Got lots of leaves? Don’t just put them in your yard waste bin! Use them to blanket your vegetable garden beds through the winter. (Even if you don’t have lots of leaves, you can probably rake some at your neighbor’s house, and they will be very appreciative!) If you have large leaves like big-leaf maple leaves, the best thing to do is mow them with your lawn mower to shred them a bit. Be sure to use the lawn mower bag for this, and don’t be surprised how quickly the bag fills up. If you have smaller leaves, you can use them as is. Just don’t use leaves that are diseased – go ahead and toss those in the yard waste bin.
Another way to put your beds to bed is to plant a cover crop. You can find various types of cover crop – crimson clover, fall rye, fava beans – at local nurseries. Toss it on the ground and scratch it in. It will come up even now in the dark days of winter. In the spring, you will need to chop it up and till in the green stuff and the roots. I must confess that I tried this only once many years ago. With a giant maple tree over my roof, it’s much easier to just use a nice leaf mulch. But cover crop is a great way to return nitrogen to your soil as well as protect it from the rainy winter.
Why should you bother doing anything to your vegetable beds anyway? Putting a mulch or a cover crop on bare ground (or just letting the chickweed grow) keeps the nutrients in your soil from leaching down through the soil, out of reach of your plants’ roots. And this is a great time of year to help build a healthy soil. By using a mulch or a cover crop, you are adding organic matter back into your soil. Here in the Pacific Northwest, much of our soil is heavy clay. I actually have the opposite problem – mine is a light, sandy soil, which dries out very quickly in the summer. For either extreme, organic matter helps build good garden soil. For clay soil, it helps to lighten the texture. For sandy soil, it helps add in water-holding ability.
So before you settle down for the winter with the newest seed catalogs, go out and put your garden beds to bed for the winter!