Putting your vegetable garden to bed

Unpleasant as it is to tuck your vegetable garden into bed for the winter, there are certain recommended steps to take so that next year’s garden will be just as good, or even better. If this task seems overwhelming, start with one vegetable bed at a time.

This is a good time to take copious notes to refresh your memory next spring. Think about what you grew and where you planted it, how it performed in that location, and any pests you needed to contend with, keeping in mind the advice of Shari Manley, store manager for Benedict’s Home and Garden in Monroe, who states, “All crops need to be rotated every year.”

Jeff Deorio, vice president of Reynolds Farms and Garden Center in Norwalk, concurs, and recommends taking notes on what worked and what didn’t in your gardens so you can plan for next year. “Think about periods in the garden that didn’t shine,” he advises. “If you are lacking spring color, plant some bulbs this fall.”

Daffodils, allium, and hyacinth are deer resistant, but if deer aren’t an issue, try some tulips, which come in a wide array of colors. “If you are lacking interest or color now, there is a wide assortment of fall perennials that you can plant, including sedum, ornamental grasses, Montauk daisies, and Echinacea are just a few,” he states. “You can also spruce up your planters and window boxes with ornamental peppers, kale and cabbage.”

The first step is to remove, clean and put away any supports, trellises or stakes. Then pull any remaining weeds, and remove all the dead and rotting plant material and vegetation to prevent the build-up of disease and harmful insects.

Sanitation of the garden is of utmost importance, says Bob Ferrigno, co-owner of Treeland Garden Center & Nursery in Bridgeport. “A high priority is to completely discard and dispose of all plants and roots instead of composting, as some insects and diseases will winter over in whatever plant material is left in the gardens.”

Soil testing

Fall is the best time to get the soil tested. These results will suggest what amendments, (additives to add nutrients), are needed to adjust the pH to create a fertile base for next year’s crop. Inexpensive home soil test kits, such as Rapitest from Lusted Leaf, are available online.

Plant a cover crop

Once vegetables, such as tomatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins and zucchini, have stopped producing, plant a cover crop. This should be done six-eight weeks before the average first frost. Kris Barker, the owner of The Gardener’s Center & Florist, in Darien, suggests planting a duo of field peas and hulled oats. “The pea plants will help by fixing nitrogen in the soil, which will make it more available to your vegetables in the spring. The oats will hold the nitrogen and provide valuable green matter.” He recommends using Botanical Interests Cover Crop Soil Builder peas/oats which can be found online and at garden centers.

“Although these plants will not survive the cold winter frosts, their dead plant material will act as mulch and help to prevent soil erosion,” Barker says. “Work the plant material into soil in the spring, and your veggie garden beds will be ready to plant again.”

Frost is forecast

When you hear these words, Manley suggests covering any plants still growing with sheets, overturned buckets or plastic row covers, which can be purchased at garden supply stores. “But this will prolong the inevitable only for so long,” she says, “as the declining light, and chilly daytime temperatures will naturally bring plant growth to a halt. Once a certain time comes, you’re done.”

Cold crops

“All vegetable plants don’t stop producing at the same time,” Manley says. Cold crops like carrots, spinach, beets and turnips will continue to grow. Cabbages and Swiss chard can withstand light frosts and parsnips will taste better when allowed to mature at near-freezing temperatures.

Nourish the soil

“Although it is not necessary, it is recommended and very cost-effective to add any bagged organic amendments to the soil now rather than in the spring when they will be more expensive,” says Barker. “Adding organic material now and mixing it into the soil gives it more time to break down.”

“Avoid leveling off the garden soil,” Ferrigno states. “The more irregular the garden, the more likely insects and diseases will be exposed to the cold winter, which, in some cases, will reduce or eliminate these conditions for the next growing season.”

It’s not too late to plant

There is still time to plant cool season crops in the vegetable garden now, according to Deorio. “Some of our favorites are broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and kale, and in mid to late October into early November, you can plant garlic,” he says. “In unused portions of the vegetable garden you can plant a cover crop of Winter Rye, Oats, or Buckwheat, which will add nutrients and organic matter to your bed…just turn it under in the spring, making sure that all greens are under the soil so it doesn’t reseed.”

Final touches

Add finished compost to the soil to give it time to break down and release its nutrients. The soil needs to freeze completely so add only a one-, two-inch layer of compost. Lightly cover this with winter mulch to help protect the soil and suppress weeds.

Taking stock

Look over your gardening equipment. Did a hose break? Do you need a new nozzle? Does anything need sharpening? Do the wooden handles on your gardening tools need oiling?

Next spring, when you’re anxious to get your hands back in the dirt, you’ll be pleased that you put this extra effort into putting your garden to bed in the best way possible.