Winterizing a Garden in February?

Q.  We just moved into this house in late December.  The previous owner has a vegtable garden full of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage, potatoes, pumpkin, red and green peppers, jalepenos, and I think grapes.  Unfortunately, the garden has not been tended to in months and I have no idea what I am doing, but i would love to give it a try this spring.  Is it too late to “winterize” my garden? If not what do I do?

A.  The first thing to do with any garden, after the harvest, is to remove all the old vegetation and clean the ground completely.  This is doubly important in your situation, where the plants have stayed in the garden for several months after the harvest.

Diseases and bugs have likely taken up residence in those places, and you need to remove all plant materials from the garden entirely.  If you can’t haul them off you should burn everything.

Before doing that, make a detailed map of which plants were growing in every part of the garden.  This is a classic case of the need to do crop rotation.  Do not plant nightshade plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant) in the same places where any of them were grown last year.  The same thing goes for squashes, and most other plants in the garden. 

You want to make it as difficult as possible for diseases and bugs to get re-established this year.  Bugs and diseases that love one variety may not do as well if a different variety of plant is grown in that spot for a couple of years.

If you can get a big propane torch and and burn the surface of your soil you might be able to kill some bugs and diseases.  Wait until the soil is thawed out, though, as you will want the heat to penetrate as deeply as possible into the soil.

Do not dig or till your soil until you have cleaned as much as possible according to the above instructions.  Putting these old materials into the soil only gives protection to the bugs and diseases that may be harbored there.

In the future, always harvest your crops at peak maturity, then immediately dispose of the plant residue.  If it is clean and disease free it is best tilled back into the soil.  Otherwise, remove it entirely from the garden area.

What about crop rotation – is it important?

There are three reasons for crop rotation:
1. Some crops utilize more of a specific nutrient than others, and by rotating crops soil fertility can be better equalized.

2. Some crops attract specific insects. By rotating the crops the cycle of insect build-up is minimized.

3. If a crop becomes diseased, rotating to a crop that is not susceptible to that disease can break the cycle of the disease pathogen.

All of these conditions are of only minor importance, however. When plant nutrition is really understood, fertility can be maintained easily. And by keeping a weed-free, clean garden and uniform, healthy, fast-maturing crops, insect and disease build-up are seldom experienced.