End of Season Garden Maintenance
As the sun travels closer to the horizon, days shorten and temperatures gradually drop. Perennials in the garden naturally slow their growth, sending energy underground or going dormant. Annual warm weather crops lose energy and begin to decompose. Garden maintenance this time of the year is focused on soil building.
Fall Soil Building
If you amend your soil with fertilizer, take a break for the fall and winter. Fertilizers are formulated to provide specific nutrients for plants during the growing season. Plants are entering a period of slowed growth and dormancy, so they won’t need fertilizers until spring. Fertilizers applied this late in the year are most likely to leach out and become inaccessible.
Whereas fertilizer feeds plants, organic matter feeds soil-dwelling organisms like worms, fungi and microbes. Fall is a great time to layer organic matter on top of the soil. Compost, mulch, and cover crops all feed soil organisms, allowing them to cycle nutrients, diversify the soil microbiome, and actually build soil. Organic matter also acts as an umbrella over the soil, preventing the rains from carrying away valuable resources for next year’s crop.
Harvest and Cleanup
When plants start to show signs of yellowing, mildewing or dying back, it’s time to harvest any remaining food from warm weather crops.
Leftover leaves, stems and vines can easily be chopped and dropped right into the garden bed, creating a mulch that will gradually break down and release nutrients back into the soil. Alternatively, leftover plant material could be piled in one part of the garden as a passive compost heap that will break down slowly over the winter months, or added to an intentional composting system. Finished, or fully decomposed, compost will enhance spring planting.
Take care to not disturb the soil as you tidy. Even though it seems ok to walk on beds that aren’t visibly growing anything, avoid soil compaction by keeping feet in established paths. Pulling up weeds or crops from the roots can also disrupt soil ecosystems. Cut back annual weeds instead of pulling them and be extra careful when weeding around any crops that will overwinter in the garden so as to not jostle their roots.