PHOTO: Irene Kightley/Flickr
Rodney Wilson
September 30, 2019

Summer has officially let go for the year, and autumn has taken the seasonal reins. Although it’s still humid and in the 80s here in Kentucky, I’m already thinking about bonfires, thick sweaters and fresh apple cider.

I’m also turning my attention to the garden, which, despite offering up red tomatoes and ripe peppers by the basket, will soon face dramatic changes as nippy nights and downright cold conditions descend. Gardeners are considering how to extend the growing season for cold-hardy plants and get things ready for next spring’s starts.

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Plant Cool-Weather Crops

Your summer garden probably looks a little ragged, and you dread the bare ground that awaits once you remove those dying tomatoes. But, if you’re inclined, you can still grow cool-weather vegetables for a while.

If you grow from seed, determine the date of your zone’s first fall frost. Then look at the seed packet’s estimated time to maturity, add a couple of weeks to account for the stunting effects of cold weather and drop those seeds in the ground accordingly.

fall planting gardening spring prepration
Amy the Nurse/Flickr

That said, as of late September or early October, most plants (excetp fast-growing radishes) won’t reach harvest maturity before nights get cold enough to wither them. Never fear! If you can find cool-weather plant starts, they should thrive in the chilly autumn weather and produce delicious, homegrown vegetables up until the first frost. Appropriate cool-weather plants include root vegetables, lettuce, spinach and brassicas such as kale, kohlrabi and cabbage. If you want to keep those homegrown salads going into early winter, a cold frame can protect plants from frost until the first deep freeze.

Clear Old Plants & Prepare Soil

You should address those warm-weather plants, though. Performing a few simple chores can get your garden ready for winter and make your spring prep easier.

First, get those old and dying plants out of the garden. I like to cut them at ground level to preserve ecosystems that form around roots, but pull any diseased plants to keep your garden healthy. Compost or bury the plants so your soil can benefit from their nutrients next season. Trim back your perennials, and prune any trees or bushes that respond well to that in the fall. (Not all do.) Also, give your garden a good weeding, pulling unwelcome plants so they don’t deplete your soil of nutrients.

Your soil needs some attention, too. Dig, turn or till in the contents of your compost bin(s) and soil amendments to give your earth a vitamin boost after that summertime workout. Adding this before spring ensures the additives will be broken down and absorbed by spring planting. If you have a no-till garden, you probably don’t need to do much amending, though you can topdress compost and amendments or put them on top of the ground. Also, if you plan to transition to no-till gardening next season, now’s a great time to work in some good stuff so your soil is as healthy as possible for the change.

Also, think ahead to your garden’s state of being in the winter months, when melting snow can wash away loose soil. Cover crops such as vetch and rye can help lock soil in place, and a hearty mulching will protect soil from erosion.

Look Back to Plan Ahead

When your garden is ready for winter, take a moment to reflect on this year’s growth. What did you enjoy growing, and what seemed like more work than it was worth? Did some plants do better than you expected, while others underperformed? Were you happy with the aesthetics of your garden, or did you wish you had arranged and planted differently?

Spring will be here before you know it, and seed catalogs will soon pile on the kitchen counter, so take the time now to evaluate how things worked out this year and begin considering, studying and planning for what you want to do next year.

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