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November

This calendar’s monthly planting guidelines are based on USDA zone 9, but they are adaptable to most zones. To find your zone, go to the National Gardening Association’s website. If your zone is 7, 8, or 9, you can safely use this guide. If your zone is 4, 5, or 6, then add a month before beginning your spring tasks and start your fall tasks a month earlier. If your zone is 10 or 11, subtract a month to your spring tasks. Your fall and winter tasks should remain the same as the original guide if you are in zones 10 or 11. These are all general guidelines. Your specific microclimate, which depends on distance to a large body of water (like gigantic lakes or oceans) and elevation, will make your zone fluctuate. Consult your local county extension office, found here, to get more detailed zone and planting guide information.

Tasks for November:

  • Remove tomatoes
  • Prepare compost piles
  • Clean up beds
  • Sow cover crop

Remove tomato plants

November is the time you should pull out your tomatoes. If you’ve experienced a frost or intense storm prior to November, you may have already done so. If your crop is still producing and plants have some unripe tomatoes still on them, remove the tomatoes to ripen indoors. Simply place the unripe tomatoes in a shallow tray and leave them in a sunny, warm room. The room doesn’t have to be extra hot, but temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees should help them ripen just fine. You’ll lose a few to mold and uneven ripening, but all in all, you won’t regret pulling the tomatoes off the vines before a frost hits. If you wait too long and your tomatoes go through a heavy, cold rain—or worse, frost—that will pretty much ruin them. So best to remove them before that happens to preserve the remaining tomatoes.

Pulling out the plants can be difficult, as the roots may go deep into your soil. You can also simply cut them off at the base and leave the root structure under the soil. The rootball will largely disintegrate over the course of the winter, increasing the soil tilth and organic matter.

Prepare or add on to a compost pile

Using fallen leaves and garden debris from pulled-up tomato plants is a great way to start or add on to your compost pile. Your pile can be free-form (simply a big pile in a corner of your yard), or it can be contained within a circular wire cage made from concrete reinforcing wire (the same wire you used to create your tomato cages) or fencing wire. Another easy compost receptacle is made from four wooden pallets, on end, wired together using bailing wire or screwed together at the corners. To get the pile to decompose properly, try for a width and height of at least three feet.

The best piles are made using a combination of 60 percent carbon matter and 40 percent nitrogen.

Carbon decompostables include: newspaper, dry autumn leaves, cardboard, paper towels, wood shavings, coffee grounds, eggshells, and straw.

Nitrogen matter includes: pulled-up tomato plants or other still-green garden plants, herbivore manures (chicken, horse, cow, goat, rabbit, llama, etc.), kitchen scraps, very thin layers (no more than an inch) of fresh grass clippings.

No-nos for the compost pile include: carnivore manures (cat, dog, human); meat; dairy; plants sprayed with herbicides; diseased or pest-ridden plants; very stiff tree or prickly leaves; magnolia leaves; evergreen needles like pine, fir, redwood; weeds that have mature seed pods or weeds that have invasive rooting systems like Bermuda grass, blackberry, or bindweed.

Layer the compost piles using a two- or three-inch layer of carbon matter, then a one- or two-inch layer of nitrogen matter, and so on. Water the pile heavily as you go along; it’s the catalyst for the decomposition/heating-up process that enables the fodder to break down into a rich, gorgeous mass of compost that will enliven your soil and reduce waste.

Once the pile is three or four feet high and well-watered (this can happen over a period of some weeks, depending on how much fodder you have at any one time), put a breathable cover on the top. A used piece of carpet is a good cover, as is an extra-thick mat of straw tamped down on the top. This will keep excessive moisture from rain out but still allow some to enter the pile. The alternative would be to cover with a lid that doesn’t allow in any rain, but then you’ll need to remove the lid every so often and water the pile yourself during the winter. If you compost during dry months, make sure you water your pile once a week to continue the decomposition process.

The pile decomposes fastest within its core, where the temperature can heat up to 130 degrees or more. Turning your pile is not an absolute must—it’s only important if you want the outer and upper non-decomposed fodder to break down, similar to the middles of your pile. The technique for turning it is to get as much of the exterior perimeter and top of the pile to be on the inside of the pile after turning. Water the pile as this mixture is taking place, and the pile should heat up again; however, rest assured that your pile will mostly all decompose without turning it. It’ll just take longer (a couple of months) and you made need to screen out larger, non-decomposed items from your compost before using it next spring.

Clean up beds and planting areas

Once you’ve pulled or cut down your plants, clear out the rest of the debris, like fallen tomato leaves, rotting fruit, weeds, rocks, and non-organic mulches. Rake and remove these not only from the beds but also from the surrounding area as best you can. Any old organic matter left behind can harbor disease that may re-infest your garden next year.

Weeds left behind in and around the garden will be safe refuge for harmful insects waiting out the winter, only to come out next year to wreak havoc. For example, one of the most harmful insects for tomatoes, thrips, goes off into the weeds when there are no host plants in the garden. They overwinter in the weeds, and when the weeds dry up and die, they fly out of those, looking for new blood—often your tomato plants! Thrips impart a highly damaging, if not fatal, disease to tomatoes. Best to interrupt their life cycle whenever you can.

Sow a winter cover crop

After you clear your beds, consider sowing a winter cover crop. The cool weather-loving crops, such as hairy vetch, clover, fava beans, and rye grass, help in several ways.

First, they prevent the erosion of your precious top soil from wind and rain.

Second, they add organic matter to soils that need it—and just about all soils need it. Overly clay to overly sandy soils can benefit from additions of organic matter. Even “perfect” soils—those scoring right at the midpoint of sand and clay, being “loamy”—lose organic matter through decomposition and multiple growing cycles. So adding organic matter back to the soil is an important process of taking care of your garden.

Third, cover crops provide food and shelter for garden helpers: bees, birds, and other pollinators that need nutrition during the lean winter months.

Fourth, legume-type cover crops, such as vetch and fava beans (bell beans as well), grab nitrogen out of the air and infuse it into the soil, lessening our need to purchase nitrogen next season to amend the beds.

Fifth, many of these cover crops are edible by humans as well: fava bean leaves, flowers, and beans are all fantastic. Also, if you use mustard as part of your cover crop, these are delectable and provide some interesting salad additions through the bleak winter months.

In addition to the crops noted above, one in particular is great for tomatoes: Pacific Gold Mustard. PGM has been shown in university ag testing to reduce the harmful populations of nematodes in your soil. Reducing their number is helpful in restricting Fusarium wilt’s ability to infest your tomatoes. Nematodes make galls and breaks in the roots of tomatoes, allowing these soil-borne wilts to invade.

Use about a quarter-pound of cover crop seeds per 50 square feet of growing area. Your aim is to get at least one seed every square inch. If solely using fava beans as a cover crop, then one seed every few square inches works. A mix, though, of various types of cover crops will help reap maximum, diverse benefits.

Winter cover crops are also highly recommended for pots if you’re using those to grow your tomatoes. New potting every spring is generally recommended for tomatoes grown in pots because of the disease issues that can be contracted over winter. However, creating a “living soil” by having a cover crop occupying the otherwise spent potting soil will enliven it and invigorate it for further amending and growing next year, not only saving money on new potting soil but actually improving the soil.

The cover crop method for fava beans is to press fava bean seeds into the soil up to your first knuckle. The rest of the seeds can be sown on the surface of the soil and then topped off with an additional quarter-inch of soil. Keep the newly planted seeds consistently moist until they germinate, and then keep an eye on their water needs until rain kicks in.

If sowing a cover crop is too much trouble, at a minimum cover the beds with a two-inch layer of horse manure (fresh or, better yet, already decomposed) and then top all that off with a four-inch layer of straw. Do not use hay—it contains seed pods that will germinate and give you some unwanted weeds in the garden.

November is a good time to get inexpensive straw bales from organizations and homeowners looking to get rid of their Halloween decorations. If necessary, purchase straw from your local feed store and get manure (usually for free) from your local horse stable. If you need several yards of it, some of them will even deliver for free.

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