Autumn is just around the corner and with it the end of our gardening season. How can we best use the pleasant autumn working conditions to keep our gardens attractive over the winter and plan for a vibrant next season?
The guidelines for vegetable gardens differ somewhat from landscape beds. Vegetables tend to develop various fungal, bacterial, or insect diseases throughout the season, and some of these can be left in debris on the ground over the winter.
It’s usually best to clean the soil surface to remove wilted plants, fallen fruit, and other debris. Most of these materials can be composted, but if you’re dealing with a particularly troublesome disease or insect problem, you may want to boil the waste in direct sun in a black plastic bag for a few days before discarding.
In landscape beds, especially mulched ones, disease problems are less of an issue. Annual plants can be removed and composted when they end their season. Perennials can be tidied up to remove faded flowers or dead tissue.
How much you should cut back perennials and shrubs is an aesthetic question, but also an ecological one. We now understand how important spent plant matter is to many of our insect and bird friends who use hollow stems and seeds to help them through the winter. And many dried seed heads are very attractive in the winter scenery.
If leaving dried plant matter offends you or your neighbors, try removing it in your more public area, usually facing the front curb, and leave it in backyards where you can enjoy the winter wildlife activities away from public view.
Fall is also a good time to check your mulch. By this time in the season it is often either dried into a crust or compacted or both. Use a long handled hand cultivator to gently fluff and fluff the compost. This allows autumn rain to penetrate to the roots of your trees and plants. You may find that you have more mulch in place than first appears, so always fluff before putting new mulch on top of the old.
As an alternative to commercial mulches, consider shredded, dry leaves. They are often exposed, do not compact or crust, and are friendly to beneficial insects whose eggs and larvae develop in the loose dirt of such a shell. Over time, they will decay and enrich the soil.
And what about the falling leaves? These are a composter’s delight as they can be raked for use in the fall compost bin or even bagged and stored for next spring’s compost bins.
If the grass is still green and growing as the leaves fall, attach a grass catcher to your mower and mow right over the grass and leaves together. This creates a wonderful, pre-mixed brown to green ratio that is ideal for composting.
Don’t think you have to remove every fallen leaf. For the health of your lawn, you should pick up any wet mats of shingled leaves that can smother grass, but a light blanket of leaves can simply be left to decompose and contribute to the health of your soil and lawn.
Autumn is soil test time. A soil analysis done now will alert you to which nutrients are in short supply and how to remedy them next season for the best plant health. Adding changes now gives you time to incorporate them before the next gardening season.
Penn State soil test kits are available for $9 from the Berks County Extension Office or online at https://agsci.psu.edu/aasl/soil-testing/fertility. The advantage of PSU’s analysis results is that they provide a customized recipe for how to modify your soil to suit the needs of your particular plants.
Fall is a perfect time to reflect on your gardening season and start making sketches and notes for the next season. Knowing what you planted in May is helpful, but knowing what survived and what was worth the time and effort can be a different story.
If certain plants need to be divided or moved, this is a good time to do so as they will not be stressed by extreme heat and with care can settle into a new location before winter.
It’s a good time to jot down tasks. Dealing with the abundance of crabgrass this season could lead to a note for the March calendar to shed a pre-emergent crabgrass preventer, a chore that could be forgotten by spring.
Elizabeth Finlay is a Berks County Volunteer Master Gardener.