Come late September, we won’t blame you if you’re a little gardened out. But if you can muster just a weekend’s worth of energy, you can squeeze a surprising late harvest from your garden and set yourself up for success next spring. Here are seven soil-tested fall gardening tips from Keep Growing Detroit’s Lindsay Pielack.
#1 – Plant garlic
It’s super low-maintenance and takes up minimal space in your garden. But if you’re waiting until spring to plant your garlic, you’re about six months too late. “Garlic is planted mid-October in Michigan, and I think it’s the biggest bang-for-your-buck crop you can plant,” Pielack says.
One clove (with the paper sheath), planted in the fall and covered with straw will produce a full head that’s ready for harvest in July. You can get seed garlic from Detroit Farm and Garden; or direct from Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program — including the “Motown” variety, which gardeners in the city have cultivated for years.
#2 – Sow spring spinach now
Unlike garlic, spinach can be seeded in the early spring, but you’ll have to wait for the ground to thaw and soil temps to reach at least 40 degrees. To get a jumpstart on the season, Pielack says you can plant spinach destined for May salads in late September. “Spinach is one of those crops that, as long as it gets a foothold, can survive the winter. And it’s the most amazing fresh spinach come spring.” For best results, cover your fall plantings with wire hoops and row cover fabric to give them some extra protection — particularly if those predictions for a cold Michigan winter pan out.
#3 – Look for firesales on perennials
Browse the inventory at most garden centers this time of year, and you’ll likely find a sad-looking patch of deeply discounted perennials tucked in some forgotten corner. But while those pots of hostas and echinacea might look like they’re on death’s door, Pielack says many of the plants are just dormant. Pinch back a few of the stems to see if they’re pliable or look for leaves that are still showing signs of life at the base of the plants. If so, you’ll have just scored the ingredients of a low-maintenance flower garden at a deep discount.
#4 – The versatile green tomato
Yes, fried green tomatoes are a fall go-to, but Pielack says there are actually quite a few things you can do with all those late bloomers that didn’t get a chance to vine-ripen. First, if they even have a blush of color on them, pick them before the frost: Pielack says as long as they’ve “turned the corner,” they’ll finish ripening on your kitchen countertop. For the ones that are still hard as rocks, treat them like tomatillos: “One of my favorite things to do is chop them in half, roast them with garlic and onions, and that makes a really good green sauce.” If you have more than you can eat fresh, it freezes well too.
#5 – Start a garden journal
Did you really need all 18 of those tomato plants? Or could you have really used another row of carrots? Pielack says fall is a great time to reflect on what you #actually# used the most of and what you had a glut of. Her advice: Make some honest notes-to-self now while your memory is still fresh and before the excitement of spring clouds your judgement.
#6 – Put your garden to bed
Pielack says one of the most common questions she gets from gardeners is when to call it a season and send dead or dying plants to the compost heap. Her answer: “While you still have the energy.” While it’s not a necessity, pulling out last year’s garden helps prevent pests from overwintering on dead plant material. After you’ve restored order, simply cover your soil with a layer of leaves, straw, or cardboard to help protect it from harsh winter weather and keep spring weeds at bay. “We promote gardening that doesn’t rely on tilling so you don’t disturb all the beneficial microbes in your soil,” Pielack says. “So once you’re ready to plant, just take off the leaves or straw, and loosen the soil with a garden fork. It’s just like fluffing a pillow.”
#7 – Throw a harvest party
Because you’ve earned it.
Lindsay Pielack is a co-director at Keep Growing Detroit. You can read more about the nonprofit’s vision for food sovereignty — a future where the majority of fruits and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city’s limits — at detroitagriculture.net.