By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Dr. Vern Grubinger, Extension Associate Professor
University of Vermont
Think you can't garden in November? Then think again. Although November marks the gateway to winter, there are still crops to harvest, bulbs to plant, and other outdoor chores to do.
This is your last chance to remove stakes, string, and frost-killed plants before the snow sets in. Put plant residues in the compost, layered with shredded leaves to help keep the pile aerobic and promote rapid decomposition come spring. Wash soil from stakes, and if plant disease was a problem in your garden this year, either soak them in a weak bleach solution or throw them away to avoid a problem again next year.
Chances are you haven't harvested all your crops yet, but you don't need to because carrots and parsnips can be left in the ground and pulled up as needed throughout the winter. Potatoes can be left, too, but that can promote a disease on their surface that causes little black spots that won't wash off.
In case there's not much snow cover, it's a good idea to mulch these crops, covering them with a thick layer of clean straw to prevent the ground around them from freezing. Carrots will lose a bit of their flavor, but parsnips actually will taste sweeter after frost.
Or, if you'd rather harvest these root crops, store them, covered, in a box of slightly moistened peat moss in a cold room, ideally at a temperature of 32 to 35 degrees F. Carrots will keep for three months and parsnips for up to six. Frequently check any stored produce for signs of rot or other storage diseases, and discard.
November is a good time to remove spent canes from raspberries. Use sharp pruning shears to remove this year's fruiting canes, which will have done their job and will not live any longer. Cut them off all the way down to ground level. Removing these canes will help prevent diseases such as cane blight or spur blight from overwintering in the plants. Remove weak or broken canes, and thin remaining canes to about five or six per row foot. (Always leave the strongest ones even if the numbers per row foot aren't perfect.) Thinning reduces competition and results in larger berries next year.
Deer are sometimes a problem in the fall. Your best bet is to fence in plants you don't want nibbled. However, some gardeners have good luck deterring deer by hanging deodorant soap, still in the wrapper, in the plants or from posts or wire near plants. Place at least one bar near each small tree or shrub, or use several bars in large plants. The smellier the soap, the better.
Rake up fallen leaves for use in composting food wastes. Use your lawn mower to shred the leaves, then stockpile them in a garbage can. Layer them in the compost bin between loads of sloppy food waste over the winter. Next spring, you can mix them with grass clippings to make quick compost.
Although most gardeners try to get their bulbs planted in early fall when the weather is still pleasant, as long as the ground isn't frozen, it is possible to plant bulbs for spring flowers. In most parts of the state, that means you have until Thanksgiving to plant.
By selecting different types of bulbs with different bloom times, you can have color in the garden from late winter through mid-summer. Try grape hyacinths, squill, crocuses, and the old standbys, tulips and daffodils. Don't be afraid to experiment with new varieties and colors in your landscape plan.
The site you select should have excellent drainage and receive about six hours of sun each day. Work the soil well, adding peat moss, fertilizer, and bone meal.
If burrowing rodents are a problem, plant daffodils (which they don't like) rather than tulips (which they do), or substitute special bulb food, rock phosphate, or superphosphate for the bone meal. All are good sources for root growth in bulbs and aren't as likely to attract skunks and other hungry rodents.
If you have bulbs left over, force them into winter bloom indoors. Plant one bulb in a four-inch pot, three in a six-inch pot, using a bagged potting mix. Bulbs should be planted close together, but not touching. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths require about 12 weeks of cold. Ideally, they like temperatures around 40 degrees F, which is the temperature of an unheated (but not freezing) basement or refrigerator.
After you pot up bulbs, place them in a cool spot until mid-February or March. The plants should flower three to four weeks later, once brought back into the warmth of 60 to 65 degrees F.
November is a good time to place an order for new fruit trees, if you plan to plant or replace any trees next spring. Be sure to work only with a reputable nursery, and order only cultivars that will do well in your hardiness zone or location.
Finally, drain hoses and turn off your outside water supply. Put away tools, coating metal parts with a light coat of oil to prevent rusting. Add preservative (not dry gas) to the gasoline in the tank of your rototiller to maintain it overwinter.
Other activities for November: decorate your Thanksgiving table with homemade centerpieces of dried flowers, stalks, stems, and berries; get your soil tested; protect evergreens with windbreaks.