So here we are at the end of another gardening season in most of the continental US. September heralds changing temperatures, final harvests, and signals that it is time to put the garden tools away for the year. But if you do put your tools away you are missing out on a golden opportunity to improve your garden for next year.
Fall is a great time for garden improvement. Whether that means you plant a fall cover crop like oats and peas, or it just means cleaning the garden up a little bit. There are so many different things you can do to improve it for next year that to fit them all in one article would be simply exhausting to both write and to read. To make it easier to digest in one sitting I am going to cover a few of the more important tasks that are great things to take care of in the fall.
Pull All The Extras From The Garden
What I mean by all the extras would be items like tomato cages, trellis, hoop house frames, pole bean stakes or pretty much anything that is not being used at the moment. They will only take up space and get in your way for what you will be doing later.
Now some of you are saying why would I want to pull all that stuff out when I just have to put it back in the spring. I want to bring your attention to the photo at the left. That is my dog standing atop four to five feet of wind blow snow. Now snow drifts tend to accumulate by any objects that slow the wind down slightly. So what are tomato cages and trellis but blockages to the wind. You get a couple of good blizzards in the winter and next spring you are replacing everything you had left in the garden at a hefty cost.
But maybe you live in the south where you don't get winters like this. Well the answer is still the same, exposure to the elements whether it be rain, snow, wind or sunshine damages everything as time passes. So if you want it to last longer put it away for the winter. Plus it just looks tacky and unkempt if you keep all that stuff lying around your garden all winter.
Remove All Plant Material
The next thing to do after all the tomato cages and other assorted items are put away is to pull any remaining plant material from the garden. This should be done because they may be harboring insects or disease that could overwinter in the garden. This of course is undesirable as they could adversely effect plant success next year.
Now their are differing ideas on what to do with the material after you have pulled if from the garden. Some sources will tell you to remove it completely and send it away in the trash. I am not a fan of this because you end up removing valuable organic material from your property. Having quality organic matter is a key to maintaining healthy soils so I am loath to part with any that ends up in my possession. Since disease and insects are a concern I would instead place it either in a compost pile far from garden that can just sit for a season or two or I would place it in a active hot compost pile. The heat in a effectively managed hot compost pile is capable of destroying most insect and disease concerns. If it still concerns you, you can age it after you have hot composted it as well.
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Good organic soil amendments like manure, chopped leaves, peat moss, grass clippings etc. require time on and in the soil to release nutrients. If you have compost it should be incorporated into the soil with either light tillage or simply raking it in with a cultivator or steel rake. Manure could and should also be spread onto the garden at this time it can be left as a top dressing or cultivated in like the compost.
For sources of manure you can go with the conventional approach of buying it at your local garden store or if you can source it from a local farmer/rancher. The second approach has the advantage of possible being free or ridiculously cheap but it may smell up your vehicle. It also has potential of introducing weeds or other pests into your soil if you are not careful.
After manure you should also cover the entire garden bed with at least four inches of leaves, straw or grass clippings as mulch. Keeping a good layer of organic material on the garden is essential for the long term health of the soil. It provides a steady release of nutrients and temperature moderation in the garden which is great for creating a soil ecosystem. Plus by applying a thick enough layer of mulch you can all but eliminate the problem of spring and fall weeds.
I have covered just a few of the things that you should do in the fall to prepare your garden for next spring. There is so much you can do that is site specific that it is up to you to figure out what your garden requires.
Happy Fall Gardening.