Prep Your Vegetable Garden For Fall

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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?

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