By Teresa Gale
October usually marks the close of Chicago’s growing season, with our first frost arriving around Oct. 23. This month you’ll need to monitor the weather closely. If there’s any chance of frost on a given night, harvest your most tender crops that day. You can leave cold-resistant crops in the ground for a few more weeks (they actually grow sweeter when exposed to cooler temperatures).
You’ve worked hard all season. Give yourself a break, if you haven’t already! Chicago weather can stay mild into November, so there’s no need to rush clearing out your garden beds. You might tidy up in stages as your plants start to die off, or save it all for a sunny day when you have the time. When removing spent plants, avoid pulling them out by hand. Uprooting plants, especially ones with large root systems like tomatoes and squash, can be difficult and messy. But more importantly, turning the soil in this way is disruptive to your soil balance. All those tiny soil-dwelling organisms are doing a fine job conditioning your soil and keeping it healthy, so disturb them as little as possible. Use pruning shears to cut off your plants at the soil level, so the roots that remain can break down into the soil by next spring.
“But it’s the end of the season. Why should I care about my soil now?” you might ask. Because with a raised bed, you use the same soil from year to year. Taking special measures to nurture your soil—before, during and after the growing season—can dramatically improve the health of your garden for years to come.
Most of your garden “waste” can actually be recycled. We recommend composting it rather than throwing it the trash. Simply cut your trimmings into small pieces and spread them directly back over your soil. They’ll start to decompose and immediately return nutrients to the soil (this is a form of “passive” composting, as it requires little effort on your part, except to set the process in motion and let nature do the work). The trimmings will also act as mulch to help insulate your beds over the winter. If any pieces remain in the spring, you can remove them or gently mix them into the top layer of your soil.
Some gardeners choose to compost continually throughout the year (not only at the end of the growing season) and find it a very meaningful practice. Fall is an opportune time to start, since you’ll likely have a surplus of garden waste you can use as raw materials.
You can compost all plant parts—leaves, stems, roots, unripe and overripe fruit—as long as they haven’t been affected by disease or pests. Sometimes bacteria and fungi can survive the winter, and bug larvae can linger on plants and emerge again in the spring. You don’t want any of that stuff coming back into your garden, so make sure to discard affected plant parts in the trash. Some organisms can also overwinter in the soil, especially if temperatures are mild. If you have diseased or pest-ridden areas of soil, remove them and put them in the trash, too. And set aside any stakes, trellises or tools that came in contact with diseased plants, as you’ll need to disinfect them.
Excerpt and illustrations from “Fearless Food Gardening in Chicagoland” reprinted with permission from the Peterson Garden Project. The book is available for purchase at petersongarden.org.