IT’S ALMOST TIME: I just made room in my compost heap for the inevitable incoming autumn debris, to include faded plants from the vegetable garden, where proper cleanup and a careful post-mortem can help get next year’s crops off to a healthier, smarter start. Yes, before the current peak growing season’s even over, during fall cleanup, is when important planning and pest-prevention for next year’s edible garden must happen.
To get help with that, I spoke to David Mattern, who oversees the vegetable garden at Chanticleer in Pennsylvania (seen above and below). I’ve been lucky to have a series of conversations with various experts there, colleagues of David’s, who combine garden artistry with the soundest horticultural techniques, as he does.
Take a critical eye to your own vegetable patch as you tease it apart and put it to bed for the winter, plus consider boosting your soil with cover crops. And this: How about tilling or turning soil less, and instead investing in a broadfork?
Read along as you listen to the Sept. 12, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
At the bottom of the page is a list of links to related articles with more detail on some key fall vegetable garden-related topics, too–plus the chance to enter to win a copy of the book “The Art of Gardening,” a collaborative effort by the talented Chanticleer team.
my vegetable-garden prep q&a with david mattern
Q. Though the vegetable garden at Chanticleer has had a strong ornamental focus in past years, I think you’ve shifted that a bit recently, yes?
A. This year we thought, let’s make vegetable gardens what they are. Vegetable gardens are about producing food. So this year we’ve approached it under the thought of let’s make the vegetable garden productive first, to really focus on growing healthy plants. Healthy plants will grow much better produce, they’ll look better, and be much more attractive. That’s sort of the direction we’ve taken this year, and it has been very productive for us. [Laughter.]
Q. In the past, the ornamentality was the first thought in that equation?
Q. So grow healthy vegetables and you’ll have productive and also beautiful at the same time.
A. We’ve realized that if we focus on productivity, the aesthetics kind of follow. The plant kind of show themselves off. Being at a public garden, it’s a display garden first—it has to look good. By making it productive, we’re finding that it is both attractive and educational in its own right. That kind of follows through.
Q. I know you’re a graduate of Longwood’s Professional Gardeners Training Program, and after that spent some time interning in England at some prestigious spots. Is that where have you derived your influences about growing edibles that we were just discussing?
A. Definitely my biggest influence, in vegetable gardening, really came from the time I spent at West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, in the UK. I worked under head gardeners Jim Buckland and Sarah Wayne, who are two fantastic people.
They—and West Dean—are best known for the Victorian-style walled kitchen garden [below, photo from West Dean website]. So I asked Sarah one day: “How do you pick your vegetables? How do you select what you’re going to grow every year?”
I thought her response was really perfect. She said, “I grow vegetables that look good.” She said, “I grow vegetables that artists want to paint.” She went on to say that, “I don’t always really pick vegetables based off of how they’re supposed to taste.”
And then she looks at me square in the eye and says, “If they’re grown well, they will taste good.”
A. I’ve always sort of followed that focus. That was a really great approach to growing vegetables in a public setting, and really focus on growing a plant well. Because if it is grown well, it will taste good. I’ve always followed that philosophy.
Q. So it’s really bringing the best flavor out of every variety.
Q. Before we talk techniques for teasing things apart and planning to get a solid start next year, I thought we might confess to each other here in “private” [laughter] a little post-mortem of our 2016 vegetable growing highs and lows.
I’ll start by saying if I don’t get a drip irrigation system, I have to stop growing vegetables. If this weather is the new normal, with another very dry year and bouts of heat, it’s hard to germinate things for simple second sowings, and hard to keep them growing vigorously.
And speaking to what you just said about growing your best plant: I think a lot of plants of all kinds and especially edibles that I want to be tender and succulent when I eat them: I want to grow them fast, and not have then stress out and sit there.
A. Keep them moving, and happy.
Q. I’ve got to get drip irrigation or it will be impossible for me to do as well as I possibly can—that was my first aha. Yours?
A. The weather has been a bit of a challenge for sure.
Q. Any highs, lows, failures—pest problems?
A. I think my biggest unforeseen challenge this year has really been chipmunks.
A. I had never battled chipmunks in the vegetable garden before. I’ve actually found that by using organic blood meal—which is a high Nitrogen-based fertilizer—that I have deterred them pretty well. I know they’ll kind of stay away from my tomatoes just as they’re starting to get ripe. So I can pick them early, and let them ripen on my countertop a little bit more. I’m finding a balance this year with them.
Q. Blood meal definitely works for that. I’m the queen of the chipmunks; I think I’ve set a record for New York State. [Laughter.]
A. Well congratulations.
Q. Part of having a couple of acres within a fence that keeps out the top predator—coyotes. Though fox and bobcat come in, I get this sort of false environment, where there is a little sense of security for smalled animals—and I have a lot of stone walls they like [above, a resident at Margaret’s]. So I have a lot of chipmunks. I do find blood meal works well, however—those other mesopredators, those middle predators, like to see what that tempting smell is.
A. [Laughter.] It’s such a tempting smell.
Q. So it can backfire for me.
I had a lot of imported cabbageworms [below] from the cabbage white butterfly—the little green caterpillars—even though I’m pretty scrupulous about disposing of all my Brassica debris at the end of the season.
Q. I actually take it away to my office, where I don’t have a garden. I seem to have a lot of those, though.
A. I’ve definitely found that cleanliness is next to godliness in the vegetable garden.
Q. Good hygiene, right? Were there any high points if chipmunks were the low point?
A. At the moment, I can’t get enough of the ‘Sun Gold’ tomatoes.
Q. That’s the best tomato ever.
A. I’ve been growing them in containers, and in the ground, and they’ve been performing really well for me. They’re these nice little golden sun drops that you can pick off and eat; a lot of fun.
Q. Because you are a public garden, you probably have a slightly different timeline than we backyard growers do for cleanup in fall and setup in spring. So let’s talk about the scheme for teasing it apart and preparing for next year.
A. The garden is open until the end of October, so that’s usually the time when there is sort of a shift, where we really start getting ready for the next year. It’s also for us, in our Pennsylvania climate, usually around the end of October when we start seeing some heavier frosts.
Q. Are you like a 6Bish Zone, in the mid-Atlantic?
A. Yes, or Zone 7.
Q. So I’m like a 5B or 6Aish, mostly 5B, and I might have frost in late September. I’m doing what you do, but a month ahead, and people can adjust timing according to where they are.
A. I definitely have my fall crops in place, and I try to make the garden as productive as I can all the way through October, relying on coldframes and things like that. But October is when I will really start to transition to cleaning up and getting the garden ready for fall, and getting it ready for the next season’s opening.
The biggest part of that for me especially in the fall is just soil health. I say it all the time to all of my students, when I talk about vegetable gardens, that it all starts in the soil. I think fall is the bet time to really start thinking about your soil amendments, and getting your soil prepped for next season.
Q. What form does that take in the fall—what should we be doing? Do you leave your soil in a rough condition, if say, I’m pulling my tomato plants? What do I do with the empty bed?
A. First of all, I try to keep things as clean as I can, and keep disease down. I remove all the vegetative matter; it goes right to the compost. And for me, I’m trying to do things in sort of a no-till fashion, so I’ll use a broadfork—one of my new favorite tools, which I got at Johnny’s.
Q. I was going to say: You sound like you’ve been shopping at Johnny’s. [Laughter.] Eliot Coleman and the broadfork.
A. I think it’s a wonderful tool; I have to agree. It’s been really helpful for me; a great way of really penetrating down in the soil and loosening it without disturbing it too much. I’ll go through with the boardfork and give it a good tease. That’s when I’ll start adding my soil amendments, and for me that’s a nice layer of compost.
Q. When you say nice layer—are we talking 2 or 3 inches or what?
A. Probably no more than 3 inches; I try to just do a nice topdressing.
A. For me just doing it in the fall lets it sit and rest a little bit over the wintertime. That way in the spring I can get right to planting, and kind of incorporating it into my soil.
Q. The broadfork, for people who don’t know, is a broad…fork. [Laughter.] Hello! You insert the prongs, of which there are many, and kind of rock a little bit to loosen things without turning over the soil, yes?
A. It’s basically a kind of giant fork, with two handles. And exactly like you said, rocking it down into the soil, using your feet, using your hands. Using your arm strength and pulling the fork back and forth, you really want to shake the soil up down below.
Q. Without turning all the stuff that’s down a foot up a foot, and without unearthing all the weed seeds. It’s like loosening without turning.
Q. So we do that, get rid of our debris for good sanitation–and I assume if it was diseased we’re composting it “hot.” We put on up to 3 inches of finished compost, and what else? Are you doing any cover crops?
A. That’s something I am getting really into experimenting with this year, is working with cover crops. I think it is really important to cover your soil when you can, especially over winter. For me I do that either by cover crops or this year I’m experimenting with different mixes of winter greens, like spinach and beets and other leafy greens, and kind of having that low green layer. The other benefit of that is I could potentially harvest that, too.
I’ve also been incorporating a lot of leaf mulch, as well, as a way of just covering the soil and letting it rest over the wintertime. We harvest all the leaves in the fall, and we’ll let those sit and sort of compost for a year, and they turn to this leafy dark gold. They’re wonderful to use—it’s a nice soil amendment, as well as a nice soil covering.
Q. The worms—boy, they’re happy under there. It’s like if you put nice leaf mold on a bed, it’s an announcement for happy soil life to inhabit it. [Piled-up shredded fall leaves at Margaret’s, above, will age till next year.]
A. You will see a lot of more action going on there. That’s wonderful, and to me that’s the sign of a really healthy soil complex and a healthy soil environment.
A. [Laughter.] And there is a reason for that.
Q. [Laughter.] Because you are a hungry guy.
A. I love the idea of multi-use functioning. For me, the challenge is that we open April 1. I think there are a lot of fantastic cover crops out there, and there is a lot of research coming out on using different types, and mixes.
But being in a public garden, we open April 1, so my goal is to have the garden looking good that early. A lot of times when we talk about winter rye, for example, that will persist as a cover crop well through till about June time, when you can kind of till it under.
For me, by using some shall we say cold-tender crops, they’re tough—but towards the end of winter, they’ll be fully died back so that once the ground starts to thaw around March time, that has kind of done its job, and I am ready to start working in the soil and waking the garden up, getting it ready for April. [Below, the Chanticleer vegetable garden after planting has begun in early spring.]
So for a functional standpoint for me, with a target goal of having it ready by April 1, this works better for me.
Q. Friends and I talk about what cover crops we’re using, and a couple of years ago someone suggested field peas, which were kind of fun. Assuming you bought organic seeds, you could actually use some of the little shoots as salad in the late fall, if you wanted to. And they were beautiful.
A. It’s an exciting new science seeing all these new plants coming out of this cover-crop research.
Q. For me, I grow in raised beds–yours are not raised?
A. They’re all in the ground.
Q. In raised beds, turning under cover crops is a tricky thing [laughter]—it’s all manual labor. With the field peas, they were not impossible for me to manage, like what you said with the winter rye, which is like whoa, a lot of top growth and a lot of root mass.
We had an early spring—no winter—and in March I turned them under, and in a few weeks it was good. That’s not no-till, like what we are talking about before, but just a cover crop I have tried.
What else is in the plans? Any other aha’s for next year?
A. Once I have my garden at a spot where I have my cover crops on, and the garden is ready for winter, and the mulch is on—I think the very last big, important job, especially for winter, is making a plan for next year.
Christopher Lloyd in some of his articles talks a lot about this: about making it a point in December to refer back to your notes from the previous year, and really take a look at what’s been successful. What can I try again this year; what can I try new? For me, it really is going back into my notes and seeing what has worked. It helps me think more realistically, and see how I can formulate my garden for next year. Making it a point to plan is definitely something to not underestimate.
Q. Otherwise you can be seduced by the beautiful catalog pictures…
A. [Laughter.] It happens to the best of us.
Q. …and let the tail wags the dog, right?
A. I think it helps you, too, when sketching out your garden, to see, “Oh, I do have space for this; I’m going to try this.” It helps you get your thoughts straight. Definitely when looking through those catalogs, temptation can be wonderfully great.
Q. Are you going to plant garlic?
A. Absolutely, later this fall. I have an order from Fedco coming in, and this year I am experimenting with some softneck types.
Q. I was just going to ask you—how did you read my mind? I’m a total hardneck person, but how interesting that you will try the softnecks.
A. I really love the idea of braiding them and hanging them. If you look in our potting shed now, you’ll see some lined out from this season. I quite like them, and like storing them that way. I’m looking around to see what varieties are out there.
Q. I might be inspired by you and try some, too.
more on fall to-do’s in the vegetable garden
- fall: good time time for soil testing
- how to grow garlic (and which kinds do best in which regions)
- conventional cover crops
- limit next year’s squash bugs and borers, cabbage worms and other garden pests with extra-strict fall hygiene
- more on no-till soil management and composting
enter to win a copy of ‘the art of gardening’
I’LL BUY one lucky reader a copy of “The Art of Gardening,” a book about gardening and Chanticleer created by its team of talented garden artists. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
What was your 2016 low, and your high, in the vegetable garden (or elsewhere in the yard, if you don’t grow edibles)? David (with chipmunks, and ‘Sun Gold’ tomatoes) and I (needing drip irrigation, and a good crop as ever of ‘Butternut’ squash) already confessed ours.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Monday, September 19, 2016. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Sept. 12, 2016 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).