Picture courtesy of S. Hermann and F. Richter, Pixabay.com
Autumn brings cooler nights and signals the end of the growing season. Many crops slow down or stop producing. Our annuals may start looking “sad,” and perennials stop blooming to focus their energy to their roots. Only hardier crops like beets and leafy greens will grow until the first frost. As Minnesota gardeners, we’re faced with the hard truth that it’s time to put our gardens away for the impending winter. However, fall clean-up is still an exciting time! Gardeners have the opportunity to ensure a strong start to the next growing season and can help the ecosystems in our yards and gardens survive the winter and thrive into the next spring.
Finish Your Harvest
Don’t toss it all! Green tomatoes can be brought in to ripen on your countertop, and old fruits and vegetables can be used to save seeds (assuming the plant is healthy and open-pollinated—read more about seed saving here!). Flower seeds can also be saved for planting in the future. If you have more of a crop than you can eat fresh, consider preserving the crop or donating to a local food shelf that accepts fresh produce.
Make Some Compost
Healthy plants without signs of disease can be added to your home compost pile or the county compost yard. If a plant struggled with mildew or other signs of disease during the summer, it should only be brought to the county compost yard where the temperature gets hot enough to kill pathogens. Fallen, inedible fruit or vegetables should be removed from the soil and composted as well—this is to reduce the number of “volunteer” fruits and vegetables that turn up next year and to avoid unwanted animal visitors to your yard.
You can also leave healthy plants to decompose in your garden! Consider pulling plants, chopping them up with shears and letting them decompose on top of the soil. Some gardeners chose to till old plants right into their garden bed. Tilling frequently is not good for soil structure, however, so consider pulling plants, chopping them up with shears and letting them decompose on top of the soil. Again, it’s important not to leave diseased plants or rotting fruit/vegetables in the soil.
Tuck in Your Soil
To prevent soil erosion and add nutrients to your soil, consider covering your beds with 3–6 inches of mulch or a cover crop. Use hardwood, straw, compost, shredded leaves or pine needles as mulch. If you want to know exactly what nutrients to add to your soil come springtime, now is a great time to take a soil sample and send it to the Soil Testing Laboratory.
Support Your Garden Ecosystem
Before the first frost, take stock of your perennial plants and note plants that are show signs of disease or pests. After the first hard frost kills your plants, cut the damaged plants down and bring the material to the county compost yard. Fight the urge to make your yard and garden “tidy” by removing all of the dead foliage! Healthy perennials (and annuals) can be left in place to support wildlife and pollinators over the winter. Hollow plant stalks provide a place for bees to lay eggs, and dried leaves on the ground become insulation to protect beneficial bugs who over-winter in the soil.
Potted plants should be removed and composted. Potting soil is usually depleted of nutrients after the season and not worth re-using the next year. Soil from pots with healthy plants can be added to your garden bed or composted. Be sure to clean your pots with 1 part bleach, 10 parts water before putting them away to ensure that you don’t spread disease to next year’s plants.
Clean your tools
After all this work, you’ll be tempted to put your tools in the shed and walk away. Wash all of your tools and planters with a 1:10 bleach/water solution. This is also a great time to sharpen your tools so they’re ready to go when winter turns to spring.