October 17, 2012

Aye, There's the Rub

There’s a drawback to having a two-acre garden, as well as to having 62 containers arrayed around that garden in eye-pleasing groupings: come October, it all has to be cleaned up.

After the frost:  two containers that
need a lot of tender loving care
Eastern Massachusetts had its first frost last Friday evening.  Temperatures dipped into the upper twenties for about seven hours overnight.  They recovered to the mid-60s by Sunday, but the damage was done.  The frost was the ‘period’ to the growing season that began in April, peaked in June and July, and lingered through a warmer-than-usual September.

When we awakened Saturday morning, the damage was everywhere.  I firmly believe that annuals are nothing but water held in interesting shapes by a thin coating of chlorophyll.  When the air temperature hits 32 degrees, annuals collapse with a speed and finality that is stunning.  Forty of our 62 containers were filled with annuals.  On Saturday morning, we had 40 pots of mush.

This container...
Each pot needed to be emptied but, in our garden, that is not an easy thing to do.  First of all, some pots also held perennials.  Each container was inspected and salvageable perennials were taken out separately, re-potted into plastic containers, and sunk into the transplant bed.  If they survive the winter, they’ll be re-used next year. 

...yielded these two perennials that
will be over-wintered for 2013
Each container also holds ‘ballast’.  We use large pots: some with 20-inch-plus diameters and heights of up to two feet.  Many weigh more than 20 pounds.  If they were filled entirely with potting mix, the combined weight could be half again as much as the container alone.  To keep the containers ‘portable’, Betty fills their bottoms with plastic water bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, packing ‘peanuts’ in plastic bags, and even corks.  Come October, all of this ballast is removed, cleaned and stored.

The overflowing compost bins
Even the potting mix gets recycled, after a fashion. The truism in gardening is that container mix should never be re-used because it potentially carries diseases.  But there’s no prohibition against combining container mix with garden soil, mixing it well, then using it for planting in future years.  We have a special raised bed just for our ‘used’ container mix.

Finally, each pot is scrubbed clean and then rubbed with a bleach solution, allowed to dry, and stored in the basement for use in 2013. 

So, for containers, the litany is a) put the annuals in the compost pile, b) pot up the perennials and place in the transplant bed, c) remove and clean the ‘ballast’, d) place the used container mix in a special bed, e) clean and bleach the container, f) carry to the basement, and g) repeat steps ‘a’ through ‘f’ 40 times.  Because a container filled with dead annuals is something of an eyesore, we try to get through that process in three or four days.

Same bed, after cleanup
The wisteria bed after the
frost.  That's "Kossa Regal"
collapsed in a heap
The frost also did in the hostas, which were already starting to yellow.  With the hostas lying in a heap on the ground, it was clear that all the other perennials were ready to be cut down.  We have 15 principal ‘gardens’ within our property.  While all are maintained throughout the season, the October clean-up means all perennials are cut to the ground, though not all at the same time.  As they are cut, seed heads are removed and anything that looks as though it may have either disease (usually mildew) or insect damage is bagged separately and taken to our town’s transfer station. Everything else goes into the compost bins which, by now, are filled to overflowing.  We also take out several hundred feet of drip-watering hoses each autumn so that they don't go through a long series of freeze-thaw cycles that will shorten their useful lives.

In the bottom of each container:
reusable 'ballast' that makes the
container lighter
There are also relatively minor tasks: three rain barrels are emptied, cleaned and stored in the basement; and 25 water jugs are emptied and sorted to see which are worth saving over the winter (new containers are constantly being ‘created’ because they hold our cat’s litter).  Garden ornaments are located, cleaned, and stored away. 

It is a very physical time of year; a lot of stooping and hunching over.  But the weather outside is nigh on perfect.  A brisk wind, pleasant temperatures and low humidity.  And, all around us is the color: the reds and yellows and rusts of autumn in New England.

We take it one bed at a time.  The process will take about two weeks but, once it is done, it is done for the season. 

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