As the sun sinks lower in the sky, and you find yourself reaching for a jumper when evening closes in, autumn is beginning to make its presence felt.
After months of harvesting and processing, it may be with a sigh of relief when you notice the vegetable garden has peaked and starts to slow down. There are only so many zucchini you can eat! The freezer is full and couldn’t possibly fit another tomato, and every spare jar is filled with jams, pickles and chutneys.
At this time of year there is a strong temptation to down tools and walk away, promising yourself you’ll sort it out over winter. But really it is in your garden’s best interest to clear out the remains of summer and prepare for winter with the same care and attention you gave it in the spring.
If it’s time to clear the space and you still have green tomatoes clinging to the vine, you can harvest these. Hang the vines in a sunny greenhouse or put the fruit on a sunny window sill to ripen. Alternatively you could make fried green tomatoes or green tomato chutney. Nothing should go to waste in your garden!
Don’t pull out your beans, peas and other legumes – just chop them off at the base and dig the roots in, leaving them to break down. These will actually nourish the soil as legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules on their roots and will improve the quality of the soil.
As for those lingering summer crops, keep an eye out for that first frost as it will wipe them out overnight.
Clear away the remains of each crop as it comes to an end. Put it on your compost pile so it can give back some of the nutrients it has taken from the garden over the long summer months. However, if the plants show any sign of disease, don’t put them on the compost. Put them in the bin. Adding diseased material to the compost pile risks spreading disease around your garden, as the next generation of bugs will be lurking in your lovely, nutrient, rich, dark compost. In an ideal world the compost heap heats up enough to kill said bugs, but in reality this is unlikely in winter unless your heap is huge.
So, in your efforts to clean up your garden, there are some things that are better off not being put in the compost. Tomatoes at the end of the season are more likely than not to be harbouring diseases which aren’t destroyed by the composting process. The risk is that tomato pests and diseases also attack potatoes, peppers and eggplants, which are all in the same family. Your plants may seem healthy enough, but it really isn’t worth taking the chance. Burn them (if the restrictions in your area allow) or throw them out with the household rubbish.
With so much end of season debris at our disposal, this is a time when the compost pile can be filled quite quickly. For a beautiful, sweet smelling compost it’s important to keep the balance of green and brown material in proportion. You need about twice as much brown material as green. The brown matter provides the carbon element required and is generally in the form of twigs, and dry leaves. Paper will also help aerate the pile.
The green material comes from fresh leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste. This provides nitrogen which creates heat as it breaks down, helping the composting process turn your garden waste into the nutrient rich compost.
Once the garden is cleared, dig over your soil removing all traces of weeds and their roots. It is better to do this now before the soil becomes cold and wet in the winter. Digging sodden soil is very bad for it’s structure, besides which it’s simply not fun to be out there digging in the depths of winter.
You will want to use least some of your newly cleared space to grow some fantastic crops over the winter. For example, leeks, Brussels sprouts, silver beet, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beetroot, parsnips and carrots can all be sown now for winter meals.
Nature doesn’t like bare soil and will attempt to fill the garden with weeds if left for long enough.
For areas not planted in winter crops, there are various ways to keep your garden relatively weed free over the winter. You can spread a thick layer of compost or manure – the deeper the better. During the winter the earthworms will do a lot of the work pulling it into the earth to improve the quality of your soil. Alternatively, you could plant a ‘green manure’ crop which will crowd out any weeds and then enrich the soil when you dig it into the garden in the spring.
Cover crops or ‘green manure’ crops, such as lupin, mustard, clover, lucerne, broadbeans and buckwheat are grown from seed sown in autumn. They add value to the garden in a number of ways: