Thalassa Cruso reminds us that “Fall is not the end of the gardening year; it is the start of next year’s growing season.” By the time you read this, it’s likely that we’ve already experienced our first frost in North Texas. Time to turn out the lights in the garden; summer’s party is over. You’ve coaxed the final tomato from the vine and your neighbors and relatives no longer smile when you say the word “squash”. An excellent time to get ready for next year.
Unless you have a perfect memory (and I don’t), it’s a good time to make a simple diagram of what you planted where this year. Doing so will simplify planning next year’s layout of the garden and allow you to do some crop rotation. Changing the layout of your plantings helps avoid disease in your plants, balances soil nutrients, and decreases insect pests.
Garden cleanup is pretty simple– pull all the dead and dying plants, throw them into the compost pile, and go watch the Cowboys win another game, right? WHOA, partner! You might be heaping this year’s problems with next year’s plants. Fungus, disease, and insects that can winter over might be holding on to those dead plants. While a hot compost pile will kill off some fungus spores, disease viruses, and insect eggs, not all compost piles heat up enough to do the trick– so next season you might be enjoying the same issues you fought this year. Those few plants you pulled won’t fill the compost bin, so it’s better to send them to the burn pile, or off to the landfill.
Tomato towers, stakes you’ll use next year, and trellis material will need to be removed, cleaned and stored. If you did have disease issues with some of the plants that used these structures, a little spritz of bleach water while cleaning them off should prevent a repeat performance of the problem. Sometimes a little work at prevention pays great benefits.
The lawn’s still growing some, so you’ll still need to mow a time or two– but those leaves on the grass will need to go. Left on the lawn, they’ll encourage disease and give insects a place to hide from the cold. Resist the urge to sack them up and send them to the dump. Use a bagging mower or a good rake and you’ll have the material for a nice blanket for your garden’s winter nap.
To till or not to till, that is the question. If you’re practicing no-till gardening, then it’s an excellent time to apply a thick layer of mulch and compost. If you’re a tiller like me, it’s time to till and then apply that thick layer of mulch and compost. Over the resting season (I hate to say winter), the organic material will decompose and filter down into the soil. This will also give the organics a chance to “marry,” or activate in the soil– something that takes time. Those leaves I mentioned earlier can now be spread out on the garden as well, helping to amend the clay. In either case, till or no-till, the mulch/compost will add nutrients to the soil, making it easier to work in the spring.
An alternative to some of these preparations is to plant a cover crop, which will be discussed in a future article.
A few hours on a Saturday spent putting your garden into a proper seasonal rest will pay huge benefits come next spring. Increased soil nutrients, better friability, and moisture content all set the stage for another great year in the garden. Plus, the game’s not on until Sunday.
Written by: Wayne Bowman, Hunt County Master Gardener