Fall Garden Cleanup in the Arid Southwest U.S.

Reader Contribution by Regina Hitchcock
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Chilies not going to ripen before frost

I recently ran across a Facebook post that suggested people should leave leaves on the lawn all winter to increase fertility and reduce fall clean-up work. I wasn’t surprised when multiple gardeners from all over the world jumped right in and said all the things I was thinking: Mow them first or they will created dead patches on the lawn, pick them up and compost them before adding them so that critters don’t overwinter in them, they will rot and make a stinky mess, and so on.

And then I remembered that we don’t have big deciduous leaves where I am. Nor do we get enough moisture in the winter to either rot or compost leaves, chopped or not. I don’t have much of a lawn, because it is too expensive and environmentally irresponsible to grow big swaths of grass in such an arid climate using city water. But I do have fall clean-up chores and I do appreciate any way that I can reduce my fall gardening chores.

One-Day Chore List

This year, I have been very busy with my son and his family moving in with me, so I made a list of the absolute requirements for garden cleanup, and the rest is going to have to wait until it freezes, or whenever I get to it. My goals for this day included:

  • Get rid of all the fruiting plants that either have no fruits, or which fruits are too small and immature to mature before frost. 
  • Any garden bed that is empty, add compost or manure or both
  • Trim all the trees that had damage, and trim the locust trees for shape*
  • Harvest everything usable and process it
  • Mow all the weeds, lawn, orchard “grass”, between raised beds, and paths

It isn’t a huge list, I know, but I do have 13 raised beds, seven compost bins, a small grape vineyard, and a greenhouse that needed this treatment, and I can’t run the lawn mower (my favorite weed- and leaf-chopping tool) while people in the house are sleeping, so time is always an issue. But I was blessed with a 3-day weekend due to Columbus Day, so I tackled the uprooting of the fruiting plants first.

I think it is important to note, once again, how different this area is from the rest of what people consider “Arizona.” Frost here in Zone 6 typically happens sometime in late October. Last year, we had a couple small light frosts between October 15 and 20, and was chilly, but not bitter, until January 1, at which time it suddenly got into single digits and then stayed there for a while. The year before, It froze hard, down to 21 in my garden on October 29, so I know it is coming. But every year, without fail, I get caught by the frost and I have slimy, smelly, frozen tomato vines one morning. Not so this year!

Harvesting

I harvested all the fruits I could. There were very few tomatoes left, so mostly it was a handful of my new favorite tomato from Baker Creek, and peppers. All the pepper plants that had peppers on them that looked to be close to harvesting size, I harvested the peppers and pulled the plants. I took in a couple gallons of peppers, all varieties, including one called Mad Hatter, where these “Fun Bandz”-shaped rings came from. 

Sliced Mad Hatter peppers 

I think it is worth mentioning the ‘Mad Hatter’ peppers — not ones I would have bought for myself — were seeds given to me by the Seed Keeper Company as part of my winning package a couple years ago on Facebook. They are the MOST prolific of any pepper I have ever grown, and very unique in both shape and taste. My students started them back in February, in the classroom, and then Covid took my students away from me and they couldn’t take their plants home. I did sell a few plants, enough to replenish our seed stock, and then I planted most of the rest.

Tree-Trimming

After I uprooted all the plants and moved them to the compost, I trimmed the broken branches from the peach tree. While we didn’t harvest any peaches this year, we did have some rough winds that caused damage and I cut those branches off. The Homecoming bonfire is coming up anyway, so my son can take those branches and help out his class at school, too. I then proceeded to trim up the bottom of the locust tree. 

Mostly, trees should be trimmed between late fall and early spring, when they are dormant. But when they are dormant in my yard, the way they look is drastically different than when they are green and flopping all over the place, so a light trim for shape and safety isn’t going to do them much harm. I won’t, however, prune my grapes much at all until January, at the very earliest. Since the produce fruit, I want to make darn sure fruiting canes are pruned correctly at the right time. 

Fertilizing

Adding compost and manure is the easiest part of all this. I just spread compost about 3 inches thick, or chicken manure about 1 inch thick, rake smooth, and water really well. The key to breaking down organics in such an arid area is adding water. The microbes that are needed to turn rich, nitrogenous manure into nitrates that plants can use, need moisture to live and reproduce. While they won’t necessarily be super-busy this winter, they’ll need moisture come spring and the moisture I am adding now will also help keep it all from blowing away. While we can’t always count on which days will bring frost, rest assured the wind will blow every day the sun comes up around here. 

Last, but not least, I pickled my peppers. I mix the hot and sweet together with some thinly-sliced onion and chopped garlic, add some salt, vinegar, and cracked peppercorns, and stick them in the fridge for a couple days. In a week, they’ll be the most scrumptious salad- or sandwich-topper ever!

Sweet and hot peppers, ready to harvest and pickle

The days were busy, but a large portion of the garden is ready for winter!

Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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