by SUSAN BENZSCHAWEL, Winona County Master Gardener intern
All good things come to an end. As the days are getting shorter and cooler and trees are turning from green to vibrant fall colors, our gardens are nearing the end of their growing season. Now is the time to gather the last of this season’s harvest and put our gardens to bed for a well-earned rest.
The University of Minnesota Extension website offers helpful tips for all of us gardeners. First off, if you haven’t already done so, make a map of this year’s garden. Note what you’ve observed over the growing season — what grew well, what was only so-so, any diseases, pests, etc. This will help in planning for crop rotation and selection of the best plants for success next season. Also, consider completing a soil test, which is recommended to be done every three years. Soil testing is a good practice before adding any compost or soil amendments to avoid overfertilizing your soil.
Next task is deciding what to do with the plant residue. First, remove any diseased plants so that pathogens don’t overwinter in your garden and have reoccurring problems next season. Dispose of these diseased plants by composting in a site that gets hot enough to destroy the pathogens (at least 148 degrees Fahrenheit). Other plant debris can be chopped and buried in the soil, providing nutrients back into your garden. Be cautious about using a tiller to do this, as it may cause long-term harm to the soil structure and should be avoided if possible. Some plants may be left standing in the garden to provide winter food or a home for certain pollinators. The seeds on flower heads can feed birds in the winter, and hollow stems of plants may provide a cozy winter home for nesting bees.
Just as we like an extra blanket on our bed in the winter, so do our gardens appreciate extra covers. A layer of mulch aids the organic matter in the soil and helps prevent erosion. Consider healthy deciduous leaves or weed-free straw as a mulch. Another option is planting a cover crop. Which cover crop depends on a number of factors, such as when you completed your harvest and the nutrient needs of your soil. Visit the websites for the University of Minnesota Extension or Minnesota Department of Agriculture to learn more about the best use of cover crops for your needs.
Last but not least, take time to properly clean and sanitize your garden tools, equipment, and pots before putting them away for the season. Don’t forget to give your garden gloves a thorough washing as well. You’ll be glad you took this step now when you’re anxious to start gardening in the spring.
Once your garden is all tucked in for the winter, you can rest up and start dreaming about next year’s garden.