The end of the summer is bitter sweet. Although our gardens are usually producing lots of produce during this time, our gardening days are numbered. It is tempting to just not worry about much and simply enjoy the harvest. However, this is a crucial time to deal with weeds! Weeds left to their own devices are going to produce lots of seeds, which will overwinter and come back to haunt us in the spring. In a few years’ time, a garden can quickly evolve into a weed farm. To combat this, you should be aggressively pulling out those weeds now. When the crop is done, it is a good idea to pull out the remaining vegetation as well to help stop crop-specific diseases.  After weeding and cleaning up the crop residue, now is also time to put down a cover crop.  Cover crops hold on to lots of nutrients, protect against soil erosion, and also prevent weeds from taking hold. Some have even been found to have an allelopathic effect, which means they secrete chemicals that interfere with or suppress weed growth. Cover crops also help build the soil, deepen the top soil layer, break up the hard subsoil, and support the flora and fauna needed for a successful garden. I also like the appearance of a cover crop, because the garden still appears to have life even after our crops are gone.

Large garden patch ready to be weeded. If left until next year, weed seeds will become incorporated into the soil and become a problem. Photo by mrl 2020

This is also the time of year when volunteers present themselves. These are plants that were not planted by the gardener, somehow overwintered from a seed produced the previous year, and germinated in our garden this past spring. Many times, these are the strongest of the previous year’s crop, are adapted to your site conditions, and occasionally have attributes that make it worth saving the seeds. For example, last year I had a volunteer pumpkin. It was a wonderful size for kids and was perfectly round. I saved the seeds for planting the following year. This year I have tiny round, yellow, miniature, cherry-type tomatoes about the size of a large blueberry. I like the mild flavor of them and will save some seeds this year. Now, there is no guarantee that the plants will come back the very same way, but after selecting for a number of years, you may be able to produce plants that will breed true to form. 

Some volunteer small, yellow, blueberry-sized cherry tomatoes. Photo by mrl 2020

Although we tend to think of things as winding down in the fall, now can be a perfect time to plant for a fall harvest. Many of the crops typically planted in early spring can be replanted now like peas or lettuce, for example. Most people have seeds left over from the spring anyway, and fall is a great time to use them up. It is also time to preserve what you have grown. For some reason, it seems I am most busy at this time of year and many times not all of the food gets preserved. Freezing, canning, cold-storing, and drying are some common ways to enjoy your harvest year-round. See the previous ladybug blog post for a discussion of some of these.

Leftover pea seeds from the spring -more than enough for a fall planting. Photo by mrl

Other than weeding and planting cover crops, one of the best things a gardener can do is to write down where everything was planted this last year. It is important to rotate crops to stop the disease life cycles. Any pest that preyed on your crop will generally lay eggs or overwinter in the same area. If you replant the same crop in the same spot next year, when the pest emerges as the weather warms in the late spring/early summer, it will have a bounty of food to eat. By moving crops to a different area of the garden or yard, it eliminates the food source for the pest, or at least makes it harder to find. It seems easy to know what was planted where at this point in time but gets harder hard to remember next spring when you are planning your garden. Before I got into the habit of writing crop locations down, I frequently found myself playing detective in the spring looking for clues as to the crops planted there. I also will write notes about what fertilizers or soil additives I used in the area as well. Although annual soil tests are not a bad idea, it helps to know what was done to the soil when planning which crop will go there the following year.  For example, if I just limed a patch the year before, I would not want to plant a crop with a lower pH requirement. On the other hand, if I have not limed a patch in a while, I would not want to plant a high pH crop in the area as it would take a lot of lime to bring the soil up to the correct level. 

Large bag of winter rye that is ready to be sown. Photo by mrl

A garden is only as good as the soil it contains. Compost is a great way to enhance the soil, but not all compost is created equal. There are many books written on how to properly compost, and I will not discuss in great detail here, but a few of the more important components will be covered. Turning compost will help ensure uniformity throughout. It also helps to ensure that weed seeds get buried and “cooked.” The other thing that can be done is to add more organic materials to the pile at this time. For example, if you compost a lot of grass clippings, maybe layer in some dry leaves this fall. Some well composted material can also be layered into a new pile to help inoculate the material with proper microorganisms.  If done correctly, you will have lots of nice compost in the following spring.

Large compost pile in need of turning and ready for the addition of some fall leaves. Photo by mrl 2020

Putting it all together in a nutshell, harvest your crops, preserve the excess, weed, plant your fall crops, plant cover crops, write down what you did and where you did it, and turn the compost.  This will get you off to a great start next spring.  In reality, the spring of next year starts this fall…

Matt Lisy