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Depending on the crop, the suggested planting dates range from August into October or November.

On making up for lost time and also ignoring itIt's been a weird year. A long, wet spring led to a summer dryer than a stiff-lipped British comedian, which has now led to a slacker of an autumn that showed up tardy without a note

and is looking to skip class and head straight to winter. I don't know about you, but as I'm writing this in the last days of October, I have a lot of fall garden chores left to do.

It was still smoky summer as of last week, and I had just picked the last of my tomatoes and pumpkins and thrown their tired vines into the compost. I have yet to prepare any annual vegetable beds for winter, and they're all crying for a snack and a warm blanket.

If you're like me, staring down Thanksgiving, wondering where the time went and what you can still do to protect your beds this winter and prepare them for spring, here are some things to consider.

THE REASONS

"Nature hates bare soil" was oft repeated in my Master Gardener training. Walking through the woods, you may notice there isn't a lot of uncovered dirt — aside from managed trails. Leaves, needles, and

fallen branches cover forest floors, breaking down to form humus (dark, nutrientrich organic matter that builds healthy soil). That same ground cover helps to prevent the newly created humus from washing or blowing away.

As in the wild, so in your yard. Bare dirt leads to erosion: the loss of your rich topsoil to wind or rain. Less topsoil means less depth and less nutrition for your spring plants to grow. Not to mention, bare dirt invites weeds. (Ask the raised bed I pulled

corn out of in September, which is now 59% Bermuda grass.)

THE METHODS

Once you've weeded (ugh) and amended the soil however you prefer (I'll mainly be using compost), it's time to cover your sleepy little beds. There are two main ways to do this that protect and improve the soil:

MULCH: A hefty layer of wood chips, bark

dust, straw, grass clippings, or leaf litter will work fine. They are heavy enough to stay put through typical weather, and they slowly break down into the soil, adding nutrients on which your future plants can feast.

COVER CROP: Cover cropping is an agricultural technique that can serve several purposes, whether dealing with endless acres or just a little backyard kitchen garden. It's just what it sounds like: using a crop to cover beds or fields when not being used

for other plants. Different types offer various additional benefits, such as breaking up compacted soil, adding nitrogen to the soil, or providing pollen for helpful insects. In the spring, before the crop goes to seed,

you cut it down or pull it out and work it into the soil as green manure or simply take it to the compost bin.

THE CAVEATS

Depending on the crop, the suggested planting dates range from August into October or November. As someone who loves to meticulously research How To Do Things Correctly but then promptly and chaotically Does Things However I Want,

I usually ignore the calendar and plant whichever seeds I happen to have on hand sometime after I pull the summer vegetables and the fall rains start, which generally would have happened well before now.

This year, it looks like November. It will be a race against the onslaught of frosty winter weather (which the weatherman already suggests might hit early) but I'm putting in leftover buck wheat and vetch. Am I recommending you also put in some last-minute holiday cover

crops? That's up to you. It might work out fine, but if it doesn't, I'd hate for a bad first experience to put you off from trying again. But I recommend thinking about gardening habits and rules.

As we're seeing seasons become wibblier and wobblier in the Pacific Northwest, and climate forecasts suggest that trend is here to stay, it's vital to be flexible and experimental when possible. It's easy to rely on what we've always done and understandable to feel disheartened when it

no longer works. Gold standards like planting tomatoes on Mother's Day seem less reliable each year. We can meet that challenge with worry or despair, which leads to inaction. Or we can meet adversity with curiosity, adjust our plans, and hope for the best. This year's "late"-

planted tomatoes still produced huge yields right up to Halloween. Whatever your garden philosophy, there's no time for further dawdling on these belated chores. If you're more interested in planning your turkey dinner than dueling Jack Frost, then mulch your beds and call it good. It's been a weird year, after all.


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