My garden is defiantly past its peak. And while it seems a bit early, I have started to clean it out. Why is cleaning out the garden important? By doing so, you can reduce the risk of some common problems next year.

Several disease-causing fungi and bacteria spend the winter on plant debris, and can cause diseases the following growing season. Proper garden sanitation can combat such diseases as early blight, mildews, gray mold fungus and various root rot and wilt problems.

To combat diseases, remove all plants, except winter vegetables or cover crops, from the garden. It is especially important to completely clean out and destroy all diseased plants in vegetable gardens and fruit plantings. Carefully dig up and remove decomposing roots to keep them from releasing disease-causing microbes into the soil. Also, remove spent blooms and foliage from flower gardens and mummied fruits on or around trees and grapevines.

Should you compost garden debris? It depends. Do you have a passive compost pile where you are tossing material on and never doing anything else to it? Then probably not. But if you have an active compost pile, meaning you are turning it and allowing it to reach high temperatures, then it might be ok. But I would still be wary.

Gardeners who decide not to remove old plants should till gardening areas to break dead materials into smaller pieces and then work them into the soil. Plant debris decomposes more rapidly when buried than when left on the soil surface. This reduces populations of disease-causing organisms that could cause problems next year.

Planting a cover crop to maintain and rejuvenate the soil is another way to get your vegetable garden off to a good start next year. A cover crop will help prevent erosion of enriched topsoil, keep rains from leaching minerals from the soil, prevent compaction and stop growth of weeds that can serve as overwintering sites for insects and diseases. A cover crop also will add organic matter, both from its roots and when tilled into the garden soil.

Successfully growing a cover crop requires proper crop selection, correct timing and good management techniques. You will reap the benefits of cover crops in future vegetable harvests.

For more information, check out the following publications:

• Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/id/id128/id128.pdf

• Home Composting: A Guide to Managing Organic Wastes: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ho/ho75/ho75.pdf

• Winter Cover Crops for Kentucky Gardens and Fields: http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/id/id113/id113.pdf

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