Here in the North Country, the fall is one of my favorite seasons filled with warm, sunny days and chilly nights. Unfortunately, the cold weather can descend quickly. Getting garden cleanup done now before it gets really cold or wet makes fall tasks more pleasant for us.
For any vegetable gardener, now is the time to be listening to the forecast. Before the first frost any cold sensitive produce should be removed from the plants. Any crop that you wait to plant until after the first frost is cold sensitive. The list includes tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and winter squash. Any unripened tomatoes can be ripened indoors in a brown bag, wrapped in unprinted newspaper, or even placed in a sunny window. I have even seen people cut off the entire tomato plant, bring it indoors to a sunny location, and hang the vine upside down to ripen the green tomatoes.
Any crops in the vegetable garden that you wish to harvest for any extended period of time, such as parsnips, carrots, or turnips, should be mulched with 12 inches of straw or shredded leaves. This will prevent the soil from freezing and extend the fall and winter harvest.
Fall clean up is also valuable for controlling diseases and reducing insect pests in any type of garden. All diseased plant material should be removed and should not be placed in the compost. Many types of diseases and insect pests or their eggs overwinter on plant material. Healthy perennials can be left standing for winter interest and to provide seeds for birds.
Once all of the plant material is removed, the gardener should think about the garden's soil. Adding a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to the garden helps replenish organic material, keeping the soil's micro-organisms healthy. This in turn helps keep next year's plants vigorous. Mulch also prevents soil erosion and keeps the soil light and airy.
Straw can be used as a winter mulch, but my favorite by far is shredded leaves. The leaves should be shredded to help increase the surface area the soil microbes can be feed on, speeding decomposition. Shredding the leaves also prevents the mulch from compacting into a tight layer that prevents water infiltration.
A 2-3 inch layer of partly decomposed compost or composted manure can be added under the mulch. By the spring this material will be incorporated nicely into the garden soil.
When mulching the garden, make sure not to mulch over any perennials at this time of year. Mulching these too early can cause the plants to die and rot. Winter mulches applied to protect perennials from uneven soil temperatures should not be applied until the ground has frozen. This typically occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
While fall cleanup is bittersweet, it is a great way to give the garden a jump-start next season. It is also a great excuse to be outside enjoying the beautiful fall weather!
Anne Lenox Barlow has had experience in the agricultural field as a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.