Garden Q&A: Get head start now on vegetable garden
QUESTION: I planted a vegetable garden for the first time, and I want to know if there is anything to do before winter. — D.H., Loves Park
ANSWER: You might think that after all of the hard work you did this season, you could take a break. But if you do, you’ll be missing your best chance to not only get a jump on next year’s growing season, but also take care of some of the problems.
Don’t wipe your garden slate clean until you have recorded the location of each crop. Memory is a less-than-faithful-servant, and come spring you’ll want to avoid putting the same type of plants in the same location. Tomatoes and corn are heavy feeders and use a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus. Carrots, beets, and other root crops are light feeders. And legumes, such as peas and beans, add nitrogen to the soil. To help balance soil nutrients from harvest to harvest, grow a light-feeding root crop or a nitrogen-fixing legume where you raised a heavy feeder the year before. Likewise, you should try to follow a legume with a nitrogen-hungry type. In addition, rotating your crops discourages crop-specific insects and diseases.
Next, harvest all remaining frost-susceptible crops. That includes tender ones as well as hardy fall vegetables that aren’t likely to mature before a really hard frost hits or that might be easier to dig up now than when the ground is frozen. Gather up those immature veggies to use in soups or make mixed vegetable relish or pickles.
It’s not just for looks that you’ll want to clear your food garden of crop debris. All sorts of insects and diseases favor dead vegetation as winter quarters. Remove all old plants and weeds right down to bare ground. Destroy any plants that are diseased or insect infested. Then, till the soil six to eight inches deep to bring up the insects and pupae that would normally spend the winter underground. Birds and a couple of cold nights will take care of them.
Fall is also a perfect time to clear new growing areas. Why spend the spring whacking weeds and plowing hard ground when you can let nature and time get the job done for you? Just spread a thick layer of newspaper, cardboard or old paper bags over the area you want to clear. Pile weeds, hedge trimmings, leaves, grass clippings and other non-diseased vegetation on top. Come spring, the weeds underneath will have suffocated, and the paper material will be soft and nearly rotted away. Just poke holes in the paper where you want to plant and set your seedlings in place.
Don’t forget to clean your tools. To prevent rust, give the metal a coat of vegetable oil or paste wax.
There’s no real end to the gardening season. For gardeners, the path to next year is always now.
This week’s answer comes from Jeanne Cleary, University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener, Winnebago County.
Master Gardeners can be contacted weekdays at the University of Illinois Extension office at 815-986-4357. You can also bring your questions to the plant clinic on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. at Sinnissippi gardens just south of the greenhouse.