As the major growing season winds down, the work you put into the garden now will pay dividends for the whole year. It may be tough to get motivated after a hot summer in the garden, but a small push can give your garden a big head start come spring. Here is a list of some of the fall garden chores that we make a priority to give our gardens a step up for next year.
Sanitize your beds
As much as we all enjoy a nice clean and kempt look to our gardens, there are important reasons to clean out and remove dead plant matter to set your garden up for success the following year. Many diseases and viruses can overwinter in the dead plant matter especially those of plants that showed signs of disease or viruses during their life. The overwintered pathogens can infect the next year’s plants and spread through the garden. No one wants to see all that hard work in the garden go to waste.
While we prefer to compost everything we can, the only thing that should go to the compost piles are plants that were healthy and have died back because their season has completed or those killed by frost. If your plants had diseases or unknown issues, play it safe and remove them from your site by throwing them in the trash or burning them completely.
There are a few exceptions to the rules of cleaning out your gardens completely. Many flowering annuals and perennials produce seeds that are full of nutrients that provide food for birds during the fall and winter when other food supplies are less plentiful. Asters, Black-Eyed Susans, Coneflower, and Zinnia among many others provide nourishment for birds during the winter months. Cut these plants back at the very beginning of spring or when all the seed has been picked clean.
Get those weeds under control
The fall can be a perfect time to get all those pesky weeds under control for the next year. Many weeds are best defeated at the end of the summer or beginning of the fall. Any weeds with significant root systems such as knotweed, dandelions, and curly dock should be dug out removing as much of the root system as possible. Any weeds that have gone to seed should be delicately removed so as to not spread the seeds. Plants that have gone to seed should only be added to a compost pile if the compost is fully heated up in order to kill all of the weed seeds. Many times I avoid adding these to the compost pile entirely.
Test your soil
There is an obvious theme for the fall chore lists: preparing for spring. With perfect conditions come spring time, it’s easy for all of your plants to flourish. It’s important for the life of your plants that they are given the best soil conditions in order to thrive. The simplest way to understand your soil and its needs is to conduct a soil test. Many state organizations and extension services provide soil testing for gardeners. Take multiple samples from different gardens to get a more in-depth survey of the soils of all your gardens. Most testing facilities will also provide information on how to amend your soil to best suit the plants you are growing with your soil test. This will allow you to amend your soil well before starting your spring gardens.
Prepare a new garden (or rejuvenate an established garden)
If you want to set yourself up for an easy spring, you can actually prepare your garden beds in the fall. There are many great ways to prepare a bed. We have had great success with both double digging and sheet mulching approaches. If you till or double dig during the fall, it’s a good idea to plant a fall garden or plant a cover crop to hold the loose soil.
Sheet mulching is an easy way to create a new garden without the back breaking labor of digging or tilling. It is something that is best done in the fall or late winter to give the layers plenty of time to kill off weeds and begin to decompose. It is also a great way to rejuvenate an established bed that may have been overtaken by weeds or just needs a heavy dose of organic matter.
Last but not certainly not least is spending some time with the compost. With the soon (or already) falling leaves that will need to be adding to a compost pile, it’s time to get everything ready to take on the large amount of organics to be composted. Turn any existing compost piles and keep them well watered. Compost that is too dry won’t heat up and will take significantly longer to break down especially during colder weather. I try to turn and water my compost frequently during the fall so that I have plenty of great compost ready to go when I start planting my spring and summer gardens. The last thing I want in the spring is to have to work extra hard on composting to catch up.
A little work in the fall can pay off huge in the spring. Who wants to do more work than they have to? Take advantage of the slower season to knock out some fall chores that will help save you time and work when the warm weather rolls back into town. There is a long winter ahead and plenty of time to nurse some well deserved sore muscles. Before you know it, you will be stuck inside during the cold weather flipping through seed catalogs dreaming of all those beautiful summer vegetables.