October 12, 2021

Fall gardening tips for better soil

Set next year’s garden up for success with these simple but powerful fall gardening tips for healthier soil…

Fall is always a busy time in the garden – with weeding, harvesting, mulching, and cleaning up the spent summer crops while tending to the fall garden crops at the same time. However, it’s worth it to put some extra time and effort into your garden during the autumn months in order to improve your soil for next year’s growing season. By following a few tried-and-true fall gardening tips, you’ll not only grow healthier plants next year, but you’ll also decrease the incidence of diseases, pests, and weeds for the next growing season.

If you’ve been gardening for any length of time, you probably already know the importance of healthy soil. Healthy soil creates healthy plants – and that doesn’t just mean a bigger harvest; it also means fewer pests and diseases, a longer harvest season, and less time and effort spent dealing with garden problems.

By completing some simple fall garden preparation tasks that will naturally improve your soil over the winter, you’ll set next year’s garden up for success! Here are 13 fall gardening tips to do right now for a better garden next year:

1.) Test Your Soil

The first thing to do is to find out how healthy your soil is, and what might be needed for healthier plant growth next season. A soil test is a relatively simple and cheap way to do this.

The Farmer’s Almanac recommends doing a soil test every 3-5 years:

Soil testing services are offered by most state university extension services. It only takes a few minutes to take a representative sample and send it off.  See how to take a soil test.

Or, see these three simple DIY soil tests for a quick and dirty evaluation of your soil.

A basic soil test usually measures phosphorus, potassium, soil pH, and organic matter. (A proper pH is important for nutrient availability to plants.) The soil test service will also give you recommendations and solutions with suggested materials to add to your soil.

Keep in mind that it can take years to build up optimum levels of pH, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, so if you’re not there yet, don’t get discouraged!

2.) Amend/Adjust pH

Once you have your results, it’s time to make any needed amendments.

According to Gardeners.com,

If your soil pH needs adjusting, autumn is the time to correct it. It’s best to raise or lower soil pH slowly, over a three- to six-month period. Add lime in the fall to raise the pH level of your soil. Add acidifiers like pine needles, peat moss, and elemental sulfur if your soil is too alkaline.

As explained by the Farmer’s Almanac:

The pH is the measure of the soil’s acidity/alkalinity. Most vegetables grow best in soils that are slightly acid, falling between the 6.0 and 7.0 range on the pH scale…

(NOTE: Do not just add lime or sulfur without knowing your pH. This could be detrimental to your plants.)

3.) Clean Out Old Plants

As Melissa Norris over at the Pioneering Podcast states,

You don’t want to leave this year’s plants in the ground to rot in your garden all winter. If you have plants with any signs of disease or fungus, leaving them all fall/winter will lead to the spread of disease.

Plus, rotting plants will encourage mice, rats, and other rodents to find shelter in your garden. Throw away or burn any plants with obvious signs of disease. Other plants can be tilled back into the soil or chopped up with a hoe to small pieces to break down over the winter months.

On the other hand, if you have healthy and seed-free trimmings from hedges, shrubs, or perennials, these can make a great mulch when chopped and added back as a covering to your beds:

Gardenista.com says,

If you have a landscape garden, hedges, woodlands, or fruit trees, then you have a wealth of materials to amend soils. Winter and early spring tree prunings, hedge trimmings, and perennial cuttings can feed the soil when recycled back into the garden.

Chipped yard debris and bits pruned from trees make effective mulch. When green, they also provide a valuable nitrogen source as a sheet mulch layer. Use softer perennial cuttings as mulch, sheet mulch compost, or a garden bed amendment.

4.) Leave the Leaves

While it may look more neat and tidy to rake up all those fallen leaves and get rid of them, you’re throwing away garden gold! Leaves can be incredibly valuable for the garden – especially in the fall. They make great mulch for controlling weeds, and also add lots of organic matter to the soil. Keep in mind that some leaves are better than others.

According to OldWorldGardenFarms.com,

When it comes to powering a garden, some leaves are better than others. Maple, Birch, Ash, Beech and fruit tree leaves are fantastic to compost. But others, like oak should be used in moderation. Grass clippings (untreated) are also a great addition to gardens to help add nutrients and structure.

The leaves of oak trees tend to be more acidic than other varieties. And too many in your garden (or in a compost pile) can result in creating soil that is less than ideal for growing vegetables.

You will also want to make sure you prepare and use your leaves properly.

As Houzz.com says,

Leaf litter, left to break down naturally on garden beds, adds organic material to the soil and promotes microbial life. To prep your kitchen garden for spring planting, add fall leaves (ideally shredded to speed up their decomposition) directly into the soil of raised beds and turn it over with a shovel. The leaves will break down over the winter, improving soil texture and adding back phosphorous and potassium to the soil.

You can even combine leaf mulch with a cover crop (discussed below), by planting the cover crop under a thin layer of shredded leaves. The cover crop will help keep the leaves in place as it grows, while the leaves, in turn, will help the cover crop germinate by keeping the soil moist.

5.) Skip the Tilling

While some gardeners like to till old crops into the soil in the fall, many no-till advocates recommend skipping this step, especially if you have a small garden, or one with raised beds.

According to Almanac.com,

All that tilling does is disrupt soil structure, create more erosion, and kill earthworms. For a small garden, simply dig by hand to remove any weeds, old plants, and debris. To add your compost and soil amendments, simply turn the soil lightly with a garden fork to mix the amendments.

Now, if you have a large garden, digging up all your weeds and old plants may simply be too much work. In this case, add organic matter before you till, and then consider covering the soil with some form of mulch to avoid erosion.

6.) Add Compost

You probably add compost to your garden in the spring when you plant your crops, but fall can also be a good time to spread some nutritious compost on your garden.

Gardeners.com says:

As you remove spent crops from the vegetable garden, use a garden fork to loosen the soil, and mix in a 3″ to 4″ layer of compost. While soil temperatures are still warm, the nutrients and organic matter in the compost will stimulate microbes and other beneficial organisms. Tired, end-of-season soil will be refreshed and renewed when spring comes around.

And OldWorldGardenFarms.com adds,

We like to work an inch or two of compost into the top layer of each growing row. We do this before we plant our fall cover crop. Not only does it add incredible fertility to the garden, it also helps the cover crop germinate better too. If you don’t plant a cover crop, use leaves or a cover to protect your garden’s compost from eroding through winter.

7.) Add Raw Organic Matter

Besides compost, fall is also a great time to add some raw organic materials directly to your garden, so they’ll have time to break down by spring. You can do this by simply burying organic matter in your garden or incorporating shredded leaves, or by adding manure according to Gardeners.com:

Animal manures (but not from dogs or cats) are great for the soil. You can gather it in buckets, plastic trash bags, feed bags, or in the back of a pickup truck. A good thing about adding animal manures in the fall, is that it doesn’t really matter if the manure is fresh or aged. Over the winter months, the caustic ammonia will dissipate, leaving behind valuable nutrients and organic matter.

8.) Add Organic Soil Amendments

If your garden soil needs a little more love, there are also some valuable soil amendments that can be very beneficial to add in the fall. Gardeners.com says,

Most organic fertilizers release their nutrients slowly over many months, so applying them in the fall helps ensure they’ll be available to your plants next spring. If you can get your hands on some kelp meal, greensand, rock phosphate, or bone meal, do so. Because it’s the end of the season, your local garden center may even have some broken bags they’ll be willing to sell you at a discount. You can mix these organic materials right into your garden (or side dress around plants), along with the shredded leaves, manure and compost.

9.) Add Mulch

One of the best fall gardening tips – and one of the most important things you can do to protect and build your soil over the winter – is to mulch everything well. This also gives you the upper hand on spring weeds. Whether you use hay, straw, grass clippings, leaves, wood chips, or another preferred material, this is one step that you definitely don’t want to skip!

Houzz.com suggests sheet mulching:

Sheet mulching is a method of amending garden soil in which you stack layers of cardboard, wood chips and organic materials like a lasagna on garden beds. The cardboard suppresses weeds, and the lightweight layers slowly decompose to create a loamy, nutrient-dense layer of topsoil for planting. Getting this started in the fall gives the sheet mulching plenty of time to break down over the cool winter months to have soil ready for planting come spring.

And Melissa Norris says,

The key is to make thick layers of mulch that are going to break down to create really good organic matter and soil. It will work into that base layer of soil and, over the years, it’s going to create good soil long-term.

If you start sheet mulching now on what was otherwise an area that was unable to grow crops and keep up on it, two years from now you’re going to have a significant improvement on that soil, and you’ll be able to start growing.

10.) Turn Down the Water

One thing you want to make sure to do in the winter is to stop watering. If you don’t bring in your irrigation lines in the winter, at least make sure they are cleaned out and turned off.

As Houzz.com points out,

It’s easy to forget to dial back irrigation systems (or turn them off completely) once cooler weather and more rain arrive. Garden beds allowed to remain too wet and boggy can have a detrimental effect on soil texture and fertility. Waterlogged soil can tip microorganisms into anaerobic processes of breaking down organic materials, creating an environment that is less conducive to root growth (and that causes soggy containers to smell dreadful). To keep soil healthy, dial back your irrigation and check your garden for drainage issues after rains.

11.) Control Erosion

Winter winds, rain, and ice and snowmelt runoff can make your garden especially prone to erosion during the winter months when the ground isn’t protected by roots and growing plants. Melissa Norris points out:

If you notice that areas of your garden continue to erode away you’ll want to stop this as soon as possible or you’ll be at risk of having very poor and compacted soil.

Planting a cover crop (see # 13 below) can actually protect your soil from being eroded by wind, rain, and snow which can all wash away the topsoil. The topsoil is where most of the nutrients and organic matter lay to feed your plants so you can see why it’s important to maintain it.

If you missed the window on planting a cover crop this year you can also use sheet mulching (see #9 above) to control erosion and add nutrients back into the soil.

12.) Control Weeds

While weeds won’t be much of a problem during the winter except in very warm climates, they’ll return with a vengeance in the spring, so fall is a great time to get a head start on next season’s weeds. Melissa Norris says,

Help control weeds in your garden by pulling out those that have gone to seed. Ideally, we’d like to remove all the weeds from our garden, but that isn’t always possible. If you only have a small amount of time on your hands, concentrate on those weeds that have flowered and gone to seed first.

After pulling up your plants (and weeds), planting a cover crop can help control weeds by not allowing seeds to land in the soil during the winter month via the wind and birds.

This means the seed won’t be able to sprout and take root in the spring after dormancy.

If you’re not planting a cover crop, mulching all your beds heavily during the winter months can help prevent weeds from sprouting in the spring before you’ve planted your spring and summer crops.

13.) Plant a Cover Crop

Lastly, in case you hadn’t noticed from reading through the previous fall gardening tips, cover crops are a great addition to your fall garden – no matter the size. Old World Garden Farms describes cover crops as “the number one and best way to recharge your garden soil every fall,” and  Melissa Norris says,

Cover crops are an excellent way to improve your soil. They require little work on your part but do a lot of work for your soil. By planting a cover crop you’ll also benefit from the tips below such as controlling erosion, breaking up the hard-packed ground, adding nutrients and organic matter into the soil, and even preventing weeds.

And according to Almanac.com,

Larger gardens and small farms have long used cover crops to prevent erosion and add organic matter back to the soil.

However, cover crops are becoming more and more popular in small gardens and are quite the trend!  Why not? Cover crops do all the work for you over the winter, breaking down and adding nutrients and organic matter back to the soil for a healthy start come spring!

Examples of cover crops are winter wheat, winter rye, and annual ryegrass. Seed cover crops are seeded in the fall about six weeks before the first expected frost date. To plant, you simply broadcast the seed, lightly cover it with soil, and water. Let the cover crop grow until early spring, then till or turn it under. Wait a few weeks after tilling before planting.

And Houzz.com says,

Plants such as red clover, legumes, hairy vetch and many cereal grains are grown as “green manure” to return nitrogen and organic materials to the soil. In mild winter climates, fall can be a perfect time to seed a fallow garden bed with a cover crop. To do so, sprinkle a cleared bed with seeds from either a single variety of cover crop or a mixture, allow the plants to grow to maturity and then cut with a mower before the plants set seeds. You can either turn the “green manure” into the bed with a shovel or simply allow the materials to decompose covering the ground.

Even by implementing just a few of these fall gardening tips, you’ll significantly increase the health of your soil over time – especially if you repeat them every autumn. Following these steps as you put your garden to bed for the winter can help improve your soil’s fertility, support healthy plant growth, improve water retention and drainage, and help next season’s plants fend off diseases, pests, and other stressors.

No matter where you are in your gardening journey, building better soil is the single most important thing you can do to improve your gardening success, and fall is a great time to get started!

 

Sources:

https://melissaknorris.com/podcast/podcast-38-fall-gardening-prep-10-tips-improve-soil/

https://www.gardeners.com/how-to/fall-soil-improvements/7036.html

https://www.almanac.com/fall-soil-preparation

https://www.houzz.com/magazine/what-to-do-this-fall-to-build-healthy-garden-soil-stsetivw-vs~76125244

https://www.gardenista.com/posts/dirty-secrets-10-ways-to-improve-garden-soil/

https://oldworldgardenfarms.com/2021/09/02/recharge-your-garden-soil/

 

 

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About the author 

Rose S.

An avid gardener since childhood, I love sharing my passion for gardening with others! I have gardened in a number of different climates and settings, from large fenced garden plots, to tiny patio and container gardens, and I firmly believe that everyone can learn to grow at least some of their own food - no matter where you live. Growing your own food can help you take control of your own health and food supply, and there has never been a better time to get started!

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