The vegetables from your first garden have all been harvested -- summer’s bounty finally spent -- and now it's time to put your garden to bed for the winter. With some basic cleanup and soil care, your garden will be better prepared for next spring’s planting. A perfect activity for fall’s cooler days, tucking your garden in for winter completes the growing season.
Tidy up your garden after the harvest to make next spring’s planting easier and to keep soil-borne diseases at bay. Pull up and destroy any diseased plants, particularly potatoes and tomatoes that were hit by blight. Blight spores use the tissue from plant stalks to reproduce during the dormant season. Use the debris from healthy plants to start a compost pile. The only exception is the Brassica oleracea plants -- they should stay in the garden. Brassicas such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale do more than feed you; the plants also attract harmful pests such as wireworms and then release cyanide compounds that kill those worms. On the other hand, beneficial insects such as spiders and ladybugs need a spot in your garden to overwinter; make a small brush pile for them.
All the vegetables you grew this first season took nutrients from the soil, nutrients that need replacing. Using an inexpensive soil test kit, determine your soil’s current level of nutrients such as phosphorous, potassium, calcium and magnesium, as well as organic matter. Test the pH level, too. Vegetables grown in a soil pH range of 6.2 to 7 have better nutrient uptake, resulting in healthier plants. To test your soil, scrape any debris from the surface and dig a 6- to 8-inch-deep hole. Remove a 1/2-inch wedge of soil from the hole, placing it in a clean plastic bucket. Repeat this at three or more different locations in your garden, mixing the small soil wedges in the bucket to create representative sample. Test this sample, using the results to guide you in adding amendments to boost soil health.
Protecting the Soil
Now that your soil is tidied up, tested and amended, consider planting a cover crop such as cereal rye, oats, or hairy vetch to protect it during the dormant season. A cover crop prevents erosion by holding the soil in place, keeps disease-fighting microorganisms active, and suppresses weed growth. When you till it back into the soil next spring, it will add organic matter and nutrients to your garden. Plant a cover crop four weeks before the last frost. Alternately, spread a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost on your soil or a heavy covering of mulch such as straw. Bear in mind that pulling the mulch back in spring helps the soil warm more quickly.
For all its obvious rewards, growing vegetables is a lot of work. Starting a gardening journal at the end of your first growing season provides a format for reflecting on your efforts as well as a place to gain inspiration. Sketch your planting arrangement from the past summer, noting where each crop grew and how well it did. Not only will it help you select next year’s seeds, the sketch helps with planning crop rotations. For inspiration, include your favorite recipes made from fresh-picked vegetables, or garden-inspired poetry.