Friday, October 13, 2023

Fall cleanup an essential element of garden preparation

By Kendra Raymond

One of the best gifts you can give your garden (and yourself) is a thorough fall cleanup of dead plant material and debris to reduce the possibility of diseases and pests.

The author's vegetable garden in Raymond is prepared for
winter by covering it with a dark green tarp or simple 
black plastic secured with garden pins. When uncovered
in the spring, the soil is weed-free and ready to work.
It may not be as exciting as planting in the spring, but the time you invest in preparing your garden for winter will pay dividends in the overall health of your garden for years to come. By the time spring arrives in our area, many gardeners with spring fever are anxious to run to the local greenhouse. Think of the snow melting away and looking forward to a neat, manicured garden bed ready for you to start digging!

Whether you’re a serious home gardener or weekend warrior, let’s explore the basic recommended maintenance for your garden.

The Vegetable Garden

Cutting back most plant material in your garden is a great way to prepare for winter. Begin by removing all remaining vegetables from summer crops such as tomatoes and zucchini. Next, pull up any dead or dying plants. This is a great time to grab any pesky weeds before they spread excessive weed seed into the area.

Fall crops such as carrots, beets, and winter squash may remain in the fall garden. By the time a frost has hit, these crops will soon be ready for harvest and plant removal. Our garden in Raymond has been plagued the past few years by stem rot, a soil-borne fungal disease that attacks plants that grow on vines and is usually caused by excessive moisture. It is difficult to eradicate, and the only real solution is to discontinue growing vine crops for the foreseeable future. In this case especially, it is essential to remove all rotted plant material from the property, by placing it in a sealed trash bag. Another solution to this problem can involve moving your garden to a different spot on the property.

We also battle a fair number of weeds as our garden is situated on an old piece of lawn. Instead of choosing to till the soil in the spring, we like to cover our garden with a dark green tarp or simple black plastic secured with garden pins. When we uncover the garden in spring, the soil is weed free and ready to work. I am not a fan of tilling weeds in, as even chopped segments of weeds can reproduce and take over quickly.

The Perennial Garden

Perennials are flower plants that come back from the base every year. This type of garden requires an entirely different maintenance approach in fall. I like to wait until my perennials have stopped flowering and the foliage looks less vigorous. At this point, it is easiest to cut the plants back to the ground, leaving about an inch or two at the crown. I like to remove the stalks from the area, though some gardeners believe in leaving the debris as mulch to protect the plants over winter. It is also personal choice to leave the dead stalks entirely and trim them in spring. Plants like Aster and Coneflower provide seeds for birds and nesting areas for bees. Some gardeners like to spread straw, but in our area of the state, the winters aren’t particularly severe, and the plants are well insulated under the snow.

Mary Wicklund, a Home Horticulture coordinator with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension says that one of the first things you should do at the end of the season is remove the dead vegetable plants.

“This is especially important if your plants have experienced insect or disease pressure,” Wicklund said. “A fall garden clean up can make a big difference with managing problems next year.”

The Maine Home Garden News September 2023 issue additionally recommends that gardeners divide late summer blooming perennials, dig up bulbs that are not winter hardy such as dahlia and gladiolus, stop watering and fertilizing established plants and trees, and take some time to sharpen and store your gardening tools properly.

My dear neighbor Mrs. Logan visited me as I was completing my fall clean up last weekend. “It’s a sad-happy time when fall comes,” she told me. I would say she is right. < 

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