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Garden Hygiene 101

So it’s October and if you planned your garden carefully you have a lot of harvesting still to come.

Hungarian Yellow Peppers

Yesterday's Pepper Harvest

However, most likely, a lot of your plants are slowing down and certain crops may have passed entirely, like my cucumbers below. What you see there is not a disease problem, but rather just the natural life span of the plant ending.

Dying Cucumber Vines

Dying Cucumber Vines

So is there anything you should be doing now? Yes, one very important task is to remove all of the dead plants from your garden. A lot of people just leave the vines or plants in place and wait to deal with them until spring. After a busy year tending to your garden I can definitely understand that impulse. However, this is generally not a good idea.

When you are maintaining your garden organically it’s important to employ what are known as good cultural practices. Crop rotation, culling (removal) of diseased plants or plant parts (individual leaves, fruits, etc), and companion planting are all examples of good cultural practices.

Many organisms responsible for disease and insect problems survive until the next growing season (called overwintering) in plant debris such as shriveled fruit or dead, dried up vines. So what you want to do is to remove this plant debris from your garden.

If the plants died of natural causes, such as a killing frost, then you can just throw them into your compost pile. Make sure you cover this plant debris with enough dead leaves or other “brown” materials so that composting will actually get started. Just leaving the plant materials on top of you compost pile isn’t really any different than leaving them in the garden.

However, if the plant died of a disease then you do not want to put it in your compost pile. In an ideal compost pile this might not matter because the pile would generate enough heat to kill the diseases on the plant debris. But most of us home gardeners do not have a pile that reaches that temperature, so if you put those diseased plant parts in your compost pile, then when you spread the finished compost on your garden next year, you are just putting the diseases back in your garden.

Therefore I have another pile, as far away from my garden as possible, where I throw any diseased plant part. This is a much more informal compost pile than what I use for my garden. For example, I don’t bother to maintain the proper green-to-brown ratio needed for an optimal compost pile. However, sometimes this means is that I can’t just throw diseased plant debris on this other pile.

Powdery Mildew on Squash

Powdery Mildew on Squash (closeup on inset)

This year my squash patch was infected with powdery mildew. Pretty much every plant got it, so I need to put the dead vines in my secondary compost area, but in addition to harboring the mildew spores, the vines act as an overwintering site for cucumber beetles. Since cucumber beetles carry another plant disease (bacterial wilt) I want to deprive them of the vines. So what I do with my squash vines is I let them dry out and then burn them in my barbeque grill.

One exception to removing plant debris from your garden is if you are trying to harvest seed from a plant that is a biennial. Biennials are plants that live for two years and don’t produce their seeds until their second year. Kale, beets, and carrots are all examples of biennials.

So while you’re doing your fall cleanup around your yard, don’t forget your garden.

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