As the growing season comes to an end, it’s time to put the garden to bed properly for winter and, more importantly, next spring. If at all possible, choose a sunny, dry day and work from mid-morning to afternoon because wet weather and morning dew can help spread disease spores throughout the garden.
Plus, footsteps will compress the soil, and muddy conditions result in dirty garden gloves and boots.
Start with the fun part by harvesting any late-season tomatoes, peppers, beans, etc. Immature or damaged fruit can be tossed in the compost pile, but diseased produce such as infected tomatoes, pumpkins, and potatoes with blight should be thrown directly into the trash. Next, remove the garden stakes, cages, and trellises. Rinse them thoroughly, as dirt and debris can harbor insects and other pests over the winter.
The idea here is to enjoy some last moments in the garden amid the beauty of fall and, more importantly, reduce the next spring’s workload.
Cleanup 101Before pulling up the first plant, take good notes (or photos) of what was growing where, so that crop rotation can be practiced in the spring. It leads to healthy plants because disease and other problems increase when the same crop or family of crops is planted in an area in successive years. Ideally, there should be a minimum of three years before a crop is planted in a particular area again, but that’s not always practical in a home garden. Any rotation is better than none; use the snowy months to research disease-resistant varieties for next year.
Divine DirtSuperior soil starts in the fall. Amendments such as leaves, compost, and other disease-free natural garden waste can be worked into the top layer of soil. This is also the time to add well-rotted manure (at least six months old so that it is pathogen-free and to prevent potential root burning in the spring). All manures aren’t the same; for example, chicken manure is considered strong (sometimes referred to as “hot”) and so less should be used.
To Till or Not to TillTilling is a subject that inspires some Hatfield and McCoy debates. For those with heavy clay soil that hasn’t been amended in prior years, it’s an easy decision. Fall cleanup is the time to mix, mulch, compost, and add manure to heavy soil to aerate it, allowing newly germinated roots room to grow and take up necessary water and nutrients. Proponents of tilling say the loosened soil prevents topsoil runoff and dehydrated plants, but it eliminates pests by disrupting their soilborne larval and insect cycles, and it prevents spring weeds by disturbing them before their dormant winter period.
No-till enthusiasts point out that regular tilling, or worse, over-tilling, can result in a hardpan layer of compacted soil. This can occur when soil particulates flow downward and compact at the bottom of the tilled layer. Hardpan inhibits the natural flow of water and nutrients and can be extremely difficult to break up. Hard soils are more susceptible to hardpan than sandy soils. Tilling can also reduce the amount of naturally occurring nitrogen in the soil by exposing top-layer, nitrogen-producing microorganisms to the sun, killing them. Tilling can also dry out the soil, with the dry, loosely tilled soil subject to erosion from wind and rain. Lastly, no-till fans point out that tilling, even with a machine, can be back-breaking work.
A middle-of-the-road compromise is to do the occasional light tilling when necessary, such as just before planting spring seedlings or when the soil has been seriously depleted of nutrients.