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The garden goes night-night

Garden chores wrapping up for the season, but some work and planning remain

November 18, 2013

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Late fall is a good time to assess your garden soil and to amend it with leaf compost, manure or peat, if necessary. Experts say fall is a good time to remove any debris from plants affected by disease or insects during the growing season to ensure problems don’t overwinter in the garden and come back in the spring.

WARREN — You may have a few herbs hanging on, but by now, the killing frost has likely driven most of the useful plant life from your garden.

Before you walk away for the season, ready to dream of spring, there are a few things you need to do to get your plots ready for planting.

It starts with cleaning up any problems from the year before.

“There’s a number of things to be aware of when you’re putting your garden to bed. The biggest thing is sanitation,” said Mary Gerstenberger, consumer horticulture coordinator for the Michigan State University Extension’s Macomb County office. “If there was any kind of disease, or you know they had an insect problem in there, a lot of those larvae can overwinter in the debris, or those spores can stay in the leaf litter.”

If all was good in the garden, with no pests or disease, loose organic debris can be turned directly back into the soil to compost. Gerstenberger said fall is a good time to take steps to start amending your soil, if needed, and that the best way to know exactly what your garden needs is by doing a soil test.

Since, by mid-November, it’s already too late to plant a cover crop, leaves from the yard can also be used to keep unwanted weeds from growing when the weather breaks. Any organic material left in the garden will need time to decompose properly before spring planting, however.

“If you leave it, it helps kind of smother some of the weeds that might start coming up in the spring,” Gerstenberger said. “Then, you would turn it over several weeks before you plant. Otherwise, you tend to take nitrogen from the soil.”

If more than leaves are needed, materials like Canadian peat and manure can be deployed in the fall and left until spring.

“A lot of the old-time gardeners and landscapers will put some compost or Canadian peat, and they’ll just let it sit there over the winter,” said Joni Makowski, store manager at Allemon’s Landscape Center, on Mack in Detroit. “You’re just adding more nutrients to the soil that have been depleted over the season.”

With the garden clean and ready for bed, it’s a good time for gardeners to turn their attention to planning. It’s time to order that new seed catalog and to start planning what you want to grow and where.

Gerstenberger said it’s a good idea to rotate crops within the space allotted for the garden. Pests and disease tend to reoccur if plants in the same family are left in the same place year-to-year.

When the garden is planned, row-covers and hoop-houses can help gardeners manage temperatures and get a jump on the growing season. Gerstenberger said seeds can activate in the ground when the soil temperature reaches about 40 degrees, so impatient planters can get going as soon as mid-March, in some cases.

The MSU Extension offers a website for growers at with tips on anything from lawns and trees to fruits, annuals and perennials. They also staff a hotline available from 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Friday in the winter months at (888) 678-3464.

About the author

Staff Writer Brian Louwers covers the cities of Warren and Center Line. He has worked for C & G Newspapers since 1998 and is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In his free time, he participates in the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program and conducts interviews with military veterans for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.


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