Growing assets

Investing your garden now to reap rewards in the spring

November 08, 2008|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

You may not be able to do anything right now about the current state of your 401(k) except breathe deeply and take aspirin. But you can do a few low- or no-cost things in your garden this fall that will pay big dividends come spring. Here are some surefire investments that you can make:

Start or enlarge your vegetable-and-herb patch

Growing your own veggies and herbs helps to cut the food bills, adds beauty to your landscape, and offers a big culinary payoff in flavor and nutrition. The fresher the veggies and herbs, the better their flavor and the more nutrients they retain.

"You can prepare the ground now by covering the sod with cardboard or newspapers," says Jon Traunfeld, vegetable specialist at the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension. "Over the winter, [the covering] will smother the existing vegetation to make it much easier to dig in the spring."

Plant garlic

"Garlic can be expensive to buy, but it's easy to grow, and you can plant it well into November or even December," says Traunfeld.

There are two kinds of garlic, softneck, the type usually sold in the grocery store - 90 percent of which comes from China right now - and hardneck.

"Hardneck garlic is crisper and juicier than softneck varieties," says Theresa Mycek, manager/grower at Colchester Farm Community Supported Agriculture in Georgetown, Md. "You can really smell and taste the difference."

Some hardneck garlic varieties also produce edible scapes, curled green shoots that look like succulent curly fries. They can be cut before the bulb is ripe for use in soups, stir-fries and omelets.

Save seed

This can be either the seed that remains in the packets from your summer planting - there is usually more than we use in a single year - or seed gleaned from the nonhybrid vegetables and flowers you grew this past year. (Seed from hybrid varieties is sterile.)

"If you still have tomatoes with a little color, you can save the seed and plant it next year," says Traunfeld.

Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, organizes a seed-saving exchange every January at Brookside Garden in Wheaton. "You can collect from your own garden, bring what's left from a seed packet, or come without anything," she says. "Seed companies give us leftover packets of seeds." There is a nominal fee.

Divide and trade plants

Covet something in your neighbor's yard? See if he or she is ready to divide a treasure and willing to share a chunk. (It usually helps to admire the plant effusively and to offer something of your own in exchange.).

"Brambles [such as raspberries], horseradish, multiplier onions," Traunfeld says, ticking off a list of his favorite plants, "produce more plants each year and need to be divided periodically. And now's the time to divide overgrown plants."

Some plants - cannas, for example - multiply generously and usually need to be lifted each fall and stashed in a protected garage or cellar to survive the winters here, which makes it easier to persuade a fellow gardener to share a few.

Compost the leaves

Instead of paying for leaf mold mulch in spring, make your own. But, while you can compost decomposing but healthy plant material, be sure to throw away anything afflicted with infestations or disease.

"We had a lot of fungal problems this year," says Susan Trice, horticulture educator and master gardener coordinator for Frederick County. "Your compost pile may not heat up enough in winter to kill the spores."

Dig out your compost pile and spread it on the garden

Over the winter, it will slowly release micro-nutrients essential to the soil's microbial life. Compost also makes the soil easier to work and increases the soil's ability to retain moisture without becoming leaden.

Fertilize your lawn

Although grass does not grow in cold weather, the root systems are still absorbing nutrients in preparation for next year. But before you do the work, be sure your lawn actually needs to be fertilized.

"Get your soil test done first," Trice says. "A lot of times all you need is nitrogen, but you buy a fertilizer that has phosphorus and potassium, too, so you're paying for something you don't need."

Clean and oil your garden tools

Work linseed oil into both wooden handles and metal parts to prevent rust and extend the useful life of the tools.

Look for bargains

Check out catalogs and garden centers. You won't get the selection you would have gotten if you had bought earlier, but remaining bulbs can be as much as 50 percent off. With our relatively warm winters, bulbs can be planted until the ground is hard-frozen. Be sure to blanket the bulbs with 2 to 3 inches of mulch to prevent heaving.

Turn off outside water and drain hoses

Taking the time to do that now will prevent the water in the hoses from freezing and bursting the hoses or, worse, the faucet. Keep an eye on birdbaths or turn them upside down, if necessary, to prevent them from freezing and cracking, but remember that birds need water even in winter.

seed saving

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