By Dr. Leonard Perry and Dr. Vern Grubinger
By October, frost has hit just about everywhere in Vermont, which means there’s not much growing in the garden any more. So, it’s time to harvest those pumpkins and root crops and put the garden to bed.
For winter squash and pumpkins, use a sharp knife to clip the stem from the vine, leaving about two inches of stem attached. Try to pick all the fruit before it is exposed to cold. It’s not just frost, but the accumulated exposure to night temperatures in the 40s, that will reduce the storage life of squash and pumpkins.
When harvesting, handle carefully to avoid bruising since even small wounds create an entry point for microbes that cause decay. Before storing, brush off all soil and carefully inspect fruit for signs of injury or disease.
Beets, parsnips, and carrots can be covered with a thick layer of straw or hay and left in the ground for harvest, as needed, during the winter. Or dig carefully, brush off loose soil, and store in dampened peat moss or sawdust in a cardboard or wooden box in a cool, humid room.
It’s time to collect materials for putting strawberries to bed next month. If you wait too long, an early winter may take you by surprise! To make it through the winter, berries usually need to be covered with a thick layer of clean straw or hay. Leaves also can be used, but they don’t insulate as well as grasses that have stems (which are like hollow tubes).
Mulch helps keep crowns from heaving out of the ground as it freezes and thaws, and also protects them from extreme temperatures that cause winter injury. The best time to apply mulch is after a few hard frosts, when the ground has started to freeze and the leaves of the berries are laying flat on the soil surface (usually around Thanksgiving).
To protect your asparagus beds over winter, they also can be mulched in the same manner as strawberries. Although mulching will keep the soil from warming up as quickly in the spring, it also will protect tender new shoots from tip kill by late frosts.
Clean up the garden by removing all trellises, stakes, and plant debris. Compost healthy plants or leave in the garden to be plowed into the soil. Dispose of diseased plants away from the garden site to prevent overwintering of diseases.
There may still be time to plant a short winter cover crop or oats or winter rye. Even a few inches of growth is better than no cover at all. If you must leave the soil bare, leave the surface rough, rather than smooth, as this will help reduce erosion.
To avoid the rush in spring, you may want to obtain your compost or aged manure now. Just be sure to cover it completely to prevent leaching of nutrients.
And while you’re at it, have your soil tested now, too. Kits are available from all University of Vermont Extension offices or by calling the Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab at (802) 656-3030. The test also will tell you how much lime to add this fall.
If you didn’t grow your own pumpkins this year, then plan a visit to a roadside stand or pick-your-own place to pick out a pumpkin or two.
The ideal jack-o-lantern pumpkin is fairly light in weight for its size and is slightly flat on the bottom. Lighter pumpkins have less “meat” so are easier to carve as a rule. For good keeping quality, choose a pumpkin with a stem and, if you buy your pumpkin early but don’t plan to carve it until just before Halloween, try to store it at a temperature between 50 and 60 degrees for longest shelf life. When carving, don’t forget to save the seeds for roasting.
October is the month to plant garlic. Local garlic from farmers market or roadside stands is usually a pretty good bet since it should be adapted to this climate. Use only disease-free cloves, and place right-side-up in a furrow about three to four inches deep. Deep planting eliminates the need to mulch.
Leave about six to eight inches between cloves. Add some compost or a light dose of blended fertilizer to the furrow. Next spring, garlic is likely to be the first crop up in the garden, often poking through the last of the snow!
October is a good month to mulch perennial beds, using a loose organic material, such as bark chips or leaves, to protect roots from the winter cold. A wind screen erected on the windy sides, usually the north and west, will help protect evergreens. Or use an antidesiccant spray, available at most garden centers, which may help to prevent them from drying out. It is also a good idea to keep evergreens well watered this month.
Indoors, it’s time to start forcing your poinsettia plant to bloom in time for Christmas. It will need about 14 hours of complete, uninterrupted darkness each night from early October to mid-November at nighttime temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees F. A good way to do this is to place it in a closet each night, removing it each morning.
Other activities for October: host a pumpkin carving party for Halloween; attend an Oktoberfest celebration; collect cattails, milkweed pods, goldenrod, and other plant materials for dried flower arrangements.