November in the Vegetable Garden
As wet as the 2018 gardening season was, 2019 was hotter and drier. Instead of issues with fungi and mildews, we had to battle thirsty small mammals and insects. More manual watering means a greater time commitment and for those of us with home water limitations, a nerve-racking requirement. I was appreciative of the efficiencies of my raised beds this year and worked at mulching to reduce watering needs. Gardeners are nothing if not adaptable.
For some of us, November means a focus on nurturing cool weather crops a little longer with row covers, cold frames, or greenhouses. See Cleve Campbell’s article Extending the Gardening Season from the September 2018 Garden Shed for guidance.
For others, it’s clean up time. This means removing all old vegetation and produce, especially diseased material. Good hygiene now will reduce disease and insect risks next season.
Once you get the garden cleaned, there are a couple of steps that, taken now, will benefit your garden in the spring. Tilling organic matter into the soil in the fall, allows decomposition to progress over winter and will improve soil characteristics in next year’s garden. Compost and chopped leaves are good candidates.
Photo: Raised bed winterized with a layer of organic mulch
After the soil is amended, it’s wise to protect it over the winter with a mulch or cover crop. An organic mulch applied now will help moderate soil temps over the winter, reduce nutrient and carbon loss and enable you to plant earlier in the spring. Again, leaves are a convenient mulch for many of us. Run them over a couple of times with a lawn mower and spread a 2-3” layer on the soil. Straw, wood chips, sawdust and other organic mulches are also good but leaves generally need to be dealt with anyway, are cheap and break down quickly, so are a great option.
Photo: Crimson clover growing in as cover crop in raised bed
Cover crops are another alternative and maybe a preferable one. It’s best to start them about a month before frost, so, depending on the weather, it may be late for planting. But if the warm weather pattern holds a few weeks longer than usual, germinating a cover crop may be possible. Rake the garden surface smooth, broadcast cover crop seed per directions, rake lightly and irrigate. Winter kill cover crops will die off after a few hard frosts and the dead vegetation serves to protect soil, hold weeds down and provide organic matter in the spring. Winter hardy cover crops will grow slowly or go dormant in winter but restart in early spring. Legumes will enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen in their roots, reducing compaction and building soil structure. In the spring, cut the tops prior to their going to seed and turn it in or compost it. As noted last month, more information on cover crops can be found in earlier Garden Shed articles including Cover Crops from September 2015 and Minimum Till Cultivation from the February 2019 issues.
Photo: Fall leaves and grass clippings getting a compost batch underway
November is also a good time to start a compost batch. Final lawn mowing and leaf removal generate a great mix of nitrogen and carbon based organic materials to get decomposition started. Microbial activity will definitely slow down during the dead of winter, but with a little mixing to keep it aerated and good moisture management, it will be primed to take off as temps rise in early spring. It also provides a place to deposit kitchen fruit and vegetable cuttings during the winter to give the pile a nitrogen boost that will speed the decomposition process and help get the compost to a ready-to-use state for next summer’s gardens. The finer you chop the materials, the faster they will break down. Check out this article from the January 2018 issue of The Garden Shed for detailed advice.
November may be your last chance to get your garden documentation in order. Knowing what you planted and where you planted it is important. Good crop rotation practice helps minimize disease and insect issues next year. Also, noting the crops and varieties that did and didn’t do well provides guidance as you shop for seeds and plants for next year’s garden.
Other tips from the Extension Service include:
- Root crops such as carrots, radishes, turnips and parsnips store well outdoors in the ground. Just before the ground freezes, bury these crops under a deep layer of leaves or straw. Harvest as needed during the winter months.
- If you are a fruit grower, November is a good time to mulch fruit trees. Extend 2-3 inches of mulch to the edge of their canopy, but keep it a few inches away from the trunk to prevent potential rodent damage.
- Early November is a good time to plant most new fruit trees. Mulching advice is the same as for established trees.
- Fallen, spoiled or mummified fruits should be cleaned up and destroyed by burying or placing them in the trash. Good sanitation practices reduce re-infestation of insects and diseases in the following seasons.
- Mulch strawberries with straw or leaves. This should be done after several nights near 20ºF but before the temperature drops into the teens. Apply the straw or leaves loosely but thickly enough to hide plants from view.
- Now is a good time to collect soil samples to test for pH and nutrient levels. Organic amendments are typically slow acting so application in the fall improves soil for spring planting. A free soil testing kit is available at your local Extension Office. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Extension Office is located in the County Office Building on 5th Street Extension, 460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville. Tel. (434) 872-4580.
- Don’t forget the garden hoses: drain and roll up and store on a warm sunny day. It’s difficult to wind a cold water hose into a tight coil. Also, be sure to shut off and drain rain barrels, outdoor water pipes and irrigation systems that may freeze during the cold weather.
- Rhubarb plants that are four years old or more can be divided and transplanted. Prepare the site by digging deeply and incorporating compost. Your efforts should be rewarded with a good yield in upcoming years.
- Prepare a spot in the garden NOW for early planting of peas. This way you’ll be all ready for planting peas in the spring, before the soil dries out.
- Tidy up the asparagus bed. Cut off the tops of the plants to about 3-4″ above the soil level. Weed, and add a winter dressing of compost or aged manure to the bed.
- If you have been thinking about installing a deer fence around your vegetable garden, the fall and winter months are a good time to build it.
Cover photo: ufl.edu, Molly Jameson
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Albemarle/Charlottesville, November Monthly Horticulture Tip Sheets, Va. Coop. Ext. Monthly Tip Sheets