Starting a compost pile and planting cover crops – winding down the vegetable garden for the year

After a fun year of building support structures and growing really long squash, it was time to wind down the garden. Our first baby was born (thank you, thank you), and we had no further bandwidth or ambition to continue with cool-season crops, so I decided to pack up the support gear, rip out the remaining plants that were producing but slowing down, start a compost pile with the remains, and plant cover crops in the beds.

Packing it up

My big trellis used for the Tromboncino squash and the one made from part of a fencing panel used for tomatoes both folded up and packed away nicely in this outdoor storage area attached to my house. I’m happy with my designs, as I didn’t want permanent structures out in the garden getting weathered, and I didn’t want them to take up a lot of space in storage. These will be easy to set up next year again. The only thing I will do differently in the future is to use something stronger than twine to string on the trellis and hold up tomatoes with tomato clips. A lot of the twine that was under pressure from crops eventually snapped and needed replacing.

Rip it, chop it, bin it

We were going to have such a volume of garden waste this year, I decided to start a compost bin. This should give us a head start on the new layer of compost (previously all store-bought) we add to the raised beds each year. Pretty much all we have to do is throw this stuff in a bin and wait, as we are doing passive composting that is slow but requires very little attention.

I bought a cheap compost bin online; this one is just a sheet of black plastic with holes that you form into a vertical cylinder and throw your stuff into.

I ripped up our squash, watermelon, and tomato plants, wheelbarrowed ’em over to the compost bin in our back yard, stabbed at the pile with a shovel and buzzed it with my string trimmer for a while to chop it up a bit. Then I shoveled it all into the bin, attempting to mix up the types of plants in there somewhat uniformly.

Once leaves fall, I’ll drop some leaves that have been shredded by the mower into there as well.

I know you can drop food waste like fruit and vegetable scraps into compost, but I’m not sure we are going bother making the trip from the kitchen to backyard with a couple banana peels since that’s just not a lot of volume to make a difference for our intended purpose.

We will need to turn the pile a couple times in the next year to aid decomposition, but other than that, this is hands off. I’m looking forward to seeing what we get at the beginning of next growing season to start our summer vegetable garden again.

Cover crops for our raised bed garden to make it through the winter

I know it is good to protect my soil from erosion and add a layer of compostable material on the top over the winter. Last year, I had read that a layer of mulched leaves is good to place into raised beds, but when I did that, I found that much of it quickly blew away.

This year, I decided to plant crimson clover, a cover crop.

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are an excellent tool for vegetable gardeners, especially where manures and compost are unavailable. They lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring, improve soil quality, and add valuable nutrients.

HGIC page on cover crops

With a couple inexpensive packets of crimson clover, I sprinkled the seeds over the now empty raised beds, raked a bit to cover them lightly with soil, and then watered the soil most days. I could see sprouts in a week or so.

The clover will add a layer of protection over the winter, and then nitrogen and nutrients in April when I cut it down with a string trimmer and then turn over the soil.

Sounds easy enough. I’m all about lower-effort gardening!

Dan Adler
HGIC Web Support and Video Production

Garden Thyme Podcast – Scary Plants #2

Garden Thyme Podcast player

It’s hard to believe that our little podcast is a whole-year-old this month. Thank you all for your support. Since Halloween is a favorite holiday of ours here is a mini-episode with three more spooky scary plants.

Thank you all again!

– Emily, Mikaela, and Rachel.

The music found in this episode is “Monster Parade” by Loyalty Free Music.
Image: Hydnellum peckii, – Bellamonte (TN), by B.Baldassari

Listen here


The Garden Thyme Podcast is a monthly podcast where we help you get down and dirty in your garden, with timely gardening tips, information about native plants, and more! The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. If you have any garden questions, you can email us at UMEgardenpodcast@gmail.com. For more Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Carve out some time to winterize your garden

Fall is a time, “when every leaf is a flower,” said writer Albert Camus.  How true.  It’s easy to get caught up in the razzle-dazzle of red, gold, purple, green, and brown, isn’t it?  

As gardeners though, we need to stop sighing long enough to realize we are in the home stretch of winterizing our gardens.  

It’s time to rake fallen leaves out of our beds so they don’t smother plants.  Chip those leaves – and others in your yard – with a mower to make mulch for your beds or a thin topdressing for your lawn.  Add any leftovers to your compost bin.  

Good compost starts with a mix of juicy green nitrogen-rich materials and dry brown carbon-rich materials.  Summer compost piles tend to overflow with juicy greens. Adding dry leaves restores balance to get compost cooking.  

Washington County Master Gardener Gary Stallings adds dry leaves to the demo garden compost bin and stirs it to get it ready for winter.  
Photo credit:  Shanon Wolf

If you listen carefully, you can hear hand pruners far and wide chattering their teeth, eager to snip, snip, snip perennials. Temper their enthusiasm.  Beneficial bees and other insects overwinter in hollow and pithy stems.  Let them stand until spring. 

The exception is any plant that had a severe disease or insect problem.  Trim and trash those trimmings.  And deadhead vigorous reseeders that need some discipline.

Be vigilant in cleaning out your vegetable garden, too.  Remove plants and any fallen fruit which can harbor disease.  Many diseases can overwinter in the soil to return with a vengeance.

Seek out and destroy weeds in your garden beds.  A little time spent now routing out weeds pays you back tenfold.  Some weeds overwinter and set seed in the spring, multiplying rapidly.  

My next fall to-do is a to-don’t. Don’t do any major pruning of trees and shrubs now.  Wait until the dormant season:  January to mid-March.  

Why?  If you prune now you are cutting off the buds of next year’s flowers and creating wounds that may not heal well.  Also, pruning stimulates new, tender growth that is likely to get zapped in cold weather.  

Also protect from the coming cold any products you use to care for your landscape. Make sure fungicides and pesticides are stored in a secure area where they won’t freeze.  Check labels for storage tips.

Water deeply any shrubs or trees you planted this year to send them into the winter fully hydrated.  Pay special attention to broadleaf evergreens such as hollies and rhododendrons which dry out faster in winter winds.

After you use your garden tools for the last time this year, clean them well and store them out of the elements.  Sharpen blades and oil wooden handles.  Good tools can last a lifetime with proper care.

As you wrap up your gardening season, take time to note what went well and what you’d like to do differently next year.  Keep a notepad in your pocket and jot down ideas. You’ll thank me later.  

Yes, fall is to be celebrated. Go leaf-peeping, grab a mug of cider, and carve that pumpkin.  Just make sure you carve out some time for putting your gardens to bed, too. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

A client carves a pumpkin as part of a Master Gardener therapeutic gardening activity.
Photo credit:  Tina Webster