For those who enjoy gardening year round, winter vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and an assortment of greens may already be in place of their summer garden. I like fall gardening because the temperatures are usually mild and disease and insects are normally less troubling. But for those who are ready for a little break from the vegetable garden, there are a few things you should do before you put your summer garden to bed.
It’s interesting to see how long the summer garden, planted way back in the spring, may last. I have pulled tomatoes and okra literally throughout October in years Georgia had a late frost. Other years, an early cold spell terminated those late-harvest plans.
Doing nothing not an option
When I first started gardening more than 25 years ago, there were times when I just gave up on the late-summer garden and let it lay idle throughout the fall and winter. I now know that is about the worst thing a gardener can do.
Many diseases and insects love to overwinter in crop residue from the past harvest and will be out in full force the following spring if left unchecked. Another problem is that old, over-mature vegetables will die down on the plants and disperse seed that will ultimately germinate next spring where you don’t want them. This second generation of seed may well have cross-pollinated, producing plants that are inferior and different from what you actually planted.
Always pull up expired crops at the end of the season. Not doing so will create problems. Besides, those old corn stalks will make a great fall porch decoration.
Work the soil
The fall is a great time to work on conditioning your soil. If it’s been more than two years, take a soil sample to your local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office. You need to know the pH of the soil. Fall is the best time to add lime if needed as it takes several months for it to actually adjust the soil pH.
I till the garden, if it isn’t too wet, to expose any insects, nematodes and soil pathogens to the cool, dry weather. This is a perfect time to add amendments such as compost or other organic matter like manures. Sometimes I spread fallen tree leaves over the garden and till them in. They break down quickly into rich organic matter. Shred the leaves first under the lawn mower or in a chipper and they will break down even faster.
After I have worked the soil and added organic matter, I plant a cover crop in areas of the garden that are not planted in winter vegetables. Cover crops offer several benefits. They help prevent erosion and add organic matter to the soil when tilled in early spring. And I think it just plain looks good to have a bright green area of cover crops in your garden when everything else is brown and dormant.
Plant cover, wheat or oats
If you plant crimson clover, you will be rewarded with a show of color when it blooms in the spring. I usually plant a combination of at least two types of seed mixed together. I like a mixture of wheat or oats as a grass with a few pounds of crimson clover. The clover is a legume, or nitrogen-fixing plant, that will actually help the grass crop grow. In return, the wheat or oats act as a nurse crop to the clover, which is lower to establish and needs a little protective shade from the grass.
Clover should be inoculated first with the appropriate bacteria to aid in germination. A feed store or garden center should be able to assist you with getting the proper one. An alternative might be to buy commercially produced wildlife mixes that are often planted for deer and turkey. These mixes come pre-inoculated. Remember to give cover crops some initial fertilization to get them started. About 15 pounds of 10-10-10 per 1000 sq. ft. should be sufficient.
(Bob Westerfield is a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension consumer horticulturist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)
Planting a cover crop, like clover, in the fall can feed the soil for your spring garden.Download Image