With nighttime temperatures regularly dropping into the 40s, it seemed like the haystack-like mounds of late-fruiting cherry tomato plants we ended up with this season should be dealt with before they were hit with frost, so we harvested the mixed ripe and unripe fruits and pulled the unruly plants. Once tomatoes are harvested, I’m resigned to the fact that summer is truly over and garden cleanup can proceed in earnest. It’s not as overwhelming as it could be: with garlic, potatoes and onions already cured and put away, their beds were essentially turned and weeded as we harvested, so all they need is a bit of tidying up to be ready for top dressing with fertilizer. We cart our weeds and dead plant material away, as we have room to pile it far from the garden, hidden in the trees. As some diseases, including late blight and pests, can overwinter on foliage and fruit left in the garden, it’s best to remove all dead plant material and any rotten fruit or vegetables. Healthy vegetation can be added to your compost pile, but many compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy disease or fungus. So if your plants were unhealthy with mildew, mold or blight, you can make a separate yard-waste bin for twigs, leaves, grass clippings and those unwanted potato and tomato vines. There, the waste will eventually break down into compost that can then be used in flower beds, although it will be a slow process. Some city and town recycling centers have yard-waste collection or drop-off sites for large-scale composting, if you don’t have the space for an untidy heap at home, but it’s important to keep these materials out of the general waste stream. If yard waste breaks down in an anaerobic environment, the by-product is methane. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and is second only to carbon dioxide in U.S. greenhouse gas production. Landfills are the country’s third-highest producer of methane, after natural gas and other petroleum power plants and livestock, such as cows and sheep. Yard waste can also take up an enormous amount of space in landfills. The EPA estimates that 13.5% of all municipal solid waste is yard trimmings. That puts the category third behind paper and food scraps. If all yard trimmings were recycled, the agency says, we could keep over 33 million pounds of materials out of landfills every year.

Despite the chilly nights, our green and yellow beans, late to arrive, are still producing. Legume roots produce their own nitrogen, which is a nutrient needed by all plants for growth, so as soon as the beans bite the dust and the plants are pulled, we’ll prepare that bed for garlic plants. Garlic is a heavy feeder, liking lots of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Adding organic matter in addition, such as well-rotted manure and compost, will give you the biggest and best-tasting garlic. Plant your bulbs in their tidy, well-fertilized bed anytime in October, selecting your biggest cloves. Place them six inches apart and four inches deep, adding a light layer of mulch at planting time. Follow with a substantial mulch layer after the ground freezes and the plants are dormant.

Way at the back of our garden, head-high fronds of the asparagus bed are still waving in the lightest breezes. Some gardeners leave the fronds after they have died back and clean the beds in the spring, but we prefer to remove the fronds once they turn brown and brittle, which is very late in the fall. We cut them off at ground level and top dress the bed with compost or manure at that time. Cut stalks and ferns go onto the exile pile, not into the compost, because asparagus beetle eggs can overwinter in cut stalks.

When the days are cool and bug-free, working in a sunny garden is more comfortable than in blackfly season. You often start out with a couple of layers, but take off a couple in the warmth of the sun. It’s a time to appreciate the last of the fine weather and be grateful for it, knowing colder days lie ahead. If you’re not totally burned out on digging and hoeing, autumn cleanup time is a good time to add some new vegetable beds, if you’re thinking of expanding the garden, which many seem to be considering in these times of pandemic-induced food shortages. If you make a bed in the fall, you can just put down a layer of cardboard, builders’ paper or a heavy covering of newspaper and top it with soil and compost. The cardboard or paper will disintegrate over the winter and the bed will be ready for planting in the spring.