Roots and Shoots: Farewell, Tomatoes of 2013

By Pamela Doan

The last of the tomatoes are ripening in brown paper bags on the kitchen counter. The squash has collapsed, the cucumber vines are withered, and the peppers have turned brown. Deer are snacking on flowers that I’ve neglected to spray with stinky repellent. Time to settle the garden and flowerbeds for winter.

Before the ground freezes, pull out all of the annual vegetables from the garden. Chop or shred stalks and leaves into pieces that can easily break down in compost. Perennial vegetables like asparagus and chives can be mulched with straw. Closing the garden for the season means cleaning it up, weeding and clearing it for next year. Leaving the plants to decompose in place invites pests and pathogens to cozy up and hang out until spring.

Make sure not to compost any diseased plant material, though. That will be the equivalent of storing it for next year, too. Diseased plants should be placed in black plastic bags and left in the sun for a week or two to kill off any bacteria and pathogens.

We could be looking at our first frost in the next couple of weeks. Any green leaves left out there will turn to mush at that point. The hostas will collapse, the grasses will wither, and the long stalks of the bleeding heart will sink to the ground. All that material makes wonderful compost if you cut it down first. Any plants – vegetables, perennials, and annuals – that are finished for the season are ready to move on to becoming food for next year’s plants in the compost pile.

If you didn’t make a map of this year’s garden yet, sketch the layout now since it will be hard to recall everything precisely next spring. The map will be a guide to avoid planting the same vegetables in the same spot again next year. Rotating crops ensures that any pathogens left in the soil don’t find a host again next year and keeps the nutrients in the soil from being depleted. Some plants are heavy feeders, others are light feeders, and some add nutrients to the soil. By mixing up the order year after year, the soil will be healthier and more fertile.

Consider rotating by plant family, not just by plant. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, for example, are all in the Solanaceae or nightshade family and are subject to many of the same problems. Pests that can be dormant in the garden soil over the winter and emerge in the spring like the Colorado potato beetle will enjoy a tomato as much as it does the foliage of eggplant. Planting eggplant next year in the spot where potato beetles munched on tomatoes this year means there’s a good chance for another infestation.

Planting carrots or herbs like parsley and dill in that spot, which are part of the Apiaceae family, won’t give the pests anything satisfying and there’s one less gross and annoying problem to solve next summer. Once you’ve handpicked potato beetles off a plant and drowned them in soapy water, rotating crops seems like a winning strategy.

Cover crops like wheat, oats or rye add nitrogen and phosphorus back into soil that has been depleted by the heavy feeding of tomatoes, for example. Buckwheat helps to kill any grubs left in the soil. If your compost isn’t ready yet or there isn’t enough to cover the garden, sowing a few seeds now that will contribute to a good yield next year is a pretty easy solution. Avoid heavy mulching with other organic matter like shredded leaves, though. Save them until the spring to be added in when they won’t create a soggy nest for insects to make a home.

Part of my fall prep is fantasizing about how totally awesome next year’s garden will be. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. I vow to learn from past mistakes and experiments, promise the plant gods that I won’t be as lazy, won’t let anything die. I’ll be more vigilant against the insects. Next spring I’ll get started earlier and try to get multiple harvests, extend the growing season well into the early winter with a cold frame, try canning. Don’t laugh, it could happen.