With the cool, crisp days here, this weekend is the time for fall cleanup. There are certain advantages to getting the job out of the way now, not the least of which is psychological. It's a real release to yank up diseased squash, pull out failed pepper plants, tear out bean vines that got eaten up by the Mexican beetle before you could get to them. Even getting rid of the successful plants offers satisfaction -- there's just not much you can do about all those tomatoes you left on the vine to freeze, except rake them up and throw them in the compost.
Besides the obvious psychological benefits, there's a practical one. I have found that every year that I do not clean out the garden in the fall, I must do it in the spring, and, since this job usually takes a couple of weekends, I am inevitably late getting in the garden. It's also a bad way to start the year: Much better to walk into a garden in March ready to plant, not to clean.
My preferred method for attacking this job is to simply begin at one end and keep going until it's all finished. Up come the thick broccoli stalks. The rabbits we keep get most of them, but the rest go on the compost pile. There are always a few small eggplants that I miss before the frost wipes out the green leaves of the plant itself. These usually can be salvaged before yanking out the plants and adding them to the compost. All weeds must be pulled, and you can hope that seeds that haven't yet fallen will come along. Annual herbs that are heavy with seed heads, like basil and anise, are pulled up and put in a shed where later I will pull off the seed heads and store them in plastic bags for use next year.
Vine trellises that this season supported peas, pole beans and cucumbers are stripped of inevitable wild morning glory seed pods, rolled up and stored in a small corner of the garden or in a shed for the winter. You want to do this because next year you'll be planting your crops in different places. Tomato cages are pulled up and the shower of tomatoes that falls off is raked and put in with the compost. If you leave the tomatoes in the garden, they'll be sprouting all over the place next year and not necessarily producing any fruit, if you've put in a lot of hybrids, or they'll cross-breed and you won't know what you'll be getting.
Corn stalks will come out easily, to be broken up roughly and added to the compost. With most of these dead or dying plants, you don't have to worry about cutting anything up fine, although if you have a shredder, great. They will break down over the winter in the compost. One gardener I know solves the problem by bringing in the lawnmower and just mowing everything down, after she's removed stakes and cages, and then she leaves all the chopped verdure right on the ground over the winter. This works well, except for certain squash vines and plants that you'd want to remove completely to reduce the possibility of spreading diseases that won't get killed off in the winter. The heat produced in composting these plants will get rid of the diseases.
Depending on the size of the garden, the fall cleanup is likely to take most of Saturday. My garden is about 30 by 80 feet, and with two of us working, the cleanup itself took four hours. Then I potted up several thyme plants, cut back the scented geraniums that had lost their foliage in the frost but whose roots were still good, potted those up, potted a celery plant, transfered the now-large rosemary to new pots, and brought all these down to the house for winter.
When cleaning up, be careful not to disturb vegetables that will continue to produce for a few weeks -- like spinach, kale (which will stay green into January), onions that you've put in for an early winter over, Chinese cabbage, Brussells sprouts (which will stay hardly through this month), snap peas or any others that might still be blooming, and celery that you don't wantto pot and bring indoors.
While it is still early to plan your garden for next year, it might be wise to consider, this next week, where your pole peas are going to go so you can set up trellises now to support them. Also, remember that in March you'll be putting in potatoes, onions and early members of the cabbage family, so you may want to cordon off an area that's convenient to begin next spring. Try to avoid putting in early crops or very late ones all the way at the farthest end of the garden; it's far more practical to have the first few vegetables clustered together where you'll pay some attention to them.
If you're raking leaves this weekend, don't throw them out. Bring them down and spread them on the garden. Some people go so far as to ask clean-up crews to bring over discarded leaves they pick up. I'm not sure I'd recommend this, unless you've had a soil test recently that suggested that your soil could use quite a bit of acid. Too many leaves throw off the balance of the soil.
But some leaves are good, especially if you mix them with straw, spoiled hay, peat moss, grass clippings or other non-acidy mulches. Even if you don't, and the layer is light, it's a better use of them than throwing them out. Besides, it's like doing two jobs at one time to rake and mulch in the same effort.
Still, next weekend is the time to get serious about winter mulches.