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Prepare and Repair your Garden this Fall

Published by Benjamin Dickerson on

Prepare and Repair your Garden this Fall

There is an odd psychological effect that comes with Labor Day. The kids are in school, the county and state fairs are popping up across the nation, harvest celebration invites have been sent out. All of this despite the three full weeks of summer left. But we know it: the arrival of Labor Day is the unofficial departure of summer.  It is also the perfect time to start preparing your fall garden and even getting ready for spring!

Preparing your garden early not only takes the stress out of the early spring, it helps keep your soil lively and active throughout the winter. A healthy soil is also a nice gift to the earth, as keeping soil healthy is the best way to sequester carbon gasses, especially in the winter months. 

But my tomatoes are just getting ripe!

This is exactly why you should start preparing and repairing your garden now.  As plants and vegetables grow the sustain themselves on nutrients from the soil.  When you harvest, you remove those nutrients from the regenerative cycle, so you need to replace them in some way. Many people opt to fertilize their lawns and gardens in the spring because it feels intuitive: spring is when plants start to grow. But the healthiest gardens start with healthy soil, and hungry soil is not healthy. 

Your soil is a microecosystem made up of trillions of beneficial fungus, bacteria and insects that all create food for plants. After harvest is when the soil is most deprived of nutrients and needs to be fed.  When you fertilize in fall you prevent your soil from getting hangry.

Fall Tips for a successful spring garden:

  1. After your final harvest dispose of any plants that may have disease of show signs of insect damage. Insect larvae and fungal spores can stay dormant over the winter.  If you home compost and your pile can reach and sustain temperatures above 140°, this will kill any larvae or spores. In regions with heavy freezes where the soil simply turning the plants deep into the soil may be enough to prevent carryover insects, but any malicious disease, such as powdery mildew, should be removed from the area and composted in temperatures above 140° to prevent carryover.

  1. Fertilize with compost before the frost layer forms. Compost is a living amendment, and every handful adds billions of microbes to your depleted soil.  Microbes can thrive even in the most extreme temperatures so there is no worry about losing them to freezing temperatures. As the ground freezes and warms throughout the winter it cracks and heaves, moving compost around and allowing microbial colonies to regenerate and spread. Adding kelp meal, bone meal, and other organic amendments can also encourage microbial development.

  1. Plant a cover crop. Winter wheat, clover and rye are standard cover crops, but make sure you check your zone hardiness map and find the best cover crop for your region. Cover crops are called “green manure” for a reason. They help keep organic material in the soil, can serve as nitrogen fixers before you plant nitrogen hungry plants, and they help break up thick, clumpy soils.  Not all cover crops are the same, so you may want to plant different ones in different areas of your garden depending on the need of the soil. If you are in New Mexico or elsewhere in the Southwest, check out Plants of the Southwest for cover crop recommendations.

  1. Mulch. Mulch. Did I mention Mulch?  Mulching your garden in the winter should be as habitual as wearing a jacket.  Mulch serves many functions: it acts insulation from pests and extreme weather, slows erosion, increases moisture retention, and acts as nursery for mycorrhizae (the beneficial fungus that help your plants eat).  Mulching in the winter protects perennials from root damage from soil heaves while also providing a slow release of nutrients as it breaks down.  Leaves make a great fall mulch, but they compost down quickly and may not provide adequate mulch for the whole winter. 
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