Halloween is over and it is time to put our vegetable gardens to bed. This is mostly a matter of cleaning up, covering up, raking up, and gathering all of those wonderful leaves for compost. Plants that are not killed outright should be prepared for dormancy. One of the first things one must do is clear out the blackened stems and foliage of annual veggies and flowers. This prevents the possibility that disease, bugs, eggs, pathogens or icky stuff will sleep in your soil over the winter.
Consider this a good time to make any necessary repairs to your beds and boxes. As I still live in an apartment, I do not have to worry about this too much.
While it appears as if all activity in the garden has stopped, there's a lot going on under the soil until it freezes. Newly transplanted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy bulbs are all growing roots, drawing on soil nutrients and moisture around them. Earthworms and various microbes in the soil are still processing the organic material they're finding. Most likely, the organic mulch you spread to protect the soil during the summer months has substantially decomposed. It's important to spread new mulch now -- a thicker winter layer -- to protect plants and soil over the winter months. The idea is not so much to keep the soil warm as it is to keep the temperature even. Once the soil is frozen, mulch keeps it frozen. So if you have shade trees, convert the fallen leaves to mulch and use it throughout your property.
Snow both protects and endangers plants. A good snow cover insulates the soil like a mulch. However, snow piled on evergreen branches weights them down, risking breakage. Knock snow from the bottom branches first, then work upward. This way snow from above will not add weight to the already burdened lower branches. If branches are bowed by ice, don't try to free them. Instead let the ice melt and release them gradually.
Cut back dry stems of perennials to soil level after frost to neaten the garden and remove pest eggs and disease spores that may linger. Leave stems with attractive seed heads for winter interest.
Compost dead plant debris to create an organic soil conditioner. Hot, active piles kill weed seeds and disease pathogens; passive, inactive piles do not. Throw questionable plant material in the trash.
Cut off diseased foliage from evergreen plants and shrubs and discard it in the trash. Rake up and discard the old, disease-bearing mulch, too.
To prevent rodents from nesting in the soil, wait until the ground freezes before adding a 6-inch layer of organic material as winter mulch.
Mulch perennial and shrub beds with pine needles or chopped leaves. This protects both plant roots and the soil and moderates the effects of extreme temperature changes during winter freezes and thaws.
Mulch bulb beds with evergreen boughs to protect the soil from shifting and cracking during the winter. Otherwise plants, especially small, shallowly planted bulbs, can be heaved to the surface.
Protect the tender bark of young trees from gnawing critters by wrapping stems or trunks with wire or commercial tree-guard products.
Screen evergreens, particularly exposed broad-leaved types, from drying winter wind and sun by setting up burlap screens or shade cloth shelters.
Leaves are a valuable natural resource. Rather than regard them as a nuisance, be grateful that the trees on your property drop a new supply every fall. It takes very little effort on your part to recycle them into a wonderful soil conditioner -- leaf mold -- for the yard and garden. Unlike compost, leaf mold is only partially decomposed, leaving bits and pieces of the leaves visible in the finished product. And, again unlike compost, leaf mold is derived only from leaves.
You can make leaf mold the same way nature creates it on the forest floor. Just pile up moist leaves and wait for them to decompose. If you want to speed up the process, you can shred the leaves into smaller pieces before piling them up. Enclose the pile, if you wish, with snow fencing, chicken wire, or something similar to improve its appearance. Make sure the container allows air to circulate, because oxygen fuels the decomposition process. Over the winter, the pile will shrink as decay reduces the volume of leaves -- a sign that the process is well under way.
Leaf mold helps build healthy soil in several ways. When mixed into poor soil, it improves its texture. The coarse organic material creates air spaces in the soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate. Leaf mold also improves the soil's ability to absorb moisture and keep it available longer for plant roots. As the leaves continue to decompose, they improve the soil's fertility by creating a population of active microbes. Leaves are a favorite food of earthworms, which convert the leaves into nutrient-rich castings that are distributed throughout the soil.
Spread leaf mold on top of bare soil as an organic mulch. It keeps the soil from being compacted by hard rains and drying sunshine. And it helps the soil retain moisture by decreasing evaporation, absorbing rain, and reducing wasteful runoff. Leaf mold gradually breaks down in the heat of summer, so renew the mulch layer whenever it becomes thin.
Renew beds for fall planting by adding more organic matter such as compost and fertilizer.
Sow carrots, beets, and other root crops as well as lettuce for fall harvest. This time of year I like to plant garlic.
Start crop transplants such as cauliflower, Chinese greens, cabbage, broccoli, and mustard. Shade them if the days are still warm.
Clean up plant debris in harvested beds. Mulch or sow cover crops on empty beds to protect the soil over the winter.
Build more boxed raised beds. Repair trellises.
The work is usually done in one haul. When it is done, sleep tight and let nature do the rest.