Prepping Your Garden for The Next Growing Season

William H. McCaleb, Blog Contributor
Program Assistant for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Halifax County, VA. and Master Gardener

For gardeners in the eastern U.S., last year was a better than normal gardening season. Better than normal yield, better than normal precipitation, and in our case in Virginia cooler than normal which yielded excellent spring cool season crops as well as early summer crops.

But all good things must come to an end; that being the result of several heavy frosts.   With that said, I am looking forward to next year’s challenges and what I want to grow for our family. Oh, for the taste of one more summer ripened tomato, but for now, that is a dream and it is time to reflect on what grew well in the garden as well as what didn’t do so well.  Hopefully you have kept a garden journal to help you in this task. I find that writing down details of what is planted, the orientation, spacing, fertilization/liming rates and frequency, weekly rainfall amounts, production amounts, etc. is helpful as you start planning for the next season.

Like me, you should start thinking about what you want to grow in 2015. Take time to reflect on your 2014 garden production, care, and location. Also, evaluate what went right and what went wrong with the plants and varieties you planted and harvested. This will start you off in the right frame of mind in preparing for the next growing season. Good planning and preparation for next year gives you the tools to have an even better gardening season. A successful vegetable gardener is a happy well fed gardener!

I know, you too are already missing those fresh tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash, okra, and other great home grown vegetables we treated ourselves to this year, but the next season is ‘just around the corner’ so to speak. After all the days are getting a little longer. Spring can’t be far away!

If you just happen to live in an area that hasn’t had frost yet, take your prompt from your plants: when annuals and seasonal vegetables turn brown and begin to die back, it is time to clean up your garden.

Clean up the Garden
Your best action is to remove any spent or failing plant materials. Experienced gardeners know that many of the bacteria, fungi, and other disease-causing organisms that caused those diseases. Pathogens that are sources of those diseased plants this past season can survive over the winter in dead leaves, stems, roots, and dropped fruits that get left in the garden. Much like a piece of bread that is kept too long and looks like it has penicillin growing on it, garden debris also will carry the pathogens that can come alive with those same problems when the temperatures begin to rise in the spring. Prevention of diseases and insect infestation now, will keep you from a repeat of problems in next year’s garden.

A good leaf rake, given enough ‘elbow grease’, works well in getting the bulk of dead plant material out of your garden. If you experienced early or late blight or other tomato related diseases this past growing season, you want to make sure you reduce, to the best of your ability, the risk of repeating that problem again next year. Yes, there are many new varieties of vegetables available today that are ‘resistant’ to some of these diseases, but ‘resistant’ does not mean they are immune to them. You don’t want to take the chance of returning pathogens, so do a good job, cleaning and ‘sanitizing’ your garden now. Make sure, when removing the plant debris, that you totally destroy that debris so that no pathogens are left behind.

To Compost or Not!
Can you compost this dead plant material and use it next spring? Information that you find from Extension offices across the U.S. will recommend that you do not. The reason being is that most people do passive composting i.e. put it in a pile, and then using what compost develops, put the compost back in the garden for the next season. It is best to burn the plant material; this will destroy the pathogens and weed seeds as well and return some carbon back into the ground when you spread it out. Please check local/state laws prior to burning. Many states and/or localities have burn bans especially this time of the year. Another method, if your local law allows it you can bag the material and send it to the landfill. Each year there are more localities that ban yard waste from their landfills. If you are not sure, check with your locality to learn more about your local waste and recycling laws.

If you do decide to go with active composting; composting at a temperature 140°F, or higher, will destroy many of the disease organisms as well as many weed seeds. You will need a temperature probe to monitor compost temperatures.   It’s really not hard to source a compost thermometer either through the internet or local retail outlets such as garden centers or nursery supply stores. If in doubt about your compost pile reaching these high temperatures, it is best to side with caution and discard the material by properly bagging it or by burning based on your local ordinances.

Preventing Overwintering Pathogens
Some of our most notorious insects of the garden such as Mexican bean beetle, squash vine borers, European corn borer, cabbage loopers, can also overwinter in garden debris. Larvae will use debris as a safe harbor. Flea beetles and spider mites, as well, can find food and winter shelter in spent plant material and weeds.

After you have finished cleaning up the debris from your garden, it is time to turn over the soil to both aerate and break up any remaining debris into smaller pieces that will be turned under. A good rototiller will help make this job easier. Once buried, any plant material left will decompose more rapidly.

For some pests and pathogens, turning over the soil after removing spent plant materials is recommended as the main line of defense against overpopulation next year. Consider this information from “Home and Horticultural Pests: Squash Bugs and Squash Vine Borers,” from Kansas State University,

“A vigorous autumn… rototilling can physically destroy cocoons and larvae (of the squash vine borer). Brought to the surface, cocoons and larvae are more susceptible to predation by birds and exposed to cold winter elements, leading to their demise. Deep plowing physically destroys cocoons and larvae burying them deep beneath the soil surface so pupated moths become entombed underground.”

Steps to a Healthier Garden
If you haven’t done a soil test in three years or more, it is time to retest and determine the needs of your garden soils based on what you will be growing in the next season. Soil test kits and instructions are available from your local Extension Office. Also, in planning next year’s garden, rotation of your crops is a must do item. This simple action will help keep disease issues down.  If your soil test(s) recommend liming, you can go ahead and put down lime this time of year, allowing it to start adjusting the pH. If the ground is frozen already, wait until spring. As you add lime, you can also help build soil structure by incorporating compost or shredded leaves. These soil additives will also add beneficial micro-nutrients and beneficial organisms. If you want to further build the soil, you may want to consider putting in a cover crop that will not only hold soil, but when tilled in early spring, will further build a healthier garden soil. A legume such as white or red clover would be something to consider. Check with your local Extension Office for best cover crop recommendations for your area.

Prepping Your Garden for the Next Growing Season (pdf)


image sisters
“Three Sister’s Garden-Fall Clean-up “Southern Virginia Botanical Gardens” Photo by W. McCaleb 10/28/14 Corn, Beans, and Squash was grown here as the native Cherokee have done for centuries. Cleaned up and ready for spring 2015!




27 thoughts on “Prepping Your Garden for The Next Growing Season”

  1. Yes, it is a necessary tool in soils with poor structure that need amending such as heavy Piedmont clay soils. Without mechanical equipment, old backs can not amend soils. Everyone in the country does not have a soil that roots are free to roam unfortunately..

  2. Huh, I never till my garden for fear of destroying soil structure or leaving a compacted layer. I may use a hand fork every now and then. I always leave heaps of my compost and leaves on my beds (after clean up) to work in over the Winter. I am a “lazy composter”, too, but so far have not run into problems in the garden. I usually rotate all my plant families. I learned – wish I could site where – you should never leave your soil bare and exposed?

  3. I, too, was surprised by the rototill recommendation. It seems like raised beds with better soil would be an alternative, or lots of top dressing with organic matter.

  4. I am not an advocate for rototilling either. I prefer mulching with wood chips over the winter to naturally condition soils, then move the mulch aside to plant. This is very effective for compacted soils of any texture.

  5. Hi Susan – Great article with lots of good tips. If you don’t mind, here are some additional garden clean-up tips for everybody:

    1) Write down your successes / failures etc. at the end of the season in the Fall before you forget some of the real detailed points come next Spring 🙂

    2) Unless you REALLY have to (due to overly clay composed soils or you’re taking over a garden plot that you’re trying to steer from chemically-used to organic) please do not roto-till your soils. It really is not a necessary step in amending your soils no matter what some books or experts say. With a little time and organization, you can conduct your soil tests and figure out what your soils need ahead of time. Add the appropriate soil amendments and most of the time adding a good layer of organic compost will help you achieve everything you need to accomplish. If you simply must mix, there’s noting wrong with a spade and a garden fork, your hands etc. – it’s a very different process from an automated roto-tilling mechanical machine that will literally chop up every single beneficial organism (whether earthworm or microbial) in your soil. A great read on this is Teaming With Microbes to learn the importance of feeding your soil in order to feed everything you’re growing in it. This philosophy is at the crux of our organic gardening company and products so thought it would be a great addition for tips here.

    3) Learn what you should clean up immediately in the Fall and what you could leave for the Spring (and even enjoy as winter interest). Tall grasses etc. add nice interest and can be left for Spring but for example Iris leaves are a must-clean in the Fall if you want to avoid iris borers overwintering in those leaves and having a feast in the Spring 🙂

    4) Part of our company’s philosophy is helping the environment and creating a system of taking food scraps from going to landfills and using them instead as a great raw material source for our products, so admittedly the comment about sending any garden waste (bad or good) to landfills sent a chill up our spine. We send over 97% of our food waste to landfills and still a huge percentage of our garden & lawn waste. The lack of oxygen in a landfill causes methane to build up and is poisonous to our environment. Doing anything else would be better than sending it to landfills (although burning has its issues, at least sometimes it’s warranted and the char can be used as an amendment). You are spot on in mentioning the need to reach 140 degrees for at least 3 days consistently (but that also refers to a rotating system, all your compost won’t have hit that 140 – mostly the middle will have so you have to do a couple turns to get it all) in order to kill pathogens and weed seeds. Most home compost systems do not achieve this consistently but it can be done with some tumblers if you know what you’re doing…zoning in on the ideal 25 or 30:1 C:N ratio is a big one (and yes, the compost thermometer is an absolute must).

    We have a couple articles on our blog as well on clean-up with some unique organic gardening tips like how to use all that snow for your garden in the winter as well as an organic gardening forum for anyone looking to actively discuss these things further. 🙂

    Hope that helpful!

      1. There’s no need to be insulting, Linda. Informed people can disagree. You’ll note that I also prefer not to rototill. That doesn’t mean that it’s *never* appropriate to till the soil.

  6. So many things are unclear here. I live on the edge of an established forest in PA. Not a wooded lot: a longstanding beautiful healthy system with a huge variety of birds, a portion with wetlands and clean streams. Tons of understory plants etc. I don’t see anyone ” sanitizing the site” or rototilling. That’s because we have allowed allowed nature to work the way it is supposed to. Our soil is it’s own little ecosystem and if get the right combination of Protozoa, bacteria, beneficial nematodes etc the leaves/litter are consumed and then provide food for the roots. Please join us in this century and STOP giving such irresponsible advice. This is by far one of the worse gardening blogs I have ever read. So sad.

    1. Like I said in response to your earlier comment – be courteous on this site. You can disagree without being disagreeable. Environmental conditions will vary from place to place and there is no one “perfect” method to prepare an area for growing vegetables.

  7. I go against the grain. I get my garden rototillec every spring and fall.

    In the fall after we take the garden off I spread compost(regardless of how finished it is), 60 gallons of kitchen waste from a compost digester, grass clippings until the grass stops growing, as many Starbucks coffee grinds as I can get, and as many leaves as I can get. This is all rotitilled into the garden before winter.

    In the spring I dump grass clippings and coffee grinds on the garden until my wife wants to start planting and get it rototilled again.

    We have done this for 3 years now with no adverse effects and excellent results.

    The contents of the digester really stink when shoveled out so being in the city it keeps the neighbours happy.

  8. Tried something different this year. I spread all my compost and lots of coffee grinds on the garden after harvesting the garden. Done on a cooler day with frosty nights because the compost usually has a pretty bad smell to it.

    When it warmed up it smelled like fresh manure in the back yard which makes for unhappy neighbours and unhappy wife.

    So I went over the whole garden with a broadfork. That fluffed it up a bit and helped the smell but hopefully did not do the same damage that a rototiller would have.

    1. I would be cautious of adding so much organic material unless you know you have a deficit. For instance, our new vegetable garden, constructed with our native soil that had never been amended or fertilized. Our soil test reported 12.9% OM, which is excessively high. Had I not tested, I would not have known we naturally had such high OM.

      That being said, I would have covered it with something coarser (like straw?) rather than disturbing the soil.

  9. I’ve never had a test done. Garden is just a 12×12 hobby. So we always just hope for the best and use what’s available. I will day though that by spring even with everything I add there is nothing recognizable from the previous year. Is that an indication that it’s lacking those nutrients and absorbing them as a result.

  10. Ok. Thank you for your reply. We now have snow so I stopped adding coffee grinds. This is definitely the most I’ve ever added so curious to see how much it settles by spring time. There is also a big pile in the centre of the garden of the last of the garden waste, gathered up coffee filters, and more used grinds to keep them in place. Pile is about 5’x3’

    I also tried something different with my compost bin. I filled it with a mixture of coffee grinds and wood ashes from fire pit. It may just freeze solid over winter or if I’m lucky it will stay warm enough that worms will stay active in the middle and mix it up over winter. Either way I’ll be spreading it and the pile in the middle of the garden out in the spring time. Prbly use broadfork but if not enough might rototill. Time will tell

  11. The bin that I put the ashes and coffee grinds in is the one that I use all summer for grass clippings and garden waste. It is big enough to put in a summers worth and still be able to close the lid.

    I’m hoping that the ashes and coffee grinds settle in the bin enough that I can add grass clippings to the same bin all summer. That way they will be more composted and have all next winter to sit on the garden as well. If not settled I will have to spread the bin on the garden to make room.

    I have also thought about allowing one year of the garden being fallow. Keep adding mulch all summer and get it rototilled if/when the weeds get out of control. We have had 4 consecutive years of gardening.

  12. For beginners and people outside the US, this article is more like a blessing. Plants are really good teachers. Using a composite thermometer is a nice idea. I will apply this technique to my garden this year.

    What do you think I should do to grow plants in frosty areas? What kind of veggies grow well in frosty weather and how to prep garden for these. Here in my area frost starts from December and ends in mid of January.

    Hopefully, you will write more about growing well in frost during winter. We would love to hear more from you.

    1. Many of the cole crops like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale thrive in cooler temperatures, including frost. Leafy greens, onions, radishes, carrots, and beets also do well. With frost from Dec – Jan you should count yourself lucky! Where I am we have frost from Oct – Dec, freezes from Dec – Feb and frost again until April/early May. For more information on frost tolerant plants, check out this article:

  13. I mean leaving it fallow every few years during summer. Thought that I could add mulch to it over summer to replenish nutrients and give the soil a break.

    1. Sure you can – but you don’t need to if you let it rest over the winter instead. You’ll have the same benefit, just a bit slower.
      When you harvest an area of the garden and are not planning to replant, you can also mulch it and start the process earlier.

  14. Sounds good.We have bitter cold winter here so we have only summer growing season and no choice but to give the garden a break over winter.

    This year when we took off the garden I dug the whole thing up with the broadfork. Then Spread all the Compost on top. Then a few bags of leaves. The wind blew a lot of the loose leaves onto the grass so I was planning to rototill to keep things neater but it has not worked out yet. Garden is not frozen yet but I have doubts if I can get a tiller here before that changes. If that’s the case I will be leaving everything on top over winter as a multch and get it Rototilled in the spring.

    I have now done both ways and definitely prefer to Rototill both spring and fall.

    1. This post is quite old and in the meantime we have moved past the dated advice to rototill gardens. We know now how important the natural soil structure is, and rototilling destroys the root-microbe network that is so important for maintaining soil tilth. Do read some of our newer posts on preparing gardens for winter.

  15. Just a hobby that we have. I know esthetics should not really play into it but having a neat looking garden/yard when people can see into my back yard is important as is burying the stink of the compost.

    The thing I am still thinking about is letting it be fallow for a summer. Add lots of coffee grinds, grass clippings, and kitchen waste while nothing is growing on it and keep the weeds down. That would likely really improve the structure and attract a lot of earth worms.

    1. You are adding way more rich organic matter than is sustainable. It does not keep weeds down (because it’s nutrient rich) and it creates toxic levels of some nutrients. The best thing you can do for your soil, if you wish it to regain structure and health, is to mulch with a deep layer of arborist wood chips. You can read all of our posts about this by using the search box on the left hand menu.

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