The unprecedented warmth of October this year has resulted in a peculiar foliage phenomenon: some brilliant fall colors interspersed with trees still fully leafed out in green. This mosh-up can also be seen in the garden: while the tenderest plants, such as summer squashes and cukes, have given up the ghost, tomato and bean plants are still bearing fruit and, in some cases, still flowering, as are some annual flowers. It’s not that unusual to have sturdy marigolds still in flower, but cosmos? C’mon!

We’ve been both planting fall bulbs and transplanting perennials this past week. Ordinarily, late October would be pushing it for both transplanting and new planting of shrubs and perennials. While most gardening books say it’s possible to plant right up until the ground freezes, I’ve always felt that around the time you plant garlic it’s time to wind up fall planting of all kinds, for a couple of reasons. First, like garlic, new plants or transplants need some time to put down some roots before cold weather sets in. Without their anchoring root system, frost heaving can be a problem. This raises the plantings out of the ground and can kill them off. But the main reason fall plantings don’t survive is lack of water. It’s natural to think that cooler temperatures mean less water is needed, but newly planted specimens need water, regardless of temperature. In fact, it’s been so dry this summer that all trees and shrubs can benefit from some deep watering while you’re at it. But there’s also the specter of those burst outdoor faucets, left undrained over the winter, so we usually put the hoses away too early and leave the plants unwatered, alas.

New plants can be protected from frost heave if you give them a cozy blanket of straw or leaf mulch, which can be removed in early spring. What your late transplants don’t need is fertilizer. You don’t want an output of new leaf growth right before a freeze, and fertilizing promotes foliage growth, especially this fall, when what appears to be an endless Indian summer continues.

Even though plants are confused and still growing, clean-up has to start sometime, and the shirt-sleeve temperatures make the work enjoyable. All plant debris that could allow diseases and pests to survive the winter needs to be taken from the garden and composted. This includes dropped fruit and other debris from beneath fruit trees. And, while in years past the lawn mower would be put away by now, this year’s still-growing grass could actually benefit from one last shearing. If you haven’t compulsively raked up all the fallen leaves, you have the opportunity to make a textbook addition to your compost pile. Let lots of leaves collect on the lawn during a dry spell, go over them with your mower, bag up what should be a perfect mixture of lots of excellently shredded leaves and a small amount of well-shredded grass and then empty this mixture onto your compost pile.



If you don’t already have a compost pile, you’ve got the beginnings of a good one with your grass/leaf mix. Whether you make a three-sided bin from repurposed pallets or use a big, round wire cage or a professionally made composter, the mix of dry brown leaves (carbons) and hot nitrogen-rich greens mixed together is the secret to fast composting, even as temperatures begin to cool down.

In warmer weather, you can toss just about anything on the compost pile, always trying, of course, to keep a mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials to feed the hungry microbes that are turning your kitchen and yard wastes into black gold. Vegetable and fruit peelings, coffee grounds, and houseplant and lawn trimmings are handy sources of nitrogen-rich ingredients. You can also compost eggshells and even shredded newspaper. Manure or recycled bedding from chickens, goats, horses, cows or rabbits is also loaded with heat-generating nitrogen. If you don’t have access to that, you can add alfalfa pellets or blood meal to give your pile a nitrogen boost.

For carbon-rich ingredients, straw, fallen leaves or sawdust work well. We usually have bales of straw, a big heap of ashes from the woodstove — which enhance the calcium, phosphorus, and potassium content of finished compost — and sawdust near the compost bins, all of which can be tossed in higgledy-piggledy over the layers of kitchen and garden wastes during summer months. But in the cold season, it’s recommended that gardeners add additional layers of brown ingredients to green materials. The layers help insulate the pile, trapping heat and gases inside. In warm weather, frequent turning is the best way to keep microbes well supplied with oxygen. This fluffing up keeps things perking along, reducing the chance of unwanted odors, as well. But — good news! — in winter, you want to cause as little disturbance as possible to that layer of insulation, so you don’t have to venture out in freezing weather to struggle with a semi-frozen heap. Just wait until spring to turn the pile.

One last note: during this warm autumn with enduring blossoms, bees are still out, hitting up the late sage and borage blossoms on our garden, so we’re doing a lot less cutting back of shaggy perennials. This might mean more spring cleanup, but the bees come first.