Cleaning up the vegetable garden at the end of a growing season is one of the most important tasks that gardeners can do to set themselves up for success the following year.
Hearing the geese flying overhead is my signal to start to clean things up, knowing that soon I’ll be rewarded with time indoors working on sewing projects while I'm curled up on the couch. I also know that taking advantage of working outdoors in the cooler and more comfortable weather will be time well spent. In the spring, I’ll be impatient to plant and waiting for the soil to warm up and dry out. At that point, I’ll be thankful that the beds are ready.
In addition to allowing for early planting in the spring, cleaning up the garden at the end of the season has other benefits. Gathering up plants that are dying, spent and killed by frost will help to keep garden soil healthy. These trimmings can be placed in a compost bin to be recycled for future use.
However, any diseased stems or leaves should be disposed of or destroyed. Do not turn them under or leave them on the soil. Removing them will help prevent fungi and bacteria from returning the following year. Likewise, garden pests and their eggs can find refuge under leaf litter and successfully overwinter there.
Weeding in the fall can save time by removing cool season annual weeds that flower and set seed in early spring. It’s also a great time to tackle many perennial weeds, such as thistle, that are storing up energy to survive the winter.
After weeding, consider mulching with a thick layer of compost to suppress and bury weed seeds and to prevent erosion. Organic mulch has the benefit of adding organic matter to garden soil. Organic mulch includes compost, leaf mold, pine needles and shredded leaves. You can apply these organic mulches alone or in combination with cardboard (staples, tape and labels removed) or black ink newspaper. Any cardboard or newspaper that hasn’t broken down by spring can be removed and added to the compost pile.
Cover crops, sometimes referred to as green manure, are plants that grow and become a “living” mulch. For example, oats, winter wheat, hairy vetch or rye can be sown thickly to suppress weeds. They will be turned under in the spring and will add nutrients to the soil. Cover crops should be sown any time from the first of August through the end of September, giving seeds time to germinate before the first frost.
Either traditional mulch or a cover crop of living mulch will help improve soil structure and make it easier for future plants to grow healthy and strong. Mulch will also prevent help soil compaction. Soil compaction occurs when the space between soil particles is so tight that it doesn’t allow for water, oxygen, or nutrients to move through the soil. Visit https://extension.psu.edu/improve-vegetable-garden-soil-with-cover-crops for more information on specific cover crops.
To have the healthiest plants possible, we shouldn’t rely on guesswork when it comes to the nutritional composition of our soil. Fall is a great time to have the soil in the vegetable garden tested and to follow the recommendations in preparation for next year’s growing season. Garden soil has been hard at work feeding flowers and vegetables, while at the same time erosion and leaching may have taken their toll. Late season amendments give nutrients and minerals time to be incorporated into the soil, ready to be used by future vegetables. For example, to lower pH levels, lime should be added to the soil in the fall to allow enough it enough time to dissolve and neutralize the soil’s acidity. Contact a local Penn State Extension office for information on how to purchase soil test kits or visit https://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/soil-testing/fertility.
At the end of the growing season, gardeners often feel weary. However, a little investment of time now will minimize obstacles in the future and set up the garden for success in the spring. During the crisp fall weather, close out the growing season by leaving tidy, clean vegetable garden beds, just waiting to overflow next year.