By Randall A. Agrella
The summer garden is largely finished and your fall crops are growing nicely, but there’s still plenty to do: Winter is on its way and doing the right work now can really put you ahead next spring. The life in your garden may slow down during winter, but never absolutely ceases. So why not use your garden’s downtime to your advantage? You can, with a range of fall gardening strategies.
It’s best to do any garden cleanup promptly, but most of us own a backlog by season’s end. Now’s the time to make amends. Pull up spent veggie plants and weeds. Most such debris is fodder for the compost pile, but never compost diseased material – burn or otherwise dispose of it instead. You don’t want to chance harboring pathogens and spreading them next season. Healthy material from disease-prone crops, such as tomatoes or squash, should be composted separately and the compost reserved for the flowerbeds. As for the rest, into the pile it goes, shredded first if you can manage it.
To Mulch or Not to Mulch?
That is the question. A good mulch slowly feeds next year’s soil as it decomposes. Mulch protects overwintering plants, supports soil microbial life, and prevents weed seeds from germinating in the meantime. Literally, any organic matter will work, but each material has its unique composition, so select something that’s appropriate as well as readily available. Use a coarse fibrous mulch, such as straw, if the goal is to slow runoff and keep soil in place. Or select something extra nutritious, like beet pulp or alfalfa hay or meal, to beef up fertility.
Clean cultivation (meaning leaving the ground bare) has its value as well. Exposed soil is subject to wider temperature extremes, and may get colder during deep winter, possibly destroying overwintering insect pests. I recommend clean cultivation after squash, cucumber, and melon crops, since these are especially prone to insect depredation. I also suggest it for any patch that had an unusual pest outbreak. It’s no magic bullet, but one can hope. That’s part of what makes us gardeners!
Plant a Cover Crop
An alternative to mulching is planting a cover crop. Seeded in autumn, cover crops make slow growth until winter shuts the plants down; they then remain in suspended animation all winter, maybe making a little growth during mild spells. The plants take up soluble nutrients that might otherwise leach away in winter precipitation, holding them in their own tissues. These stored nutrients are released back into the soil when the cover crop is incorporated (dug back into the soil). Leguminous cover crops, such as winter pea, hairy vetch or clovers, will actually increase net soil fertility by their nitrogen-fixing action.
An enormous added benefit is the organic matter cover crops supply. This can be substantial when the cover crop is allowed to make some spring growth prior to incorporation. I like to mow a cover crop before tilling it in, which makes the work of incorporating it easier.
A cover crop can even segue into next year’s no-till bed with a little planning. A dense planting of winter wheat or rye, for example, can be knocked down in spring with a weed-whacker, leaving fresh mulch (that you didn’t have to load, unload, tote, and spread!) into which you then plant the next crop. It takes some fine-tuning, but it can be very useful indeed.
If you can plant a cover crop to overwinter, why couldn’t you plant some actual veggie crops and do the same? You can. You can sow seeds for next spring’s crops into well-worked and properly amended soil in fall. The seeds wait patiently for the soil to warm, sprouting in due course. From winter-sown seed you’ll often see sprouts far earlier in spring than you could ever plant them, so it’s a great technique to obtain the earliest possible spring crops. It’s best suited for hardy vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, and parsnip. But a range of slightly less hardy crops work as well, such as beets, carrots, and turnips.
The trick is timing the plantings correctly. In most cases, you want to sow the seeds in late autumn, after the soil temperature is low enough to prevent immediate germination, say, below 40 F. You want the seeds to remain dormant until winter begins to wane – many types would of winterkill as plants but will sail right through as seeds. The result is the earliest possible seedlings to usher in the new gardening season, early harvests as well.
Consider your fall gardening options carefully, make a plan, and plunge in. You’ll be ready to hit the ground running, next spring, and your garden will be ahead of the game.