The Earth

The weeks between the end of the harvest season and the first hard freeze are the time of the year I use to get my land ready for winter and begin preparing for next year. If gardeners do not take advantage of this time, they will miss the best chance not only to get a jump on the coming growing season but also to take care of last season’s problems – insect pests, diseases, soil deficiencies, etc. that may have plagued them this past year. Take a few hours to wrap up the season right. Here are some fall chores that you can do:

Before you start clearing all the litter from the garden, note where all the crops were grown:

Draw a sketch of the garden layout and record the location of each crop. Come spring, you’ll want to be sure to avoid putting the same vegetables in the same place. This is important because different crops affect the soil in different ways. Some are heavy feeders – like corn and tomatoes – and use up a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. Others – beans and peas – add nitrogen to the soil.

To help balance soil nutrients from harvest to harvest grow a light feeding root crop (carrots, beets, etc.) or a nitrogen fixing legume (beans and peas) where you raised a heavy feeder the year before. Also try to follow a legume with a nitrogen hungry crop (corn, tomatoes).

Moving your vegetables around from season to season helps keep crop-specific insects and diseases from setting up permanent quarters.

Clean up the garden:
The need to clear your garden of crop debris is more than cosmetic. All sorts of insects and diseases favor dead vegetation as winter quarters.

Pull up diseased plants and burn them or put them in sealed containers for disposal with household trash. If you put them in the compost pile now it may not heat up enough to kill the disease pathogens.

Pick up and destroy dropped fruit. This is especially important in reducing infestations of apple maggots, fruit flies, codling moths, and plum curculios.

Shred healthy vines, stalks or frost-nipped plants and put them in the compost pile.

Take a few minutes to scoop up some soil samples and have your soil analyzed:

Fall is the best time for this because the soil yields a more accurate nutrient reading. It will tell you what is left in the soil after harvesting the season’s crops. If a nutrient needs to be added, this is a good time to do it. A slow acting amendment, such as rock phosphate, takes time to break down. By spring the mineral will be available for the plants.

Till and enrich the old garden:
Fall is better than spring for soil preparation. Remember to put something back for everything you take out of the soil. This is the best time to add compost, manure and rock powders to the garden.

If you can, till the soil six to eight inches deep. That will bring up insects and pupae that would normally spend the winter underground. Feasting birds and a couple of good cold nights will take care of most of them. At the same time, you’ll bury alive those pests that usually dwell on the surface.

Plant a soil-improving cover crop after you have cultivated the soil:
I like a combination of Hairy Vetch and Winter Rye because they add a lot of nutrients and organic matter to the soil.

Another soil improving cover crop to plant in fall is Ryegrass or Oats. During the cold weather they will die, and in spring you can rake off or till the dead plants under.

Blanket the garden with organic mulch if you don’t have time to sow a cover crop:
Shredded leaves or spoiled hay (as mulch) protects the soil from erosion, keeps weeds from growing, and enriches the soil with nutrients released as the material decomposes.

Mulch also encourages earthworms, prevents heaving of the soil, and allows an early start next spring. In the spring, you will need to pull the mulch back a week or so before planting to allow the soil to warm, or the mulch can be tilled into the soil.

Clear a new growing area:
Fall is the perfect time to expand your garden. To rid the new area of weeds or turf, spread a thick layer of paper – newsprint without color or cardboard- over the area you want to clear. Pile weeds, shredded leaves, grass clippings, straw, or compost on top. Come spring, the weeds beneath will have suffocated, and the paper material will be soft, nearly rotted, and easy to till. An added benefit is that the newspaper will attract earthworms.

Protect vegetables left for winter harvest:
Cover any vegetables left in the garden for harvest during the winter months with floating row covers, cloches, or straw.

Start fall compost:
Make more compost if the weather is warm enough, or get ready to start a new compost heap in early spring by piling up the materials in a dry place.

Another way to compost is by sheet composting. Simply mix residues – garden, manure, leaves – into the soil with a tiller. This can be done quite late in the fall, as long as the soil can be worked. Leaves dumped right onto the sections of the garden (up to 6 inches deep) and sprinkled with ground limestone can be tilled under. The tilling initiates the breakdown process and a further tilling in spring completes it.

Spend time cleaning and winterizing hand tools and power equipment:
Wash, scrub, scrape and hose off the caked-on dirt that clings to your tools. Use a paint scraper or putty knife to remove the layer of matted vegetation that accumulates under mower decks and in the nooks and crannies of shredders and tillers.

Sharpen your hand tools and give them a light coating of vegetable oil or paste wax to prevent rusting. Repair any broken handles and find a permanent place for them to rest. Rub linseed oil into wooden handles, taking special care to get plenty of oil into the areas where wood and metal meet.

To make sure mowers, tillers and other equipment powered by small engines will start next year, add commercial gas stabilizer to the fuel in each tank and run the engine for a minute or two to make sure the stabilized fuel is in the system. Another method for over wintering small engines is to simply drain the gas from the tank and run the engine until all the fuel in the line and carburetor is gone.

Remove and store poles, support fences, trellises and portable frames:
Clean off all the dirt and repair them, if needed. When the spring rush comes, you will find it difficult to do these repairs.

Disinfect tools:
Prevent the spread of plant diseases. Pruning shears and loppers can be disinfected by soaking the cutters for a full minute in a solution of chlorine bleach and water (one part bleach to nine parts water). Then carefully wipe the metal dry and oil it to prevent corrosion.

Prepare equipment for winter:
Disconnect, drain and store all hoses, sprayers and sprinklers before winter sneaks up and freezes them.

Prepare for new seedlings:
Have soil, compost, and flats stored in a cool dry place for starting seedlings later in winter. Flats and containers, if recycled, should be washed with bleach solution to kill any diseases.

When everything is finished, planning the next year’s growing season begins. Looking ahead will help you see the value in the fall cleanup.