For most gardeners, frost is a dirty word. It signals the end of the growing season, but it does not mean that all the garden work is done.
The average date of the first autumn frost in Albany County is early October. While September may have some cold snaps and an occasional early frost, it also has weeks of warm days and cool nights. Frost comes when skies are clear and the heat from the soil is able to rise, making room for the cool air above to settle down close to the ground, chilling the plants as they lose their heat from the soil. Eventually the cold is enough to break down cells, causing damage, wilting and ultimately death. In autumn, plants are less tender than they are in the spring, so light frosts do less damage but they are the signal to the gardener to prepare the vegetable garden for its winter sleep.
Here’s the plan: Clean-up the garden, check soil pH, add organic matter, and plant a cover crop. Pull out all remaining plants that are no longer productive; good plant sanitation is very important to limit disease so remove all foliage and roots. Do not compost material that is diseased but do compost all healthy green material.
If you have not had a soil pH test done in a few years, bring a quarter of a cup of soil taken from 4 inches down to your local Cooperative Extension office for pH testing.  Good vegetable garden soil pH is within the range of 6 to 6.8.  If the pH is outside this range, advice is given to amend the soil.
Organic matter as compost, chopped up grass clippings, or dried manures are all great additions to the vegetable garden in the fall as the winter will weather them into the soil. If you have any of the perennial vegetables such as asparagus, horseradish or rhubarb, treat them like flowering perennials and cut back the top portions after frost has initiated die back.
At this point, seeds for a cover crop can be sown.  Annual rye is a good choice for northern gardeners as is winter rye, which must be sown a bit later.  Dick Raymond, in his book  Joy of Gardening,  says that there are nine reasons to plant cover crops: (1) cover crops are “green manures” that fertilize and condition the soil for little effort or expense. (2) They provide the organic matter that sandy soils need. (3) Green manure crops are a feast for the soil, the earthworms and the good bacteria. (4) Tilled into heavy clay soils, the green manure crops condition the soil and lessen the compaction. (5) As it is growing, the cover crop will protect the soil from erosion.(6) Green manure crops such as peas and beans provide nitrogen to the soil as they grow and as they decompose back into the soil. (7) Fast growing cover crops such as buckwheat can smother weeds. (8) Green manure crops act as an insulating blanket over the soil to allow earthworm activity closer to the surface where it can better benefit next season’s crops. (9) The roots of the cover crops reach deep into the subsoil to recapture nutrients and open up pathways for better movement of air and water through the soil.
Planting a cover crop
To plant a cover crop, rake the garden area smooth and remove debris or large stones. Broadcast the seed according to the rates on the chart below. Lightly rake again and water in the cover crop, with your hose set at a fine mist.
The chart here( provides an overview of the cover crops at a glance. Seed can be purchased at your local garden center or farm store.
Susan Pezzolla, Master Gardener Coordinator, Horticulture Educator. Cornell University Cooperative Extension. 24 Martin Road, Voorheesville, NY.


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