Putting the Garden to Bed

With just a few weeks left in the Chicagoland growing season, October is the month where you’ll want to monitor the weather fairly closely, as we approach the first frost. The first frost is usually a “light frost”, where nighttime temperatures are between 32F and 28F. At this stage, tender-leaved plants like cucumber, lettuce, and basil are damaged, while hardier plants like kale and cabbage will be fine reaching temperatures as low as 26F.

October is also the the time to get the garden ready for bed. This month you’ll want to:

-cut back perennial herbs like mint, sage, thyme, lavender and tarragon
-dig up rosemary and transplant to a pot for overwintering
-remove trellises and store flat on your garden plot or indoors
condition and protect your soil
-fully remove diseased plants from the soil
-pull weeds, especially weeds with seed heads forming
-harvest green tomatoes and basil when nighttime temperatures reach the upper 40s
-collect seeds
-mulch still-growing cool-weather plants, such as spinach, broccoli and kale (straw mulch and dry leaves are best)
-monitor for aphids
-transplant strawberries 

How to condition your soil:
Fall is when to add compost you’ve been making all summer. This is a great time to remove worm castings from your indoor bin or finished compost from your outdoor bin. You’ll create extra room to decompose additional plant debris generated after clearing your garden this month.

Haven’t been making compost? Can’t find it at a garden center? You can still add organic matter to condition your garden soil- soak some compost tea bags and water your garden with the brew, or incorporate used coffee grounds or tea into the soil instead.

Add 2-4″ of compost or organic matter (such as coffee grounds) to the top layer of soil, then scratch in with a rake to incorporate into top few inches of the bed (don’t turn the soil – just scratch it in.) Leaving the grounds or compost on the surface without incorporating into the soil can be counter productive – they may dry hard and form a barrier that is difficult for rain to penetrate.  This is also a good time to add soil amendments such as bone meal, blood meal, or potassium. These amendments are usually much more concentrated than fertilizers, and will release nutrients more slowly, so fall is ideal to get them in the garden so the soil is ready in spring. Be sure to get a soil test before adding any amendments – too much and you may burn your plants or alter your soil’s pH, making nutrient uptake difficult.

How to protect your soil:
If you’ve noticed your soil appears gray and hard in the spring, it may have not been fully protected from the harsh winter weather. To protect from erosion and improve the soil structure, cover the surface with plant material such as tree leaves, straw, or plants pulled from your garden. You can add any non-diseased plant or seed-free weed to make a thick mulch that will both protect the soil and add a little more organic matter.