as they age, their new growth sprouts on the outer edges, leaving a bare center — thus, the “donut” shape of older plants.

Davidshofer and Swanson also discussed how to handle bulbs in the fall season.

“The green leaves are getting energy from the sun and feeding the bulb for next year’s flower,” Swanson explained. She said gardeners can choose to simply let the green leaves slowly die on their own, or they can make them more attractive with a little attention.

“Once the flower’s gone, I might braid this and lay it down on the ground,” she said, grasping the long, green fronds of a crocosmia plant.

Davidshofer said that when working with clients’ plants for his gardening business, he completely removes spent flowering bulbs, so that the dying leaves don’t mar the appearance of a bed. The entire plants can be dug up, tossed in a bucket, covered in wood chips or soil and stored somewhere cool.

Davidshofer and Swanson next discussed plants that are excellent for use in soil improvement.

Swanson gestured to a large, broad-leafed plant sprawling at the back of one of Davidshofer’s wood-edged raised beds.

“Comfrey is really great,” she said, especially for boosting a compost pile.

“I’ve hacked that one back probably three times this year,” Davidshofer added. He said he not only adds it to his compost bins, but often just lays in on top of dormant beds to add nutrients to the soil as it dies down as a mulch.

 Swanson also mentioned buckwheat as a beneficial crop that will add nutrients to planting beds.

“It’s a cover crop,” she explained. “It’s the first time I’ve ever planted it and it grows like crazy. I planted it in a bed I’m going to replant garlic in. I think it draws up minerals from the earth and also, turning it back in will give other food to the ground.”

The conversation then turned to garlic.

“Garlic is easy,” Davidshofer said.

“You can’t buy garlic as good as what you grow,” Swanson said, adding, “you plant it in the fall. You still have time.”

“Not until October usually,” Davidshofer agreed.

They also agreed that hardneck garlic is the best choice for area gardeners, the other choice being softneck.

“They taste better,” Davidshofer said of the hardneck garlic. “They’re the best flavor. You don’t buy hardnecks at the store — you buy softnecks.” He explained that the reason is, the softnecks can last longer in storage, which is necessary for commercial operations.

Swanson said garlic can be grown not just in big beds, but also in large pots.

But, “you want to have good drainage for garlic — for anything,” she said.

Davidshofer added, “as long as it drains well — it just can’t sit in water, especially on the bottom. Make sure you have enough drainage holes. Put some stones down on the bottom.”

Swanson agreed and clarified that the big pots should be set on drainage stones.

“Keep your pot off the ground,” she said. “Most big pots have the drainage holes around on the outside edge and sometimes right in the bottom, but they can clog up.”

Even an inch off the ground would be enough to give that drainage space, Davidshofer said.

If the gardener is concerned about soil leaking through the drain holes, Swanson and Davidshofer recommended covering the holes with burlap, a piece of a broken clay pot or even a scrap from a box.

“You can also use a piece of cardboard,” Swanson said, “which will eventually break down and add things back to the soil. I believe it also draws earthworms, but also by the time that cardboard rots, your root system in your plant should be good enough, I think, to keep your soil from falling out.”

Cardboard also is their go-to solution to smother unwanted grass or weeds.

“Mow it down with the mower or whatever and just put two layers of cardboard and mulch over the top and you’re done,” Davidshofer said.

When asked about how to deal, for example, with a large invasion of weedy buttercups in one’s garden, Swanson had a plan.

She said, “What I do at my house, I do cardboard and the woodchips, and then when the buttercup eventually gets through, the roots on the buttercup then have to stretch so hard because they have to go through the cardboard and through all the wood chips. They’re much easier to remove.”

Davidshofer then talked about growing fall vegetables. Gesturing to a bed full of young lettuces, he explained he had just planted them two weeks ago.

Swanson added that, it’s also a “perfect time of year to plant spinach.”

Davidshofer said of late season vegetable gardening, “If you really wanted to have a winter garden with kales, chards and beets and stuff, that should have been done about a month ago. You want it to be full maturity in the cold.”

The pair then moved across the garden to an area featuring fruit trees and berries.

Davidshofer’s garden features a long row of raspberries, supported by two rows of sturdy wire strung between thick posts.

“Cut all your raspberries back right now,” he urged, adding, “all the canes that produced this year.”

He said he adds the old canes to his compost pile.

“Leave the others,” Swanson said. “They’ll be producing next year.

Next year’s canes will sport green or red stems, Davidshofer said, and the old ones will be brown.

“The old ones should have dead flowers and berries that you didn’t get picked,” Swanson added.

Davidshofer said his raspberries have not disappointed.

“We had to buy a new freezer, just to fit all the raspberries,” he said.

Davidshofer also advised gardeners to cut raspberry canes to about chest-height in the fall, to avoid wind damage during winter storms.

Davidshofer’s garden also features a large hoop house. Growing inside were several cherry tomato plants reaching the ceiling, heavy with orange and red fruits. Most of them, he said, he’d defoliated as the vines matured to allow maximum sunlight to reach the fruits.

Cucumber and zucchini plants also thrived in the house, and Davidshofer cut a cucumber apart to share with guests.

Because many vegetables require the intense heat that only a hoophouse or greenhouse can provide, both Davidshofer and Swanson opt to use them.

Swanson said she recommends the lower-cost approach she took. She bought a shelter from Costco that was marketed as a storage shed for a car or boat, then covered it with Lexan panels.

“I can’t say it’s cheap, but it’s very affordable,” she said.

They then drifted to another part of the garden where a small Discovery apple tree grew, studded with plump reddish fruits, next to a fluffy aster plant bursting with purple blossoms. The aster was vibrating with the countless hoverflies and other pollinators, which Davidshofer said were attracted to it for its open blossoms that allow easy access to the pollen.

Because of the potential for bear and deer to be attracted to fruiting plants, Swanson said she installed an electric fence around her entire property this year.

As for getting fruit trees to produce, Davidshofer and Swanson emphasized the need to know if one’s tree is a self-pollinating variety. If it is not, another variety of that type of tree with the same pollination schedule is necessary to stimulate fruit production. Even if a tree is self-fertile, Davidshofer said, planting another tree of the proper type will double the amount of fruit produced.

Nearby was a tall, graceful silvery shrub that Davidshofer said was a seaberry shrub.

“They grow like a weed,” he said, adding that the plant fixes nitrogen, benefitting the soil, and that he makes juice out of the berries.

Another fall season gardening activity that many people usually consider only a spring season chore, is pruning.

“You can still prune on dry days,” Davidshofer said. “You can still prune your evergreens, and if you prune them now, they’ll last. They’ll look nice and tidy until June.”

A traditional fall garden activity is planting flower bulbs. Davidshofer said he just jumps right into planting.

“I don’t even prepare anything,” he said. “I just throw them into the ground.”

Bulbs should, in general, be planted “pointy side up,” and “usually two times the width of the bulb,” Davidshofer explained.

An important fall chore is to gather mulch to protect the soil over the winter, as well as to add nutrients to it.

“It’s time to get all your seaweeds or your leaves,” Davidshofer said. “Start gathering those up and putting them on your beds.”

Swanson said she has a friend who is a long-time local gardener who never drives anywhere at this time of year without a couple of five-gallon buckets in his car to collect old, fallen leaves whenever he encounters a spot with a bounty.

Davidshofer said fall also is the perfect time to take care of more mundane tasks such as sharpening and cleaning tools and repairing garden hardscape items such as trellises.

For those with daunting gardening tasks ahead of them, such as digging up and moving large plants or trees, or digging up and separating tough old root systems, Swanson and Davidshofer recommended holding a garden work party with friends and refreshments.

They recalled a recent party where about six people had gathered to work for a few hours in a fellow gardener’s space while she was healing from injuries.

“We all got done in half a day,” Davidshofer said. “That’s what a community does.”

“And everybody has fun,” Swanson added. “Just have a party.”

Davidshofer’s final advice for aspiring gardeners was simple.

“Buy yourself a good shovel and get out there and dig,” he said.