We may be losing the support of Mr. Sun as summer nears its end, but there is plenty of time and good weather for taking on late season garden projects. We have suggested fall planting projects before, but there are always more! Here are three excellent garden projects to undertake as space opens up in the garden and you make plans for next year…
1. Sow a Snake of Salad Crops
If awful weather has you feeling discouraged about growing anything this fall, try sowing fast-growing salad crops alongside a soaker hose – a great way to get salad crops up and growing in hot, dry weather. A soaker hose emits low-level moisture into the surrounding soil more effectively than sprinklers or hand-watering. Overhead watering also can cause a hard crust to form over germinating seeds. If you don’t have a soaker hose, you can make one by poking small holes into a length of old hose and clamping off the end.
Start this project by preparing a planting bed for arugula, lettuce, spinach and other fall salad crops, and then arrange a soaker hose held in place with weights. If you use tape type drip hoses, arrange them in at least two parallel lines. Turn on the water and make adjustments until you are happy with the wetting pattern, and then sow seeds in bands 1-3 inches (2-7 cm) from the soaker hose. Turning on the water for short periods in the morning and evening, when you are likely visiting the garden anyway, is usually sufficient to maintain constant moisture for germinating seeds and young seedlings.
2. Plant Vetch to Improve Next Year's Tomatoes
All cover crops help improve soil, but the benefits of growing hairy vetch ahead of tomatoes are truly incredible. The hairy vetch-tomato system is built upon more than a decade of research that compared growing tomatoes under black plastic mulch to crops grown in vetch-enriched soil topped with vetch mulch. The hairy vetch system improves yields, saves on fertilizer, reduces disease and even deters insects. I’ve done it several times, and it’s really quite amazing.
It starts in September when hairy vetch (Vicia villosa) is planted in next year’s tomato space. The plants grow slowly at first but persist all winter and explode with new growth in spring. Two to three weeks before planting tomatoes, the vetch is cut off at the soil line (I use a hori knife) and allowed to dry into a mulch. Tomatoes are planted into openings made in the mulch.
One tip for making the hairy vetch-tomato system work is to never let the soil run dry after tomatoes are planted, because drought slows the biological processes that release nutrients from the decaying vetch. It’s also important to use the dried vetch plants as mulch to make good use of their substantial stored nutrients.
3. Double Dig a New Bed
For over a thousand years, gardeners have used the technique called double digging to improve the performance of their crops. Sometimes called the French Intensive or Biointensive method, double digging was recommended by the British Ministry of Agriculture to enable people to grow food anywhere during World War II. Double digging improves drainage, rooting depth and soil aeration, and the benefits last for years. Double digging involves removing and setting aside the top 8 -10 inches (20-25 cm) of soil with a sharp spade, and then using a digging fork or pick to loosen the compacted subsoil as deeply as possible. Then compost is mixed into the chunks of subsoil before the topsoil goes back in place.
Double digging is hard work, so take it slow. When digging into a rocky hillside, I started with deeply dug holes, added lots of compost, and gradually connected them into a proper bed. If you are working your way down a row, set aside the first pile of excavated topsoil, and then refill the first section with topsoil from the next section to be dug.
Part of the magic of double-dug beds is in their air supply, which increases microbial activity in the subsoil. Avoid stepping on them and use grass clippings, straw, or other mulches that cushion the soil from compaction caused by heavy rains. After double digging, beds can quickly be prepared for planting using simple hand tools.
(If that sounds like a whole lot of work, check out this video to find out how to start new beds without so much as breaking soil – all you need is cardboard and compost!)