Putting the Vegetable Garden to Bed

Putting the Vegetable Garden to Bed

Part of Ep. 505 Putting the Garden to Bed

Join Sharon Morrisey, UW-Extension home horticulture agent, as she demonstrates how to save time by composting in the garden.

Premiere date: Sep 30, 1997

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
You know, it seems like in the fall, I spend an awful lot of time cleaning up the vegetable garden. We're in Milwaukee County with Sharon Morrisey, UW-Extension Home Horticulture Agent. Sharon, I spend an awful lot of time in the vegetable garden. I understand you have some tips that may save me a little extra effort?

Sharon Morrisey:
Yep, composting right in place. It's called sheet composting, laying down a layer of organic matter right in the garden. And then doing the fall soil preparation, so that in the spring, you can get into your garden earlier, without doing a lot of digging.

Shelley:
You mean I don't have to drag it all out to the compost bin and drag it back next spring?

Sharon:
That's right. And that's essentially what you do with composting. Why take the stuff out of the garden if it can break down right in the garden? So, something like these pepper plants, here, I would just chop those up into small pieces and lay them out over the surface. All this mulch can be worked in, too.

Shelley:
Just dig it right in, then?

Sharon:
Right.

Shelley:
What about-- I've always been told that one of the reasons you clean up everything is for sanitation and disease issues and the whole concept of crop rotation.

Sharon:
That's right. And it's still a very good idea to rotate crops. And you should remove any diseased plants, too. A good rule of thumb is that if anything has died prematurely, take it out. It may be a problem. There are some things that are definitely a problem, like on this tomato. We're all pretty familiar with tomato diseases.

Shelley:
There are a lot of them, too.

Sharon:
Patorial Leaf Spot is probably the most common one. You can see some spotting on these leaves. This plant doesn't have a whole lot of that, but I'd try and remove as much of that damaged plant material as I can. The good green stuff on top that hasn't been affected by the disease, you can just chop up and leave in place.

Shelley:
Would I put the damaged stuff into my compost bin instead, then?

Sharon:
No, it's a good idea to get that off the property if you can. Or, bury it someplace else on your property where you're not going to be gardening.

Shelley:
If it looks sick, keep it away.

Sharon:
Yeah... except, something like this...

Shelley:
This looks sick.

Sharon:
This is a good sick one! This is Powdery Mildew. On the Cuc-hair-bits (not cucumbers!) and the squash plants, we had a lot of Powdery Mildew this year, which we pretty typically do. But Powdery Mildew is an organism that doesn't last a long time in the soil, and it's not very long lived. So, it probably won't cause too much trouble next year.

Shelley:
So, again, we chop it up and till it into the soil.

Sharon:
That's right.

Shelley:
What about-- well, I think of vines and in fact, stuff like this is real hard to break down, even in my compost bin. Are there other things like that?

Sharon:
Well, in that case, you can either chop it up, leave it in place and rake it out in the spring. Or, you can just take it out right now in the fall, chop it up and put it in your compost pile. A lot of us work the compost pile, throwing back the things that take a little longer to decompose. Corn stalks are a good example of that, too. They really break down very slowly, so it might be better to take it out this fall.

Shelley:
Of course, we can speed up anything that breaks down by chopping it.

Sharon:
Yep, it's one of those concepts of composting.

Shelley:
The smaller the chopping, the quicker it's going to break down.

Sharon:
That's right. And with sheet composting, if you could chop things up into small pieces, you can use any kind of tool to do that: loppers, hand pruners, some people use machetes. Cut it up into as small pieces as you have time to chop it up into. Again, the smaller, the faster.

Shelley:
So, if I'm in a hurry, two-foot chunks!

Sharon:
Right, leaving it whole!

Shelley:
Just chop it up, then.

Sharon:
Right. Then, as you work that into the soil, you're kind of providing those conditions that you find in a compost pile: It comes in contact with soil micro-organisms, there's moisture and there's air. And that's what composting is.

Shelley, here's a few things that you may want to take out as you're preparing the soil this way. This year's vegetables that you didn't harvest are not going to make it this year anyway. If you work those in, you may have some volunteer plants next year from them.

Shelley:
You might have some surprises, but it's not a real crisis, unless you want a clean garden.

Sharon:
That's right.

Shelley:
And speaking of a clean garden, though, what about the weeds and the weed seeds?

Sharon:
Well, some weed seeds will germinate if you leave them in the garden.

Shelley:
Uh, oh!

Sharon:
But remember that you're going to be working those under and most weed seeds do need light to germinate. And since they're going to be buried, they're not going to have the light. And you're not going to be working it up much in the spring. So, as long as you don't disturb it a lot in the spring, those weed seeds won't germinate again next spring.

Shelley:
So, again, for preventative-- get out the ones you can, but don't panic.

Sharon:
Right, it's no great big deal.

Shelley:
Okay, now you've got some of your organic chopped up material here. What's the next step?

Sharon:
I started with a layer of that chopped up organic matter from this year's garden. There's not a whole lot of it there. You can put up to a couple of inches of organic matter on there. So, I will add some stuff that we've got. You can add any kind of organic matter, a couple of inches deep. And then, just start working it under.

Shelley:
Now, are you going to go back and dig this up fine? You're leaving really big chunks of dirt I see.

Sharon:
Nope. And you don't really need to, because the winter is going to do the work for you.

Shelley:
How so?

Sharon:
Well, the matter that's in that soil is going to freeze and thaw over the winter. And as it does, it's going to break those clods down. And then in the spring, it will really be broken down pretty well.

Shelley:
So, that's really one of the advantage: the winter is doing the fine digging instead of us.

Sharon:
That's right. If we get it done this fall, there's not much to do next spring. And we can get into our gardens earlier next spring, too, because the soil is going to warm faster because it has more air in it. And it's also going to dry out faster. So, those early spring season crops that are hard to get in because the soil's too wet may have a chance if you do your fall preparation.

Shelley:
You know, that's always been a frustration. A lot of those really early crops-- leeks come to mind, some of the lettuces-- they say, plant in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked. Well, in Wisconsin, sometimes that's June!

Sharon:
Right.

Shelley:
It's too wet!

Sharon:
You'll miss those crops all together some years because it's too wet.

Shelley:
Exactly, it's too hot by that time. So, what are we doing in the spring, then?

Sharon:
In the spring, all you need to do is get your rake, rake out all the big pieces that haven't decomposed over the winter.

Shelley:
The big chunks of corn stalks...

Sharon:
Corn stalks, vines and things that may not have decomposed. Cut your furrows and plant your seeds.

Shelley:
Oh, wonderful! How easy. Thanks, Sharon. So, if you get a head start this fall, you're going to get a head start next spring, too.

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