Fall Tips for a Better Spring Garden

Spring is usually the time that brings us gardeners out to till and plant. We go out on the first warm day and dig that garden we plan in the winter. Some planning now can give us fertile beds that are ready for spring planting. And without the muscle strain of all that digging.

Vegetable patches or flower gardens will benefit from a little work this fall. When you have selected your site, taking drainage, sun exposure and your desires for your plantings into consideration you can use time-tested techniques to get fluffy beds that are charged with fertility. Combining layering and cover crops will be gentler on your body and leave soil structure undisturbed. Earthworms and other beneficial organisms will bless your soil, and weeds will be choked out.

Making your bed takes a few simple steps. Start with a layer of black-and-white newspaper. Lay it directly on top of the grass or weeds and thoroughly wet it. A nice thick layer (use 10 to 15 sheets of newspaper) will smother weeds and sod. The decaying green matter will form the foundation of your spring bed.

Pile on a couple of inches of moist topsoil to weigh down the paper layer and speed up the decomposition of the sod below. Spread any fallen leaves, grass clippings, or well-chopped kitchen waste you might put into your compost pile onto the bed. Check the Cooperative

Extension Service fact sheet on composting for tips on what to use - or not. It's available on line at www.agnr.umd.edu.

Add a thin layer of soil or finished compost to sow your cover crop seed into. While you're emptying flowerpots in the fall, toss the leftover potting soil onto the new bed.

At this point, plant a fall cover crop directly on top. Give your cover crop several weeks before the first hard frost to become established, and some will tolerate cold temperatures.

Cover crops offer many benefits. Their roots will hold the soil in place, while reaching down to break up compacted soil below. Legumes will add nitrogen to the soil as they grow.

Even if winter kills off the cover crop just turn it under to add organic material to your new bed.

While you peruse the plant catalogs in the dead of winter, your new garden will be at work readying for spring. The layers of organic material will decompose giving you a rich new bed for planting.

In spring turn the cover crop under before it sets seed. If you have a large area you may want to mow before turning under. Allow the tilled soil 2 weeks to rest before planting.

Cover crops to try: annual rye grass, crimson clover, fava bean and hairy vetch.

But even if you don't top your layers with a nutritious cover the layering alone is a great way to get a bed started. And remember that fall is a great time for planting trees, shrubs and perennials.

To get some ideas on working with established beds or starting a new one stop by the Extension office in Frederick. The Master Gardener's demonstration garden is flourishing. A new bed is in the works, too. You can get in at the "grass roots" level on how Frederick County Master Gardeners are smothering turf and preparing for fall plantings of native plants in our largest demonstration garden yet: a native habitat garden.

Article by: Teresa Gallion - www.emmitsburg.net