One of the Joys of Maturity
End of Season Gardening Chores
There are a number of end-of-season gardening chores that I try to do each year. When I'm successful completing these tasks, I'm always rewarded the next spring with a much easier start to a new gardening season. But the work isn't very glamorous, nor does it produce a lot of immediate gratification. When I write about this stuff, I tend to prioritize getting the ground ready for the next gardening season. That obviously has to be done before the ground freezes, but some of the other chores are equally important.
Fall Soil Preparation for Spring
As we bring in the last of our fall garden crops, we begin to prepare the ground for the next gardening season. We pretty much clear our garden plots of the previous year's garden crops (plants, stems, vines, and such), rather than tilling them under, as we don't want to carry over any bugs or plant diseases. After clearing our garden plots of garden refuse, we test the soil to see if we need to adjust the soil's pH level. I use a twenty year old electronic pH meter for such tests. I've compared its results (long ago) to those of chemical tests and found it reasonably accurate.
Doing this task in the fall allows any soil amendments added, such as lime or soil sulfur, to have all winter to adjust the pH of our garden soil. We aim to have our garden soil at an optimal 6.8-7.0 range for most crops. Here in west central Indiana, this process involves adding lime to the soil, as our soil seems to naturally acidify a bit over each gardening season. For folks living out west, dropping the soil pH with sulfur may be necessary. We use garden sulfur to drop the soil pH to around 6.0 each year in the area planned for our next potato crop to help ward off potato scab.
We also have to add organic material to our raised garden beds to compensate for all the produce we've harvested and leaves, stems, and roots of spent crops we compost rather than turning it under. If available, we add compost to our raised beds, usually with some sphagnum peat moss as well. If we lack compost, we add lots of peat moss with enough lime to compensate for the natural acidity of the peat. Unless you pre-soak peat moss with hot water, it will be slow to pick up moisture, so adding it in the fall gives it all winter to get wet and for the lime to work.
New gardeners can save themselves a lot of work by fall tilling their prospective garden area, especially if it has been in sod.
A Gardening Trick: If you know that you're going to add peat moss to an area of your garden, buy your peat moss early and place it close to where it will be turned into the soil. Spit open the top of the peat moss bales and allow them to absorb rain water or any water you might add. (If you add water, you'll have to shovel out some peat moss to make room for the water.) During warm fall days, the peat will absorb the water, although if fully soaked, the bales will more than double in weight!
Since fall can be a wet time of year, we watch for periods of dry weather when we can rototill organic matter and soil amendments into the soil. I try to fall till all of our garden plots, even though I know we'll have some wind erosion of the topsoil over the winter. Mulching after tilling helps prevent wind erosion of the garden soil, but our lawn doesn't produce a lot of grass clippings late in the season. Generally, our East Garden plot gets tilled first, as its crops of sweet corn, potatoes, and melons are usually done producing in September. Our raised beds often mature crops well into October.
I use a twenty-two year old MTD rear-tine tiller to work our raised garden beds. Over the years, belts, springs, and cables have had to be replaced, but a good tiller can last a long time. I gave into hip problems several years ago and purchased a very expensive John Deere pull-type tiller to work our 80' x 80' East Garden plot and various isolation plots. Both tillers get a lot of use each fall and spring.
While I'll write about it later, washing soil off the tiller's tines helps prevent rust. Also, draining the fuel from the tiller (or winterizing it) and running 2-cycle engines (weed eaters, chain saws, and such) gas tanks dry helps extend the life of those tools. Late fall oil changes are about the only ones our poor, old senior rototiller gets.
Several of the crops we grow require some special soil preparation in the fall. Since we plant our garlic in late October or early November, the area for the new crop gets tilled early on. I try to turn in some 12-12-12 commercial fertilizer along with a bit of Muriate of Potash (0-0-60) several weeks before planting. The potash can be hot stuff for plant roots, so it needs to begin to dissolve a bit before we put our garlic sets in the ground.
We usually direct seed early peas into the garden sometime in March. Obviously, the soil for them has to be prepared in the fall. We check and adjust soil pH if necessary and thoroughly till the planting area. Since the soil may be partially frozen when we want to plant, we cover the area with a heavy layer of grass clipping mulch. We pull the mulch back in the spring a week or so before planting. If the soil is thawed, we hoe a furrow and plant treated pea seed. If the soil is frozen, we spread the seed over the soil surface and cover it with compost, potting mix, or whatever other soil we have on hand.
The area in our East Garden where we'll grow our potatoes gets treated with garden sulfur. This is the one area where we want to lower the soil pH to around 6.0 to help prevent potato scab disease in the upcoming crop. If we can till in the sulfur, we do. Often, the heavy clay soil of our East Garden where we grow our potatoes (and sometimes sweet potatoes) is too wet for fall tilling. In times like that, we just spread the sulfur on the soil surface, although that's not as satisfactory for lowering the soil's pH as tilling in the acid product in the fall. And if we fall till, the potato area also gets a good shot of Muriate of Potash which won't leach out of the soil over the winter.
Our spring brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) are the first transplants to go into our garden each spring. If we can do it, we work the soil for them in the fall, adding peat moss, lots of lime, and some Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed Powder. The calcium in the lime helps prevent club root in brassicas. The Maxicrop adds trace elements that our soil may be missing. The brassica area also gets mulched if we have enough grass clippings. In a wet spring, we pull back the mulch to transplant and then draw it back around the plants (usually with cutworm collars) to hold in soil moisture and hold back weeds. If we're lucky enough to catch an early dry spell, we remove the mulch and till before transplanting.
Correcting Drop in Soil Depth
It's not uncommon to see garden plots that have been gardened for years to be several inches lower in soil depth than the surrounding ground level. Part of it is the result of repeated tillage and soil compaction. The drop in soil level is also related to all the produce and plant trash removed from the area. All the wonderful vegetables harvested from the area, along with plant parts that may be composted, were once part of the soil. Removing them removes volume from the soil that needs to be replaced.
Our raised beds always lose a bit of soil depth each year since we compost the leaves, stems, and roots of spent crops. Our preferred method of restoring soil levels is to add lots of compost to the soil, which adds nutrients and organic matter as well as volume to the soil. Sadly, finding good compost in volume can be a challenge. Some compost sold is made up from manure from animals fed hay from fields treated with herbicides that carry over in the compost. It's known as "killer compost," as the herbicides involved can damage garden crops for several years.
For two years, we were able to purchase truckloads of "horse compost" that didn't have any herbicide carryover in it. After that, we lucked into loads of composted leaves. But both of those sources have gone away for us, so we generally add lots of peat moss to restore soil levels and add organic matter to our garden beds.
Interestingly, our East Garden which gets heavily mulched with grass clippings each season doesn't seem to drop much in soil level each year. We add about a six inch layer of grass clippings around our melon plants each year to hold in soil moisture and hold back weeds. While the grass clippings contain lots of grass and weed seed, they apparently replace some of the volume of the melons we take out of the patch each year. While we pull the spent vines from the East Garden each fall, we turn under the remaining grass clipping mulch, as our East Garden plot is heavy clay soil that can use all the organic matter it can get.
Putting Tools Away and Cleaning Up
As important as soil preparation is, another critical end-of-season chore for us is cleaning and sterilizing our used inserts, pots, and trays. We first soak these items in water and then scrub off as much soil as possible. Sadly, without spending a lot of time on the washing, some soil tends to cling to the bottoms of the pots. Rather than scrub forever, I do a second soak of the items in a bleach solution to kill any harmful bacteria harbored in any remaining soil or on the surface of the inserts, trays and pots.
Hoes, shovels, rakes and such get washed off and stored for the winter in the garage.
Our old MTD walking tiller gets washed off, an oil change, its air filter cleaned, and its fuel drained or treated for the winter. Our pull-type tiller gets its tines cleaned (something I actually do after each use) and lubricated. Any 2-cycle engines (weed eaters, chain saws, and such) need to be run dry of gas, as bad things can happen when they are stored over a winter with fuel in them.
Since using the pull-type rototiller requires dropping out the mower deck from our lawn tractor, thoroughly cleaning and lubricating the deck is pretty easy work. The lawn tractor may or may not get an oil change and filters cleaned, as we usually have the John Deere service truck out over the winter to service the machine.
Garden chemicals that had been stored in a plastic tub on the back porch all summer get moved to the basement to prevent repeated freezing and thawing. I'm not too keen on saving biologicals such as Thuricide and Serenade from year to year. Their effectiveness seems to degrade over time. Using up the Serenade is easy, as I drench the soil where crops susceptible to fungal diseases have grown or will grow in the next season.
Tomato Cage Re-cycling
Due to the high cost of woven wire (concrete reinforcing wire), I had put off making new tomato cages for several years. The base of our tomato cages have finally rusted out to the point where I'll have to buy a roll of wire next spring and make new cages. Fortunately, the old cages can be downsized and re-cycled to be used as cages for pepper plants.
Re-sizing the old tomato cages involves cutting them down the side with heavy wire cutters or lopping shears, cutting out a couple of squares of the mesh, and rewinding them to a smaller circumference. I also take off the bottoms of the cages to make them an appropriate height for bell pepper plants.
Fall is a good time to begin spreading Milky Spore over garden plots and lawn where moles burrow. Milky Spore kills the Japanese Beetle grubs the moles are after.
We carry over a lot of old garden seed for years in our large, manual defrost freezer. Doing so cuts the cost of seed for us and also has allowed us to amass a lot of different vegetable varieties. You have to be careful using old seed and not totally rely on it, but it's also pretty cool to be able to start ten to fifteen different varieties of lettuce for the spring garden without spending a lot on seed.
After keeping our seed records on paper for way too long, I finally entered our saved garden seed into a spreadsheet in 2010. Since then, I've pulled all our stored seed out of the freezer for a day or two each November or December and updated our seed inventory to reflect what has been used up, new seed that has been added, and seed I deem too old to save any longer.
I find that keeping a good record of our seed helps prevent running out of something I erroneously thought I had lots of, and conversely, ordering more of varieties that I have a sufficient supply of. I also keep a companion spreadsheet of seed orders set up similarly to the seed inventory. When an order comes in, I cut and paste the new info into the inventory.
This is a feature story sure to be updated many times in the future. I'm fairly certain that I've left out some critical information other gardeners might use.
From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
last updated 12/3/2016