Clean the Vegetable GardenWhen I say clean the vegetable garden, you may think I mean to go buy bottles of Mop 'n Glo. Not exactly. What I mean is to remove any of the old remnants from your summer garden. Remove all the left over plants, weeds, and mulch from the planting area. You want your planting area to look like brand new for fall planting. I mostly use rows in my vegetable garden. I pull up all plants and weeds from the rows and pathways. Then I rake the mulch used in the rows into the pathways to give me a row of just naked soil. If you use raised beds, do the same thing. Remove any old plants, weeds, and mulch if you used any. The old plants and weeds can be added to the compost pile as long as the plants are disease-free and the weeds have not gone to seed. If either of these exist then discard them in the trash. You don't want that stuff coming back to haunt your vegetable garden next season!
Loosen the SoilWith all of the plant materials removed from the bed (or row), it's now time to loosen the soil. This can be accomplished by using an ordinary flat shovel, or a digging fork. Simply thrust the shovel into the soil about six to eight inches deep. Tilt the handle of the shovel down to slightly lift the soil, then just flip the soil over. Use the blade of the shovel to chop up the larger clumps of soil. That's it! Continually do the "thrust-tilt-flip-chop" action until you have the entire row or bed loosened. I like to do this at least twice for each row to make sure I have it loosened up well.
Amend the Soil WellWith your soil loosened up really good, it is time to start amending the soil. There are many different kinds of amendments, but the best is compost. I'm using a mixture of my own compost and mushroom compost I purchased from a local garden center. I can't make enough compost to support amending my rows so I have to buy some to compensate. I place the compost mixture in a wheelbarrow and then shovel it onto my row. I add a two to four inch layer of the compost mix on top of the loosened soil. Once I have the compost layer added I mix it in using the same "thrust-tilt-flip-chop" method I used for loosening the soil. This action helps to really mix the compost into the soil. If you have a small tiller that would work, too. I prefer doing it by hand because doing it mechanically tends to sling soil all over the place where much of it ends up in the pathways. I want my precious compost where it really counts, not where I'm walking. Once you have the compost mixed in, repeat the same process again. Add another two to four inch layer of compost and mix it in well. You can do this as much as you want depending on how much compost you have available. The more compost you add, the better your soil will become. I'm fairly limited on the amount of compost I have so I added two layers to my rows.
A quick word about amending the soil with manures. Remember to always use manure from a herbivore animal; never a carnivore or omnivore. In other words just use manure from horses, cows, donkeys, rabbits, chickens, alpacas, or similar animal. If using manure, make sure that it has been composted for at least six months. Never add fresh manure to your garden before planting. There is one exception - rabbit manure. Rabbit manure is safe to add directly to the garden.Depending on what I intend to grow in a particular row, I may add a couple other amendments to the soil. I want to plant kale in this row. Since kale is grown for its leaves it will benefit from a little more nitrogen content in the soil. Knowing this ahead of planting, I can amend the soil in this row to have a little more nitrogen. This can be accomplished in a couple different ways. One way is to add composted manures because they are a good source of nitrogen. Another way is to add worm castings, or an organic fertilizer with good levels of nitrogen. It's not a good idea to go crazy with nitrogen, because too much can lead to other issues. Since i don't currently have any composted manures I'm adding some worm castings to the soil. I will also add worm castings and compost mixed together in the planting holes when I plant my vegetables. And also an organic fertilizer called Garden-tone. Garden-tone has a N-P-K rating of 3-4-4. It is 3% nitrogen, 4% phosphorus, and 4% potash (potassium). This is a good foundation of nutrients and can be used with just about any vegetable. I lightly dust the soil with the worm castings and Garden-tone, then mix it into the soil using the "thrust-tilt-flip-chop" method with the shovel. Now my soil is loosened well and is amended with compost, worm castings, and Garden-tone. Use a rake to smooth out the top of the row. This will make planting and covering the row much easier.
Cover the SoilThe next phase of preparing the vegetable garden for fall planting is to cover the soil. Usually I use some type of organic mulch, like straw or shredded bark. I'm not even going to kid you - I had a difficult time with weeds this season. They were relentless, and if I pulled up one weed three grew back in its place. So, I decided to cover everything with black plastic sheeting. I removed the mulch from the pathways, lined them with black plastic, and replaced the mulch. I'm also covering the rows with black plastic as well. This will help suppress weeds much better and keep the soil warm once temperatures start to drop later in the fall. You don't have to use plastic. Use whatever you are comfortable with - whether that's straw, leaves, grass clippings,etc. I spread out the black plastic and anchored it down using landscape fabric pins, pulling the plastic tight as I anchored it. With the plastic anchored, I then added mulch around the edges to help hold it down. When I'm ready to plant I will cut a large "X" in the plastic, and fold the corners back to expose the soil.
Amending the Soil Is KeyIt is very important to amend the soil as heavily as you can when preparing the vegetable garden for fall planting. The summer crops have used quite a bit of the nutrients in the soil, so you need to add more back in before planting fall crops. Once the fall crops are done for the year you will need to repeat this preparation for upcoming spring crops. Any time you are planting vegetables in an area where you just grew vegetables you need to replenish the soil for the best possible results.
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