6 Autumn Planting Projects

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Forget-me-nots and dianthus

It’s probably the pandemic, but the garden has been so important this summer that I don’t want to let it end. So I won’t. This September I’ll be doing everything I can to keep the garden going until the party is really over in early winter. If you feel the same way, please join me in these six rewarding planting projects for early autumn.

Daikon radishes make an excellent soil-building green manure crop

1. Treat Soil to Green Manure

A green manure is any planting that becomes lush and leafy before it is chopped and turned under, or allowed to rot in place. Among vigorous green manure crops that thrive in autumn, fast-growing leafy greens like mustard or tatsoi choke out weeds, daikon radishes drill deep into the soil, and oats can accumulate huge amounts of organic matter in a short time. All of these green manure crops are killed by hard freezes, so the space can be mulched over in early winter.

If you want to improve the soil in new beds, a green manure crop can work wonders. Roots from the green manure plants penetrate soil and improve its tilth, and both leaves and roots are returned to the garden as organic matter. Growing an autumn green manure crop is a great fit for veganic gardening because it improves the soil without animal inputs.

Autumn-planted mache is ready to pick in early spring

2. Try Winter-Hardy Greens

Gardeners in warm climates can still plant collards, turnips, and other autumn greens, but in northern areas the days will soon be much too short to support strong growth of most young edibles. But a lean sun supply is fine with winter spinach, which only needs to reach teacup size before cold weather stops its growth. In addition to spinach, mache (also called corn salad or lamb’s lettuce), happily overwinters as tiny seedlings. Winter-hardy greens that become well rooted in autumn start growing first thing in spring.

Start seeds of biennial flowers in autumn and look forward to a stunning summer display

3. Adopt a Biennial Bloomer

I fill the front row of my garden with flowers, and use biennials started in autumn to fill the bloom gap between spring-flowering bulbs and summer annuals. Many types of dianthus are easy to grow from seeds started in autumn, some with sweet fragrance. Other easy biennial flowers to try include forget-me-nots, feverfew, and larkspur.

Every tulip, daffodil or hyacinth you plant in autumn will produce a flower in spring

4. Add Some New Bulbs

Speaking of flowers, don’t forget to add a few bulbs to your collection, for example bluebells, daffodils, hyacinths, or tulips. Daffodils are particularly trouble-free, and often do well in spots near deciduous trees that get winter sun and summer shade.

Use crimson clover or other winter-hardy legumes to boost soil fertility

5. Plant Winter Cover Crops

As more garden space becomes vacant, planting winter cover crops becomes an attractive option. Three of the best winter cover crops for boosting soil fertility are nitrogen-fixing legumes: crimson clover, hairy vetch and winter peas. Don’t wait too long to plant, because all three germinate best when the soil is still warm. Expect the plants to stay small through winter, and then explode with growth first thing in spring. I like to use hairy vetch or another winter cover crop in the upcoming year’s pepper and tomato rows. Because these crops are planted late, the cover crop can be allowed to grow until late spring. This gives the legumes plenty of time to stock their root nodules with natural nitrogen, which becomes available to garden crops with the cover crop is taken down.

Wheat seedlings stand through winter as short grasses and grow fast in spring

6. Grow Gorgeous Grains

I have used winter hardy grains including wheat and rye as cover crops, but it’s more fun to grow them as beautiful grains that happen to protect soil from erosion through the winter months. The seed-bearing awns that appear in early summer are gorgeous light-catchers, and make great material for dried flower arrangements.

And then there is this idea. For years, a friend has planted a patch of wheat in her vegetable garden using wheat “berries” from the health food store. When the grain is ripe, she invites the neighborhood children to help harvest, and then they make bread. Maybe next year, when we can freely gather again, I will do the same thing.

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