October 11, 2006


Fall is officially here. Changing leaves, a slight chill in the air, the white Boltonia asteroides in full bloom and I've got to call upon muscles that have only had two weeks of needed downtime: that short span between the lushness of the garden's last blooming gasp and the drop of the autumn's first frosty-shoe upon tender annuals. (The other shoe dropping sometime around November and reducing the hardier perennials to mush or stripped to bare stalks jutting through freshly fallen leaves.) Spring and fall are always the most hectic in the garden and they both expose only a small window of opportunity during which I can accomplish specific gardening tasks indigenous to each season.

The leaves still cling to the branches, yet they've begun their slow color metamorphosis. The trees here don't present the crazy quilt of brilliant reds and golds which blanket the New England countryside. Nor do they shimmer and quake with the yellows of western aspens. In my mid Atlantic region, the dominant changing colors are rusty browns and muddy reds with burnished coppers and golds jumbled amongst evergreen scrub pines and red oaks. The upside of the ruddier less spectacular fall foliage is the enduring red oaks' maroon cloak which remains a stark contrast to the backdrop of winter's white canvas till spring's arrival.

I'm hoping to put in more ornamental bulbs aside from the usual garlic bulbs. I've kept my promise to myself this year and purchased over 200 daffodils, 50 tulips and 100 crocus. For years I've wanted the area under congested stands of 50 foot oaks and pines to come alive in spring with clusters of yellow and white daffodils as well as drifts of purple and white crocus to herald the daffodils arrival. Throughout the summer I've been cultivating shades of emerald, olive and lime green moss in this mostly shaded area. Some ornamental grasses that can handle shade as well as fringed-leaf dicentra, sweet woodruff and late spring-blooming dwarf azaleas provide a bit of color along with the mossy lawn. But throughout winter and early spring, the sun opens the canopy. Along with a new driveway border of buddleias which I'm underplanting with magenta tulips, I can now envision a kaleidoscope of early spring color. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Of the bulbs I mentioned that need planting now, the one which takes priority at this time is my stalwart, trusty - and indispensible - garlic. I was so proud of my harvest this past season (especially after my disastrous garlic crop of the previous season) I just had to take one of those "proud parental" shots of my garlic babies. No, this isn't a rare quarter-embedded variety, it's actually Music Czech which I purchased from the a local, organic supplier.

Usually planted on Columbus Day weekend, I'm forced to delay my usual schedule this year. So many matters to oversee inside the house, I"m at least two weeks behind on gardening tasks. Maybe a bit more, because the garlic beds have to be prepped first with some kelp meal, compost, bone meal and baking soda. Planted "knuckle's deep" about 5 inches apart and only mulched after the first frost. All the food for growth is already inside that little clove so there's no need for any initial, additional fertilizing. Mulching too early can promote rotting of the bulb since the ground is still susceptible to too much moisture retention and temperature fluctuations. Always looking those few to six inches of top green growth from underneath a thick blanket of shredded leaves, most winters their little green tips can still be seen jutting not only through mulch but layers of snow and into the frosty air. The important thing is to get their roots established. Probably the only significant garlic acumen necessary is timing its seeding. Planting too early may leave overstimulated top growth vulnerable to damaging winter weather. Too little or two few shoots can mean the roots haven't grown sufficiently or strong enough to support the bulbs throughout the winter. In March, bright green lances thrust skyward almost before my eyes as the garlic awakens. Then a side dress of compost or a slow release, organic fertilizer (usually poultry-manure based) and a foliar feed of fish emulsion is applied. From there on, it's just a matter of weeding, steady (not over) watering and waiting till the ultimately 3-4 foot leaves begin yellowing then harvesting when about 1/3 to 1/2 the leaves have browned and begin listing a bit. But harvesting is a long way off considering I haven't even begun to separate the cloves.

Even though the temperatures have dropped and cooler rains have softened the earth for planting... and those daffodils, tulips, crocus and garlic bulbs are impatiently waiting to be planted, I can still take a moment to sit under my morning glory-tented gazebo and enjoy the last blooms of the season; a shift of seasons which won't come again. At least not until next Spring.