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Fall: Time to Put Your Vegetable Garden to Bed

Author:Terry Baldwin
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frost on dead flower stalks
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

If you have a vegetable garden, one important fall project is putting it to bed. A good fall cleanup will have it ready to grow next spring.

Some vegetable plants are exhausted by September and call it quits before the first frost. Others hate bedtime and will chug through several frosts. These veggies include cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnips, and cauliflower. Let them stay up late, but pick them before temperatures reach 20 degrees F., the Kansas State University Extension advises.

Remove dead plants and rotten fruits to help prevent disease in next year’s crops, says Laura Skillman, of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Compost plant material that doesn't show signs of disease, such as spots or rusty areas.

Cover your cleaned bed with a couple inches of mulch, such as compost, pine needles, or chopped leaves (but not black walnut leaves). This will improve the soil and help keep it from drying out. The mulch will also suppress weed seeds that are holding out until spring, according to horticulturists at Clemson Cooperative Extension.

Dealing with plant disease and bugs

If your garden had problems with disease or ground-dwelling insects, soil solarization is a nontoxic way to get rid of such pests, say experts at the University of California's Integrated Pest Management Program. Solarization kills them by basically cooking soil. It works best in summer, when days are long and sunny, but you can solarize soil over the winter and early spring.

How to solarize soil

To solarize garden soil, rake the ground until it's smooth, with no debris, lightly mounding the center. Water well, then cover tightly with clear plastic to keep air out and let sun rays in. Leave plastic on for 4-6 weeks in summer, longer in winter and early spring, UC advises.

Tips for cleaning garden tools

Clean your garden tools, too. They'll last longer and work better. Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont Extension offers these cleaning tips:

  • Keep metal tools from rusting by lightly wiping with motor oil (used lawn mower oil works fine).
  • Store metal tools in a bucket of sand mixed with oil—this cleans and protects them.
  • Soak rusty metal hand tools in strong black tea for a few hours. "Rust should wipe off easily with a rag."
  • Clean and protect lightly soiled metal hand tools with balled-up wax paper.
  • Rub linseed or other oil meant for wood onto wooden handles.

Saving seeds

You can save money on next year's garden by saving seeds from this year's plants. You can save seeds if your plants were pollinated naturally and aren't hybrids, says Gretchen Voyle of the Michigan State University Extension. To know if a plant is a hybrid, check the plant label or seed package.

How to harvest seed

To save seed from vegetables and fruits, let fruit ripen on plant. Then remove seeds and let them dry in a single layer, says Voyle. If the seeds come from pods or flowers, keep these on plants until dry, then shake into a container. And don't forget to label!

Plan next year’s garden

If you want to start a new vegetable garden bed, save time and work by prepping the ground now. Cover grass and weeds with layers of newspaper or cardboard. Top this layer with compost and mulch. The vegetation will be dead by spring, and you'll be able to dig into the earth like cake.

Spend winter reviewing your garden journal and photos. Get a steaming cup of coffee or nice glass of wine and hunker down with seed catalogs and dream about spring.

Check out our Lawn & Garden products for planters, trellises and other garden decor you might like.