(This article was originally published on October 20, 2010. Feel free to leave a comment, but please be aware that writers may not be able to respond quickly to comments and questions.)

Dear Sheila,

Where has the summer gone? I've been busy busy busy, and I bet you have too. Suddenly the kids are back in school and leaves are falling. It's time to clean up what's left of your summer veggie crops. They've probably been looking pitiful for a few weeks now anyway, not due to your incompetence but just because they can't live over the winter. Will you have a garden again next year? Great! That first luscious, red homegrown tomato usually seals the deal. We'll make next year's garden even better by getting your soil ready now.

Clean it up and clear it out

Take out the "trash" of the summer's growth. Pull up the gangly tomato plants and the sprawling squash. These petrified plant parts might have a few nasty bugs or diseases in them. Pull out weeds too, before they have time to drop seeds. Take up and stack those tomato cages. Pull up the stakes from your pea vines and cut off the twine and dry vines. Cages and stakes will be usable next year and will rust or rot less out of the ground or stored in your shed or garage.

How did the mulch hold up? Depending on the weather and which mulch you started with in March, it could be really rotted, or still pretty fresh. If it's mostly rotted away, we'll just mix it into the soil. If it still looks chunky and mulchy, you can choose to rake it off and use it again. Since we skipped soil testing last spring, let's dig up a few trowelfuls of dirt and save it now. We'll look up the local university soil testing service and send that off sometime soon. I don't need the soil test to tell me what your new garden needs now though. Every new garden, and especially your typical suburban garden of "development dirt," needs more organic matter. What in the world is that, you ask? Read on.

Kick-start next years' garden now with manure

Last spring we jump-started your garden with some bagged compost and organic fertilizer. The veggies you grew this summer used most of that. Next year's garden will outshine your first efforts if we feed the soil over the winter. These dry early autumn days are perfect for a visit to my favorite barnyard. Thats right- I am suggesting we haul home some horse manure. (Oh, come on, it doesn't smell that bad. You've faced worse in diapers many times. At least here you get gloves and a garden fork to distance yourself from the unpleasantness!) Horse manure is one of the drier, more "pleasant" kinds of barnyard stuff. Spread in the garden, manure will break down and mellow out during the winter. And this timing is important. There's a rule about using manure in the garden: allow six months from horse (cow, rabbit, llama...) to harvest. Time and the weather lets the manure mellow out and become safe for both you and the plants. Our obliging horse owner will be more than happy to point us to the already-oldest (less pungent, more composted) part of the pile of used sawdust and horse apples. Trust me, your garden will go from "dirt" to delightful "soil" by April. How much will we need? In a half hour, we can load up a few big plastic tubs and haul them into my already less-than-pristine family minivan. If our backs and schedules allow, we'll get enough horse manure to cover the whole garden up to a couple of inches. Then, backs and schedules still allowing, we'll dig it in with the top few inches of garden dirt. Honestly though, we could just spread it on top of the garden and leave it like that. It'll work fine either way. When the soil test results come, scatter pelletied lime across the surface as called for. We'll discuss the other nutrient recommendations in the spring.

Fall "leaves" you with another great soil additive: collect your leaves

After the admittedly slightly smelly at best manure job, this next one seems downright fun. Top the garden with a generous dose of shredded leaves. Talk the family lawn ranger into mowing over your fallen leaves in the yard. Collect them (no, get the kids to collect them while you relax with a well-earned cup of tea) and lay them thickly over that garden. Worms and micro critters of all (good) kinds will thank you for that toasty covering while they chow down on the horse manure. Shredded leaves will stay put well once you wet them down with the hose. Think of this as a new crop. The water, leaves, and manure support a biological and chemical transformation underground. Your soil will be super happy by planting time next year. We'll consider other fertilizer needs at planting time. And you can do this leaf job at your pace. Add them and wet them down when you have the time. You could even play with beginner composting by burying kitchen scraps or coffee grounds in the garden.

Cover the garden to stop cold-weather weeds

By Thanksgiving most of our leaves have fallen. One last raking party to work off the turkey and pie usually finishes up the job. Those last layers of leaves also make a tidy weed-free cover for the veggie plot. If you still have garden energy to burn, you might actually repeat the newspaper and mulch step from last spring's tasks at this time. Believe it or not, weeds are so diabolical that some will even sprout over winter, given half a chance. Be sure the leaves are nice and damp, then cover it all with the thick layers of newspapers again. Hold the papers down with plenty of rocks or a good covering of fresh mulch. Now you're ready to put up your feet until March pea planting time.

I'm sorry to have lost touch over the summer. I even neglected to send my promised midsummer note with tips on maintaining those beginner vegetables during the height of the growing season. Truth is, suburban small veggie plots are more for fun than profit. I sure hope you found it fun, and can't wait to share next year's gardening with you. And to paraphrase that Mastercard commercial, eating something you grew yourself-- priceless!

Are you a beginner, or wanna-be, vegetable gardener? Catch up on my whole plan for Sheila's first garden by reading these previous articles:

On selecting seeds and planning the layout

On breaking new ground for a small vegetable plot

On planting six easy vegetables as an introduction to basic planting techniques

And dig deeper into some of the topics mentioned in this article by following the highighted links in the text. Happy gardening!