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Autumn in the garden

Harvesting winter squash and pumpkins, moving peonies, and shredding leaves are some of the gardening activities Vermonters will be taking care during early autumn.

You can harvest winter squash and pumpkins any time they're mature-that is, when the rinds are too tough to puncture with a thumbnail. Some gardeners wait until a light frost kills back the vines, to allow the squash as much time as possible to mature.

To harvest, use a knife to cut the stem an inch or two above the squash or pumpkin. If you didn't grow any pumpkins this year, visit a local grower or roadside stand. Use them for decorating, plain or painted, carved, and for cooking pies and roasting seeds.

Any fall weeding you do will reduce your weeding chores in the spring. Pull weeds before they set seed if they haven't already, and you eliminate the task of pulling all those little seedlings. A single weed plant may set hundreds, or even thousands, of seeds, so don't delay. Remove tough perennial weeds such as dandelion and burdock by digging out their roots. Fall weeding is rewarding as the weeds wont grow back this season, as they do during the summer.

Fall is a good time to test your soil's pH or acidity. This is crucial to making nutrients available to plants. By adding any necessary amendments now, they'll have time to break down over the winter since they tend to be slow acting. Extension Service offices do soil tests for a nominal fee, and the test results include recommendations for improving the soil. Most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8 (a pH of 7 is neutral). New England soils tend to be acidic and require the addition of lime to "sweeten" the soil, or raise the pH.

As soon as frost kills back the tops of tender, summer-flowering bulbs, such as dahlias, gladiola, and tuberous begonias, it's time to dig the bulbs to store indoors over the winter. Gently brush the soil from the bulbs, allow them to dry for day or two, then set them in dry peat moss or vermiculite and store them in a cool (40 to 50 degrees F), non-freezing, dark place. Don't hold dahlias too long before storing, or they'll begin to dry out and shrivel.

Now, too, is the time to plant spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils.

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