19 Sep 2018


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The Lazy Gardener – September

As the first mists of fall spread their chilly fingers over the land, the summer heat is but a distant memory. After the long days of summer, the light signals the change that approaches. The colors of nature are changing; red and gold leaves add a burnished dash of color to the gardens and the country landscapes. The days quickly grow shorter, the first frosts add a crisp chill to the nights and you feel a sense of urgency and the need to harvest and process all the remaining vegetables and fruits in the garden. This is when Frances and I walk through the garden with a feeling that lies somewhere between awe and gratitude. We have been spoiled beyond measure by nature’s riches. We find ourselves deeply moved by the colors and smells of the garden.

Meter-high grasses waft gently in the breeze. Flower petals lie scattered on the ground round the withered rhododendrons. A collage of red, purple, and brown. The transition of the seasons is fascinating to see and we realize anew that each has its own unique charm and personality. Many chores await us, but fall has a feel of majestic beauty all on its own. We marvel at the richness of the last rose petals of the year, just before the cold autumn storms sweep across the land and the leaves whirl around in the garden. Quinces, growing sweeter and more yellow daily, beckon brightly from the branches below our balcony. Although we are busy pruning, we prefer to leave the nasturtiums, marigolds, and of course the last roses of the year as they are, since they sometimes continue flowering into November. We harvest the quinces, already anticipating the first wild game dishes we will soon enjoy, garnished with Frances’ home-made quince jelly.

To savor tranquil moments in the fall sunshine and to harvest fresh herbs like lemon balm, thyme, lavender, rosemary, and verbena, both for our food and for a cup of refreshing tea afterwards, we have to lay the groundwork in spring and summer: Turn over the soil in spring, then mow, weed, trim, harvest and, most importantly, water.

Fall is changeable in this area; it can be pleasantly warm, even humid sometimes, but also frosty and gloomy. Up here at an altitude of 1,000 meters, we’ve seen it all before. At higher altitudes, the first ground frosts have already arrived. For us, it’s about getting ready for them. So this is when we harvest almost everything. Apples need to be picked and are stored or prepared for juice. It’s advisable not to leave fallen fruit lying on the ground, since this is a popular target for pests who use the fruit as a winter home. It’s important to take advantage of mild, dry days to plant new trees. If we want to keep harvesting homegrown apples and pears in the coming years, now is the time to plant young trees in well-prepared pits.

Fresh mint during the winter
If we want to enjoy fresh peppermint during the winter, this is a good time to dig out some root offshoots and plant them five centimeters deep in boxes. That’s the best way to cultivate this aromatic herb during the cold season, either on the window sill or in a heated greenhouse.

How to propagate chives
Before chives develop their signature long stems, carefully unearth the root balls, divide them, trim the stems back a little, and replant the ball deep into the soil without delay. Doing this gives them more room to develop, and in no time at all you will see your chives thrive.

It’s tomato harvest time
Tomatoes are often still hanging on the plants long after summer is over. But beware: Frosty nights can damage the fruit. That’s why it’s smarter to leave tomatoes “high and dry.” To do this, simply remove the tough, fibrous stems of outdoor tomato plants from the soil with the roots and the green fruits still intact, and then hang them up in a dry place, such as a barn or a greenhouse, and let them ripen to perfection. The fruits don’t need any more sun to continue ripening. Of course, the aroma may not develop the same intensity as it would outside in the garden in the summer, but that is a price worth paying.

Green tomatoes
Some of the tomatoes won’t fully ripen before the weather changes, so Frances uses them for a delicious green tomato chutney. Paired with cheese, it’s a match made in heaven.

Here’s the recipe: Green tomato chutney
600 g green tomatoes, diced
150 g onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lemon, cut into small pieces (without peel or pips)
250 g raisins
80 g mustard seeds
50 g fresh ginger root, peeled and finely diced
450 g cane sugar
500 ml cider vinegar
2 red bell peppers, finely chopped
1 pinch of cayenne pepper
1½ tsp salt

Mix all the ingredients well in a medium-sized saucepan and simmer at medium heat while stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to thicken. As it thickens, stir continuously to prevent it from sticking. While still hot, pour into warm, sterilized glass jars and label accordingly.

Preparing raised beds for future use
Late fall is the time we prepare the garden for winter. Important chores include weeding the beds and the pathways and loosening up the soil. Weeds are constantly releasing seeds and by tackling this issue proactively now, we will save ourselves a lot of time and effort in spring. On dry days, we turn over the compost heap again and mix in any fallen leaves. We also apply the mature compost to the beds and also around the base of fruit trees and bushes.

We are also making new raised beds (mound beds) in a meadow. To do this, we first mark off the area of the bed and cut the sod. When constructing these raised beds, we invert the sod before laying it on the ground, to prevent the grass from immediately growing and sprouting upwards. Throughout fall and winter, we pile on all the available garden trimmings, branches, leaves, kitchen leftovers, and ash from our wood stove as we build the raised bed, and then add a final layer of mature compost in the spring. In the first year, we are going to plant mountain potatoes from the Albula Valley in the new beds in the meadow.

Harnessing the energy of the raised beds
Our raised beds are one of the secrets of our garden success story in the raw climate of the Appenzell region. Ideally we try to prepare them in the spring and make them a little wider than our flat beds. Because they are shaped like a mound, we get a larger growing area than regular beds. Since we accumulate large amounts of garden waste, grass, and tree cuttings, the raised beds are an ideal solution, like a composting facility. Countless micro-organisms live in the multiple layers of the mound, converting the raw greenery into valuable humus. This leads to ground temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius, which are ideal for the plants, especially in the first year. It means we can harvest zucchini just five to six weeks after planting. Because of the heat, we can often continue planting into the winter. What’s more, a new raised bed is like a nutrient time bomb. Heavy feeders such as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and zucchini do very well in the first year. These are followed by lettuces and root vegetables in the second year, then by peas and beans in the third year. Plus, a raised bed means that tiresome bending over is a thing of the past. The life cycle of a raised bed is around 4–5 years. By then, all the material is fully composted and it’s time to rebuild the bed.

How we build a raised bed
1. First, we determine the location and mark off the area for the raised bed. A raised bed should not be wider than 150 centimeters. With wider beds, it’s harder to maintain the plants in the middle, for example if you want to thin out the tomatoes. The length of raised beds is determined by the available space. Our beds are usually between 10 and 15 meters long.

2. If grass is already growing, the sod is cut and then set aside.

3. Then, the uppermost layer of the soil ("humus layer") is removed up to a depth of around 20 centimeters and is then set aside next to where the raised bed will be.

4. Next, we cover the exposed area of the bed with wire mesh to keep voles out.

5. After that, we start the layering process: First of all, tree and shrub cuttings are stacked in the middle of the bed up to a height of around 30 to 40 centimeters.

6. Next, the sod is cut into smaller pieces, mixed with leaves, straw, brush, or grass cuttings, and added as a new layer around 30 centimeters high. It’s important to thoroughly mix any grass cuttings with the other materials.

7. Then a 20- to 30-centimeter-high layer of semi-mature garden compost is added.

8. Finally, compost and the humus soil set aside earlier are used to form the top layer of the raised bed, which is 20 to 25 centimeters high.

Your back will love raised bed boxes

Raised bed boxes are an alternative to mound beds. Like mound beds, raised bed boxes have many benefits. They are easy on the back, vegetables thrive thanks to the many nutrients and the additional warmth from the ground, and they are easy to protect from snails and mice. You can also expect yields as much as 30% higher than conventional beds.

This is the result of the different layers built into the raised bed boxes; the bottom layers consist of branches, leaves, coarse compost, and added herbs such as comfrey and nettles. These "additives" accelerate the decomposition process in newly constructed raised bed boxes, which creates heat and stimulates plant growth rates. Raised bed boxes can also be installed easily on your deck or balcony or in courtyards.

How to build a raised bed box
1. First measure out the dimensions of the raised bed box on the area where you are going to build it. We use string, making sure the angles are all at 90 degrees. For maximum gardening efficiency, the bed should be 80 to 100 centimeters high and no wider than 100 to 120 centimeters; that way you can reach the middle when working from either side. The length of your bed is determined by how much space you have available. Our raised bed boxes are between 200 and 500 centimeters long.

2. Next, dig out the surface material over your planned area to a depth of 10 to 20 centimeters.

3. Build the frame for the raised bed. First, put in the corner posts; the ones we use are made of aluminum. Half-round logs make attractive cladding. The quality of the wood is key. We've been using nothing but sturdy larch wood for years now.

4. Next, lightly loosen up the soil in the bed – a digging fork is a good tool for this task – and then completely line the inside of the bed with a fine wire mesh to protect against voles.

5. The individual layers you use to fill the bed are all around 25–30 cm deep: The bottom layer should consist of coarse wood cuttings, such as branches.

6. The next layer contains shrub cuttings, sod, and finer wood cuttings such as twigs.

7. The next layer uses semi-mature garden compost or, if this isn’t available, semi-composted manure.

8. For the top layer, we like to use good compost or peat-free organic soil.

9. Now it’s time to plant. Mixed plantings of vegetables, herbs, and flowers in raised bed boxes look attractive and produce great yields.

Planting roses
Fall is a perfect time for planting roses. To get off to a good start, a bare-root rose bush should be stood in water for a day so it is thoroughly hydrated. Roses thrive best in a loamy soil rich in humus. The soil must be well loosened before planting the roses, since the roots require a plentiful supply of oxygen. Damaged and withered root sections should be carefully removed before planting. When planting roses, it’s important to make sure the graft junction is around five centimeters below the surface of the soil.
To make sure our roses are fully winter-proof, we add a generous layer of well-composted horse or cow manure that reaches above the graft junction. If we have no manure available, then we use compost. This layer not only gives the roots the nutrients they need, but also acts as a warm coat to protect them from the cold. We carefully secure our climbing roses to the trellis so the weight of the winter snow doesn’t break their branches.

Fall chores in brief September and October: Kitchen garden
Tomato plants produce the final crop of the year; any green tomatoes remaining will usually ripen on the vine if wrapped in a plastic covering.

  • Zucchini is harvested before the first frost. Until then, make sure the plants receive water and fertilizer regularly.
  • Pumpkins bask in the early fall sunshine and ripen to perfection; the sun gives the flesh a delicious sweetness while also hardening the rind. If the weather stays dry, they should be left on the beds as long as possible so they fully ripen.
  • Early September is still a good time to plant radishes, leaf lettuce, and spinach. 
  • We plant mâche (lamb’s lettuce) for spring harvest up to mid-September. 
  • To help provide nourishment for bees, we plant phacelia in beds which are no longer in use. 
  • Currants can be propagated using the strongest shoots of this year’s growth. To do this, remove the leaves and insert the shoot into sandy soil rich in humus.
  • A thin layer of mulch will do quince and pear trees a world of good. Painting the trunks of fruit trees with a clay mixture will protect them in the wintertime. 
  • The best time for pruning trees and shrubs is late fall and winter. We remove any old or diseased wood. It’s important not to prune when there’s frost, otherwise the wood will splinter more easily and this weakens the plants. Raw surfaces exposed by pruning must be treated. Use a sealant to cleanly and tightly cover them.
  • We never clear away woodpiles, mounds of leaves, or piles of stones in the fall. Hedgehogs and lizards which may have taken refuge there to hibernate through the winter should be left in peace.
  • Chinese cabbage, celeriac, winter leeks, winter endives, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and kale should have soil pushed up around them and can be left in the beds, since they can handle moderate freezes; their flavor and texture improve with a little frost. 
  • Plant new rhubarb and cover the old plants with compost or decayed manure. 
  • Harvest turnips and pumpkins, then store in a cool, dry place. 
  • Harvest your final crop of herbs. 
  • We never move plants that are sensitive to cold, like curry plant, rosemary, and verbena, until spring.

September and October: Ornamental garden

  • Bulb plants that bloom in fall have to go into the ground. The bulbs are first soaked in water for 24 hours.
  • Tulip, daffodil, snowdrop, and crocus bulbs all have to be planted, along with other spring flowers. The earlier we plant them in the fall, the better they take root and the more beautiful they look when they flower next spring. All of these varieties need to grow in loose soil. If you add a little compost into the hole when planting, that gives them all the nutrients they need. If the soil is compacted, add a little sand, otherwise the bulbs will rot if the water doesn’t drain away. 
  • Cold germinators like aconite, phlox, lady’s mantle, and day lilies must be planted before the start of winter. Their seeds need a cold snap for them to thrive in the spring.
  • Since they are able to withstand light frosts, low-maintenance plants like heather or chrysanthemums can replace the summer flowers and herbs in your balcony box. 
  • This is the time to plant evergreen shrubs and vines such as yew and ivy. This gives them enough time to form roots before the winter starts.
  • Hedge trimming is completed by the end of September. 
  •  After the leaves fall is a great time for transplanting trees or bushes that are in a bad location or growing too close together.
  • It’s a good time to prune the roses one more time. We just give the plants a minor regeneration by only pruning back the diseased and withered shoots. The graft junction also needs protection from ground frost, so we pile up plenty of compost and leaf mold around the plants.
  • We propagate daisies, irises, asters, and delphiniums every three to four years in the fall and then transplant them. 
  • We remove dahlia and gladiolus bulbs from the ground once the exposed parts have withered after the first light frosts. We don’t cut the shoots back all the way, because the buds for the new growth are located close to the ground. So we leave about five centimeters of the old shoots behind. The bulbs are then placed in a slightly damp mixture of soil and sand and stored indoors at a temperature of five to eight degrees Celsius.

A brief biography of Remo Vetter “The Lazy Gardener”

Born in Basel in 1956, Remo ran an international company selling natural products for over 35 years. He’s now in demand as a garden designer, consultant and author and has created many successful garden projects in Switzerland, England and Ireland.

  • Self-employed since 2018.
  • Lectures in Switzerland and abroad exploring sustainability, our interconnected natural world, and finding meaning in life.
  • Numerous appearances in radio, TV and print media in Switzerland and abroad.
  • Monthly columns in various magazines.

His book “The Lazy Gardener und seine Gartengeheimnisse” Achieving Better Results in Your Organic Garden with Little Effort is available from atVerlag ISBN 978-3-03800-941-2