With the autumn equinox next week, summer will officially end. Even though temperatures can remain in the 90s and above until mid-October, fall planting and fall clean-up chores begin now.
A thorough clean up of fallen fruits and vegetables, garden debris and weeds in September and October will help prevent many disease and insect problems next spring. Whiteflies and aphids are among the many pest insects that lay their eggs in fall to overwinter on the undersides of fallen leaves; earwigs make their nests out of garden debris. Several species of flies lay their eggs in rotting fruit and vegetables or inside the mummies of dried fruits and vegetables that still hang from branches. Pick off mummies and pick up fallen fruit and vegetables regularly to remove potential pest insect-breeding sites.
Weeds, dead or alive, provide more breeding sites for pest insects. Cultivate or hand pull weeds now, before the pests have a chance to lay eggs.
You can put the debris and weeds into the green waste bin (always the best choice for plants that have had disease problems including powdery mildew, peach leaf curl, black spot or anthracnose). But you might consider starting a compost pile this fall.
The rapid compost method doesn't take up much space or take much effort. A 3-foot square pile made up of equal volumes of dead leaves and (weed-free) lawn grass will decompose within two to three weeks if kept moist, not wet, and turned every other day or so. The leaf pieces and small twigs should be chopped into 1 inch pieces to speed decomposition. Don't add any more materials to the pile once it's started. Within two to three weeks, you'll have sweet-smelling, nutrient-rich mulch or compost for your planting beds.
Or, you can get fancy and build or buy compost bins into which you can move the compost as it passes through the various stages of decomposition. Turn regularly. Bigger piles can be hard to turn; another method of providing air for the process is to drill holes in PVC pipes and insert pipes in the pile.
There's a list of things that should not be added to compost piles. Animal feces is an obvious no-no, but also meat, bones, breads and dairy products are not suitable for compost piles. Few compost piles heat up to high enough temperature to kill weed seeds or fungal spores and disease pathogens. Place diseased plant material and weeds with seeds in the green waste bin. Fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, unbleached coffee filters with the coffee grounds and small amounts of fireplace ashes can be added to the pile.
The Fresno County Master Gardeners will be offering a free class on backyard composting on Wednesday, Nov. 6. Google our website for details and pre-registration.