Flash in the Pan 

Putting your garden to bed

Nobody likes waking up on the wrong side of the bed, but the problem with that expression is it draws attention to the morning, when you notice something's wrong, instead of to the night before, when the damage was done. All the coffee in the world won't undo a pre-bed argument or late night. If you want to wake up on the right side of the bed, you have to go to sleep there. And the same can be said about your garden.

Winter is like a long, cold night for your garden, and the morning, aka spring, will be largely shaped by what you do the preceding fall—hence the expression "putting the garden to bed." If tucked in properly, your garden will be healthier, with fewer weeds, and require much less work come spring. In other words, next year's gardening season starts right now. So here's a checklist of fall chores to help make good beds for your garden to sleep in.

Clear the dregs of this year's garden. Leaving dead plants in your garden creates habitat for pests and their eggs. Root maggots, for example, can overwinter in the roots of plants in the mustard family, like broccoli or kale, and infect next year's crop. Pull your plants, roots and all, and put them in the compost or the chicken yard. You should have gotten rid of diseased plants already, but if any remain in your garden, don't put them in the compost—burn them, or put them in the trash.

Weeds should also be removed. If a weed is of the spreading variety, removing the roots now will prevent it from getting the jump next year. If the weed contains seed heads, be careful not to scatter the seeds. And since many weed seeds can survive the compost pile unscathed, burn the seed heads or put them in the trash, rather than the compost.

The seed heads of your crop plants, on the other hand, can be a different story, depending on your gardening style. I like to break up the seed heads of the "good" plants and scatter the seeds over the garden. I do this every fall with cilantro, lettuce, spinach and parsley, and over the years these plants have migrated around the garden, sprouting up among tomatoes, garlic or whatever gets planted in their place the following year. I allow these edible shoots to grow wherever they sprout, and watch how they do. Not only do I get the supplemental greens, I learn how they perform in the presence of other plants, and in different corners of the garden. This strategy has helped me find the best spots in my garden for spinach (by the grapes) and parsley (in the strawberries). Lettuce seems to grow well everywhere, and I still haven't found the sweet spot for cilantro.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

On this note, and in keeping with the notion that next year's garden season starts this autumn, some crops can be planted now. Garlic is typically planted in fall, and doing so should be high on your list of fall chores. Fall is also a good time to seed spinach, parsley and onions. If they have time to sprout, the plants will survive most winters. And if the seeds lie dormant until the spring thaw, they'll be in perfect position to sprout as early as possible.

Some root crops, like carrots, can remain in the ground into the winter. In fact, carrots get sweeter after a frost. But it won't matter how good they are if the ground is frozen and you can't dig them out, so cover your carrots with a thick layer of straw mulch (not hay, which has seeds). The mulch will keep the ground soft for several weeks longer, giving you an extra month or two of easy storage before you have to dig them.

If you're into flowers, consider planting bulbs, like tulips, crocuses or daffodils in the fall. They'll come up in spring and look pretty.

The most important aspect of putting your garden to bed is getting your soil ready for next year's planting. Many farmers till the ground in fall, rather than pulling up the weeds and leftover crops. This disrupts the pest habitat and recycles nutrients from the plants directly into the soil. The downside is that tilling also disrupts soil structure and the activity of good soil microorganisms.

Whether or not you do a fall tilling, you should definitely spread compost or manure on your beds. It not only adds nutrients to the soil, but also acts as a mulch, preventing weed growth, and when you dig in that dirt come spring you'll notice it turns over like butter.

Most farmers, and many gardeners, plant a cover crop in fall, like winter rye or buckwheat. Cover crops act as a living mulch, crowding out weeds that might otherwise take hold in the empty fields, and contributing organic matter to the soil when they're tilled under in the spring. While there's no doubt that cover crops improve the long-term health of the soil, sowing them can be overly ambitious for some home gardeners, because of the work involved in mowing them and tilling them under.

One way to achieve a similar result is to cover your garden with a layer of dead leaves, which will decompose over the winter, adding organic matter while preventing weeds from taking root. If you really want to be slick, first spread some compost, then a thin layer of leaves, and then a layer of straw to keep the leaves from blowing away. In spring the leaves will be gone, with assistance from the compost, and you can rake up the straw to reveal a fertile bed, free of weeds and ripe for the planting.

That's the kind of bed you want to wake up to on the other side of winter. So tuck your garden in right.

Ask Ari: Beeten up

Q: Dear Flash,

Do you have any long-term beet storage tips? I am researching the bucket-o-sand method and have found a discrepancy in the recommended moisture content of the sand.

—Seeking Storage Solutions

A: Well, SSS clearly didn't read my recent proclamation that pickling beets is the best way to store them. Boil or steam them about 30 minutes, long enough that the skins slip off. Pickle them in 50/50 water to cider vinegar, with or without pickling spices. If you want to sweeten the brine a little, fine, but it's not necessary because beets are so sweet.

And yes, beets can be stored in damp sand (or sawdust, or peat moss) in a cool (32–40 degrees) place. Remove beet tops, leaving about a half-inch of stem and don't cut root end to prevent bleeding. Washing them isn't necessary, but if you do, let them dry completely.

To dampen your sand, lightly mist it while turning the sand. Put a layer of sand (or other storage material) in the container, then a layer of beets, making sure they aren't touching each other or the side of the container. If you got your storage material wetter than slightly moist, then store it uncovered until the sand dries out a bit, but not completely. Then cover the container with a tight-fitting lid. I've heard that in some cases the beets will actually grow little leaves when stored this way—a nice dose of green in winter. In a root cellar, unheated garage or attic the beets should last four to six months—less than half as long as they'd last if you pickled them, but hey, who's counting?

You can also grate your beets and mix the gratings into brownie batter, bake the brownies and freeze them. They'll last undisturbed for months this way. But chances are, they won't sit undisturbed for long.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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