The air is crisp, the leaves are changing color, and it gets dark earlier every day… Autumn has finally arrived! The end of the garden season can be bittersweet. We mourn the loss of our glorious summer garden, but at the same time, many of us (myself included) are ready for a little break to rest, reset, and review this year’s garden results before planning out next season’s garden.
After a busy and hectic summer, it can sometimes be tempting to just let the garden lie until next spring. But it is important to take a few steps to prepare your garden for winter. Taking care of these last few details for the year can help to improve your soil, reduce weeds, and produce a better garden next time around.
Here are 5 fall garden tasks to do right now to prepare your garden for winter and ensure a healthier garden next year:
1. Tidy Up the Garden
By the end of summer, I always seem to be facing a messy jumble of dying plants, withering enthusiasm, and thriving weeds. While it’s tempting to ignore it all, spending more time in the garden now, preparing for winter, pays off with less problems next spring. Less pests. Less disease. And less weeds.
Insects love winter as long as they have great shelter and food, ya know, like my garden debris. When I take away their habitat and food–the dead, dying and diseased plants–I’m ridding ourselves of many future problems. (Case in point: pulling the spent kale and cabbage bits that are riddled with caterpillars and feeding them to the chickens like I did yesterday.)
Late blight and other diseases can overwinter on foliage and fruit that you leave in your garden for the winter. No one wants any of that lingering around when spring gives you a blank canvas and a fresh start.
Dig up all the weeds you can find. I’ve seen so many folks just tear off a weed at the surface and call it good. It makes me cringe to think of those long, deep tap roots or branched, spread out fibrous roots that may live to see another day. Instead, if you dig the weed out by its roots, you’ll weaken the weed and make it vulnerable to winter weather. That’s a good thing.
Tip: There is plenty of gardening debate about whether or not to clean up garden beds, since good bugs hibernate in debris, too. Feel free to leave some spots untidy, perhaps near flower beds or bug hotels, to try to find balance if you want.
Also, with some roots that are super tough to pull (like okra, cabbage or broccoli stems that have had the heads removed), I’ll sometimes leave them in the ground until spring. They’ll be easier to remove after they decompose a bit, and they help to loosen and aerate the soil.)
Tip: If your dead vegetable plants are not showing signs of disease, you can add them to your compost pile. But make sure you don’t put diseased plants in your compost, since the diseases can overwinter there as well.
2. Test Your Garden Soil
Now that your garden is cleaned up, it’s a great time to get a soil test done. A good soil test will give you results on pH levels, nutrients (potassium, phosphorus, etc.), organic matter, and the general health of your soil. All good things to know for next year.
Simply pull a small shovel full of dirt from 5-6 different areas of your garden, about 6 inches below the surface. Mix the amounts well, let them air dry, and remove stones and other debris. Then send your sample to a local extension office. If you don’t know where to go, this list of extension offices in every state may help.
You can also order an at-home soil testing kit like this one, but keep in mind that they aren’t as accurate as official testing done in a lab. Here’s what I learned when I tested my garden soil.
3. Amend Your Garden Soil
Once you get your soil tests back from the lab, you can use that information to rebuild your soil over the winter so that you are starting spring with healthy, fertile soil. Soil amendments take a while to break down, so fall is truly the best time to amend your soil.
There is a huge variety of organic soil amendments you can add to your garden, and it really depends on what your soil test results show you’re lacking. Read more about soil amendments here. Some of my favorites are well-composted manure, clean grass clippings, or old hay mulch.
4. Grow A Cover Crop
Nature abhors a vacuum. One of the most important things to put on your fall garden checklist is to cover and protect your soil. If you can see your soil, you need to get a cover on it. This cover can take the form of a cover crop or a good mulch.
A cover crop is like green compost growing in your soil; the nutrients in the plant replenish the ground, preparing it for your summer crops. Often a nitrogen-rich plant is used, from the legume family, such as clovers, peas, and vetches. But sometimes a grass is used, such as winter barley.
While wondering about the main difference of legumes versus grasses, I researched crop choices for replenishing specific microbes in the soil. I learned that it’s best to use a diverse mix of seeds, since having a variety of plants in your cover crop will lead to a wider variety of microbes in your soil.
Sowing a cover crop is quite simple – just scatter the seed like you’re feeding your chickens. You can buy cover crop seed by the pound at many local feed mills…
Whatever you decide to use for you cover crop, be sure what you’re sowing will survive cold temperatures so you get as much growth as possible before the winter snows come. The cover crop will compost slowly underneath the snow throughout the winter, adding a boost in nutrients to your garden.
5. Cover Your Soil with Mulch
If you choose not to use cover crops (I haven’t personally used them yet myself), make sure you cover your soil well with a good mulch to help prepare your garden for winter. Mulch protects the soil from being washed away, slowly adds nutrients to your soil, adds good tilth to your soil as it breaks down over time, conserves moisture, and prevents weed seed from sprouting.
Just cover your soil in a layer 1-3 inches thick with the mulch of your choice. You can use leaf mulch, grass clippings, straw or hay, or other mulching options, but just make sure you use a good organic source (or you might poison your garden like I did).