It will be easy to just turn your back on the garden until spring. It can wait, you think, the season is over and you’ve worked hard. You’re done growing and have moved on to preparing for the holidays. But skipping these season end garden tasks will be a big mistake.
If you will take the time during a few Saturdays this fall, you will improve your garden yield next year.
What does a garden need to be successful next year? It’s all about the soil. By far, the best thing you can do for your garden is to improve the soil.
Clean Up the Garden
First, you should take the time to clean out your garden beds and remove any annual plants that have stopped producing. They will not come back so why keep them in the garden?
There is one exception to this rule. If these annual plants have seed heads that will benefit the birds this winter, leave them in place.
This fall cleaning prevents the buildup of disease during the winter months. I’m not suggesting that you remove plants that might still be producing, but once they are done being useful- they should be removed.
Prepare the Soil
Next, prepare the soil. This is the time to spread aged manure or compost in the garden. You only need an inch or two for it to be beneficial. If the soil is especially compacted, you may want to consider turning it before adding the manure.
Layer partially decomposed compost on empty beds in the fall, before the ground freezes, and let it decompose further through winter. All those lovely nutrients will be ready and waiting for your spring planting.
If you live in the South or the Southwest US, where a warm climate offers year-round gardening, you need to add compost twice per year to accommodate two distinct growing seasons — one cool and one warm — with different annual flowers, vegetables, and herbs planted and thriving in each period. Further reading at “when to add compost to your garden beds.”
The one exception is the herb bed. Most herbs taste better when grown in poor soil, which is closest to the rocky Mediterranean area they are originally from.
In her book, The Way We Garden Now: 41 Pick-and-Choose Projects for Planting Your Paradise Large or Small, Katherine Whiteside teaches “compost literally puts life in your soil with humus, which is decomposed animal and vegetable matter. Without beneficial humus, your soil is either pure sand or pure clay, and very unlikely to support vigorous plant growth.”
Fall is the time to control weeds, which is an essential part of good garden hygiene. Once the rains begin and before the snow, you should pull all visible weeds. Damp soil will make this task easy and give you a major jump in the spring. I take the
I take the non-chemical approach to weeding and do it by hand; it’s good for the waistline. You should do what you feel is best for your family. Those pesky weeds can set major root systems during the fall and winter months so don’t skip this part, or you will find that you don’t have a garden in the spring, only a weed bed!
Here’s a tip from Katherine Whiteside,
If you are interested in a safe, natural herbicide, try this “relatively” new discovery: Corn Gluten Meal. (Amazon) Researchers deep in the corn belt at the University of Iowa discovered that the residue left after grinding cornmeal contains a natural herbicide. Corn gluten meal prevents seed germination for months but is not harmful to plants that are estaiblished. It can be used on existing lawns and flower beds with no danger at all. (pg. 45)
I need to do some more research about it, but it might be a safe, organic way to control weeds this fall and winter.
Finally, add a layer of mulch. Mulch is any material, organic or inorganic, that is spread over the garden soil to cover it. Mulch will keep weed seeds out and moderate soil temperatures. This helps to keep plant roots cool and moist.
Mulch also helps to
- conserve water,
- maintain a good porous surface and,
- prevent soil erosion.
Any organic mulch, like grass clippings, straw or chopped leaves, can improve soil structure as it decomposes over time. Larger organic mulches like wood chips will also work, just remember that using a mulch with larger particles will take it longer to break down.
You might also consider adding landscape fabric over the top to reduce weeks even further and heat the soil. Remove it in the spring once the weather starts to turn warmer. Check out this new publication for the University of Georgia – Using Cover Crops in the Home Garden
Frequently Asked Questions
Should you till a garden in the fall?
Tilling opens up the soil, allowing oxygen to reach the deeper layers after a long season of production. Adding your organic matter, humus, and manures to the soil in the fall gives it an entire winter and spring to become biologically active. The remnants of this year’s crop will have plenty of time to break down. So, in short, you should absolutely till your garden soil in the fall.
How deep should you till a garden?
Tilling will cultivate the soil 8-10 inches deep, perhaps even more if you are creating a new garden bed in an area where the soil is very poor. You can also till at a more shallow level of 4-8 inches when mixing soil amendments into your bed(s). This is ideally done at the end of the growing season.
Should you till your garden every year?
You do not have to till your garden when your soil is covered. Tilling was needed every spring, and some gardeners also tilled in the fall. Mulch is also needed every year, or at least in the first few years. When the garden matures you might be able to skip a year, just see how the soil is. However, for the best results, tilling every year is highly recommended.
In what month should you start a garden?
While newbies might think that the best time to start a garden is around April or May, the fact of the matter is that you can start much early and then even start harvesting your labor during the month of May. In most of the United States, February is the perfect month to start planting crops, especially if you’re thinking about growing beans, broccoli, lettuce, kale, spinach, and other similar plants. Leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, peas, and collars are also great for planting during this season.
Other Posts About Improving Garden Soil:
SMART Composting – Turn Your Spoil Into Soil – How to Improve Soil Structure This Winter – 4 Permaculture Principles Every Gardener Should Embrace
These four simple season end garden tasks will improve your soil, reduce the number of weeds you have in the spring, and get your soil warmed up so you can plant earlier. What other season end tasks do you recommend?
Carla Berry says
Unless I could find organic corn gluten meal, I wouldn’t want to try it. I believe nearly all non-organic corn is GMO (Roundup Ready) these days, so using corn gluten meal might bring unexpected consequences for the bio-diversity in a garden.
Well Carla, it seems this might not be a good alternative after all! I found an article from WSU that says that corn gluten meal is at best useful on your lawn to control weeds and it has no effect on established weeds. Plus it appears to be a costly to keep applying. Here’s the article if you are interested and thanks for making me do the “research”. http://puyallup.wsu.edu/~linda%20chalker-scott/horticultural%20myths_files/Myths/Corn%20gluten.pdf
Kara Thompson says
Great post! It’s quite helpful for me as a first-year-gardener. It’s the end of the gardening season here and surely there are some things I don’t know, that should be done before the winter comes. Thank you for the advices!