For many gardeners, winter is around the corner. Here in the Midwest we've had freezing temperatures, sleetAmend the Soil Well With Compost, and even a small amount of snow. There are still a few cool, but sunny days left to prepare the vegetable garden for the winter in preparation for next spring.

After working hard during the garden season, it's always a little tempting to leave it all until warm weather, but by doing so, we would be inviting garden pests and diseases to invade our gardens. A few chores now will make a huge difference in next year's vegetable garden.

Clean, clean, and clean a bit more...

Whether you have raised beds, containers, a garden plot or a combination of all three, the key to preventing many diseases and pest invasions is to keep a clean garden year round.

Remove all dead plants, leaves, weeds and any plant matter left after the harvest. If it's healthy, toss it in the compost. If it's diseased or infested with any type of insect, then discard it or burn it. Once you've cleared all of the plant debris, use the leaf rake to pick up any small bits that may be left in the garden.

Gather any pots, tools, garden markers, hoses etc. and place them aside near a water source to deal with later. At this point, you should be looking at a clean, debris free garden or bed. This is a good time to grab a notebook or a journal
and jot down successes and failures, favorite vegetables, diseases and pests that were problems, watering schedules that worked well, new methods or techniques that were used, and anything that pops into your head that you may want to change during the next garden season. You could go so far as to sketch out plans if the urge strikes.

Now that you've rested while taking notes, it's time to dig or till
the garden. Insects often hide in the soil until spring, so disturbing the soil will help clear them out. It also prepares the soil for next spring, which means you'll have a head start on planting and less work.

At this point you can plant a cover crop such as clover, fava or soy beans, rye, winter wheat or hairy vetch are some common cover crops. Rye is a popular choice because it's inexpensive and grows quickly. The cover crop is planted in the fall, and tilled into the soil in the spring. The crop can protect the garden from erosion, soil diseases and pests plus it improves the soil by adding organic matter back into the garden. Different crops work best for each area, so consult with local garden centers, grain elevators or your university extension office website for suggestions.

An alternative to a cover crop, is adding a layer of compost, manure or other organic matter and covering that with a layer of straw or other material. There should be a total of four to six inches, no matter what material you use, in order for it to be effective. The organic matter will slowly decompose as it protects the soil from freezing and unfreezing during the cold months.

This is a good time of year to test your soil in order to find out what it is lacking, giving you time to work out a plan to amend the garden if needed. The county or state can do soil tests if you wish, or a test kit

can be purchased.

Depending on how large your garden is, these chores should only take one weekend to accomplish. This is a small price to pay for the head start these chores will give you in the spring.