Thursday, November 6, 2014

Put The Garden To Bed With Your Own Personal Style!

~ Jessica S. Herwick

With autumn weather (and the related temperature decline) on the horizon, many farmers and gardeners are harvesting the last of the summer goodies and looking toward winters arrival.  The idea of putting your garden to bed for the winter is a simple concept that is guaranteed to reap huge rewards when it’s time to wake your ground up the following spring.  Following these easy steps, you can improve the overall health of your growing medium.  If you’re diligent, you’ll even be able to get a jump on planting and be the first on your block to start plucking early season bounty next spring!
From this Mid-October photo of my backyard garden, you can certainly see that the summer is over! 
You may have heard of “The Three C’s”, which is an easy way to remember the three general tasks necessary to properly prepare the garden... 
* Clean Up, Compost, Cover*   

Note the many levels of disease and decay enjoying these fall leaves!
You have a few options within each step, giving you some creative license to design your own unique set of procedures that will work best for the needs of your garden space or flower beds.  Follow The Easy Method…  If you keep a small lawn, garden space, or flower bed, without access to compost or other recycling methods, or simply don’t have enough time in the day.  Continue Going That Extra Mile… if you’re a gardener with access to compost bins or maintain a green space and wish to increase the sustainability of your space and further reduce your carbon footprint a smidge. 

There are a few preliminary tasks you can add to that agenda, outlined below, to help you get the ball rolling.  Combined with your personal choices within each “C”, you are more than equipped to start tucking in your garden.    Ready to design your new secrets to success?  Here we go.

PRELIMINARY STEP ONE: Order Your Soil Testing Kit and Test Your Soil!
Best practices recommends testing your soil now, before the frost sets in so you can dig deep enough for a hearty sample.  PA residents can order a soil kit (which comes with directions) and have your sample sent to the lab for a much more in depth report that you’d discover from a store- bought kit.  Penn State Extension will provide you with an informative report about the quality and composition of your soil and important soil nutrients.  The report is typically accompanied by a short list of recommendations to remedy deficiencies or level out your PH.  There is a small fee for the processing, but the insight you gain to the land where you grow can shed light on all sorts of possibilities for improving your soil and your gardens production.  It is also really fun to secretly know what is going on underneath the surface.

How to Obtain A Soil Test Kit?
More information about Penn State Extension Soil Tests for gardens. 

Philadelphia Residents can pick up a soil test kit through the Extension office at the Penn State Center, located at 675 Sansom St., Philadelphia, 19106.  
Call ahead (215) 471-2200 for office hours & availability of stock.

I admit I’ve fallen victim to this more than once and I regret it every time.  I tell myself, “Well of course I’ll remember where I planted everyone next spring!  I’ve been staring at these rows for months!  How could I forget!?”  But after a few growing seasons pass, it’s difficult to recall where the tomatoes were 2 or three years back.  If you aren’t the kind of gardener who keeps sketches or writes out plans each year, it’s a good idea to quickly make a list of what you are growing and where for crop rotation next season. 
HINT:  Be sure to mark off any areas that contain perennials or other areas you prefer to leave undisturbed until Spring.  Some gardeners choose to allow flowers to go to seed and plants to die back naturally, delaying some cleaning until Spring.  


Pretty self-explanatory.  Most of us clean as we go, and its common sense to clear debris, annuals that have died back and old plants that have past their prime as they continue to meet their end.  But let’s look at that one, last concerted effort you make just before the snow comes.

Whether you go the all natural route keeping the majority of plants in the ground, are closing your pristine flower beds full of annuals, or somewhere in between, there are some general tasks that should be done around the garden before winter. Cleaning up is the MOST important.  

Benefits:  Helps prevent disease and pests; Keeps the garden looking pretty and the neighbors happy; Sets the stage for composting and fertilizing the soil (which occurs a little further down the road, in the second C). 

1.  Rake and remove all dead growth including leaves and discard.
The Easy Method:  Literally, get in there, rake out all debris and discard. It’s best to use lawn and garden bags (big brown paper bags you can buy at the hardware store) if you are throwing all that potential compost away.   
Going That Extra Mile: Once you rake out the debris, Remove anything that is diseased or could seed inside the compost bin and discard.  Move all “healthy and clean” debris to the compost bin.   Chop up large plants for faster decomposition.  You can separate fall leaves from this mess if you have enough to make it worthwhile.  Pile the leaves on your lawn, run your mower over the pile a few times, rake that up and mix it with your dried grass clippings for a fabulous mulch.  

2. Disturb Your Rocks (or pots or other surfaces sitting directly on your garden soil)
The Easy Method:  Move all large rocks and check underneath for signs of disease or pests that might be lurking.  Remove all the rocks, spray them with a hose and let dry or wipe dry, then relocate them where they are not making direct contact with soil or the corners of your home.  This will prevent pests from collecting underneath.  This way you don’t have to watch the soil so carefully.
Going That Extra Mile: Some people remove all their stones for the winter but I choose to keep mine in the garden.  I grow cold weather crops and so I use them to collect a little extra warmth around root systems.  If you keep your rocks in, you have to be a bit more diligent and check under there from time to time, before and after deep winter freeze or intermittently during mild winters.  Ants and other pests may try to use them as cold weather shelter and tunnel right into your spring veggies before you even know the ground has softened.

3.  Move Your Mulch
The Easy Method:  If mulch is in your garden, rake it to the side on a clean area in a loose pile, preferably in a sunny spot where it can fully dry out.  Remove any mulch that is breaking down or contains mold.  The rest of your mulch can be returned to the garden during the last step.
Going That Extra Mile:  Limited amounts of older (healthy) mulch can be turned into compact soil and can be added to compost (But be aware of amounts.  Keep your green/brown balance.)

4.  Pull the Weeds, ALL the Weeds.
The Easy Method:  Remove all weeds by pulling them out, doing your best to remove their roots.  Don’t give them a head start next spring!  They can also collect pests that will come back to haunt you.  Use hand tools to really get in there.
Going That Extra Mile: Pulling weeds is pulling weeds.  You either pull them all or you pull some of them.  Going that extra mile in this case would simply be applying additional care and diligence to ensuring you’ve destroyed and removed the root systems as much as possible. 

5.  Remove Your Old Growth
The Easy Method:  Pull all dead plants or those that are almost dead.  There’s no hope for them now.  Ensure you have removed root systems by turning the soil around the area and pulling out the entire root system (if you don’t turn your whole bed or have raised beds).  If you maintain perennials in your beds, do not follow this step for those plants. Treat according to their needs for returning next season.
Going That Extra Mile: Chop up old/dead vegetable plants for compost. Remember to remove diseased portions of the plant first.  Hint:  Including the root systems in your compost with some soil still clinging will help speed up the process of your composting.  Soil contains microbes and other living organisms that stimulate decomposition.

THE SECOND C: COMPOST (Feed the soil):  Now that you’ve cleared the way, it is time to feed 
Compost ready to be chopped, turned and covered.
the soil before regular frost sets in.  It has been working very hard for you and has depleted much of its resources growing your berries and zucchini.  Think of this as your soils yearly flu shot, or 

vitamin boost.  Some gardeners do this in early spring, but its good practice to think about how you can supplement in Fall.   

Benefits:  Replenishes nutrients into soil and improves soil quality; Can assist in balancing PH levels (if you had your soil tested!); Increases nutrient availability to plants next spring.  Feeding your soil now will allow the nutrients to work their way into the soil naturally, wintering-over, so they will be immediately available to your plants next spring.

Options:             Fertilizer                    Compost                   (homemade or store bought)

Fertilizer:  You can find all sorts of fertilizers packaged for easy use online or at your local garden center and often your local hardware store.  Organic and non-organic products exist in liquid, granule, water soluble, and a multitude of other forms.   Depending on what zone you’re in, what you’ve grown and what you plan to grow, you can purchase or make a variety of fertilizers.  Best to refer to your soil test results!
The Easy Method:  Bring your soil test results to the local garden center, nursery, hardware store, or check in with the e-version of the Hort. Hotline to get assistance from a Philadelphia County Master Gardener.  Present them with the test results.  Ask them to recommend fertilizers (this is the time to stress organic or non-organic preferences) and follow the instructions.  These professionals can assist you in determining what your soil needs most and often times they will make recommendations about how to apply.  This takes all the guess work out of fertilizing your soil.
Going That Extra Mile:  Typically an enthusiastic gardener employs a variety of fertilizers, turning them into the soil, then turning and covering with compost.  Organic gardeners and non-organics have many options.  We will explore fertilizer options soon in further blogs.  It should be noted that some fertilizer products contain high amounts of salts which can be harmful to the garden in the long run despite immediate benefits of fertilization.  Check the salts content on packaging to know what you’re using!                 

Contact the Penn State Extension Philadelphia Master Gardener Hortline with your questions: 
By E-mail Year Round    with "Hortline" in the subject line.
In content of your email give your question, name and contact phone number. Include photos if needed!
By Phone From March through October, you can call 215-471-2200 ext. 116  
Leave a message with your question and a Hortline Master Gardener will get back to you. 

Close up of uncut compost.  October 2014.
Compost:  Let’s be honest.  Compost isn’t for everyone.  But those of us who make it and utilize it swear by its effectiveness.  You can opt out of compost and use store-bought fertilizers instead.  Some supply stores will stock pre-packaged compost just like potting soil.  I recommend calling around before you drive out to make your purchases.  It’s not a typical product, although I see it more and more.   
The Easy Method:  Remove the guess work like crabgrass, and bring your soil sample test results along with the measurements of your garden space to your local supply store (or ask a Master Gardener through the Philadelphia Hort Hotline e-service how much you will need).  Tell them you want to purchase compost for your garden and inquire about options and follow the directions.
Going That Extra Mile:  If you keep a home compost bin or outdoor pile, this is the moment you have been waiting for all year!  It is time to pull the finished compost from your bin/pile and lay it out on your garden beds.  You can add a variety of fertilizer products to supplement for nutrients your compost may not provide.  But if you make compost, you should be sure to return that nutrition packed organic matter back to the garden soil, before covering.  You can lay it on top and scratch over the soil, or dig into the top layer of your garden bed.  I like to water once or twice after turning my compost in, before making any further moves in the space.  The organic matter is a wholesome way to deliver aeration and amendments to soil. 

THE THIRD C:  COVER.  You want to be sure that none of your soil is fully exposed to the elements through the winter.  There are a variety of ways you can accomplish this, but we will look at the top 3 choices.  Why consider covering the soil at all?  Why not just pull the plants and leave it?

Even during mild seasons, the weathering and temperature fluctuations can deplete any nutrients left in the soil.  Especially if you have gone through the trouble and expense of cleaning and feeding your soil, don’t let those efforts wash away!  

Benefits: Protects bare soil where the ground would otherwise remain exposed until spring; Helps prevent unwanted weeds; Protects perennials from harsh, cold, freezing temps; Helps return organic matter to the soil and retain nutrients; Aids in the prevention of run off.

Options:              Fabric Coverings                  Mulching                  Cover Crop (known also as ‘green mulch’)

Fabric Coverings:  This option is The Easy Method, but buyer beware!  
Raised bed covered with plant protecting fabric. (100% Cotton)
Coverings made from recycled materials, plastics, breathable fabric blends, and a whole slew of other components can be found online or anywhere you purchase garden supplies around this time of year.  I’ve known people to use cardboard or camping tarps with success.  The basic covers are less expensive than standard mulches and require the least amount of time for this last step but there are some pitfalls. Fabric or plastic covering works great if you are trying to stomp out weed infestations or severely treat soil.  However, many of these materials do not discriminate so as effective as they are at stomping out weeds, they are equally effective at stomping out new growth from established perennials in and preventing early volunteers from popping up.  It will also hinder early bulbs if not removed soon enough and can draw ants and other pesty infestations before you’re ready to uncover your plots. 

Natural wood chips mulching the hardy Rosemary. 
Mulching:  You have many mulching options.  You can select from hay, straw, wood chips, shredded leaves and grass clippings among other options to create a warm, protective shield for your soil.  Mulching works as a protective cover but has the added benefit of returning some nutrients to your 
soil, depending on how complicated you want to make things.  You can get fancy and use the variety of texture and color options to create interesting bedded garden spaces.
The Easy Method:  Return to your helpful garden center, nursery, or hardware store, where you have now become friends with the home and garden employees, and tell them that you need bagged mulch for your garden.  You will have to decide ahead of time what kind of mulch you want to add.  Clean Straw (a straw product that is sanitized and prepackaged usually by the CUFT), Licorice Mulch (which is local!) or Hardwood Mulch are the most typical choices in the Pennsylvania arena.  

Dyed red mulch, natural wood chips, licorice mulch,
shredded cedar and clean straw!  So many options!
These three mulch options are usually naturally organic, add some nutrients but do not require you to consider them fertilizer and are easy to remove, turn into the soil or relocate in the spring. 
Going that Extra Mile:  Think of this as an opportunity to further feed your soil.  Keep that soil testing report handy when you return to your supply store and inform them of any fertilizers or compost you’ve already added so you can keep a balance, but ask for recommendations to continue adding necessary nutrients for your garden goals.  Your local professional will recommend what is best.  This is also a great time to rely on the Hort. Hotline if you haven’t found a reliable home and garden source by now.

Cover Crops (Green Mulch):     Cover crops require some research, timing and extra effort.  There is
White clover working as a late cover crop for Kale.
no easy method for implementation, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor.  This year, it is a little late to seed your plots and get crops a good start before frost comes.  But, they are unendingly valuable so keep reading.

Typically a cover crop is a plant you grow over the entirety of your garden to create a strong stand where roots and cover crops protect, clean and even continue to provide the garden soil with nutrients.  Before planting season, typically you cut out, pull out and/or often turn the cover crop into the soil as an amendment. Farmers have been using cover crops to 'sweeten' their soil for generations, using special blends and techniques for specific crops.  This can be done in a small space too!  You have to make some adjustments for an urban garden space, but it can be done! Watch for future blogs that explore this topic to learn more. 

Don't Forget Your Tools!
The VERY LAST STEP for closing down your garden is to collect all outdoor and indoor gardening tools.  Clean with soap and water then wipe with rubbing alcohol or rinse with a bleach/water solution to kill disease.  Use steel wool or light sand paper to remove rust, wipe clean and then rub lightly with vegetable oil to prevent further rust.  Store in a dry place for the winter, all except for the rake and the snow shovel!

Now you’re ready, fellow gardeners!  Let winter bring its harsh temperatures, intense storms and wintery mixes. You can rest easy through hibernation, knowing that your soil will be improved in quality, protected from the weather, and it might even be fighting off pests and weeds while you slumber.  Share with us here what choices YOU make for closing down your garden this time of year.  We'd love to hear your tricks and tips!

Consider the Free Method!     Free isn’t always easy, but it’s cost effective and great for the environment!  Check out some of the free compost available in the Philadelphia Area!  Fairmount Park and others offer tested compost, wood chips, and other materials that you can drag away at no charge if you bring your own containers and transportation.  See the following links for some of your options. 

The Fairmont Park Recycling Center... accepts and allows Philly residents to pick up free compost, wood chips, mulch and herbivore manure. They also accept drop offs. 
See the link for details and location.

The Dirt Factory... University City boasts the fabulous Dirt Factory where residents can access free composting pick up and drop offs.  (For University City residents only)

Looking to Learn More?
Penn State Extension information about backyard composting.

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