We are well into October, and so is your vegetable garden. If yours is anything like mine, the growing season has definitely ended, and the soil beds are just begging to be cleaned up for the fall.
No matter how nice the weather this time of the year, the dying bean vines, shriveling tomatoes, and sagging sunflower heads cannot lie. Winter is coming, and the garden needs its rest. Here are 5 tips to cleaning up your garden to be most prepared for planting next spring.
1. Clear It All Out, Except…
Except for perennials like strawberries and asparagus, it’s time to get in and get dirty. Pull out the annual plants and any weeds, too, until you’re down to a bare soil bed. While leftover plant residue can boost soil fertility and help with soil moisture conservation, they can also harbor overwintering insect pests and diseases. It’s better to compost plant material to apply after the current growing season’s plants have been removed.
One type of annual vegetable crop to leave in the ground are brassicas, such as cabbages, kale, broccoli, and radishes. These cool-season crops will attract overwintering pests and then kill them off in the spring — as the plants decompose, they release cyanide compounds.
Also consider leaving free bird seed standing. We plant our sunflowers at the border of our garden, and then we leave them stand in the fall to provide a stop for migrating birds. Any leftovers can go to the few birds that hang around in the winter.
Related: Try a Kids-Only Garden This Year
And, while most of your dead plants will probably go to your compost pile, consider leaving a small pile at the edge of your garden space for overwintering beneficial insects, like aphid-eating ladybugs, and spiders. Add some logs or brush to house solitary bees that will go on to pollinate your plants next year.
2. Be Picky of What Goes to Compost
Not every plant from your garden is a good choice for compost, unless you’re an expert composter. Otherwise, if you’re an average composter like me, crops that suffered from serious pest infestations or stubborn diseases are best to be disposed of in a way that prevents the affected plant materials from coming into contact with your garden again. If you’re able to, you can burn the infected plant material. Or, you can double-bag it and throw it in your dumpster to be escorted off your property.
We used to have a serious issue with squash bugs with our cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins. No matter what we tried, it seemed like the problem just got worse every year. Turns out, the bugs overwinter on the old vines. We thought we were doing our garden soil so much good by allowing the plant residue to protect the soil, when in fact we were just spreading the pest problem around even more! The same thing can happen with other plant families, such as tomatoes with blight.
If you’re short on compost, throw in your lawn clippings and tree leaves. It’s not only a great way to recycle these plant materials, but leaf mold can be a valuable addition to your soil.
3. Get a Soil Test
This is something commercial farmers do to maximize their crop fields, but it’s helpful for backyard gardeners, too. A soil test typically costs under $10 and can tell you a lot about the nutrients and pH levels in your garden’s dirt and recommendations to improve them. Contact your local Master Gardener program for more information.
4. Apply Nature’s Fertilizer Now
Applying fertilizer on a regular basis really helps your soil keep up with the demands of growing vegetables year after year. You can buy commercial fertilizer products, or consider locating a livestock farmer to get some of the natural stuff, aka manure. Or, if you have the room, you can produce your own manure.
We clean out our chicken coops in the fall, too, so we can just go straight from the wheelbarrow to the garden bed. Sometimes, waiting til spring to put down fertilizer can get tricky — too much, or too fresh, can burn plants or upset the nitrogen balance in the soil so that while your plants look great, they won’t produce any vegetables. Fall manure applications, over time, can make a rich garden with even the most dismal of soil types.
5. Plant a Cover Crop
If your garden has experienced a frost, it’s too late for this year, but it’s something to think about for next year — plant a cover crop at least a month before the first anticipated frost. Cover crops are certain crops that aren’t harvested for human consumption, but rather are a temporary ground cover to keep weeds at bay. Cover crops then die before the spring planting season, decomposing into the soil and boosting soil fertilizer. Common cover crops, like vetch and clover, make their own nitrogen when growing, so they add extra nitrogen to your soil — especially helpful if you don’t have another natural fertilizer source.