This is the time of year to put your flower and vegetable garden to bed, and start getting ready for your spring garden. Now that we’ve had some hard freezes, annual flowers and warm-season vegetables are finished and can be removed from the garden. Cut back browned tops of herbaceous perennials like salvias, phlox, lantana, cuphea, cannas, and others. Chop them up and throw them in the compost pile. I like to leave until spring the dried coneflower seedheads for finches to feed upon.
Ornamental grasses can be left standing a little longer so you can enjoy their textural contrast and movement in the breeze. Eventually they will start “falling apart”. When that time comes, wrap a string around the entire bunch before cutting them off at the base. Like bundled sheaves of wheat, you can quickly and easily clean up when you are done.
Cover bare soil with a layer of shredded leaves. They not only protect soil from eroding during hard, driving rains, but also suppress weed development, plus enrich and improve the soil as they break down over the next several months. Excess leaves can be gathered into large piles or bins and composted into a rich soil amendment for the garden next year.
What about getting ready for spring? You might think I’ve got my seasons all mixed up. But spring planting season will be here sooner than you think. I don’t seem to have the same stamina as I did in my younger days, so I enjoy the cooler days of winter to accomplish some of the more strenuous garden chores I’ve been putting off during the hot summer months.
But, that’s not the main reason for preparing for spring gardening activities. Experienced gardeners know that waiting just before planting time in spring to prepare the soil can be risky. Why? Because success gardening has much to do with timing, and Mother Nature often does not cooperate with our last minute time tables. Quite often it is rainy in February and March and one of the most damaging things you can do is to work your soil when it is wet. Cultivating wet soil, especially clay or loam soils, will destroy its structure, resulting poor internal drainage, and in general make a big mess.
A great thing about getting your garden soil ready now is that you can work in large amounts of organic matter in the form of free tree leaves or compost. The best thing you can do to improve the soil is to add organic matter. By working leaves into the soil now, they have time to break down before spring, resulting an excellent medium for plant roots to quickly grow and become established.
An easy way to incorporate leaves is to spread a 2 or 3 inch layer of leaves over the surface of the soil and till them in about 5 or 6 inches deep. Don’t try to add too much at one time or the tiller won’t do a good job of blending them with the soil. For better results, shred the leaves with a mower before spreading and tilling. If you have a source of manure, add and blend in a layer of that also. In essence, you are composting right in place.
Another way of improving your soil is to sow a “green manure” – a thick planting of a fast-growing cool-season plant that will be shredded and incorporated in late winter or early spring. These are also called cover crops since they provide a living, protective cover, helping prevent erosion and the growth of other weedy plants. Some options for a winter green manure include clover, vetch, bluebonnets (legumes that add nitrogen to the soil), mustard, and cereal rye (which also helps suppress nematodes – a microscopic soil-borne enemy of summer vegetables and flowers).
Cover crops need plenty of time to grow in order to produce the bulk of material, both top and root, to improve soil health. And, they need to be shredded and incorporated several weeks, perhaps up to 2 months, prior to planting. So, they might be best used in spots that will be used for a late spring or summer planted garden.
As I mentioned earlier, springtime can often be very rainy in East Texas, making it not only difficult to cultivate the soil, but also hard to find a window of time when you can plant, whether flowers or vegetables. Here’s a tip: after preparing the soil, create raised beds now, even just 4 to 6 inches high, to provide increased drainage. Raised beds dry out faster after a heavy rain, resulting in all-important aeration for young, tender plant roots which detest water-saturated soils. Another advantage to raised beds is that they warm up faster in a cool spring and give newly sprouted seedlings or transplanted plants better growing conditions for quick establishment.
Now is also a good time to get your soil tested. Many of our East Texas soils are strongly acidic, and plant growth is greatly improved by neutralizing that acidity with the addition of agricultural limestone. You cannot tell whether lime is needed by looking or guessing, and adding limestone could push the soil pH above a desirable level if the starting point not acidic. Samples of soil to be tested can be submitted to soil testing labs at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in College Station, or Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. Every County Extension office has the form for submitting soil tests to these university labs. Or download the form from the AgriLife Extension Soil Testing Lab at http://soiltesting.tamu.edu (click on ‘Submittal Forms’).
Testing your soil in the wintertime and applying any recommended ingredients now will give them time to react with the soil prior to planting time.