Don't throw spent vegetables and annuals in the trash. Instead, take a few easy steps to make them work for you.
Face it: We're reaching the end of the gardening season. If we're lucky, we'll still be able to pull a few tomatoes off the vine and harvest some pumpkins and squash. But for the most part, we've seen the bounty of the harvest.
So what should you do with the vegetable plants still in the garden? Well, that depends on what kind of shape they're in, according to Charlie Rohwer, a research associate at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca.
Here's how he recommends dealing with spent plants:
Composting spent veggies, annuals and the dead stems from your perennials reduces waste and provides a wonderful, free source of organic material to add back to your garden. However, if you have diseased plants, it's best not to add them to your home compost. Most home compost piles don't get hot enough to kill any diseases.
Vegetables and annuals with signs of disease should be removed from the garden and taken to a municipal composting facility. So, as you clean out your garden, look for signs of disease. Plants with diseases on their leaves are easy to spot, but plants with diseased roots can actually cause more damage in the garden because those diseases can move into the soil.
To check for diseased roots, pull the plant out and give the roots a look and a sniff. If the roots are white and smell like soil, it's likely that they're healthy. If they are brown or blackish and smell rotten, you may have a plant with a root disease. A good rule of thumb: When it doubt, toss it out.
If you discover several plants with diseased roots, consider using a raised bed for your garden next year. Raised beds allow for better drainage, which cuts the risk of root disease.
If your spent vegetables and annuals look disease-free, consider burying them in your garden. If you have the space, this is an easy way to get rid of your old plants and it adds organic matter to your soil.
To bury your plants, just dig a hole deep and wide enough to contain the spent plants, put them in the hole and cover with at least 6 inches of soil.
In spring, you'll be able to plant that part of the garden, as usual.
Once you've cleaned out your vegetable garden, consider planting a cover crop to keep the soil from eroding. A mixed crop of oats and peas or annual rye works well. This crop will die over the winter and won't be able to be harvested, but the roots it produces will stabilize the soil. If you don't want to bother with a cover crop, cover the bare soil with an inch or so of compost.
Jeff Gillman, an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Minnesota, is the author of several gardening books.