Fall cleanup in vegetable gardens

Soil testing, removing plant material and adding organic mulches, compost and cover crops are all smart gardening techniques for fall cleanup.

Use shredded leaves raked from your lawn to cover vegetable gardens or beds. Photo: Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.
Use shredded leaves raked from your lawn to cover vegetable gardens or beds. Photo: Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension.

Home gardeners can implement a number of Michigan State University Extension’s Smart Gardening practices while completing fall cleanup in vegetable gardens. Consider practices such as soil testing, mulching with organic materials or compost, and planting a cover crop.

Get your soil tested

If you haven’t had your soil tested in the last three years, this is a great first step. MSU Extension suggests getting your soil tested every three years. A soil test from the MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory will give you the amount of major nutrients required for plant growth (Mg, P, K, Ca), the pH, soil type, CEC or cation exchange capacity (the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients), and the organic matter percentage. Specific recommendations are then provided for how to properly amend your soil for whatever you are growing – vegetables, lawn or flowers. Fall is a great time to test your soil as you can amend the soil and have all of winter for these components to naturally work themselves into the soil.

Remove healthy plant material and add it to your compost pile

Removing plant material after you have harvested is a smart gardening practice. Shred or break up the material into smaller pieces and add it to your compost pile. Don’t include any diseased plants or plant parts. Dispose of these parts away from your compost pile, for example, burning if permitted or through disposal. Unless you hot compost, which heats your pile up to at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit, there’s no guarantee disease organisms will be killed. They can then be reintroduced into the garden when you use this compost. It is also beneficial to the many soil microorganisms to leave roots of beans and peas within your garden. Just cut off the tops of these crops and allow the microorganisms to live and feed off of the roots throughout winter.

Add mulch or compost to your soil

Covering your vegetable garden soil is another smart gardening practice. Apply an organic mulch, compost or plant a cover crop. Not only are you protecting the topsoil from erosion, but you are also improving the health of the soil and boosting yields in next year’s garden. By applying 3-6 inches of an organic mulch or compost over the soil, you are creating a home and providing food for all the microorganisms within the soil. Use shredded leaves or clean straw without seed heads or weeds, and cover your vegetable garden or beds. This material will lie on the soil’s surface and the microorganisms will break it down throughout the winter. You can plant directly in this material next spring or turn it over into the top 6 inches.

Consider planting a cover crop

Planting a cover crop in your vegetable bed provides a home and food for valuable soil microorganisms, suppresses weeds and returns organic material and nutrients to the soil. A good choice for fall planting is winter wheat or cereal rye. Both will produce some shoot growth this fall, die back in winter and then regrow next spring. Be sure to turn the top growth over next spring before it is 6 inches tall so it doesn’t get too difficult to manage. Allow at least two weeks for the incorporated cover crop to decompose before planting your vegetables.

Using a cover crop is a great way to rebuild soil structure and overall soil health. Consider integrating a cover crop into your vegetable gardening crop rotation plan each year or make use of certain cover crops within walking paths or rows. Many different cover crops exist, so it’s important to match your specific gardening goals with the type and characteristics of each prospective cover crop. For more information on choosing a cover crop, visit the Midwest Cover Crops Council website.

Watch for future smart gardening cover crop information for home gardeners. For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website or contact MSU’s Lawn and Garden Hotline at 1-888-678-3464. 

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