It’s not over until the wheelbarrow freezes into the ground

By Carey Restino

I asked a fellow gardener how his garden was going yesterday, and got the eye-roll. “I have no idea,” he said. “The tomatoes are all hanging dead. I haven’t been watering.” The between-the-lines sentiment is pretty prevalent right now: gardener burnout. After a summer of tending and treating every little bit of greenery with care, the two or three freezing nights we’ve had already have done many of us in on gardening this season. Every year, the frost comes as a shock to me. It’s not like we don’t know its coming. I have a date-book that tells me the date of the first frost for the past 13 years, and this year’s was actually quite a few weeks late. Still, it’s a surprise. Even when a full moon rises on a chilly evening, conversations spring up on social media sites. Should we put on ground cover cloth? What about heaters for those with greenhouses and high tunnels? Would they help?

This year, I was more ready than last. I had harvested boxes and boxes of green tomatoes. I was ready. But I wasn’t. One night at 26 degrees and an entire season of cultivating and coaxing these plants into producing food for us is over. Shocking.  But in the end, it’s just … the end. Of course, the next day, it was over 80 degrees in the high tunnel, so it’s not really over for those dabbling in plasticulture. Maine gardener Eliot Coleman has long been singing the
praises of winter gardening, with remarkable results, though they don’t entirely translate to Alaska winters. The idea goes something like this – if you have a snow-free area like a greenhouse or high tunnel, you can keep growing until the daylight gets too short for growth to occur. But even after that, your enclosed space can act sort of like a giant fridge. You put Remay over everything to protect it from too deep a frost, and crops like spinach and chard can stay green and edible for most of the year. If you start them in the fall, they will go dormant and then revitalize as the daylight extends in the spring. Well — maybe. I’ve heard of some folks who got some really early crops this spring by sowing seeds during a warm spell in March. But crops making it through the winter? I haven’t heard of that yet, but I’m all ears. Maybe, if it’s the right year. Anyway, the point is, it surely isn’t over now, when the temperature
is over 30 most of the time. If you’ve got carrots, they will only get sweeter if you leave them in the ground (just make sure you get them out before the ground really freezes solid). And broccoli and Brussels sprouts are still going strong. Even my lettuce is looking good with Remay over it. There are issues – water, for one. My hoses have been freezing a lot lately. But plants don’t need much water these days unless we get a string of sunshine. And fresh greens in October is worth lugging a few watering cans, if necessary. The other issue is that the window is closing on how long we have to work the soil. I, for one, want to till my soil this fall rather than trying to do that in the spring, when my garden is typically surrounded by snow. I like to apply my lime in the fall, too, to give it the winter to sink in. In the spring, I add the other good stuff, like fish bone meal and compost (no sense in letting all that goodness wash away with the snowmelt).

And even though a large part of us wants to be done at this point, getting the fall season chores out of the way before snow and freezing conditions auger
everything in the ground for the winter will put you way ahead in the spring, when every day counts. You will thank yourself for putting the wheelbarrow some place where it is not entombed in ice in a few weeks. There’s another thing you should really do this month before you forget everything you learned this year. Sit down and write yourself some notes about what worked, what didn’t, what was planted too tightly, what needed more water, less water, more time to mature, etc. You think you will remember all those details, but when you open the glossy pages of the seed catalogues in February, you will forget. You will think anything is possible. It isn’t. This is Alaska. Only your notes will save you from delusion. Pretty soon, our window for fall clean up and preparation for  next year will close. Despite the burnout, rally for one last push of productivity out there. You’ll be ever so grateful for your effort in the spring.

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Posted by on Oct 1st, 2013 and filed under Outdoors. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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