Adding leaves to garden soil
You can mix shredded leaves in with the green plants to
create a balance of nitrogen (“greens”) and carbon (“browns”) in
your compost pile that will speed up the decomposition process.
A good balance of those elements can be obtained by mixing an
equal volume of shredded leaves and spent vegetable plants. The
finished compost can be worked into your vegetable garden’s soil
in future years to lighten heavy clay soil, and to improve its
drainage and moisture and nutrient-holding capacity.
This is also a great time to have your
soil tested if
you have not already done so. In Allegheny County, consumer soil
test kits cost $12 each, and come with detailed instructions for
taking a good soil sample and information to help you understand
your soil test results. Customers ordering multiple kits at one
time pay $9 each for the additional kits. (You should take
separate tests for vegetable gardens, lawns, flower beds and
fruit plantings since the lab’s recommendations are based in
part on what you intend to grow in the area being tested). Send
a check made payable to Penn State Cooperative Extension to Penn
State Cooperative Extension, 400 North Lexington Street,
Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write "Attn: Soil Test Kit" in the lower
left corner of the envelope.
If your test results call for the addition of amendments such as
phosphorus, it is best to apply them in the fall because they
move very slowly through the soil profile. Organic gardeners who
use products such as rock phosphate as a phosphorus source or
greensand as a potash source should also apply those in fall.
They take time to break down into a form usable by plants, and
should be more available to your vegetable plants by spring. It
is ideal if you are able to till these amendments in to get them
deeper into the soil profile so they are in the zone where the
roots of next year’s plants will be growing.
Fall is also a good time to till in a few inches of horse, cow
or chicken manure if you have access to it. Even fresh manure
will have cooled down sufficiently before you plant next spring,
and will add valuable organic matter to the soil. It is always a
good idea to apply a layer of mulch to protect the bare soil
surface through the winter. You can use clean oat straw or
shredded leaves. Two or three inches of mulch are sufficient.
Pull out and wash any stakes, ties (if you plan to reuse them),
and trellises thoroughly and allow them to air dry before
storing them for the winter. This is also a good time to care
for your gardening tools. Clean them thoroughly and coat metal
parts with oil. Some gardeners recycle used engine oil for this
task; you can use something like WD-40, too. Wipe down wooden
tool handles with linseed oil.
You can also do some planting in the fall. Garlic is always best
if it is fall-planted. You can order garlic from catalogs or
on-line sources, or find it at your local garden center. Avoid
using store-bought garlic meant for eating because it may have
been treated to prevent sprouting.
It is too late this year, but spinach can be planted in
mid-September. It should germinate and start growing before
frost kills the leaves. The roots will survive and push up new
growth in spring. Mulch your fall spinach planting with four to
six inches of shredded leaves or straw AFTER the ground freezes.
In this case, mulch is used to reduce fluctuations in soil
temperature by keeping the ground frozen. Winter’s freeze-thaw
cycles – especially when we do not have snow cover – are much
harder on plants than winter cold. Gradually pull the mulch back
as the weather warms in spring so the spinach starts growing and
rewards your efforts with an extra early treat!
Garden soil amendments
Planting Cover Crops like Winter Rye