How much do you hate cleaning up your garden in the fall?
I used to. When I looked out my kitchen window and saw more brown than green, I would grimace and think, “…next weekend.” Inevitably, clean up kept getting pushed back by other, more pleasing events like the Hagley Car Show or lunch with friends at il Granaio.
But there comes a moment when I cannot put off the inevitable; I have to clean up the garden and put it to bed for the winter. And I know I’ll be glad I did in the spring!
Garden Clean Up Tips
Anyone who has gardened for a few years has come up with their own tips and tricks for making garden clean up a bit easier. Having 30 years of experience behind the hoe, I have discovered a few things that might make life easier for any organic gardener.
Be prepared. When I go out to clean up, I always bring the tools I’ll need to make it easier. So my tool bag (actually my wheel barrow) contains:
- Scissors – the knots you used to tie up tomatoes will be real tight after a summer of rain and heat. Trying to pull them off just frustrates the gardener.
- Secateurs – if you try to cut back blackberries or blueberries without them, the chances are you’ll do more damage than good. These small, sharp sheers can cut through up to an inch of stalk or wood and are always in my bag of tricks.
- Baling Twine – picked up at the stable and used to bundle all the leggy tomato, pepper and eggplant carcasses.
- A shovel – I sometimes need to coax some of the plants from the ground. Eggplant and tomatoes get stems more than an inch in diameter and their roots can extend up to 10 feet from the base of the plant. So, a bit of shovel power comes in handy.
- A rake – I prefer the good, old-fashioned garden rake because it’s heavier than a leaf rake and the tines won’t work against me as I rake up fallen tomatoes and peppers.
- A bucket – I use an empty kitty litter container and I use it to pick up all the tomatoes that hit the ground at the end of the season.
- Garden gloves – I consider these optional. I always start out wearing them but, inevitably, rip them off about 30 minutes into clean up. I like the way the dirt feels on my hands. But the manicure does suffer so it’s up to you whether you wear them or not.
Clearing The Ground
This is always the worst step for me. I really hate pulling off tomato cages, cutting vines out of my fence sections and tearing up the roots of the dying plants. But once I get started, I actually enjoy it!
All plants (except perennials like asparagus, blackberries and herbs) need to be removed, tied and stacked up on the edge of the garden for disposal. If you clip and clean up herbs at the same time, you can use the wheelbarrow to hold these bodies.
If the flowers I use for pest control (and to jazz up the greenery), like marigolds, nasturtiums and petunias, are still blooming, I leave them alone. If they’re finished, they get tossed in the wheelbarrow, too.
I know some people put these plant bodies in their compost. I don’t.
NOTE: If you’re a slow composter like me –letting nature and God do the work for you — you probably shouldn’t put your garden detritus in the bins, either. Seeds will germinate. Diseases will survive. When you spread your compost next year to welcome your new seedlings, you may be welcoming some very unwanted visitors.
One last task remains before you can move from clearing to covering. If you grew tomatoes, grab a bucket and pick up all of the fallen tomatoes off the ground. If you don’t you will have a whole lot of baby tomatoes to pull up next year. This is a gooey task but well worth the effort.
Once the ground is cleared, it’s time to cover it.
Bug Control – A Pre-emptive Strike
During the growing and harvesting season, I don’t use any bug control except what I detailed in Getting Bugged. However, if it’s been a very bad year for Mexican bean beetles, Asian Beetles, Japanese Beetles and Stink Bugs, just before I cover my garden, I do spray the straw remaining from last year and the ground in my raised beds.
Before you gasp, click unsubscribe and cry, “…traitor,” know that I use only one product — Pyola. The active ingredient is pyrethrin which comes from chrysanthemums and is mixed with canola oil. I use Pyola to control next year’s bugs by killing the larva that are now safely snuggled into my garden ground.
NOTE: Pyrethrin is a contact poison which quickly penetrates the nervous system of the insect. It will affect bees and some beneficials so don’t use it until there is no insect activity in your garden. Also, pyrethrin is harmful to fish so if you have a pond or your garden borders on a stream, don’t use it at all.
Cornell University’s post on its ExToxNet provides a very thorough idea of what pyrethrin is, how it works and what it might do in the environment. Read it before you use it so you’ll know if it will work in your garden. And don’t use it if you don’t have to.
Blanketing the Garden
The last step in garden clean up is to lay down ground cover. In my garden, that means a recipe of cardboard, newspaper, leaves and straw.
Cardboard goes down first. I use it mostly to create a barrier along the edge of my garden where crab grass and pig weed (to name a few of the likely suspects) like to lurk, slip under the fence and set up house in my garden.
I save boxes all year to get enough cardboard for my garden. And if I come up short, I ask my friends to save boxes from work or home for me. They know they’ll get plenty of tomatoes, peppers and green beans in payment next year.
Once the cardboard is down, I put down a layer of leaves. Tip: I don’t rake leaves. I just troll the expensive neighborhoods and pick up the leaves their gardeners so nicely bag and put by the curb.
The last layer I put down is straw. It helps hold the leaves in place. And it breaks down, enriching my soil and making it better, every spring, for the seedlings to grow and thrive.
I use about 40 bales of straw to cover everything including the blueberry and blackberry patches, the vegetable garden, raised beds and asparagus. That may sound like a lot but by next spring, the 18 inches of straw I lay down now will have settled and started to break down.
So that’s my version of garden clean up. Clean up really isn’t that hard but I avoid it because it signals the end of the growing season and the approach of cold winds and falling leaves. It also means time for dreaming and planning next year’s garden…
And that’s what we’ll start doing next week. I’ll share some resources for organic seeds and some tips to help make your next growing season easier and more productive.