By: Sandy Feather ©2009
Penn State Extension
Q. I planted my first vegetable garden this year. Is there anything special I need to do to prepare my garden for winter, beyond removing the dead vegetable plants?
A. Removing the dead plants is a good first step. Getting rid of those plants helps eliminate overwintering sites for insects and disease-causing organisms. If you do not have a compost pile, fall is a good time to start one so that you can compost those spent plants – at least the healthy ones. Cut them up into smaller pieces so they break down faster. Plants that show signs of serious insect or disease problems should be sent out with the trash or burned since most of us do not compost intensively enough to kill disease-causing organisms or insect eggs.
You can mix shredded leaves in with the green plants to create a balance of nitrogen (“greens”) and carbon (“browns”) in your compost pile that will speed up the decomposition process. A good balance of those elements can be obtained by mixing an equal volume of shredded leaves and spent vegetable plants. The finished compost can be worked into your vegetable garden’s soil in future years to lighten heavy clay soil, and to improve its drainage and moisture and nutrient-holding capacity.
This is also a great time to have your soil tested if you have not already done so. In Allegheny County, consumer soil test kits cost $12 each, and come with detailed instructions for taking a good soil sample and information to help you understand your soil test results. Customers ordering multiple kits at one time pay $9 each for the additional kits. (You should take separate tests for vegetable gardens, lawns, flower beds and fruit plantings since the lab’s recommendations are based in part on what you intend to grow in the area being tested). Send a check made payable to Penn State Cooperative Extension to Penn State Cooperative Extension, 400 North Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write "Attn: Soil Test Kit" in the lower left corner of the envelope.
If your test results call for the addition of amendments such as limestone or phosphorus, it is best to apply them in the fall because they move very slowly through the soil profile. Organic gardeners who use products such as rock phosphate as a phosphorus source or greensand as a potash source should also apply those in fall. They take time to break down into a form usable by plants, and should be more available to your vegetable plants by spring. It is ideal if you are able to till these amendments in to get them deeper into the soil profile so they are in the zone where the roots of next year’s plants will be growing.
Fall is also a good time to till in a few inches of horse, cow or chicken manure if you have access to it. Even fresh manure will have cooled down sufficiently before you plant next spring, and will add valuable organic matter to the soil. It is always a good idea to apply a layer of mulch to protect the bare soil surface through the winter. You can use clean oat straw or shredded leaves. Two or three inches of mulch are sufficient.
Pull out and wash any stakes, ties (if you plan to reuse them), and trellises thoroughly and allow them to air dry before storing them for the winter. This is also a good time to care for your gardening tools. Clean them thoroughly and coat metal parts with oil. Some gardeners recycle used engine oil for this task; you can use something like WD-40, too. Wipe down wooden tool handles with linseed oil.
You can also do some planting in the fall. Garlic is always best if it is fall-planted. You can order garlic from catalogs or on-line sources, or find it at your local garden center. Avoid using store-bought garlic meant for eating because it may have been treated to prevent sprouting.
It is too late this year, but spinach can be planted in mid-September. It should germinate and start growing before frost kills the leaves. The roots will survive and push up new growth in spring. Mulch your fall spinach planting with four to six inches of shredded leaves or straw AFTER the ground freezes. In this case, mulch is used to reduce fluctuations in soil temperature by keeping the ground frozen. Winter’s freeze-thaw cycles – especially when we do not have snow cover – are much harder on plants than winter cold. Gradually pull the mulch back as the weather warms in spring so the spinach starts growing and rewards your efforts with an extra early treat!