What, you want to replace me with pansies? I'm not ready to go!

What, you want to replace me with pansies? I’m not ready to go!

Somehow, when we weren’t looking, September arrived. And if your weather is anything like mine, it’s still hard to get out in the garden between about 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. without applying sunscreen and carrying a water bottle. Yet we know that any day now, the weather will turn chilly, all the hot-weather flowers and vegetables will screech to a halt, and we will wish we had cool-season plantings already underway. What to do with a garden that is ignoring the calendar and Indian-summering its way right through Labor Day?

Well, many gardeners have already started their cool-season crops in the Bio Dome, and the seedlings are probably chugging along nicely by now. They can be tucked among the hangers-on of the summer garden, or the more ruthless among us (more power to them!) can decide on a transition date and simply till under anything still producing, replacing the old with the new. If the temperatures stay warm, those direct-sown seeds will really take off, needing only some mulch, a little extra water, and in extreme cases some temporary shade until the cooler weather arrives.

I'm still sitting on the vine, just waiting to become your Thanksgiving centerpiece

Even though you didn’t plant me until June, here I am, nearly ripe and ready to be a Thanksgiving centerpiece!

But what if you want to ride out this glorious summer weather, watching the zinnias continue to set buds and all that squash (that you thought you’d waited too long to sow) come to fruition? In that case, I have a suggestion for you. Instead of rushing to grow a fall vegetable garden before that all-important frost date, why don’t you consider growing something that will last much longer: better soil.

Improving the soil is something many of us do over winter, or when cultivating a new area of the garden. But what if we spent one short season tackling a trouble spot in the garden to really make the soil ready for spring planting?

The appealing thing about doing this in fall is that it means we can still grow plants — even edibles, if we have a long frost-free season this year. Since we are growing these plants for their nutrients and nitrogen-fixing ability rather than their fruit, any harvest is just icing on the cake. Consider these scenarios:

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I’m not called “Sprint” for nothing!

A quick legume crop – Do you have at least 7 weeks before your first scheduled frost? You can grow and probably harvest a crop of beans and/or peas. We all know what great nitrogen fixers these plants are, so even if a freak early frost kills them, you can still chop them up and till them into the soil. Direct-sow the seeds now; they don’t need great soil to grow, so you can even try them in a tough part of the garden. Some super-fast varieties: Pea Sugar Sprint, Snow Pea Dwarf White Sugar, and Venture Bush Bean. Sow the whole packet of seeds, and if you don’t want to fuss with supports to hold up the peas, let them ramble along the garden floor.

A cover crop – If you live in the south or west, now is the ideal time to plant a cover crop. This is simply a mix of annual grains — legumes again! — that is grown for the purpose of soil-building, controlling erosion, or attracting beneficial insects and pollinators into the garden. You let it flower, then till it under. It needs no care beyond watering, and the benefits to your soil are huge.

Put me away for the season! A lasagna garden needs no tilling.

Put me away for the season! A lasagna garden needs no tilling.

A lasagna garden – If you do not have a couple of months left before first frost, or if your garden budget went bust long ago and you have promised not to buy even one more packet of seeds, it’s time to grow a lasagna garden. Remember this technique? Find a patch of soil where nothing is currently growing — or better yet, a part of the lawn you want to turn into a garden bed — and start layering brown and green material right on top of whatever is on the soil (grass, weeds, etc.) Your bottom layer is newspaper (“brown”), followed by grass clippings or veggie scraps (“green”), then brown, then green, etc. You want more brown than green, but considering that dead leaves and pine needles count as brown, this shouldn’t be a problem in fall! Pile your lasagna several feet high, wet it down, and leave it alone. By spring it will be perfect soil that you don’t even have to till before planting. (And if your neighbors don’t like how the freshly layered lasagna looks, you can place a tarp or landscape fabric over it. The layers will still break down.)

The great thing about building soil in these ways is that all of them are easy: no double-digging, back-filling, or amendment spreading. Fall is a busy time in the garden, and you don’t need another chore. But if you start good things for your soil now, by spring you will have a fresh, fertile growing space in which to begin your next garden.

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