Autumn is finally here, and many of us are experiencing relief from the lingering effects of summer’s heat. Gardeners are often more in tune with the changing seasons than most, as we look at our plants making the transition by dying back, dispersing seed, and preparing for the upcoming cold of winter. Although you may be doing some work to extend the garden growing season, most of us are also doing some garden cleanup, taking stock of our wins and losses, and shifting our focus. Let’s look at what you should be doing right now to support friendly pollinators and wildlife while preventing pests and diseases in next year’s garden.
Clearing Plants to Prevent Next Year’s Garden Pests
Although there are plants that can remain in the garden over the winter, there are some plants that need to be removed right now. Annual vegetable remains, especially, can be a potential haven for pests or diseases. Remove these old plants, especially any that were diseased or harbored pests like hornworms or squash bugs. Don’t compost diseased or infested plant material, but remove it completely from your garden site so your compost doesn’t cause issues with next year’s crops.
Another aspect of pest prevention might surprise you, but it’s an important one. Collecting and storing seeds from this year’s healthy plants can give your next year’s garden a big head start, and save you money, too. It’s a self-reliant way to conserve plant diversity. Choose seeds from your healthiest plants, and next year you’ll be starting with seeds that are uniquely acclimated to your garden's conditions.
Crop Rotation: A Natural Defense
Crop rotation is another valuable tactic to disrupt pest cycles and combat soil-borne diseases. Changing up your plant location also helps to prevent nutrient depletion in your soil, as different crops have different needs. As fall unfolds, make notes on what you planted this year and start planning for where you’ll need space in spring. While considering next year’s planting, consider which plants you want to leave in place for birds and beneficial insects.
Leave Some Plants for Beneficial Wildlife and Pollinators
Although much of the garden is past its prime, some plants, especially wildflowers, still have a lot to offer. Sunflowers, coneflowers, and wildflowers that still have their seed heads intact will be a lifeline for birds in the colder days ahead. It may look untidy, but leaving the “bones” of these plants intact can save you some work, too. You’ll often find that many of these plants have simply decomposed by that time. If the plant is prone to reseeding itself, next year your beds may spring to life without any extra work!
Fallen leaves from trees also have a place in the home vegetable garden. As we’ve already discussed, you can rake them onto your beds to create a layer of mulch that will slowly decay over the cold season. This improves soil quality and texture, suppresses weeds, and also gives cover to garden-friendly insects like native bees and fireflies.
Consider Cover Crops
Although we sometimes talk about leaving the land idle, in reality, the soil thrives when there are plants preventing erosion, compaction, and nutrient depletion. That’s why fall is a great time to add a cover crop to your garden. Cover crops are great ways to improve your soil on the off-season. They minimize erosion, suppress weeds, and build the soil’s nutrients. When it’s springtime, these cover crops can be cut down and used as mulch, where they’ll naturally enrich the soil
for the new planting season.
If you’re interested in no-till methods, fall is a great time to prepare. No-till gardening focuses on letting nature do the work instead of turning over the soil seasonally, which disrupts soil structure and the beneficial microbial life within. This preserves the ecosystem below the surface of the soil, encouraging earthworms and other beneficial organisms to aerate and improve the soil naturally. It also improves water retention, reduces soil erosion, and enhances the overall fertility of the ground.
Now that autumn is in full swing and the leaves are falling, take time to enjoy the harvest and appreciate the work your garden is still doing, right now. By working together with nature, respecting the cycles of life, and understanding the interconnectedness of all beings, you can enjoy a healthier, more diverse, thriving garden that supports you and your family for years to come.