Seasonal Agronomy Tips
With the arrival of fall, our farms and gardens are starting to slow down, and soon we'll be taking stock of another year gone by...
Hopefully by now, you've seeded cover crops, and have thought about strategies for improving soil health during the winter months. If you haven't planted cover crops, it's not too late in most places, but you should move quickly. Hairy vetch and rye will likely have time to get established, and crimson clover, rape, and others may as well. Think about how you will deal with the cover crops in the spring, especially any that won't winter kill in your area. Can you roll/crimp, cut, cover with plastic or cardboard, or otherwise prep for your spring plantings? If you can't plant cover crops, think about what kinds of mulch/soil cover you can use over winter to protect the soil, and add organic matter (leaves, woodchips, straw, hay, etc).
If you haven't gotten a soil test in the last 2 years, we suggest a Base Test Plus Soil Test from Logan Labs soon, so you can get minerals applied before the ground freezes. Working on major mineral imbalances, especially calcium and magnesium, is best done in fall. This is a great time to apply any minerals that take time to break down (elemental sulfur, soft rock phosphate, limestone, gypsum), assuming your soil isn't prone to winter-time erosion issues (if so, see above cover crop and mulch recommendation!).
Also, this fall, when "cleaning up" the fields/beds, keep in mind that it's always best to leave roots in place when possible. Rather than pulling everything up, or tilling, and leaving bare soil, consider simply cutting/chopping the plants and leaving in place as a mulch. The communities of soil microbes will appreciate it.
If you have lots of woody plant material on the soil surface, consider inoculating it with a microbial inoculant designed to help breakdown that material. Terra Biotics "Crop Recycle" is one such product that I've used. If some of your plants were heavily diseased, it's often recommended that you remove that material. Tomato late blight is one for which this is usually the recommendation. I'm very mixed however on this, and believe it's not that simple. Disease spores are everywhere... so it's not like a few more of them are likely to make that much of a difference - whether you get a disease or not is determined by the health and vitality of the plant. That said, if you can't get good digestion of that plant material over winter, removal is likely the best approach (although you should certainly question why you aren't getting good digestion, and work to address it).
And for those of you who grow in greenhouses/hoophouses/covered growing areas, remember that your soil microbes still need moisture throughout winter, even if you're not growing a crop there. So try to ensure that you can maintain adequate soil moisture throughout the winter months, and preferably a cover of growing plants...even if that just means leaving your fall lettuce crop to do their thing until spring.