Garden cleanup and soil improvement

Food gardens are in transition in October. Cool-season crops hit their stride and cover crops replace tired warm-season crops. Rather than put the entire garden to bed we may decide to coax more food from the ground with row covers, cold frames, and over-wintering crops. Either way, fall cleanup (“garden sanitation”) and soil protection and improvement this fall help ensure a healthy and productive garden next year.

Cleanup Tips:

  • Remove stakes, trellises, hoses, temporary fences, plant labels, and other gardening materials. 
  • Clean up and remove all above-ground plant residues. Many diseases can survive over the winter on small pieces of leaves and stems. Some pest insects will hunker down under protective layers of dead weeds and crop debris. Either bag up and dispose of these plant wastes or compost them. All parts of the bin or pile must heat up to >140⁰ F. to kill plant pathogens and weed seeds. (Japanese stiltgrass should be bagged up with regular trash for landfill disposal.)  
  • Empty the growing media from container gardens and store it in a trash can or heavy-duty trash bags. Soil-less growing media and compost lose nutrients and break down physically over time. Mix last year’s growing media 50:50 with fresh growing media and/or compost next year. 

Soil Protection and Improvement Tips:

  • Instead of pulling plants out of the ground, cut them off at ground level leaving the root system intact. This reduces soil disturbance while adding organic matter.
  • Don’t leave the soil bare. Cover it with shredded leaves or some other type of mulch to prevent erosion. Rake leaves into a loose pile and mow over them with a lawnmower to cut them up.  They will be much less likely to blow away if they are broken up. The leaves will reduce weed growth and can be retained as mulch next spring.
  • It’s getting late for planting cover crops. If you have seed, you can take a chance on sowing before the end of October. The soil temperature should be at least 45⁰ F. to 50⁰ F. for germination of cover crop seed. You can enter your zip code to learn the approximate temperature of soil in your area.  
  • Bury plant-based food scraps in garden soil. This keeps them out of the landfill and recycles plant nutrients in the root zone. Unfenced gardens may attract wildlife.
  • As much as possible, use organic matter generated from your yard and household. Organic matter brought in from outside sources carries potential risks. Manure, straw, and hay may be contaminated with long-residual phenoxy herbicides or troublesome weed species. 
  • Invasive jumping worms have been appearing more frequently in gardens and landscapes. They are spread by the movement of soil and organic matter like mulches.
Asian jumping worm

Asian jumping worm
Invasive jumping worm removed from a deep layer of garden leaf mulch.
  • Test your soil. For $15-$20 you can have an accredited lab test your soil. You’ll get some important baseline information on soil pH, nutrient levels, and organic matter. Lead testing is included with some basic soil tests (e.g., University of Delaware). Most vegetable and fruit crops grow best in 6.0 to 6.8 pH soils. If your pH is too high or too low some nutrients may become unavailable to plants, causing deficiency symptoms, or overly abundant, causing toxicity symptoms. If recommended by the lab, you can apply lime or sulfur to your soil this fall so they can start changing soil pH. 

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist. Read more posts by Jon.

October Tips and Tasks 2020

Drain flies are found primarily in rooms or areas where there are drains such as kitchens, basements near floor drains, etc. Drain flies are small, 1/16 to 1/4 inch long, delicate and fuzzy. Their fuzzy wings make them easy to identify. 

Inspect new houseplants before purchase. Choose plants that appear to be free of insects and disease, have new leaf or flower buds, and healthy foliage. Slipping the plant out of its container to look at the roots is recommended. Roots should be white or tan, fleshy (not brown and crumbly), be able to hold the soil together but not root-bound. 

person holding compost in hand

Start a compost pile by mixing together spent plants, kitchen scraps, fallen leaves, old mulch, and grass clippings. Shred your materials with a lawnmower, string trimmer, or machete to speed-up the breakdown process. Keep twigs, branches, and other woody materials out of the pile.