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Don't let your well-tended garden fall on hard times


I was splitting firewood in the backyard when my neighbor Ralph leaned over the fence. His eyes flicked from me to my yard and back again. He seemed puzzled.

"Are those, um, weeds in your garden?" Ralph asked.

"No," I said, without looking up.

Ralph leaned further over the fence for a closer look.

"Yep, those are weeds all right," he said. "Geez, they're all over your tomato patch. Pretty big ones, too. I count three different kinds. Guess you missed them last time you weeded. Don't they bother you?"

I stopped chopping and gave Ralph a long, hard stare.

"I don't see them," I said.

Ralph frowned and scratched his head. Then he brightened and climbed over the fence.

"Want me to dig 'em up?" he asked.

I raised the ax menacingly. "Read my lips, Ralph," I said. "The weeds aren't there."

Ralph retreated to his own yard while making little circles with his finger alongside his head. I continued to cut wood.

Ralph is right, of course. The vegetable garden is overgrown and looks a mess. So do several flower beds. Even the potted plants on the patio need weeding. Yet I ignore them.

I breeze right past the weeds en route to tackling more seasonal yard chores like cutting wood and raking leaves. It's a difficult job. Overlooking the weeds, I mean. For six months I policed every inch of furrowed ground and removed each invasive stalk. I was guardian of the garden, watchdog of the weeds.

Now, toward the end of growing season, I have abandoned my post to undertake more immediate tasks. There are bulbs to plant and herbs to dry. There are bushels of apples to mash into applesauce. There are houseplants, still basking in autumnal warmth on the back porch, to lug indoors at the first bite of frost.

The leaves from our 52 trees have begun drifting down, covering the lawn with colorful organic litter. I'll be raking until Christmas. A mound of recently delivered firewood (two cords) will kill the grass unless I stack it, and I can't stack it until I split it.

Who has time to weed? To heck with the vegetable patch. Fall is no time to fuss with the garden.

Oh, but it is.

Many homeowners tire of their gardens in early autumn, just when the beds are starved for attention. Do we take notice? Not until spring.

Each autumn, we hang up our hoes and put our gardens "out to pasture," an apt description of what the beds have become.

We let overripe fruits and vegetables rot on the vine, breeding disease. We allow the lawn to invade the garden, ruining the precise layout. We ignore stubborn weeds, the traveling salesmen of the plant world, which are impossible to get rid of once they get past the door.

All the garden needs at this time is a little TLC (Tender Loving Cultivation). Remove all plant debris, a haven for pesky insects. Order a soil test from the county's horticulture extension service to beat the spring rush. Turn the garden bed, with shovel or Rototiller, so the loam can breathe all winter. If the ground is too acidic, add soft limestone, which needs several months to sweeten the soil. Fresh animal manures can also be added now without fear of burning tender seedlings next spring.

Some gardeners clear their plots in the fall and then complain that the ground looks bare. Planting green manures like winter rye adds nutrients to the soil and prevents erosion. Rye grows almost as quickly as the grass on those chia pets, the woolly-looking little sheep that are advertised on TV.

Ralph has a chia pet. I think I'll surprise him by growing a bigger one. I'll clear out the garden and plant winter rye in the shape of a sheep.

That ought to get Ralph's goat.

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