Here is some timely advice from James Quinn, (retired) horticulture specialist:
Vegetable gardening activities will focus on cleanup, soil preparation and winter protection. I'll address the latter two.
The basis for optimum soil preparation begins with a quality soil test, and this is an ideal time to do so, if you haven't with the last four years (this also goes for garden areas, e.g. lawns and fruit). When working up the soil in the fall, focus on turning under the plant debris. This reduces diseases and insect pests next year.
Large clumps of dirt are fine, as the repeated frost/thaw cycle will break them down. Lime and manure are ideal to apply now. Mulching over the soil with a thick layer of tree leaves will allow them to begin decomposing and then be readily tilled in come spring, aiding in the quest of most vegetable gardeners — to increase the organic matter level of their soil.
Winter protection is beneficial to two vegetables commonly overwintered — garlic and spinach. For these, follow the strawberry recommendations below.
To extend the harvest period of root crops (carrots, beets, turnips, etc.) and leafy greens (lettuce, kale, cabbage, etc.), the use of white spun-bonded polyester fabric is ideal. It is sometimes referred to as "floating row cover." It can be purchased in different weights, the heavier giving greater degree protection. Generally, home gardeners use the medium, which provides about 5 degrees Fahrenheit of protection.
A simple way to achieve maximum benefit is to use two layers. Apply the first directly over the plant row. Then suspend the second layer several inches to a foot above it. Commonly used for this are sturdy wire hoops, which can be purchased or something similar, or a suitable substitute fashioned by a handy gardener. By using a double layer, lettuce can often be reliably extended into the January; it will likely take temperatures below 15 degrees to injure the leaves of many varieties. Be sure to anchor the edges sufficiently to withstand strong winter winds.
Plan for next year's fruit plantings now. You can plant fruit trees, and their roots will grow some through the winter. However, the time period for these trees to be dug and shipped is tight, so often the supply is limited.
In addition to looking through catalogs and other resources to determine what to plant, also consider working up the soil, as long as we don't have saturated conditions. I am often surprised how novice growers don't realize proper soil preparation is 75 percent of the work and a key to success.
Why wait until the spring? If organic amendments need to be made and the area raised for beds or mounded for trees, this is an ideal time; it will make spring planting so much quicker.
Strawberries should be protected once we've had several nights below 20 degrees; they have then been set dormant. Most gardeners use a layer of straw; I have successfully substituted asparagus fronds. But the best is spun-bonded polyester fabric. Support it above the strawberries 6-12 inches with wire hoops or similar for protecting and maintaining good air circulation around the crowns.
Winter protection for strawberries or figs occurs in these months. For figs, they can be cut back and double or triple wrapped any time after the cold has frosted off the leaves. This is typically at the beginning of November. Do this prior to temperatures dropping into the low 20s.
Rosemary can be successfully overwintered. If one doesn't have an excellent protected location, then protect with a large, white rose cone. Similar to an evergreen, its photosynthetic process stays active through the winter, albeit much slowed; thus the protection needs to allow some light through. If not using a rose cone, double insulate as discussed above with leafy vegetables.
Bring in herbs like French lavender, lemon verbena or rosemary (that you don't winter protect). It is easier to successfully do this if they are kept in pots. One can submerge the pots into the soil if wanting them naturally located in a landscape, but by keeping in pots, the relocation will be much less traumatic to the root system. Keep these types of herbs cool and dry through the winter in as sunny of location as possible.
When to cut back and mulch perennials can generate disputing opinions and can be specific to the perennial. The general recommendation is to wait on mulching until the plants are dormant, and that is likely when the top of the soil is frozen, likely similar in time to mulching strawberries (see above).
Should the plants be pruned back in early winter?
Preferably not if the stems or leaves are still green. Waiting until February would be better. However, we can't expect gardeners to do everything perfectly and many will go about tidy cultural practices out of convenience, especially if they are snow birds.
Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]