When seed catalogs come out in the early spring, eager gardeners can be spotted trudging through the snow to plan out where they'll plant their zucchini and zinnias. And after a long, hot August of weeding and watering, many gardeners pick their …
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When seed catalogs come out in the early spring, eager gardeners can be spotted trudging through the snow to plan out where they'll plant their zucchini and zinnias. And after a long, hot August of weeding and watering, many gardeners pick their final harvest and let the cooling temperatures and first blanket of frost lull their garden to sleep for the season.
Here in Colorado, however, putting a garden to bed properly for the winter can be just as important as waking it up in the spring. A few simple steps taken this autumn can lead to an easier, more bountiful harvest next year.
While leaving a bit of stubble from harvested crops is becoming more common in field crops to prevent soil erosion, it causes more harm than good in a home garden. Pests and diseases, such as aphids and powdery mildew, are able to winter over in Colorado as eggs and spores, and leaving old tomato plants and squash stems in your garden beds give them a place to wait out the winter months under the snow.
After the first frosts, pull out all your leftover crop material and throw it on the compost pile. The exception to this is any bean or pea plants. Legumes — members of the Fabaceae family — are able to add necessary nitrogen to the soil using a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria around their roots. Snip these off at the soil level and leave the roots and their helpful bacteria in the ground for next spring.
As your garden grows, plants take up nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in large quantities, along with smaller amounts of other micronutrients such as magnesium and iron. Different plants need different amounts of these essential elements, which is why it's a good idea to rotate crops from year to year between heavy feeders, such as garden greens and tomatoes, and lighter feeders like beets and other root crops.
Adding compost to the top of your garden beds each year is a great way to make nutrients more available for all crops. A 3-inch layer laid down in the fall will break down slowly over the winter and improve both fertility and water-holding capabilities for plant roots later on. Spreading compost in the fall rather than the spring means fresh compost will not “burn” tender seedlings with high levels of ammonia.
Many people think mulch is only for perennial beds and under trees, but a heavy layer of leaves or grass clippings on top of your composted beds will hold in moisture, keep temperature more constant and prevent weed seeds from taking hold in your vegetable garden as well.
Rather than bagging them, spread fallen leaves thickly onto your beds and let them sit through the winter. They will not break down much but will be easy to rake back in a thick layer and compost in the spring, exposing warmer and more nutrient-rich soil for planting in March.
Not only will this method protect your garden soil, it will save your back from all the bagging and raking and give you time to sit back and enjoy your bountiful back yard.
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