Sweet September -Fall 2015

And the harvest is in.

by: Russ Morash

Fall gets my vote.

DEFINITELY, IT’S THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR TO BE ON NANTUCKET. Not just because the crowds are thinner, although that’s an advantage, but because the heat is down, the fog less likely, and the air is comfortable but cool enough at night for sleeping. The gardens are never better then now with both flowers and vegetables vying for attention.

Even the insects, perhaps because their bellies are full after a summer of ravishing the crops, take a break, as do some of the other pests we love to loathe. The deer have enough to munch on in the wild areas not to bother with the fenced-in crops I raise. Although, I note one had the nerve to savage a beautiful Waltham butternut squash which had partially squeezed out the netting of my plastic deer fence. Enjoy it pal, but remember butternut tastes much better after it’s been stored for two months after the first frost (and just before the opening of deer-hunting season).

Fall is the perfect time to build or repair a lawn. Any earlier, and the summer weeds are likely to out-compete the lawn-grass seedlings and the demand for water is less. While we do not have a golf-green lawn here, we are concerned that neglecting it altogether would set a poor example. As it is, we do not fertilize or weed-kill. We accept mole and vole tunnel damage although we pay a heavy price in lost earthworms as a result. We actually like the look of clover and covet the rabbit droppings those critters leave when eating that crop. We also leave the grass clippings, which smell great when freshly mown, then turn brown quickly enough, disappearing into the thatch to help build up the soil.

But I do have a few areas of our lawn that no self-respecting ruminant would care to eat. What little grass grows in these spots is thin, surrounded by plenty of hardpacked soil and those inevitable pesky weeds which thrive in such conditions. I know why these areas look so bad: not enough water, poor soil conditions and neglect. So I begin the restoration by sparing any clumps of desirable grass plants that remain. But if more than 75 percent of the area is affected, it’s better to till under the whole lot and begin as if it were a new lawn.

In any case, it’s essential to improve the native soil by loosening the compacted earth with a garden fork or a tiller, removing the weeds, and adding plenty of good compost. This amendment will do more to reverse the poor soil conditions than anything else I can do. Now, with a proper seed bed in place, I can sprinkle fresh lawn seed on the surface, tamp it down with my rake, and set up watering timers and sprinklers to make sure the seed never dries out until new grass appears. While it grows I promise not to step upon it or permit others from doing so to avoid compaction. By Columbus Day, I should be cutting this new grass.

By then it would also be a good time to plant some more daffodils to those we already enjoy here each spring. We favor daffys over tulips because they last and multiply every year, rewarding a gardener with reliable performance unaffected by predators. Tulips are more difficult, more expensive, and harder to harmonize in a natural setting. You want tulips? Save your guilders and visit The Keukenhof gardens outside Amsterdam next spring for an unforgettable display of the best blooms Dutch growers can produce.

Although many gardeners here try it, Nantucket is not exactly a prime growing area for garlic, not like Gilroy, Calif., which calls itself “The Garlic Capital of the World.” Located near San Francisco, this agricultural town has a three-day festival in July each year where subjects can meet their new “queen,” sample the acquired taste of garlic ice cream, and buy any number of heirloom garlic varieties to take home and cook with or plant out in the back-yard garden.

To do so would mean setting out individual cloves of garlic in fertile soil in mid-fall to initiate root growth before the plant sends up its green shoots. We wouldn’t want the foliage to freeze above ground going into the winter, but we do want a rooted clove off to a good start so next spring it will mature into a fistsized bulb by mid-summer.

A continuing obsession for me in the fall is improving the garden soil. I learned the hard way that the compost we so depend on, usually available from the town landfill, was late coming this spring due to mechanical issues (or something), and seriously delayed Nantucket gardeners who depend on this stuff to improve their poor native soils. This year I will get a truckload of this essential soil improver delivered now, storing it all winter to be certain I’ll have it when I need it.

Another fool-proof way to improve the soil at little cost and complication is to grow a cover crop of winter rye on any garden bed that is vacant . This inexpensive annual rye grass sold in any garden center will grow all fall, sending down roots even in temperatures down to 50 degrees. Within days of planting it, sprouts will appear and turn green, adding height every day. By the time the real cold weather appears the plants should be well-established and then go dormant. At that point the garden will be covered with a green-manure cloak of soil-improving elements that can be chopped and converted to humus next spring.

Maybe this is the year I plant some Tyee spinach in early September while there’s still time for it to grow in the cool temperatures spinach likes. If so, I may get it to the table next spring when everything else in the garden is just waking up.

Russ Morash is a life-long gardener and founder and former producer of PBS shows including “The Victory Garden,” “This Old House” and “The French Chef.”

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