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It is time to start tucking the vegetable garden away for the winter. As sad as this may be, a few steps taken now can help make next year's garden better.

Start by pulling out any dead plants. You can add these to your compost pile, but only if the plants have not suffered from any diseases during the growing season. Plants with diseases or pest problems need to be removed from the garden, otherwise you risk having the same problems next year. If the spent plants have had a healthy season, you could pull some, like tomato and pepper plants, and instead of moving them into a compost pile, dig a hole and bury them in the beds. In time, these plants will decay and become compost.

Once you have taken care of the plants, turn your beds over and add compost, peat or manure. All of those leaves you will rake are great to add to the vegetable beds, but first mulch them with a shredder or run them over a few times with your mower. If you put the leaves in your beds whole they will take much longer to decompose and could cause problems.

Clean your tools. Get off all of the dirt, grass and garden gunk. You can spray them with the hose, or clean them with soap and water. Be sure to dry them thoroughly. For stuck-on stuff, gently scrape the tools with a putty knife or an old butter knife. For shovel blades that have rusted, use a wire brush or sand them with a fine grain of sandpaper.

Handles made of wood should be rubbed with linseed oil to keep the wood from drying out, cracking or splitting. If the handles have gotten rough, you might want to sand them smooth before you apply the oil. You might want to take the time now to have your shears sharpened if they need it; that way they will be ready when you are. For tools with rubberized handles, cleaning is all that is necessary.

What about your gas-powered tools like the edger, trimmer or tiller? For many years we were told to empty the gas, because if it were left over the winter the gas would get gummy, actually turning into a varnish of sorts. Today there is a product called Stabil. You can mix this into the gas and it keeps the gas from changing. This product works in both gas-powered and gas/oil-mixture-type machines. If you don't use Stabil, you must drain the gas. It is all right to leave the oil in the machine, but you'll need to change it before you use your mower next season. Be sure to put removed gas and oil into a proper container for recycling. Depending on the type of mower you have, you might need to check other things, such as the spark plug and air filter. Check your manual for details, or avoid the spring rush and take your equipment for its tune-up now.

If you do a good job of preparing your vegetable patch now, you'll be able to get a jump on next season's garden. Don't you wish your garden had been ready to plant during that one summer-like week we got in late April last year? Such weekends are inevitable; we get them every year.

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