Edible Gardening in November
Based on our location in Hardiness Zone 7a, our expected first frost date is between October 15th and 25th. It looks like it will be a bit later this year. Nevertheless, even the best cared-for warm weather crops are about finished. Tasks become cleaning up and protecting soil over the winter and maybe starting a compost batch with fall leaves or adding compost to beds in preparation for next spring’s planting. If you have winter hardy crops growing, it makes sense to protect the plants to extend their growth during the coming colder weather. Let’s talk about what to do and how to do it.
Cleaning and protecting your beds
Beds that no longer have a growing crop in them should be cleaned. Remove plants and plant debris. It can be composted if clean, but if it shows evidence of disease or pest infestation, it should be removed and bagged for disposal or burned. It is too late now to establish a cover crop so covering soil with an organic mulch is the next best choice. Mulched leaves are a good and generally available option. I put the bagger on my mulching mower to collect chopped leaves, then use them to protect soil and to start new compost batches. Cutting or breaking them up is important to allow water infiltration and reduce the likelihood of wind dispersal. They also break down faster, providing needed organic matter for the soil while reducing carbon loss, erosion and moderating soil temperature. Other mulch options include straw, wood chips and saw dust.
Best practice today is considered to be keeping live roots in the soil, year around. Cover crops are a recommended way to do this when other crops are not being grown. Different varieties of cover crop are available. Seed companies typically offer numerous options. I chose a field pea/oat mix this year. The oats establish quickly, helping suppress weeds and the peas are a legume that will add plant-usable nitrogen to the soil. In addition, the roots of both add porosity and structure to the soil that will benefit next year’s vegetables.
When cut in the spring, the vegetative material can be used as a green manure, composted or used to mulch transplants. The roots are left in the soil to decompose, adding more organic matter.
It is late to plant a cover crop now, but if you haven’t done it, you would be wise to make a point to put one into your plan for next fall. More information on cover crops can be found in earlier Garden Shed articles including Cover Crops from September 2015 and Minimum Till Cultivation from the February 2019 issues.
The photo above, shows a month old cover crop of field peas and oats inside the fence and a new perennial bed just outside the fence. The idea is to improve the soil in the beds while increasing the attractiveness of the garden to pollinators. The perennials are plants with bloom times from early spring through fall to provide a steady nectar supply through the growing season.
Winter Hardy Crops
Winter hardy crops including many greens like lettuces, spinach, kale and other brassicas, if established during September or early October, should be harvestable now. Mulching the soil around the plants will help reduce cooling and keep them productive into the winter. Using row covers maintains a temperature beneath the fabric up to 5 or 6° F higher than ambient, while still allowing rainfall and sunlight to reach the plants. For more information on row cover options see the article Row Covers: A Gardening Season Extender With Benefits from the November 2019 Garden Shed.
This is a great time to add a layer of compost to your beds. A couple of inches of clean compost, worked into the top few inches of soil, then covered with an organic mulch will have very positive impact on next spring’s soil readiness. Best practice is not to till deeply or turn the soil over, but to stir the compost into the soil surface, letting soil organisms decompose and carry the organic material deeper into the bed.
To someone used to tilling, this seems counterintuitive. However, research and the practical experience of many organic market farmers demonstrate that tilling pulverizes and destroys soil structure, reduces soil organism activity, and releases stored carbon to the atmosphere. Varying the crops grown in specific garden locations, using cover crops, adding organic matter as described, and amending as soil tests indicate are the best way to improve and regenerate soils.
Start a New Compost Batch
With the abundance of fall leaves, this is a good time to start a new batch of compost that will be ready for next summer’s garden. Final lawn mowing and leaf removal generate a great mix of nitrogen- and carbon-based organic materials to get decomposition started. Augment the nitrogen input it by mixing in kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds during the winter. Microbial activity will definitely slow down during the dead of winter, but with a little mixing to keep it aerated and good moisture management, it will be primed to take off as temps rise above 50° in early spring. The finer you chop the materials, the faster they will break down. Check out this article from the January 2018 Garden Shed for detailed composting advice.
Prepare a New Bed
The one circumstance where tilling soil may still be useful is in starting a new bed where loosening soil and adding organic matter more deeply can provide some benefit. However, sheet composting or lasagna mulching provides a non-dig alternative that may make sense for you. It involves scalping the grass off the bed area(s) and covering it with alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen rich materials. The layered material will undergo a cold composting process, and over a few months, will provide a carbon-rich surface that helps soil organisms flourish and carry organic matter deeper into the ground. In the meantime, crops can be planted directly in the surface material. Starting the process now should provide you with a planting-ready bed for warm weather vegetables next spring. For a detailed description of how to do this, refer to the article Lasagna Mulching in the September 2020 Garden Shed.
Other tips for the month include:
- November may be your last chance to get your garden documentation in order. Knowing what you planted and where you planted it is important. Good crop rotation practice helps minimize disease and insect issues next year. Also, noting the crops and varieties that did and didn’t do well provides guidance as you shop for seeds and plants for next year’s garden.
- Root crops such as carrots, radishes, turnips, and parsnips store well outdoors in the ground. Just before the ground freezes, bury these crops under a deep layer of leaves or straw. Harvest as needed during the winter months.
- If you are a fruit grower, November is a good time to mulch fruit trees. Extend 2-3 inches of mulch to the edge of their canopy, but keep it a few inches away from the trunk to prevent potential rodent damage.
- Early November is a good time to plant most new fruit trees. Mulch the same as for established trees.
- Fallen, spoiled or mummified fruits should be cleaned up and destroyed by burying or placing them in the trash. Good sanitation practices reduce re-infestation of insects and diseases next year.
- Mulch strawberries with straw or leaves. This should be done after several nights near 20ºF but before the temperature drops into the teens. Apply the straw or leaves loosely but thickly enough to hide plants from view.
- Now is a good time to collect soil samples to test for pH and nutrient levels. Organic amendments are typically slow-acting, so application in the fall improves soil for spring planting. A soil testing kit is available at your local Extension Office. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Extension Office is located in the County Office Building on 5th Street Extended, 460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, please call to learn how to pick up your test kit: Tel. (434) 872-4580.
- Drain and roll up garden hoses. It is easiest if done on a warm, sunny day. Hoses are hard to manage when cold and stiff. It’s difficult to wind a cold water hose into a tight coil. Best to disconnect them from outdoor faucets.
- Be sure to shut off and drain rain barrels, outdoor water pipes and irrigation systems that may freeze during the cold weather.
- Rhubarb plants that are four years old or more can be divided and transplanted. Prepare the site by digging deeply and incorporating compost. Your efforts should be rewarded with a good yield in upcoming years.
- Tidy up the asparagus bed. Cut off the tops of the plants to about 3-4″ above the soil level. Weed, and add a winter dressing of compost or aged manure to the bed.
- If you have been thinking about installing a deer fence around your vegetable garden, the fall and winter months are a good time to build it.
I hope you find this information helpful and that you will check in again next month. Comments are welcome.
Cover photo: Onions drying by Ralph Morini
“Monthly Horticulture Tip Sheet: November,” VCE Monthly Horticulture Tip Sheets, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Albemarle County/Charlottesville.
“November Tips: Vegetables”, Diane Relf, Virginia Cooperative Extension.
“Monthly Gardening Tips: November,” Piedmont Master Gardeners website, Gardening Resources.