To pull or not to pull, that is the question. I know. It’s a cheap steal from a classic, but it fits this topic.
With fall here and winter approaching rapidly, many of us are seeing the end of our vegetable garden production and the withering of those beautiful plants we nourished all summer. As sad as it is to seem them go, it is part of the cycle. Part of that cycle is cleaning up the garden and getting it ready for next season. One chore that is inevitable is disposing of those plants. What is the best method of cleaning them out of the garden?
We try to mimic the natural ecological processes that occur in nature. That means that as much as possible, we let the living material in the garden compost (or decay, whichever you prefer), putting those nutrients trapped in the plant material back into the soil. We don’t just ignore the plant material on top of the ground and let it fall naturally onto the soil. We did remove those parts of the plants and put them into our compost pile, where we can more easily manage the bulk and keep it at least a bit organized.
However, we don’t pull the plants from the soil. We cut the plants stems as close to the soil surface as possible and leave the root system in place. There are several reasons we do this. The root system has already started to decay and compost itself back into the soil, especially if the plant is already turning brown. This process of natural decomposition is a booster shot to the soil biome. The return of that organic matter to the soil feeds all those creatures that are the workers in the soil creation process. As the plant roots decay, they leave voids in the soil, which aids in aeration and water infiltration. These voids also encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi, further increasing the soil tilth.
There are a few caveats to this advice. If your plants are affected by disease, we do recommend that you pull the plant and as much of the root ball as possible and dispose of it. Don’t try to compost diseased plants. Many home compost piles don’t get hot enough to kill many pathogens. Better to dispose of the plant than risk spreading it by infecting your compost.
Along with this advice on removing plants from your garden comes our every present advice.
Tilling destroys the soil biome and sets your soil building process behind. Disturb the soil in your garden (and your landscape for that matter) as little as possible. Cut your finished plants at the surface of the soil and compost the tops, leaving the roots in the ground.
Refresh your mulch if it is getting thin. If you are not going to plant a winter cover crop back into your garden, increase your mulch layer to at least 6 inches for the winter. A heavy layer of mulch will help maintain soil moisture levels and protect the top layer of the soil biome from the extremes in temperatures. Keeping that top layer of soil just a few degrees warmer will allow the larger organisms in your soil, such as the earthworms, to work constantly through the winter instead of migrating deeper into the soil and waiting out the cold weather.
If you can manage, plant a winter crop. You can choose a winter cover crop such as Austrian peas, turnips, or beets. Austrian peas are a legume and will help build nitrogen content in your soil. Turnips and beets can be harvest during the winter and, if given just a little protection, can survive some cold temperatures. Whichever you chose, the idea is the same. Living roots in the soil are one of the best ways to continue to build soil during the winter. Living roots encourage bacteria and fungi growth, which always leads to healthier soil.
That material that you pull or don’t pull from your garden is not trash. It is an ingredient in the organic material that will help feed and nourish your plants next season if you take the time to deal with it correctly and let nature do its job.
Links and Resources
For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.
If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.
If you have more specific questions or problems, you can contact us using the contact form on our website. You can also post your question to our community forum at this page; West Texas Organic Gardening Community Forum.
We have a Facebook page and love your comments, questions, or input. You can find us on Facebook using this tag. @westtexasorganicgardening