T.S. Eliot got it wrong. April isn’t the cruelest month; it’s September. It’s the time of year when your garden goes from lush, green, verdant…
To brown and gold broken up only by beets, Swiss chard, kale and lettuce.
Not only is the growing season drawing to a close for many of us…but it’s time to clean up!
I used to hate cleaning up my garden in the fall. 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 Brewfest in Kennett Square or the Hagley Car Show .
But not anymore.
I’ve discovered that cleaning up is the perfect time to find unwanted visitors like the varmint that was eating my tomatoes. This fat and happy tomato horn worm is enjoying his last meal.
While tearing down my tomato trellises, I found a dozen of these beautiful but sinister worms as I cleaned up the tomato bed. But I also learned that all but 2 were covered with trichogramma wasp eggs, like the little fellow below.
Fall cleaning, removing leaves, vines and stems, raking up fallen bits and pieces of this year’s green bean and tomato plants, all these activities help me get a jump-start on my garden next 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.
My first bit of advice? 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 green or rotten produce that hits 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.
- Large trash bags – I didn’t use to bag any of my garden waste but I learned that trying to compost vines from tomatoes, zukes, cukes and even green beans meant giving diseases like wilt a head start next spring. It also meant providing warm, cozy homes for Mexican Bean beetles and cucumber and squash beetles among others.
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!
I pull all plants (except perennials), shove the waste into bags and stack them on the edge of the garden. I know some people put their plant bodies in the compost but I don’t. Why not?
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. I use straw and a lot of it. It mulches the ground, protects perennials and annuals like garlic and beets and sets me up for weed free gardening in the spring.
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.
Bug Control – A Pre-emptive Strike
I offer one last bit of advice for wrapping up the growing season and getting ready for your garden next spring.
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 I wait until I have had two hard frosts to use it. I want to make sure there is no insect activity in the 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.
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…