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This past weekend we tackled some vegetable garden clean up. The hailstorm from a few weeks back destroyed most of what was left; subsequent wind and rain finished off the battered remains. So, we replanted a few crops spread wood chips in the paths to control weeds and filled the remaining empty beds with a cover crop.
While many disease pathogens winter over on plant debris, an equal amount remain viable in the soil, which means we need to strategize to keep the garden relatively free of disease. Of course we can’t remove our soil but do take note of what was planted where so you can rotate crop locations next year. For example, tomatoes are quite susceptible to several soil borne viral and bacterial diseases so these should always be planted in different locations each year (with an average of three years off) to offset disease incidence.
We can do a few other things to help the health of the garden and soil over the winter months, too; once the garden has been cleaned up focus your attention on improving soil health. I have a habit of getting my compost, old manure or cover crops planted in the fall or early winter before the spring rush of chores. Plus, spring rains can sometimes delay our work so having it done before the planting season gets me one step closer to getting the garden in sooner than later.
Compost and old manure are self-explanatory, the more the better as they will improve drainage (no water-logged roots and a garden that can be worked sooner after heavy rains), water retention (moist, but not soggy because we also have good drainage), soil fertility (food for our plants slowly throughout the season in a form that can be taken up by the plant) and a healthy web of soil life (where earthworms, good bacterium, nematodes and other things work symbiotically with our plants).
Cover crops, or “green” manures work similarly, but have the added advantage of breaking up clayey soils as their roots sink deep into the soil; they help to control weeds as they act as winter mulch; and since most cover crops are legumes, they also take nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil. The nitrogen fixing capability of legumes is dependent on an association with soil-borne bacteria that colonizes around the nodules of the legume’s roots, which can be cultivated in healthy soil if you do not over work the soil with mechanical equipment (one of the reasons why I am an advocate of using broad-forks and garden forks to flip the soil instead of conventional roto-tillers). When spring comes the cover crop is turned into the soil acting as an organic amendment in the end. It totally helps to keep the soil from being water-logged, which has been an issue the last couple of springs. With a cover crop in place, I promise you can work a patch by hand shortly after a rain.
Cool season cover crop plants include various legumes like bell beans, winter peas and purple and hairy vetch as your nitrogen fixers. Oats and buckwheat have deep roots so they will break up clayey soils; oats and buckwheat will die out in the winter, but provide a mulch to control erosion and weeds. Annual rye will persist through the winter and begin to grow again in the spring when you can mow it and turn it back into the soil before planting. The weed control effect of cover crops is a great selling point for cover crops alone.
I have been amazed at how taking some simple natural measures to improve the soil of the vegetable garden have paid off over the years. We have excellent drainage, spend very little time and money on additional fertilizer practices throughout the growing season and have experienced only reasonable pest and disease pressure. Nothing is perfect, but the garden performs better each year — aside from hail storms — as we continue to actively improve the soil and remain diligent in removing debris at the end of the season.