That last bite of a ripe tomato fresh from the garden doesn’t mean the end of your vegetable garden for the year. With a little bit of technology and know-how, you can stretch your garden’s production to the limit.
Using row covers and mulch, you can extend the harvest beyond the barriers of your hardiness zone. To give your garden the best possible start in the spring, plant a cover crop and plan to rotate crops in next year’s garden.
Row covers protect tender crops such as late-season tomatoes and peppers through the first frosts of fall. They extend the growing season by about a month, reducing the effects of wind and frost while still allowing air, water and light to get to the plants. Row covers dry quickly and are easy to set up. A bonus for pest-prone gardeners: Deer can’t see the vegetable treats hidden under row covers.
The covers are simple to use, either with support hoops or draped over the plants and pinned into place with rocks, pavers or landscape pins. During the day, the cover can be lifted so plants can soak up sunshine.
Hardy cool-weather crops such as cabbage, winter squash and greens will enjoy a cushion of mulch to help them through the first frosts of the season. Mulch also keeps weeds down and conserves water.
Before applying mulch, pull up old plants and weeds and discard them. Not every plant should go in the compost bin, however. It’s best to discard spent tomato vines in the trash because they may harbor diseases.
Loosen existing mulch with a spading fork, then dress with a 2-inch layer of mulch.
Not sure how much mulch to purchase? Consult the handy Mulch and Top Soil Calculator. You can also order mulch online and pick up your bags in the store.
Vegetable gardening takes a lot of nutrients out of soil, and certain kinds of plants can bring diseases and attract pests. For this reason, you may want to rotate your crops to keep edibles at their best year to year.
Rotating crops interrupts the cycle of diseases and pests that are plant-family specific, allowing the soil to replenish.
For example, tomatoes and corn are heavy feeders that will deplete the soil of nitrogen and phosphorus. Planting tomatoes in the same place each year will result in reduced crop yields and more susceptibility to disease and pests. By moving tomato plants to different parts of the garden each year, the soil will recover more quickly.
Crop rotation is a principle of large-scale farming and gardening, but the method can be incorporated in smaller home gardens by testing your garden’s soil with a soil test kit and adjusting the balance of nutrients.
Crop rotation begins with planning, either online or on paper in a garden journal. Group the vegetables in the garden according to their families — root vegetables, legumes, and fruiting plants. With each year, move the different families throughout the garden.
Even in a small home garden, planting cover crops can restore soil and improve next spring’s vegetable garden. Cover crops are often called “green manure” because they grow quickly and when turned back into the soil, they provide nutrients and help balance the soil.
Cover crops keep erosion in check, attract beneficial pollinators, aerate heavy soil and reduce weeds.
Legumes are a classic cover crop because they fix nitrogen into the soil. Tomatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders, so planting cowpeas or other legumes and turning them into the soil will make your garden tomato-ready come spring.
More choices for cover crops:
- Winter peas
- Hairy vetch
- Winter rye
- Crimson clover
Cover crops can be overtaken by weeds, so turn them over before they go to seed. After turning the soil with a tiller, wait two to three weeks for the crop to decompose before planting garden seeds. It’s possible the decomposing cover crop could inhibit the growth of the seed.
Cover crops can also be pulled up by hand and tossed in the mulch pile.