A thorough fall clean up to the garden will ensure fertile, pest-free soil and contribute to healthy plant growth. There are several tasks that you can complete in the fall that will result in improved vegetable and fruit production the following year.
By putting in a few hours of work in the fall and preparing the vegetable garden for winter you can expect to reap an increased harvest of food during the next growing season. A little time spent cleaning, preparing and maintaining fruit trees, shrubs, and the yard will also encourage future healthy growth and improve the overall appearance of the garden.
Here are some tips for a fall clean up in your garden and landscaped areas.
Remove All Debris and Rubbish
The best way to start the garden cleanup is by removing all debris like dead plants, weeds, and old mulch, from the growing beds. Inspect the organic waste and if it’s free of pests and disease, toss it into the compost bin to decompose. If there is visible evidence of pests or disease, the items should be discarded, to avoid the reintroduction of eggs and spores into the garden, through the compost.
The fall clean up should ideally incorporate a thorough yard clean up as well, especially any lawned areas. First rake up any fallen leaves, or collect them together with a leaf blower, and then remove any thatch that is present in the lawn. Thatch is dead grass and other organic matter that builds up on the surface of the turf. If it becomes too thick it can prevent proper water and air penetration to the grass roots. To remove thatch, use a rake or a de-thatcher.
The thatch and leaves are an ideal mixture of green and brown organic matter to add to the compost bin. Rake them up and run the lawnmower over them to shred them. The smaller pieces of leaves will decompose faster when added to the compost pile.
Make note of any pests or diseases you find while cleaning up the debris in the garden, yard, and around fruit trees. This information will help you be prepared with the right organic control methods next spring, so you can stop any issues before they become established.
Get Improved Results by Amending the Soil
After the debris has been cleared away it’s time to amend the soil so it will be fertile and better able to support plant growth.
Compost increases the fertility of the soil by promoting a bio-diverse sub-culture. It also helps prevent soil compaction and erosion, improves drainage, and allows air to circulate better within the soil.
Well-rotted animal manure is great for amending the soil. Use manure from cows, chickens, goats, rabbits, horses, etc. to keep your vegetable garden and fruit trees and bushes growing strong.
Vegetable gardens will need 4-6 inches of compost worked into the soil; fruit trees and bushes should be given a side-dressing of 4-inches of compost; annual flower beds need 2-4 inches of compost mixed into the soil and perennial flowers need a 2-inch side-dressing.
Once the thatch has been removed from the lawn, the turf should be aerated by using the tines of a garden fork or with a purpose lawn aerator. Reseed any bare patches and then sprinkle compost on top of the lawn or apply your favorite organic weed and feed product to promote healthy lawn growth.
Add a Fresh Mulch to Sustain the Soil Temperature
For climates that have cold winters, a 2-inch application of fresh mulch should be applied to the garden in the fall. Apply the mulch on top of spring bulbs, around fruit trees and bushes, and other plants that will be over-wintered in the ground to prevent them from heaving. This can occur when the ground repeatedly freezes and thaws during the winter and the bulbs, tubers, and plant roots get lifted up and out of the soil.
A blanket of mulch will help keep the soil at a consistent temperature so heaving does not occur. The mulch will also help prevent erosion and improve the soil structure as it slowly decomposes.
Pull any lingering weeds from the garden soil before applying the mulch so that the weeds won’t go to seed and overwinter in the soil. Weed pulling is always easier when the soil is wet, so right after a fall watering or rain, grasp the weed near the base and pull it up roots and all. Discard any weeds away from the garden or compost them.
Keep Things Moving With a Winter Cover Crop
After cleaning up the vegetable garden and incorporating compost into the soil, it’s time to plant a winter cover crop.
Several cool-season plants will produce food well into the winter months and help protect the garden soil. Planting a cover crop in the fall will help prevent soil erosion, from the weather, throughout the winter. The crops will also protect the soil from being compacted by heavy snow and rainfall. The cover crops can be tilled under in the early spring and will increase soil fertility and structure as they decompose.
Kale and collards are good fall/winter cover crops that taste sweeter after a light frost has fallen on them. Turnips, radishes, and carrots provide two foods in one garden space with their edible green tops and underground-growing bulbs. These root vegetables also help to keep the soil loosened so it will be easier to work over and cultivate in the spring.
Continue Watering in the Fall
Watering plants and trees in the fall is often over-looked as part of the fall clean up. Plants need to be well hydrated as they enter into dormancy. A thorough fall watering will help plants, shrubs, and trees to recover from summertime heat and drought.
Use this simple test to see if fruit trees and shrubs need a good watering: Poke a pencil into the soil around the plants, if the pencil comes up clean, it’s time to water. Alternatively, you can use a moisture meter.
Evergreen trees and shrubs, like ornamental conifers, need to be sprayed with water just before the temperatures dip below freezing. Doing this helps form a protective ice shield over the needles of the conifers so they won’t dehydrate during the dry winter months.
The Fall is Also Time for Pruning and Propagation
Pruning fruit trees and shrubs is an important part of the fall cleanup process and it gives the plants plenty of time to recover.
Look for any broken, cracked, crossed, or pest-infested branches and remove them with a pair of sharp pruning shears. After all the weakened branches are removed, take a couple of steps back and look at the plant’s appearance. You may need to prune a few healthy branches to give the tree or shrub a neat appearance.
As part of your clean up, the fall is an ideal time for propagating plants from root or stem cuttings. Dig up and divide perennial plants and take a few cuttings from plants and root them in water during the winter. For more information on these propagation methods see my article “Growing a Patio Herb Garden”.
You can also start sweet potato slips in water.
Easy Propagation of Sweet Potato Slips
If your garden includes fruit-producing plants like blackberries, grapes and raspberries, you can increase your plant stock by trench layering them. Look for a long healthy stem growing near the base of the plant. Dig a trench 3-inches deep, 3-inches wide, and 6-inches long, 1-foot away from the plant base. Lay the low-growing stem into the trench, making sure that at least 4-inches of the stem end will be above ground at the end of the trench.
Fill the trench to cover the stem with soil, water it well and place a small rock on top of the trench to prevent the stem from coming out. Allow the stem to remain attached to the parent plant throughout the fall, winter, and spring. In late spring/early summer gently remove stem from the soil, cut it free from the parent plant, and re-plant it in a new location.
After a long summer growing season many gardeners look forward to putting away their gardening tools and resting for a few months. But, if you want a more productive garden next year, do a fall clean up before you relax.
You will be glad you did. Things will be a lot easier come the spring.
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