Everyone loves the summer garden and its produce--tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, basil... the flavors we wait for all year. But most of us also have regrets. The summer garden can be a demanding taskmaster; things get out of hand in a hurry if you are gone, the weather is wrong, or life intervenes. Well, it's time to lay aside the inevitable failures and lapses. As Eliot Coleman says, Fall is the season of forgiveness.
Fall is a fresh start. The weeds won't grow so fast in winter, and the season of harvest goes for months and months. (Many plants you put in now will still be producing next May.) A few plants by the back door, or a bed of roots and greens for stews and roasting, will go a long way. Fall gardens are leisurely gardens, and Fall foods are comfort food.
Now is the time to pull out the plants that are no longer yielding well or never worked out. Till or hoe out the weeds, and start over. If weeds are really severe, wet them down and cover with cardboard. By time your new transplants are ready to go in, the weeds will be dead.
Nights are longer, which gives plants more time for repair and recovery from the heat. Plants that you neglected to feed or water enough in summer are giving you a second chance now. Many perennials that bloomed in May are blooming a second time. Plants whose flowering is triggered by short days are budding now. Scarlet runner beans and chia are examples of tropical plants that flower when days are short. Trees and other woody plants are ripening their wood—turning it from green growth to permanent wood. You can help this process, and give them more winter hardiness, by giving them kelp meal or liquid seaweed now.
Most weeds are well into flowering and setting seed. If you pull or hoe them out now, they will often stay gone for the rest of the season. (If you don't you'll have a lot of seedlings to contend with next spring.) Your best strategy is to get rid of the weeds you have now, and mulch well around existing plants to prevent new weeds next spring. In empty spots or beds that are finishing up, plant a cover crop like rye or vetch that will smother them and get the ground in shape for easy planting next spring.
With the longer nights, watering can often be cut down a bit. Plants don't get so stressed. You may want to adjust the time when you water, too. Mildew often strikes in September, so adjust your schedule now to make sure the soil surface gets dry before nightfall.
Finally, and deliciously, now is the time to plant fall crops. As Coleman says, it doesn't matter now what failed or was overrun by weeds in summer—you can hoe out your mistakes and start with a clean slate. Fall and winter gardens are so much easier in many ways. They grow during the period when there are fewer weeds. They won't need irrigation after the rains start. Instead of a short window when you have to either use or preserve them, winter crops wait in the ground until you want them. And on a cold rainy night it is pretty special to come home to your own vegetables instead of having to run to the store.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.