by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardener
As I have been cleaning up my garden recently the thought came to me that I need to plant a cover crop before cold weather sets in. It is important, that to have a healthy garden, you need to take good care of the soil in it that works so hard to grow all the great veggies it produces. Fall is an excellent time to prepare garden soil for spring for several reasons.
There is a chance that in the spring soils remain too wet to “work” for long periods. Amendments added in fall have time to incorporate before spring.
Removing the current years plant debris is a good sanitation practice. Leaving plant debris in the garden makes a great place for insects and disease to overwinter. Removing diseased plants in the fall keeps those diseases from overwintering in the soil and reemerge the following growing season.
When removing old vegetation, whether vegetables or weeds, don’t put them in the compost if they are diseased, if the weeds have seeds, or thick stalks that are difficult to decompose. If weeds have gotten away from you and are advanced and gone to seed, find another route of disposal.
For perennial weeds, make sure to remove any roots, or they will sprout and grow again next year. Tilling them in will only break up the roots into many more pieces, making your weed problem even worse next season. For weeds with wide-spreading root systems, such as some grasses, you may need to use an herbicide to kill them off.
If you can get the garden cleaned up by early fall, you can plant a cover crop. This is simply a crop such as oats or clover that will protect the soil from erosion, and add important organic matter when tilled in later. If planting a cover crop later in the fall, winter rye is about the only choice. If frosts have begun, it is probably too late to establish a cover crop before winter.
Fall is a very good time to have the soil tested. This is especially true if your soil needs lime added to it. Most forms take some time to work, so adding it in the fall gives the soil time to be at the right pH by spring. The test results will only be as good as the soil samples you send in. To insure that your sample is representative of your garden, take small cores of soil 6 to 8 inches deep from several spots throughout your garden then mix them together. For a list of certified soil testing labs, click here.
One of the most important amendments you can add to your garden is compost. Tilling and adding organic matter during the fall avoids the rush of garden activities in the spring. Add about a one inch layer to your garden and work it into the top several inches of soil using a garden fork, rake or claw. Add a bit more if you have poor soil or if it’s a new site. Other sources of organic matter include shredded leaves and dehydrated cow manure. Do not use fresh wood products like sawdust as it can rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. Organic matter loosens heavy clay soils, helps sandy soils hold more water and nutrients and by attracting all those soil microorganisms makes soils healthier.
As always, Happy Gardening!
More information about gardening and related subjects is available online at www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/garden_pubs The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.
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