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Putting the Garden to Bed

With the arrival of autumn, as the leaves begin to change color and fall, acorns drop, temperatures cool and the daylight hours wane. As the summer harvest draws to a close, with the first frosts not too far away, it can be very tempting to forget all about the garden until next spring. But if you are willing to spend some time cleaning up the garden debris and protecting your plants and soil, it will be well worth the effort. When next spring arrives, you will be ready to plant sooner, your soil will be healthier, and your pest and disease problems will be minimal.

Cleaning up the Garden: To remove insect eggs or disease pathogens from garden tools, rinse materials in a 10 percent bleach solution (1 part household bleach to 9 parts water). It is best to dry tools completely before storing.     Leaving crops to decompose in the garden is a bad idea. They become a place for pests and disease pathogens to spend the winter. Remove finished and diseased plants. Chop up all other plant material into smaller pieces and add them to your compost pile. Be sure to add “brown” (chopped, fallen leaves) to your compost pile, and cover.  Cleaning up weeds is equally important, since pests like to overwinter there too. If you have fruit trees, make sure to clean up all dead and rotting fruit. Don’t forget your perennials; pull away and compost dead leaves and blossoms.

Getting the soil in shape: Cultivating, digging, or tilling your soil in the fall, improves aeration and drainage, which allows roots to spread more evenly. It also can destroy pests that overwinter in the soil or expose them to birds and other predators. To avoid overworking your soil (which can destroy its structure and deplete organic matter), add organic matter and amendments.

Incorporating organic matter helps set in motion the natural cycles that enrich the soil. Earthworms and microorganisms break down organic matter into forms that plants can use. As it is broken down, humus is created. Examples of organic matter are: straw, grass clippings, shredded leaves, compost, any remaining summer mulch, and composted manures.

The soil should be dry enough to crumble easily in your hand. If the soil is hard and dry, water it deeply. Wait two to three days and check the moisture level again before turning.

Amendments: Organic amendments are made from natural plant or animal materials or of powdered minerals or rocks. They release their nutrients slowly as they are broken down by microorganisms. They feed both the plants and the soil.

Mulching: Applying organic mulches helps protect and improve your soil. Mulching stops soil compaction from heavy rains. The mulch will help to absorb the impact of the raindrops, which can destroy soil structure, especially with fine textured soils. Mulching also stops erosion from heavy rain and wind. The force of the raindrops packs the soil by moving the particles closer together, and a surface forms that is virtually sealed. So, instead of absorbing the water, the rain is forced to run off the top of the soil, carrying with it particles of soil. Most people don’t realize how much soil is lost until it is too late.

Now that you have put your garden to bed, sit back, relax, pick up a few seed catalogs and enjoy the winter!

Lisa Page is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County with over 25 years of experience growing vegetables.

For additional information, please check out these references; Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale’s Garden Answers, Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs, Ed. 1995, The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, New Revised Edition, Ed. 1978, Garden Way Publishing, The Big Book of Gardening Skills, Ed. 1993, Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, Vermont, USDA Natural Resources Tip sheet- Backyard Conservation “Mulching” April199, and the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Publication 8059, Vegetable Garden Basics.