Prep Your Vegetable Garden For Fall


Welp we did it.  Most of us are pretty much done the gardening season.  Sure we can look forward to cool season crops, but the wild abundance of summer is gone.  For me, in zone 5b New England the cooling nights for sure takes a toll, but in my urban garden surrounded by other folks’ houses it is actually the sunlight I lose first.   The low angle of the sun just can’t peak up and around the house, and so the sun hours are way down.  So it’s time to put most of one garden bed to…bed.

Let me show you how I do it- for the vegetable garden.

Here are 6 fall garden tasks to really set your garden ahead and ready for spring.

1)  Weed.

photo source

In theory your garden mulching & targeted watering strategy have left not too many weeds.  But some always will poke their way through.  And while you probably can’t linger by your garden without picking an errant weed, by the end of summer things can get a little…wild.  Pull the weeds.  Get out a tool for the deep rooted ones.  You don’t want to add to the weed seed composition of your garden.  Ok, that’s easy.

2).  Don’t pull all of veggies out… at least… not all of them


Wait, wah?  Let me explain.  First, you should try to remove as much plant material always at all times from anything that looks diseased.  I’m not talking a touch of powedery mildew on squash- that stuff is everywhere.  But in the fall, we should try to remove, root ball and all, plants that are prone to disease.  I’m talking tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes (though in theory you did this at harvest).  One year basil all had a wilt.  So I yanked it.  Anything that can give your trouble.

What you shouldn’t pull are plants that don’t often have disease issues and especially not nitrogen fixing plants like beans and peas.  As I wrote about before, the root system of plants represents a huge subterranean nutrient source- mainly carbon.  We gardeners go to great lengths trying to infuse more carbon into our soil, via compost and mulches.  So why yank it up if it’s in already there?  Like way in there?  Especially the legume family plants which will leave behind their big root nodules, full of nitrogen and nitrogen fixing bacteria.  What do we also love?  Nitrogen.  So leave all that in.  I typically cut those plants out at the base and toss them into the compost pile, provided again, they look otherwise healthy (if not wilty and tired)

3) Add Compost & 4) Mulch


At the end of a long growing season the bed can be a bit depleted.  Especially a new bed that hasn’t worked up a ton of organic material from many previous years of leftover roots, as mentioned above.  What I like to do is add a one inch layer of compost down.  I’ll either use my own backyard compost, the commercial compost I get from our urban compositing provider, or composted cow manure.  These materials will continue to break down and compost in place through the next few months and pick up again in the spring.  Soil structure will improve over this time through the growth of mycorhizae, which if you had to pull up a lot of diseased plants will need some time to recover.

I then top it off with another inch or two of organic mulch.  This is mainly for weed suppression, but it will also minimize the critters picking away and a half-composted corn cob.  Hey, it’s been known to happen.  I use composted leaf mulch or composted bark mulch.

5) Covercrop


I used to think that cover-cropping was exclusive to the realm of industrial or at least large farms.  Not my 12×12 urban garden!  But then I saw my neighbor doing it and I was hooked.  The advantages are numerous.  Less weeds, better water retention, better soil structure and if the varieties are chosen well, nutrients are added into the soil, not taken away.  Also, since this isn’t stuff that you eat (well, you could, but pressure’s off) You don’t really have to give it a lot of love or attention.  Just let it be.  In the spring, it will probably be dead and mushy.  Turn it into the soil.  Some folks are anti-till.  I say a little scratching around so a rotted radish isn’t making an eye-sore is ok.

Now, there are lots of covercrop blends out there.  So much fascinating research has gone into different plants or mixtures of plants.  I find it amazing and I really need to learn more.  But for my little garden I have kept is small and simple:  Snap peas and daikon.  Importantly, both growth in cool weather.  Both I can also get a seed packet or two for cheap (often times cover crop blends are sold by the pound… I don’t need that!) and they both add to the soil.  And that is the point.  Peas add nitrogen and daikons bio-drill.

6)  Winter Crop!

Image of rust-free aluminum frame with insect screen and solid polycarbonate panel pulled back to show screen

photo source

Consider putting in a cold frame.  Maybe not this moment, but soon.  We’ve had intermittent success with ours.  I mean, there was that winter 3 years ago that snowed 7 feet in February.  Boston broke.  My cold frame did too.  But, when spring finally came, that cold frame, lodged in the snow, heated up.  And it heated up the bed around it too, not just the stuff inside.  So while I wasn’t able to get to my spinach through the blizzard, I was harvesting things way earlier than planned.  So even if you think you’d like to pass on January lettuce, even though your one friend in Maine boasts of doing it… think of how you’ll feel in early March when gosh darn it all you want is something green.  Trust.

And those are my 6 fall garden tasks I do to set myself and my garden up for a stellar spring.  What do you do?


Top Five Annual Flowers to Improve Soil


As a gardener you quickly realize how intricately connected the health of what you’re growing is linked to the health of your soil.  Soil rich in organic matter, with balanced pH, minerals and a thriving microbial and fungal community will deliver vibrant plants.

Typically, I prefer perennial flowers.

If sited in your garden correctly (that is, the environment, sun exposure and moisture and general soil attributes), after a little babying the first year- perennials can grow with minimal input from us for years.  And after a few years, you can even divide them to fill in other areas of your yard.  Bonus plants!  Plus, this way I can chose native plants that will serve my area and wildlife best.

But I’m not talking about perennials today.  Today I’m talking about annuals. 

I generally prefer annual plants that readily self-seed.  See, I don’t like spending a lot of money at the garden store on something that will die towards October.  Especially if I’m not eating it.  (I spend plenty of money at the garden store on other things!)  And while I start some plants indoors by seed, I don’t have a huge space or set up to accommodate starting flats and flats of annuals from seed, like my mom can.

Also, I really want my annuals to work for it.  Not just be pretty, or serve as nice cut flowers or feed pollinators and wildlife.  I like annuals that just by physically being there is improving my garden.  I clearly demand a lot.

So I put together this list of no-fuss annual flowers you can plant that have an amazing quality about them- they can actually improve your soil while they are growing, looking beautiful and helping pollinators.  Most of these self seed decently too in my 5b garden- or it’s easy to pick a few seeds and scatter them around while expecting a few to come again the next year.

Let’s get to that list!

1.  Sunflowers


Sunflowers are super at improving soil.  Why?  Their huge root system.  Sunflower roots reach deep into the ground to access water and support their massive height and weight.  All those roots mean that organic material (the roots themselves) are distributed far and wide throughout the soil.  When the plants die come frost-time, all that root material stays in the ground and will decompose over winter.  What I typically do is cut the plants down at ground level, never pulling the root ball out so as to preserve that material in the ground.  Then, as an added bonus I’ll strip many of the leaves and leave them laying on the ground as mulch.  It’s not the prettiest- but nothing is super pretty in November and it’s my backyard.  In addition to serving as critical nesting and protection for ground dwelling animals and bees, the sunflower leaves are full of minerals that have bioaccumulated within the plant- those minerals have been brought up from taht deep and extensive root system.  Finally, I”ll cut off most of the spent flower heads and chuck them on the ground too.  We’ve had sunflowers for years now and I’ve never planted a one- the birds and animals disperse the seeds through their foraging- and I’ve thrown a few flower heads around and plants always emerge from those sites.

2.  Sweet Pea


Photo credit: Annie’s Annuals

Sweet Pea makes the list for it’s nitrogen fixing properties.  Plants in the legume family all fix their own nitrogen out of the air due to the symbiotic relationship they have with Rhizobium, bacterial that set up shop in root nodules in legume family plants.  There are lots of pretty legume family plants to chose from, but sweet peas are beautiful in a classic sense and can be at home in any garden.  My neighbors would never care what I have growing in my front yard, but for some reason some folks neighbors do care (don’t they have other things to worry about?) and if that’s the case, beautiful sweet peas snaking up your trellis or fence is a bit more sightly than a mass of scarlet runner beans.  At the end of the season be sure to leave the root systems in the ground- cut the plant at ground level.  All that nitrogen can stay in the soil for the next year.  And the plant makes an excellent addition to your compost pile.

3.  Sweet Alyssum


I’m including alyssum not for what it does to the soil per se, but how it can protect the soil.  One component of healthy soil is retaining moisture.  High percentage of organic matter (6-8%) helps with this, as does a top layer of mulch.  But the concept of a living mulch should not be overlooked.  A living mulch is basically a ground cover that shields the soil from sunlight, keeping moisture in and weeds out.  Alyssum is low- generally never more than a few inches high.  It’s easy to pull out or push aside, should you want to plant into your living mulch.  I find that it self seeds, but is fairly patchy, so I will sprinkle more seeds around to help it out.  It comes in so many colors too- it can easily compliment any garden.

4.  Borage


Image Credit: World of Flowering Plants

Borage is another prolific self-seeder.  It can border on a weed but it’s easy to pull and if it pops up in the grass, mowing it down will stop it in it’s tracks, so it’s hardly a bother.  Borage, like sunflowers have a deep root, and thus like sunflowers will leave a massive root system in the soil come the end of season and can bioaccumulate minerals from deep underground.  Borage’s root is more like a taproot and thus can be thought of as a ‘biodrill’.  Biodrilling is the concept of breaking up tough, particularly clay soils & compacted soil using a strong taproot.  Daikon radish is very adept at this and is often used as a cover crop for this purpose.  The taproots allow water to better penetrate the soil and make it easier for next year’s plants roots to go deep into the soil- literally following in the footsteps of last season’s taproot.  Borage has lots of other great characteristics as well that I’m not even going into here (edible leaves, flowers, companion crop) so if you’re interested, seriously check it out.

5.  Bachelors Buttons


Image Credit: The Spruce

Bachelor Buttons make this list mainly in their no-fuss nature.  Bachelor buttons are often added to flowering cover crop seed mixes because they don’t require much water, can withstand lots of conditions and quickly leaf out.  This quick to add leafy material quality is what makes bachelor buttons a nice ‘living mulch’.  If you need to cover some soil for a few months, want it to look pretty, and then want to till that all under again, look to bachelors buttons.  The small and thin leaves rapidly break down, making it an ideal flowering cover crop that can be quickly and easily tilled back into the soil.

So that’s the list.  What say you?  Do you know of any other easy and beneficial annual that I can use to bulk up my soil?  What about perennials, I think I’ll make that list next!