Garden Hangover? Five Treatments for the New Year

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Is your garden facing the New Year with a hangover? Return it to health now with these five treatments.


1) Remember the adage, “Out with the old…”

Are you having a hard time letting go of last year’s garden testimonials? You know, those withered tomato plants and dessicated squash vines that are sad celebrations of the past year’s harvest. Get rid of them now! Expired plant materials are an important overwintering spot for plant diseases and insect pests, so take advantage of a warm winter day and dispose of them before spring arrives. Don’t risk future disease problems by adding them to your compost pile, either – it can be impossible to find disease signs and symptoms on dead plants. And remember that most home compost piles don’t reach the extreme temperatures needed to kill fungal spores, bacteria, or even insect eggs (especially in winter). Help your garden start the New Year on the right foot by making last year’s disease and insect problems a distant memory.


2) Apply a winter blanket.

It’s not enough to remove last year’s spent plants – the soil in your garden needs protection from winter rains and freezes. If you’re garden hasn’t been tucked in for the winter with a cover crop, you’re negatively impacting your garden’s future productivity. Not only is the precious topsoil in your garden more susceptible to erosion, but it also isn’t getting the boost in organic matter and nutrients that a good cover crop provides. If you’re in a plant hardiness zone colder than zone 8, you’ve passed the window for good cover crop establishment, but you can still get a temporary fix to your problem by spreading a 1-inch layer of straw or leaves over your garden beds. These materials can be removed in the spring and added to the compost pile (or used as a garden mulch). If using straw, make sure that your source is weed-free, and verify that it has been produced on an herbicide-free pasture so that you don’t inadvertently add hurdles to the next garden season (check out this horror story from Growing a Greener World).

When last year's fava bean cover crop, didn't establish as well as I had hoped (I didn't plant until November), I supplemented with straw.

When last year’s fava bean cover crop, didn’t establish as well as I had hoped (I didn’t plant until November), I supplemented with straw.


3) Hold the fertilizer.

The fertilizer companies may tell you that this is a great time to add fertilizer to your garden beds to get ready for spring planting, but they’re in business to sell more fertilizer, right? A fair amount of fall- and winter-applied fertilizer (particularly nitrogen) simply leaches through the soil, making its way to the water table instead of your plants. This is especially true if you don’t have a cover crop established or if your soil contains little organic matter or microbial life for tying-up nutrients. And keep in mind that adding fertilizer to soil is analogous to taking a pain reliever for a hangover — they treat the symptoms, but don’t address the cause of the problem. Use the winter months to think about how you can build your garden’s fertility in a more environmentally-friendly and sustainable fashion, so that dependence on outside inputs is reduced or is no longer required.


4) Know what’s in your soil.

Speaking of fertilizer, this is a great time of year to find out if amending your garden beds is even necessary. New gardeners are frequently unaware that fertilizer applications can actually harm garden productivity, creating nutrient imbalances that invite disease, pests, and problems with vegetable development. Your local cooperative extension office likely offers soil testing at a much-reduced cost (mine does for free!), and you’ll beat the spring rush by submitting your sample now. You’ll also find out if you need to adjust your soil pH by adding lime to your soil, which is the one soil amendment that is best applied in the previous season, since it takes time to reduce soil acidity.

Or buy your own soil test kit!

Or buy your own soil test kit!

5) Start the New Year with a plan.

A new seed or nursery catalog arrives in my mailbox almost every day at this time of year. It can be really tempting to dive right in and submit seed orders in advance of the spring rush, but make sure that you have a place for all of those new seeds to sprout. Hash out a plan on paper or by computer spreadsheet. Don’t forget about the importance of crop rotation to discourage disease and pest pressure in the coming year. Find out if any the crops you plan to grow need special soil conditions (e.g., asparagus beds need alkaline soil, and blueberries need very acidic soil), so that you can begin adjusting the pH now. And if you garden in a small space like I do, use your “free time” now to learn about intensive gardening techniques like intercropping and companion planting.


Happy New Year! I wish you all an enjoyable and productive gardening year!


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