Annual garden vegetables are nearing the end of their lifespan and are starting to succumb to the nip of successively heavier frosts. After the rush of spring planting and the peak of summer’s harvest, it’s tempting to shut the garden gate and let nature take its course, leaving the gardening for next gardening season. After all, you’ve done the heavy spring lifting and reaped summer’s benefits. What more is needed now that fall is here?
The answer depends on how much you care about your soil and how much easier you’d like your garden preparation to be when spring rolls around. Your garden is a living ecosystem, even when you are not actively growing crops. As such, it should be treated with thought and care all year long to maintain a healthy garden ecosystem. A few careful steps executed now in the forefront of winter may pay dividends in the long run.
Remove Finished Plants and Invasive Weeds
It can be hard to say goodbye to some plants that have provided you with beautiful vegetables for the past several months. Though once you are sure they are past their fruiting life, it is time they return to the soil as nutrients. Utilize the nutrients these plants hold as future compost, by either tilling them into your soil, or removing them and placing them in your compost pile.
No matter how well you keep up on it, invasive weeds can be a relentless force in the garden beds of most people. In the fall, many of these plants are in the process of going to seed, if having done so already. Do you best to remove these volunteer plants from your garden and compost before going to seed so as to limit next years recruitment. To prevent the spread of undesirable plants, be sure not to use them as compost. The best option is to burn them or remove them from your yard entirely.
Test Amend Your Soil
Though spring is still far away, now is really the time to think about testing and amending your soil. Many different types of test kits are available at local plant nurseries and through online sources to determine chemistry characteristics of your soil such as pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, etc. After testing your soil, it may be necessary to add proper amendments such as lime, bone meal and etc., to bring it to a proper chemistry. By adding these amendments in the fall, it allows them to decompose and integrate well into the soil by spring time. Also you avoid the risk of burning plants plus it inputs nutrients for the next gardening season.
Additionally, now is an excellent time to add un-composted or under-composted materials to your garden beds as good organic input. These types of materials would generally be manures and leaf matter wastes. Since manure and other high nitrogen can burn your vegetable plants, allowing them to compost in your beds over winter eliminates this possibility and adds organic nutrients to your soil.
Plant Cover Crops
Your soil is a living ecosystem and should be treated as such. Plants provide a necessary element to the living soil ecosystem, and a lack of plants represents a missing element.
In my gardens, once I till my soil in the fall, I like to plant a cover crop of rye grass, though many options exist. I like to let the rye grass sprout and grow an inch or two before tilling it back into the soil; this helps to regenerate the soil and is another boost of nitrogen and nutrients to compost over winter.
With the advent of fall, most people have no shortage of fallen leaves, an excellent mulch and source of carbon for your soil. Hardwood leaves, such as oak leave, make an excellent source of mulch for your beds. Once I plant my cover crops and till them back into the soil, I like to place a cover of mulch in the form of oak leaves or straw to act as a sort of blanket over my living soil ecosystem through the winter.
Reap What you Sow
With a small amount of front-end work this fall, you should be able to reap the benefits come spring. Uncovering your mulch to reveal a rich soil teeming with micro-organismal life is a welcome sight in the somewhat bleak, albeit it anxious, days of early spring. You will have a complete and lively ecosystem which is needed to support a rich cultivated garden. Enjoy the last blooms and vegetables of the 2018 season, for fall is upon us. Soon I will be dreaming, planning, and prepping for next year’s garden beds.