For many backyard gardeners, fall signals the wrap up of the gardening season. Maybe there are a few tomato plants hanging in there. Hopefully you have some fall greens, such as collards or kale. Certainly, things are slowing down in the vegetable garden. But before you put away your gardening shoes for the season, take a look at this checklist for some things that should get done before winter is upon us.
SOIL TEST: You knew this was going to be No.1. We in Extension are obsessed with soil testing. Has it been more than two years since you took a soil test? People tell me, “Oh, I just took a soil test a couple of years ago…” and when I go to the N.C. Deptartment of Agriculture site to check, nothing is there.
NCDA holds on to soil test reports for three years before deleting them. If your old test isn’t there, time to do it again. Never taken a soil test before? Make the resolution to do this one thing, if nothing else, on this list. You will be surprised the difference it can make in your garden — assuming, of course, that you follow the recommendations in the report.
After you submit your soil test (the Extension office can help), it will take 10 days or so to get your results back. You have plenty of time this fall to apply the lime and other amendments, if recommended by the report. Soil tests are free by the N.C. Deptartment of Agriculture, except from the period between Nov. 27 and March 31, when they are $4 per sample. Also, during this period, sample turnaround time goes from 10 days to four weeks or longer. So why wait? Go ahead and take that soil test.
The soil test shows your soil pH (level of soil acidity); our sandy soils are very acidic, and lime is frequently needed to raise the soil pH for vegetable production. The correct soil pH is essential for plants to access fertilizer that may be present in the soil; if soil pH is too low, or even too high, plant nutrients could be either unavailable or possibly even toxic to plants.
COVER CROP: Cover crops are either cool-season or warm-season, and include such plants as cereal rye, various clovers (these are cool-season), or for summer, sorghum-Sudangrass or iron and clay pea, to name a few.
Cover crops are beneficial in many ways. First, by keeping plants on the soil surface, they help weed seeds from getting established on bare soil. Often, as the growing season ends, there are still nutrients left in the soil; by growing a cover crop, those nutrients are captured and held for next year’s crop. If a member of the legume family is planted (such as clover), the cover crop can “grow” a substantial amount of nitrogen, which can then be used in the spring.
As if all this wasn’t enough, some specific cover crops, such as members of the mustard family, can be grown to inhibit pathogenic nematodes. Pathogenic nematodes, microscopic worms that live in the soil, feed on plant roots and generally make plants weak and unproductive. If you’ve ever pulled up a wimpy looking tomato plant and saw weird looking roots, you probably had a run in with root knot nematode, just one of several problematic nematodes. If you run out of time to plant a cover crop, at least cover the soil with fall leaves, old straw, or pine straw. Just keep the soil covered.
CLEAN UP: Don’t walk away from the summer garden, leaving the detritus of the last vegetable crop lying on the ground. Often disease inoculum or insect pest eggs or pupae are associated with crop residue. At a minimum, deeply till crop residue into the ground, where soil microbes can act on them. Better yet, add to the trash or burn pile (only put in the compost pile if you are a very astute composter. In theory compost temperatures will reach levels to kill pests; in reality, many compost piles don’t reach that desirable 120 degrees).
TAKE CARE OF TOOLS: Drain gas lines of mowers and tillers, wipe down wooden handles of tools with linseed oil, stick the working end of shovels, trowels, and loppers in a bucket of sand laced with linseed oil (some people use motor oil), to keep the rust away. Sharpen pruners and loppers now, before they’re put away for winter.
With all these things to do, you won’t need to busy yourself with chores you’re not supposed to do in fall, such as heavy pruning of trees and shrubs, and fertilizing your warm-season grass.
Questions on fall gardening tasks? Contact your local Extension office at 910-997-8255.
Paige Burns is assistant horticulture agent at the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Richmond County Center.