Summer is winding down. The days are getting shorter and the nights are cooler. But before winter weather arrives, spend an autumn afternoon getting your garden ready for next year.
Before you begin your garden clean up, sit down and take some notes. Make a sketch of your garden layout, which will help plan a rotation schedule for next year’s crop. Note areas of your garden that hold moisture, any particular insect or disease problems, and the cultivars of vegetables you tried this season.
Rotating crops in next year’s garden is a crucial element in dealing with the blight that affected vegetable gardens this year according to Steve Hudkins, Assistant Professor and Extension Educator at the OSU Extension in Trumbull County.
“Three things are necessary for disease; a host, a pathogen, and the right environment,” said Hudkins. “This is a soil-borne disease so rotating crops is essential.”
Next pull up tomato cages, trellises, or any other plant supports from the garden. Clean them and store them away for the winter.
This year it is especially important to sterilize tools and equipment to kill disease. “Wipe everything down, including tools, with a bleach solution and hot water,” recommends Geoff Geer, a Master Gardener at the OSU extension.
Pick up any fall fruits or vegetables from the garden, including dried up “mummies” as insects can overwinter in the garden on these. Remove any plants that had insect or disease problems. Destroy them by throwing them in the garbage or burning them. Don’t compost them or plow them under, Hudkins stresses, as they will re-infect the garden next year.
Crop residues from healthy plants, such as roots, leaves and stems, are a valuable source of organic matter and will break down to improve the texture of garden soil. Plants that have not had pest problems can be cut up and put in the compost pile, or turned into the soil for added organic matter.
Leaves from your trees, grass clippings, and straw can be added to the garden also. Leaves should be ground up or shredded so they’ll break down faster. To enrich the soil gardeners could add compost or manure from an herbivore, such as cow or chicken manure. Finally add additional nutrients as determined by the soil test and till all this matter into the garden, recommends Geer.
Soil testing is a good investment for the garden and an excellent way to measure soil fertility. It’s inexpensive and helps maintain plant health and also helps maximize the productivity of the garden. The standard test measures several important soil nutrients, lime, and soil pH. Hudkins feels this might be a good year for gardeners to add fixed copper or copper sulfate to garden soil; according to the OSU extension website Ohioline, fixed copper is a fungicide and bactericide. Read the label and apply according to the instructions.
When the garden is cleaned up and fertilized, till the organic matter into the soil. Hudkins strongly recommends tilling the garden in the fall this year because most disease microorganisms are destroyed once the plant material is mixed into the soil and begins to rot. It isn’t really necessary to smooth the garden after fall tilling since the freeze-and-thaw cycle actually helps improve the texture of the soil.
If you’re planning to harvest garlic next year, now is the time to plant the garlic bulbs. Choose the larger outer cloves for the best garlic and make sure that the cloves are free of disease and are smooth and fresh. Plant the cloves about five inches apart in an upright position in the row about one-half to one inch deep. Don’t divide the bulbs into cloves until you’re ready to plant them or the yield will be decreased. Your garlic will be ready to harvest in the middle of July next year.
Finally, cover crops are a simple way to boost the garden’s growing potential. They are fairly easy to seed, relatively inexpensive, provide a “green manure” and make your garden look attractive. “Rye would be a good cover crop this year,” said Hudkins.
Both Hudkins and the Master Gardener consultant Geoff Geer emphasized again that the end of our conversation how important it is this year to destroy any unhealthy plants to prevent some of the problems which have caused so much damage to gardens this year from recurring next season.
“This year we’ve had multiple diseases at the same time; late blight and early blight came together, the cucumbers and melons are rampant with downy mildew,” said Hudkins. Hopefully this “perfect storm” of conditions won’t be repeated for vegetable gardeners next summer.