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You’ve put in the work all summer long to gather the fruits of your harvest, and you think you’re all ready for winter, right? Before you hang up your shovels and garden gloves for the last time this year, consider taking these four steps to put your garden to bed for the winter.
1.Clean up the leftover plant matter After the first killing frost, it’s time to remove annual plants from the garden. Not only is this debris unsightly, but it can potentially contribute to disease issues next year. For example, two common fungal diseases of tomato – early blight and Septoria leafspot – overwinter in the soil of crop residue. Pulling up and discarding all parts of infected plants helps reduce infection the following season, particularly in small gardens that do not have much opportunity for crop rotation. Remember to only compost non-diseased plants, as some disease pathogens don’t die in the composting process.
2. Complete a soil test Fall is a great time to do a soil test. Soil tests reveal whether there are problems in the soil, like deficient nutrient levels, low organic matter or high pH, that could limit your vegetable growth next year. Sampling now allows plenty of time to apply any necessary amendments to the garden either this fall or next spring, so that your garden is prepared for success next year. Soil is unique from location to location, so we shouldn’t take for granted that it has everything it needs to give us a successful crop. Under-applying or over-applying fertilizer can be detrimental in their own ways, so take a soil test to take out the guesswork.
Wondering how to do a soil test? To use the University of Minnesota Soil Testing Lab, go to https://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/ or call or stop into the Hubbard County Extension Office for more information and guidance at 732-3391. 3. Apply fall soil amendments Gardeners have many choices when it comes to amendments for vegetable gardens, including compost, manure and granular fertilizer. Granular fertilizers are a relatively precise way to fill needs revealed by the soil test. They have set concentrations of nutrients, and these concentrations are indicated on the label of the product. Your soil test report will state what concentration is recommended for your garden based on the results.
Since we have very sandy soils in our area, I wouldn’t recommend applying fertilizer with readily available nitrogen in the fall, as plant-available nitrogen can be leached out of the soil before your plants need it next spring and summer. Applying phosphorus, potassium or micronutrients can be beneficial in the fall, so the nutrients are available when they need to be. 4. Manage weeds The two major weed management goals in the fall are to remove any leftover mature weeds and to control winter annual weeds that started coming up in September. Weeds that slipped between the cracks and grew to maturity through the season now have seeds on them. Many of our common weed species can produce anywhere between 1,000 to 600,000 seeds per plant. Letting those seeds drop to the garden soil will lead to future weed infestations. Remove those mature weeds as soon as possible and dispose of them. Winter annual weeds are those that emerge in the fall (August-October), survive the winter and continue growing in the spring. Controlling them in the fall will lead to less weeds in the spring. Manage winter annuals with straw, hand-pulling, and gentle raking of the soil surface. What about tillage? Tilling your vegetable garden in the fall may not actually be necessary. Many gardeners may till or hoe in the fall with the best intentions, but it could be causing unneeded disturbance to the soil structure and valuable soil organisms, and making the soil more conducive to erosion. Tilling (or hoeing) is used to incorporate soil amendments and leftover plant matter, to kill weeds and to break up large soil clumps. If you are not incorporating any soil amendments, you may consider skipping tillage this fall. Weeds can be managed by hand-pulling, covering the soil with straw to suppress new weeds or raking the surface to remove small weed seedlings. Completing these tasks in the fall will help your garden start off on the right foot in the spring, saving you time and frustration next spring. If you have any questions about this topic or any others, contact me at 732-3391. If information about agriculture, gardening and natural resources interests you, consider signing up for the Hubbard County UMN Extension Agriculture, Gardening and Natural Resources E-newsletter at z.umn.edu/HCExtensionNewsletter. Tarah Young is an interim Hubbard County University of Minnesota Extension educator in agriculture, food and natural resources.
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