Putting the Garden to Bed
By Lois Hoffman
The tomatoes are canned, the corn is frozen, the pantry is full and the garden is a mess, the barren vines and stalks of another productive year in the books. It is tempting at this time to sigh, walk away, shut the gate and forget about the garden until the first seed catalog arrives in January. If you resist this temptation and do a little work now to put your garden to bed properly for the winter, you will be so glad you did come spring.
It doesn’t matter where you live, how big of garden you have or if it is vegetables or flowers, when it is time to plant in spring it seems like it is always a rush to get seed in the ground. The least amount of preparation you have to do then, the better your life will be.
Fall is a great time to be outside on those last warm sunny days and it only takes a little time to prep the garden for spring. Just a few points to consider follow.
Photo by Alexey Fedorenko/Adobe Stock
Clean Up Old Plants
Old plants…vines left sprawling over the garden, flower stems and plants that have died from frost look untidy. On top of that, they harbor disease, pests and fungus that can become active next season. Even though the insects are gone, the eggs that they have laid on leaves can still be fertile. Removing plant debris prevents them from getting a head start. I had a bad infestation of squash bugs last year. By removing the plants last fall and using pyrethrum this year, I no longer have that problem.
On this same note, now is the time to remove invasive weeds. There are always a few that survive the season. It only takes a couple to produce a whole garden full next year. Be sure and don’t put the renegades in a pile at the edge of the garden or in the compost pile or you will just be moving your problem to a new location.
Prepare the Soil for Spring
I love to till the garden in the fall. In the spring, you only need to go over it one more time to be ready for planting if you do the deep tilling in the fall. Tilling improves drainage and you won’t have to wait until the garden dries out if you have a wet spring.
It is also a great time to work in manure, compost, bone meal, kelp, rock phosphates and other nutrients. Doing this in fall gives them time to start breaking down, enriching the soil and to start to become biologically active.
Plant Cover Crops
Planting cover crops like rye, vetch and clover helps prevent erosion, break up compacted areas, increase levels of organic matter and add nutrients. Planting legumes like clover or field peas will increase the level of nitrogen for vegetables. Generally, cover crops are planted one month before the first killing frost.
Perennials can be persnickety; some like to be pruned in spring and some in fall. Be sure and check which each variety prefers. Spent raspberry canes continue to nourish the crown through the winter and blueberries prefer to be cut back in spring too. Blackberries, asparagus, rhubarb and herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage can be pruned in the fall.
Divide and Plant Bulbs
Dig up any plants that appear crowded or straggly. Many of the ornamental grasses just get too large. Now is the time to divide them and get two or more plants from one. Be sure and get them back in the ground as soon as you can so as not to interrupt the roots.
Irises tend to crowd each other out and need separated often. The trick with spring bulbs like irises and tulips is to remember where they are so they can be dug up. Now is the time to plant tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Don’t forget to dig gladiolus, dahlias and other bulbs that cannot withstand the winter cold.
Harvest and Regenerate Compost
Now is not the time to ignore your compost pile. Material that has been composting all summer is finished and ready to go. Spread this batch to make room to start the next one and to jumpstart the soil for spring. The compost will help insulate against the winter chill to keep the microbes working a little longer. Rebuild the compost pile with autumn leaves, straw or sawdust layered with kitchen scraps and other green matter.
Mulch provides some of the same benefits in winter as it does in summer like reducing water loss, protecting the soil from erosion and inhibiting weeds. Winter mulching offers other benefits as well. Freezing and thawing can adversely affect garden plants and roots suffer from churning and heaving. Mulch helps to regulate soil temperature and helps to ease the plants’ transition into winter. A fresh layer around root vegetables can prolong the crop. As mulch breaks down, it puts fresh organic matter back into the soil.
Now is the time to step back and take a hard look at how the garden performed. If some plants didn’t perform well, check out other varieties that may be more suited to your area. For those that did well, plan to get the same variety, only some with shorter and longer growing seasons to extend the season. Some of your successes and failures are weather related but other factors can be controlled. Soil fertility, moisture levels and plant placement are all things that can be adjusted next year.
As you assess, don’t count on your memory for all these little facts. Make notes so that when that first seed catalog appears in January you will be ready with a plan.
Take Care of Tools
Change the oil in rototillers and mowers. Put additives like Stabil in the gas lines to keep the gas from breaking down in the motors. Wash tools and wax them, sharpen hoes, shovels and pruning shears. Add a light coating of oil to these hand tools to help protect them.
We all know how hectic it gets when winter breaks. Taking just a little care when putting the garden to bed in the fall makes a huge difference in the spring…and who doesn’t like something made easier!
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