The frost is on the pumpkin – and it is time for the last bit of fall cleanup of your yard and garden. If you haven’t already completed harvesting your vegetable garden, you will probably want to do that before the first killing frost. Most likely the only thing remaining to harvest is your pumpkins and other squash such as acorn and the prolific zucchini. You may have some other cold weather crops out there or, as I do, a few herbs still viable to cut and dry for use over the winter.
After you have harvested all your crops, but before you begin the cleanup, take a few moments to write down a few thoughts about your garden successes and failures this year. (If you don’t have a vegetable garden – all of this information can be used for any of your garden beds.) Take note of what did or did not thrive, and make note of any diseases or infestations that occurred – tomato diseases are very common — this year I had squash bore on my squash plant. If you experienced any specific diseases you may want to look for disease resistance varieties next year.
Include in your notes a map of your vegetable garden so that you plan for rotation of your crops next year. (If that sounds like farmer talk that is because you are a farmer– an urban farmer.) You should avoid planting any annual vegetable plants in the same spot next year as you did this year. This is for two reasons; to balance the plant nutrients in the soil and reduce the incidence of soil borne diseases, many of which are plant specific. The map will help lay the seeds for success next year.
Next, you should clean up your garden spot and prepare the soil for next year. Remove any plant debris as some pathogens can overwinter on plant material. This debris should not be added to a home compost pile as it is unlikely that a home pile will get hot enough to kill the pathogens. Place it in a yard waste bag for pick-up (until the week of Nov. 16) so that it can be added to a commercial compost pile, which will get many degrees hotter.
To get a head start on next year, till the soil if you can and decide if you need a soil test or to add any compost or manure. Fall is an excellent time for a soil test; one is recommended every three years because plants will draw up and use the nutrients during the growing season leading to soil depletion. (You can find out how to get a soil test on the U of M extension website extension.umn.edu.)
If you want to add manure you can work it into the soil when the temperature is below 50°. If you use primarily compost you should be aware of two things. University of St. Thomas researchers found in 2019 that garden beds that rely primarily on compost as an additive generally have too much phosphorous which can contribute to soil and water pollution. Additionally, it has been found that compost that relies primarily on food scraps is nitrogen heavy. So, while compost is good, how we prepare it and how we use it is important as well. If you have a home compost pile be sure that you add some ‘brown” carbon rich plant material to your food scraps. Fortunately, this time of year we have an abundance of this in the form of leaves; so mix in some shredded leaves to your compost pile when you rake them up.
Lastly it is important that you keep your soil covered – it is the key to soil health. The longer the soil is bare the more nitrogen that can oxidize (evaporate) from the soil. Put some leaves, straw or other organic material on top of your garden beds. This will not only contribute to soil health but will prevent soil from washing away in a heavy rainstorm (either this fall or next spring).
After your garden bed is put to rest bring all of your tools inside. Tools can also carry pathogens so they should be cleaned and sanitized before being put away for the season. In addition this keeps your tools in shape and they will be serviceable a lot longer. Clean and sanitize any seeding trays or pots you plan on reusing. Clean with soap and water and rinse well. Something a little stronger than soap is needed to sanitize. (Don’t we know about sanitizing these days!?) There are many commercial products that are hydrogen peroxide based that can be used to sanitize your tools or you can use a mixture of 1.5 Tbsp of household bleach to 5 gallons of warm water. It is advisable to use gloves and googles when using these sanitizers as the chemicals can be harsh on the skin and eyes.
So now that gardens and tools are put to rest, it is time to sit back and start planning for next year!