Preparing Garden Soils for Spring

Friday, September 26th, 2014 by Jenny Watts
    • Plant snapdragons, pansies and violas for color this fall, winter and next spring.
    • Plant cover crops in areas of the garden that have finished producing for the summer. Crimson clover, vetch and fava beans will grow over the winter and enrich the soil for next year.
    • Set out rhubarb and artichoke plants now so you can enjoy their produce next spring.
    • Fall is for Planting! Trees, shrubs, lawns, ground covers and bulbs get a jump on spring if you plant them now.

Preparing Garden Soils for Spring

Fall should not be viewed as the end of the gardening season, but as the beginning of next year’s garden. Proper soil preparation now will go a long way to improve next year’s harvest and reduce the amount of spring garden work.

You don’t have to be in a rush to clean out crops if you can still harvest some green tomatoes or a sweet pepper or two. But when the season is over, cleaning out the dead plants prevents the overwintering of diseases and harmful insects. As you finish harvesting, pull up the plants, place them in the compost pile or, if diseased, throw them in the garbage or the green waste.   

If weeds have gotten away from you and gone to seed, try to carefully cut off the seed heads first and put them in a garbage bag so they won’t disperse around the garden as you pull up the plants. For perennial weeds, make sure to remove any roots, or they will regrow next year.  Tilling them in will only break up the roots into many more pieces, multiplying your problem next season. 

If you can get the garden cleaned up by early fall, you can plant a cover crop.  This is simply a crop such as crimson clover or fava beans that will protect the soil from erosion, and add organic matter to the soil. It serves as “green manure” when it is tilled back into the soil next spring. If you are preparing a new area to be a garden space next year, plant annual ryegrass there to break up the soil with its deep roots.

If frosts have begun, it is probably too late to establish a cover crop before winter. In that case, add 1 to 2 inches of compost or manure on top of your beds and mulch the bare areas of the garden. Organic matter loosens heavy clay soils, adds nutrients and by attracting all those soil microorganisms, makes the soil healthier. Several inches of amendments added in both spring and fall, as well as the use of cover crops, will substantially enhance the quality of your soil.

When the garden season is over and done with, and everything is cleared out and put to bed, then it’s time to plant garlic! Break the bulb into cloves then make a furrow about 3 inches deep and place the cloves in it, 4-6 inches apart. Be sure to plant the cloves pointed end up. Make your rows 6-12 inches apart. Rake the soil back over the cloves, so that they are covered by 2 inches of soil, and water the bed well. Each clove will develop into a full head of garlic by next summer.

You can still plant crops like kale, collards and spinach from starts. Onions can be planted from seedlings and they produce next year. These vegetables don’t mind the cold weather and will give you fresh greens as the weather cools.

Enjoy the warm fall days by spending some time in your garden.

Putting the Garden to Bed

Monday, October 26th, 2009 by Jenny Watts
    • Tulips can paint the spring garden with almost any color you choose. Plant them now to enjoy their bright flowers next April.
    • Wildflower seed broadcasted with the first rains will take root over the winter and burst into flower next spring.
    • Garlic sets can be planted now for an easy crop that you can harvest next spring. Choose from hard-neck, soft-neck or Elephant garlic varieties now available.
    • Compost your leaves as they fall, don’t burn them! Leaves make wonderful compost that breaks down into rich humus by next summer.
    • Choose shade trees for fall color now and plant them while the soil is still warm.

Putting the Garden to Bed

Fall is a glorious time of year to work in the yard. It is the ideal time to take stock of your perennial gardens and correct mistakes and problem areas, dig up, rearrange and divide existing plants, add new perennials and shrubs, and plant spring blooming bulbs. As fall winds down and this work is completed, you will turn to the task of putting your garden to bed. Completing a few simple tasks now will not only prepare your garden to withstand the winter but also help plan for next spring.

In the vegetable garden, remove any dead plants and place them in the compost pile. Then turn the soil and plant a winter-hardy green manure crop such as crimson clover, fava beans or annual rye grass. Another option is to turn the soil and then spread a thick layer of compost or shredded leaves on the bed. Both methods will protect and improve the soil over the winter. By preparing the beds in the fall, you can take advantage of the first available planting days in late winter and early spring to plant early peas, spinach, cabbage and lettuce.

Divide artichoke plants which have been in the ground for three or four years. Mulch established plants with steer manure. Garlic should be planted now for an easy crop that you can harvest next spring. Tree collards can be planted now for a delicious winter vegetable.

In your flower beds, wait until perennials have died back before cutting them back almost to ground level, and compost the cuttings that aren’t diseased. The rule of thumb is: “If it’s yellow or brown, cut it down, if it’s green, leave it alone.” Plants that remain green through the winter can be cut back in March when they begin to grow again.

Don’t cut ornamental grasses back until late winter or early spring. Wait until new growth is beginning to emerge from the base of the plant. The stems of perennials like black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and grasses add winter interest to the garden, and their seeds provide food for wintering birds.

This is a good time to divide overgrown perennials. It’s also a good time to choose and plant some new varieties, and be sure to add some spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils and tulips.

Remove the leaves of hostas, daylilies and agapanthus as these tend to turn into a soggy mess by spring and provide shelter for slugs. Rake up fallen rose leaves and remove them from the garden area as they frequently have disease spores.

Dig up dahlia bulbs when they are finished blooming. Begonia bulbs should be lifted if they are in the ground. If they are in containers, you can cut back the foliage after frost and store the pots in a dry, frost-free area.

Preparing the garden for the winter ahead ensures that it gets off to a good start next season. Come the spring, when you have so much work to do, you will be glad that your garden is clean and ready for a new year.

Fall Gardening Jobs

Friday, September 18th, 2009 by Jenny Watts
    • Choose chrysanthemums in a variety of colors now. They are hardy perennials which will brighten your garden each fall.
    • Cool season vegetables should be planted right away to grow fresh produce this fall.
    • Holland flower bulbs are now available for fall planting. These lovely gems will bloom for you next spring.
    • Fertilize lawns now to build up root systems for a healthy lawn.
    • Fruit trees can be planted in the fall from containers to get a head start on next spring.

Cover Crops to Improve your Garden

Healthy plants begin with healthy soil. Often, the best way to improve your soil is to increase the amount of organic matter in it. Doing so will improve the soil structure and increase the activity of microorganisms that help create a rich, productive soil.

Organic matter is usually added by hauling in truckloads of manure or other compost. But there is an easier way. By seeding green manure crops in the fall and letting them grow over the winter, you are growing your own compost which can be turned into the soil next spring, about three weeks before you are ready to plant the summer garden. These “cover crops” also protect the soil from erosion, decrease the leaching of nutrients, and reduce compaction caused by winter rains.

There are two kinds of cover crops: grasses and legumes. Grass cover crops germinate quickly and put on enough growth in the fall to protect the soil over the winter. Annual ryegrass is the best plant for breaking up hard soil. It sends down miles of tiny roots adding pounds of humus to the soil when it decomposes. Winter rye, or ryegrain, is also an annual grass which is very hardy. It can be planted from late summer to late fall and will grow in poor soils.

Legumes include fava beans, crimson clover and vetch. Legumes are slow to develop in the fall but grow rapidly the following spring, providing nitrogen and biomass for the summer vegetable crop. These important crops are able to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that is usable by plants, thus adding nitrogen to the soil. At the same time, their root systems loosen and aerate the soil, improving the soil structure.

Crimson clover is an annual which blooms with beautiful red clover flowers in the spring. It likes well-drained soils and has a dense root system. Purple vetch prefers loam soils and should be planted before the weather gets too cold. Hairy vetch is the most winter-hardy of the vetches. It tolerates wetter soils and can be planted with ryegrass.

Fava beans come in two types: horse beans and bell beans. Horse beans can be grown to maturity and eaten. Bell beans are used strictly for a cover crop. These plants grow three to four feet tall and it is best to compost the stalks in the spring and turn in the stubble.

Mixed cover cropping with bell beans and ryegrain has long been used by farmers. The ryegrain produces large amounts of biomass and suppresses weed growth while the bell beans add nitrogen to the soil. Studies have shown that this combination actually increased the soil nitrogen more than the bell beans alone.

As soon as summer crops come out, cover crops can be planted in their place. The sooner they are planted, the more they can grow before the weather turns cold. Plants grow through the winter and are tilled into the soil in early April. By enriching your soil through cover cropping each winter, your garden will become increasingly fertile, reducing the need for fertilizers and soil conditioners, and providing you with bountiful harvests every year.