Now that Fall has officially arrived it is time to start preparing the vegetable garden for the winter ahead. The USDA plant hardiness zone for Loudoun County ranges from zone 6b to zone 7a (http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/) and this shows we may have our first freeze as early as October 15 in this area.
You can begin cleaning out plants before the first frost as soon as you are done harvesting the last of the vegetables from the plant. Be sure and also weed the beds. Then you can put some compost in the beds and place straw or leaves on top to prevent nutrients from leaching out of the soil during the winter months. Or you can plant a cover crop to actually enrich the soil over the winter months. Some choices to plant at this time of year are oats, winter rye, hairy vetch or winter wheat. These will have to be turned into the soil in the springtime before planting can begin.
When you pull the plants out of your beds you can chop them up and add them to your compost pile, as long as they are not diseased. In fact this is a great time to start a compost pile. All you need is a space where you can put together 3 to 5 feet of space and use your grass clippings, vegetable scraps, leaves, chopped up vegetable plants, etc., to make “black gold”.
To build a compost pile you can opt for a bin that you buy or you can make one from pallets or snow fencing or wire fencing. You do not need any bin at all but it does keep the compost more contained and does allow it to heat up faster.
When beginning a compost bin put some sticks in the bottom to help with aeration of the pile and put in a layer of brown matter (including leaves, shredded newspaper, straw, etc.) first and then a layer of green matter (veggie scraps, grass clippings, chopped up vegetable plants). Repeat this until the bin is full at a ratio of about 60% brown and 40% green matter. Turn this and stir it and in about 6 months you will have compost to use in your vegetable garden next summer. (HINT: If the pile smells just add more brown matter, if it is slow to break down just add more green matter)