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The summer growing season is slowly winding down, but I'm just getting wound up with regard to my fall gardening chores. At the top of my to-do list is the job of preparing our beds for spring planting.

Slowly but surely, as our warm-season crops stop producing, I've been clearing the weeds and plant debris from beds and carting it off to our compost heap. Compost is a terrific soil amendment, as it greatly enhances a soil's "tilth" (structure), thereby enabling otherwise clay-rich soils to drain and aerate more freely.

Another reason I'm preparing our garden beds now, instead of waiting until spring, is that I don't want insect and disease pests to spend winter in the beds, since this will help them more easily find our plants when the beds are replanted in the spring. Yet another reason I'm preparing beds now is because I still have another crop to plant -- garlic -- even though it won't be ready to harvest until early July.

Do it now

Before I'm ready to plant our garlic, though, I want to amend and till the bed's soil with our rotary tiller, a small, gasoline-powered cultivator with 4-inch tines that saves me the time and back-breaking trouble of turning over our soil with a spade. Tilling is important because it brings soil nutrients to the surface, breaks apart clumps and buries weeds.

Fortunately, our rotary tiller makes tilling easy, almost fun, in fact.

Our prehistoric predecessors didn't have it so easy, but they recognized the need for cultivating soil. So several thousand years ago, they invented various plows that were propelled by domesticated animals. The ancient Greeks believed that the first plow was a gift from Athena, their goddess of wisdom. My tiller, on the other hand, was a gift from my wife, Judy, a goddess in her own right.

Be prepared

The beds I'm cleaning measure 4 feet by 4 feet, a convenient size that makes them ideal for me to till, plant, water, weed and harvest. I don't have to walk across them during the course of a growing season, either, since each bed is separated by several feet of lawn, a feature that keeps my boots mud-free and our soil free from becoming compacted by my footwear.

After I make the beds as debris-free as possible, I'll collect compost from our compost pile and evenly spread several wheelbarrow-loads of it across each bed. Then I'll till the beds with our rotary tiller, a process that only takes a few minutes for each bed.

Once I'm done, I won't have to wait for our beds to dry in the spring before I plant our cool-season crops, such as onions, for instance. Why is this important? I never cultivate wet soil, because when wet soil is tilled, its tilth is ruined and I'm left with what looks like and feels like shards of baked clay.

This week in the garden

It's a good time of year to plant spring-blooming bulbs.

Lou Boulmetis is a certified master gardener who lives in Littlestown, Pa. Call him at 1-800-727-4287.


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