Putting the garden to bed

Proper planning in fall will make spring gardening easier and more efficient. (Image: Flickr member Ramon Peco licensed under Creative Commons)

by Alison Lynes

Labour Day has come and gone, school has begun, and Halloween merchandise is already in stores. These are all signs that it’s time to prepare the garden for fall.

If you’re not planning to use season extenders such as cold frames or hoop tunnels to enjoy a winter harvest, preparing now will make your spring gardening more simple and enjoyable. Follow these steps to put your garden to bed until next year.

Reap what you sow

First, concentrate on final harvests of the things you put in throughout the summer. This includes root vegetables planted early on, such as potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and carrots. Let brassica family crops — broccoli, collard greens, and brussels sprouts — go through one frost before you harvest them. They will be much sweeter that way. When harvesting storage crops like onions, garlic and squash, make sure to cure them properly so they will last throughout the winter in cold storage.

With freezing temperatures, it is extremely important to properly put away your irrigation system for the winter months. Plastics left with water inside will explode when temperatures drop below freezing. The more carefully your irrigation is put away in the fall, the less expensive and irritating it will be to reopen your garden in the spring. Drain your hoses, coil them neatly and store them indoors or in a shed where they will not freeze.

Cover crops and soil protection

Since you’ve spent the whole summer adding precious nutrients and soil amendments to your garden, it makes sense to preserve your hard work by covering your soil. This is commonly done by planting a cover crop such as fall or winter rye (not ryegrass), oats, red or white clover, buckwheat or vetch. A PDF guide called ‘Under Cover‘, produced by the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network – or ACORN – is an excellent resource for determining which cover crop is appropriate for your needs.

Cover crops serve multiple purposes, including:

  • creating aeration and breaking through hard pans in the soil created by repeated tillage at the same depth (usually 6 or 10 inches);
  • acting as barriers to suppress pests and weed seeds;
  • adding green manure and bulk into the soil;
  • preventing erosion of nutrients, moisture and soil;
  • attracting beneficial insects and providing a home for other beneficial creatures;
  • adding bulk to your compost.

Cover crops can also have allelopathic qualities, which means they produce compounds that help or hinder the growth of other crops. They are often grown to suppress weeds in subsequent crops. Sow your cover crop into the garden before the final harvest, introduce it into your crop rotation or use it throughout the growing season in walking paths or within your vegetables, a practice also known as inter-cropping.

Make sure you do not let your cover crops go to seed. They should be mowed or tilled under when the first few flowers appear. When preparing the garden in spring, cover crops can be removed by mowing, whipper-snipping, scything or tilling, depending on the purpose of the crop.

Even if you aren’t able to plant a cover crop in your garden, the soil should still be protected for the winter months. Organic soil is full of microbial life (fungi, bacteria, protozoa) that cannot survive a Canadian winter without help. Anything that adds insulation to the surface of the soil while still allowing air and water to circulate can act as a soil cover. Common ideas include burlap, bark mulch, plastic or paper mulches, or straw.

With a little effort put into planning and organization now, you’ll enjoy an earlier and easier start to the gardening season come spring.

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