The end of summer is a time of celebration with an abundant harvest of fresh produce. It is also a critical time for gardeners. Throughout the spring and summer, organic matter has been accumulating in your garden. Whether it’s the stems and leaves of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, or bolted lettuce and spinach plants - all of this plant matter is valuable. What do you do with it all? The beauty of gardening is that there is no single way to wrap up the growing season. You learn new things each year and experiment to see what works best based on the conditions in your yard and your desired level of effort. The following pointers below will help you decide what to do to maintain your garden.
Some plants can be harvested beyond the fall after frost. This can extend the season of your garden as soil will protect roots from the cold air. Just remember where things are planted by using stakes to indicate where your veggies are still growing. Veggies that can be harvested after frost and into the cold weather include carrots, leeks, parsnips, radishes, and turnips.
The first frost for Halton and surrounding areas is typically between October 6 and 15.
If you do anything to prepare your garden for next year, it’s composting. Compost will replenish your soil with nutrients and give you a head start for the following summer. Halton Region will be holding its annual fall compost giveaway this year on September 17th. Forget garbage bags and yard waste bags. They rip too easily. To make your life easier, bring your blue boxes or other large sturdy containers to fill and transport compost.
Bring a can or two of non perishable food items that will be donated to a food drive.
Clear out Annuals
Pull out tomato plants, beans, peas, squash, and other plants and add them to your compost pile if you have one. Compost is actually very warm because of the aerobic digestion taking place and can continue to generate enough heat for itself well past the first frost. If you cover your compost pile with leaves, it will act as an insulator and keep those helpful micro-organisms kicking even longer. It’s important to clean out dead plants from garden beds to prevent the build up of disease and harmful insects. By composting the dead plants, you can ensure that diseases will be killed off.
Learn more about compost in a previous Gardener’s Guide article, The Brown Thumb: Compost and Life.
Perennials are plants that survive the winter and return in the following year. Most vegetables are not perennials, but a few herbs are. Sage doesn’t require any maintenance for its journey through the winter and neither does thyme. Chives can be left in the ground and will come back in the spring. It’s best to cut them back a bit in the fall.
Cloche House or Row Covers
For those gardener diehards out there, cloche houses or row covers will extend your season well past the frost date if done right. Cloche houses are usually a transparent enclosure used for making a microclimate for a single plant. Row covers are better for multiple plants and use transparent plastic sheeting draped tightly over a frame to help keep in the heat and keep out the cold. Different thicknesses of row cover sheeting are available. A thicker row cover will provide more frost protection.
Cover crops are a great option for fall that will help to replenish nutrients in your soil. Some examples are fast growing legumes and grasses such as clover, rye, buckwheat, or oats. They act as a fertilizer to amend and improve soil, prevent erosion from winds and storms, and provide an insulating layer that protects soil organisms from the extreme cold. Cover crops will grow quickly in the fall and can be returned to the soil as nutrients in spring. This method of soil enhancement is called green manure and has been used by farmers for millenia. Check out this tool to see when to plant certain cover crops in Ontario.
Garlic can be planted 6-8 weeks before frost and will be ready for harvesting the following summer. Break apart cloves and keep the papery covering on. If you want to plant garlic, make sure you buy cloves from a local nursery. Grocery store garlic will not grow well because most of it has been treated to have a longer shelf life. Make sure to cover the ground with lots of compost and straw to protect it from extreme cold.
Leave the Leaves
Leaves are a great resource for your garden since they are packed with trace minerals that trees pull from deep in the ground. The best way to use them is to let them dry out in your yard. You can take a lawn mower, attach the bag, and then shred and collect the leaves. There will be shreds left behind on your lawn, but this will add nutrients to the grass. If your lawn mower doesn’t have a bag you can still rake up the shreds, it just takes longer. Shredding is important because entire leaves can bunch up and create mats that prevent water penetration. The shredded leaves can be added to your garden beds and forked into the soil a bit. This will help feed the worms throughout the winter. You can also add organic nitrogen fertilizers on top of the leaves to speed up the decomposition process.
This is the time of year when many weeds are going to seed, so make sure to pull them out. Its best to do weeding before seed pods develop so you don’t have to worry about spreading seeds. If seed pods have already developed, you can still compost them BUT you have to ensure that your compost bin reaches high enough temperatures to kill the seeds. About 38 degrees Celsius is the temperature that kills most weed seeds. But to be extra careful, you can also compost weeds in a separate pile.
By Nate Van Beilen