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Cleaning Up the Fall Garden ... or Not 

Leave a few roses to feed the birds and to develop hips for vitamin C-packed tea.

Photo by Julia Graham-Whitt

Leave a few roses to feed the birds and to develop hips for vitamin C-packed tea.

My calendar tells me that the Autumn Equinox starts at 6:30 a.m. PST on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Before you get all excited about pumpkin spice season, it's time to think about planting your fall garden if you haven't yet and to think about cleaning up the summer garden (or not, but more on that in a moment).

I don't know about you but my garden is looking pretty pathetic right around now, except for the dahlias that just keep blooming, or the pumpkin patch, which is still doing pretty great. In fact, I've already picked a dozen tiny little ornamental pumpkins and two pie pumpkins. As for the rest of it? Meh. Granted, I don't live in a warm enough climate to be waiting for those last tomatoes on the vine to ripen before the next rain, though I do have a couple tomatillo plants that are still going gangbusters. But for nearly everything else, well, they're pretty past their prime.

Now is the time to clean up a lot of the spent vines and plants, along with the stuff that didn't thrive when you forgot to water them regularly as you promised earlier in the season. Tomatoes, sweet peas, bolted cilantro, zucchini plants that have a few more baseball bats on them — it's time to pull those out and put them on the compost pile. Though if any of your plants are diseased wtih rust or powdery mildew, you do not want those on your compost pile. Put them in your green waste bin and let the folks at Recology or Wes Green deal with them. They will be added to other green waste, and turned into something usable because those piles get really hot and can kill many plant diseases.

But before you go bananas cleaning up all of the dead items, leave some for the wildlife, especially for the birds. Flowers gone to seed, such as cosmos, echinacea, rudbeckia, marigold, asters and sunflowers are all greatly desired by foraging birds now that a lot of the other food crops have dried up. You can deadhead your roses but leave a few to develop into hips, which are very beautiful and can also be made into a tea, while birds and other wildlife will eventually eat the seeds inside as well. Rugosa roses are especially known for their beautiful seed heads or hips. Humans often use them in teas, as they are high in vitamin C.

You can also save seeds to plant next year (this is how farmers and gardeners did it for centuries, before seed companies came along). You'll want to use open-pollinated varieties of plants and veggies so the seed will be true to type. Peas, beans, lettuce and tomatoes (remember, OP only, not hybrids like the delicious Sungold cherry tomato) are good candidates for seed saving. There are numerous sources online if you're interested in learning how to save seeds from the plants in your garden. Seed Savers Exchange is an excellent site for information (www.seedsavers.org). Once you have collected the seeds, store them in a cool, dark, dry place.

If you have a bit of space in your yard, leave a patch of overgrown garden for the wildlife as well. Birds and amphibians appreciate a little wild in your garden — a garden with bare earth isn't very wildlife friendly.

So you've cleaned up the spent plants, and you've saved some seed for yourself and wildlife. Now what? It's time to amend the soil in preparation for the next season. Choose a few spots where you can plant your winter crops: garlic, onions, kales, lettuces, chard, carrots and beets. The rest of the beds can lay fallow but there are ways you can boost the productivity next year. Cover crops are great for this, if you have space you don't need to use over the winter. Most feed stores and nurseries have cover crops that you can plant. These are known as "green manures" because you till them into the ground before they go to seed in late winter or early spring. Clover, vetch, field peas, favas, ryegrass and buckwheat make excellent cover crops. Consult with the local nursery folks to find out what will work best in your climate. In addition to adding organic matter and nutrients in the soil, these cover crops also form a living mulch and help suppress other undesirable plants (aka: weeds).

You can also amend your soil with some finished compost and if you have chickens or rabbits, you can add their manure to the soil or raised beds, where it will mellow as our winter rains begin. Don't put fresh chicken manure on any area you want to plant in the near future, as it will burn the plants. You can also top dress with straw to decompose over the winter — not hay, as it contains seeds and you'll regret it next spring when you have 18 bazillion seed heads in the planting area. Ask me how I know ... .

Julia Graham-Whitt (she/her) is owner and operator of the landscaping business Two Green Thumbs.

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