Fall swoops in with its frosty mornings and hues of orange, yellow and red. The days are growing shorter. It is time to put the garden to bed and prepare for the long winter ahead. Although I am sad that the summer is over, I love to look back on the abundance and joy that my garden provided through the past few months. I also love to start dreaming about next year's garden and how it will look.
There are a few things that I like to do to prepare for the winter. I try to keep it as simple as possible. By spring, I will have renewed energy to tackle anything else that comes along. I have two vegetable gardens, both of which are no-till, so my to-dos are based on making sure I am staying true to the no-till approach. Here is my fall garden checklist (if you want to download my list and review questions in pdf format, click here).
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1. Clean up the vegetable garden
I used to pull out all of the plants from the garden and put them in a big pile to compost. I recently learned that there are alternative ways other than just ripping everything out. First, decide which plants you want to remove from your garden. You don't have to take everything out in the fall. Leave some things for the beneficial insects to have a place to live during the winter. You want to make sure that you are giving them a good home so that they will be there in the spring to help take care of your garden and eat the insects you don't want. (Read more about beneficial insects in this post). Some plants you might think about leaving in the winter garden could be herbs, flowers, okra, and beans. You can choose which plants you want to leave and which plants you want to take out.
If any of your plants had diseases during the season, you should definitely take them out. Also, if the plants were infested with insects you don't want in your garden, take them out. For example, squash bugs will overwinter in the stems of squash and zucchini. If you had a problem with squash bugs, pull out the squash and zucchini plants to make sure you aren't harboring any for next season.
After you have decided which plants you will leave for spring cleanup, you can go through the rest of the plants and cut them down at the base of their stem. Use trimming shears like these for smaller plants and these for plants with a thick stem. Leave the roots in the ground. I know this may seem counter intuitive, but you want to disturb the soil as little as possible, and this is one way to do it. You are also letting the roots break down over the winter to feed the soil nutrients. It's basically like planting a cover crop or putting some compost into your garden, but it's less work for you!
2. Plant Cover Crops
After you have cleaned up your vegetable garden, you may decide to plant a cover crop. There are several types of cover crops you can use in your garden. You can choose legumes which add nitrogen and organic matter. Some legumes include vetches, clovers and peas. You can also plant grasses which add organic matter and help to break up compacted soil. Some grasses include barley, wheat and rye. A good start would be to find a mixture to get all of the benefits of a cover crop. Here is a mix I use.
There are so many benefits to planting a cover crop in the fall. Cover crops help with erosion and keep the soil protected. They can add nitrogen to the soil. When they are mowed down in the spring, they add green manure to make healthier, more nutrient-rich soil. Finally, cover crops give beneficial insects a place to stay for the winter.
If you already have a deep-mulch garden and don't want to plant a cover crop, you should add more mulch to your garden in the fall. Adding a few inches of hay, straw, shredded leaves or other organic matter will give it time to break down over the winter to add nutrients to your garden. Mulch will also help your soil retain water. It also can be helpful with erosion control. And having a nice layer of mulch deters weeds from growing in the fall and in the spring. Less work for you!
If you don’t have a deep-mulch garden already established, now is a great time to get one started. You can add about 8 inches of organic material such as hay, straw, leaves or grass clippings and let it sit for the winter. By spring, you should have some decent soil underneath. You can leave the organic material on the garden plot when you are ready to plant and just move it out of the way to put your seedlings or seeds in the ground. There may be cases with this method that it might take longer to get to the perfect soil. It really depends on what type of soil you start with and how much clay or rock may be underneath the surface.
4. Plant for spring
There are a lot of things you can plant in the fall for spring and summer harvest. Garlic needs to be planted in the fall a few weeks before or after your first frost. You can harvest the garlic scapes in the spring and then the garlic later in the year. Garlic is planted from "seed" which is actually the garlic clove. I would recommend looking into different types of garlic to see what best suits your needs. I don't recommend planting garlic you buy from the grocery store. You don't know what kind of hybrid it is or if it will do well.
You can plant asparagus in the fall to give it a bit of a head start for the spring. It does take a couple of years for asparagus to get fully established. Once it's established, it can produce for 20-25 years.
Berries are another plant that you might consider planting in the fall. Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries can all be planted in fall or early spring. Just make sure you get them in the ground before it gets too cold or freezes. Consider putting a layer of mulch around them to keep them warm and help with moisture control. Keep in mind, certain types of berries will produce higher yields if you have multiple varieties to help pollinate each other.
5. Save Seeds
Now is a good time to save seeds for next year. Ideally, you have been collecting seeds all summer long. Now is a good time to grab seeds from any plant that has recently set seed or dried out. This is the time I like to collect seeds from a lot of the herbs and annual flowers in my garden. I also have okra and beans that grew too big and I had drying on a rack. This is the time when I would take out the seeds of those dried plants and put them into their containers to be able to use next year.
6. Organize Seeds
I know I have packets of seeds everywhere by the end of the growing season. Then I have seed containers from the seeds I've collected as well. And I also keep old seed packets just in case I want to look back at them. Needless to say, I have a lot of organizing to do. I gather all of my seeds and packets and figure out what I want to keep and how many seeds I have left. Then I make a list of the seeds that I want to re-buy next year and throw away old packets that I no longer need.
I generally don't throw away any seeds. If stored properly, seeds can last a really long time - up to 10 years. I always thought they had to be used in a year or two, but that is not the case. Just make sure to store them in a cool place or in the refrigerator. Your germination rate may go down a little bit after a couple of years, but it's worth it to not have to buy seeds every year for certain plants.
7. Test Soil and Add Amendments
Test your soil. You can buy a basic kit online or go through your local extension office to get a more detailed report of what your soil may be lacking. At that point, it’s up to you do decide how to amend your soil. I recommend and only use organic soil amendments in my garden and only when absolutely necessary. Just think, all of the cover crops, organic material and compost you are adding to your garden will naturally amend your soil.
With that said, if you need to add something to change the nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium levels, try something natural. You can add blood meal, bone meal or other amendments depending on what your soil is lacking. For example, blood meal will help increase nitrogen. Bone meal will help increase phosphorous. Kelp meal or wood ashes will help increase potassium. Make sure you don't add amendments to your soil if you don't really need them. And the more organic matter that you add, the better your soil will be. Add compost, manure and worm castings as often as possible for healthy soil.
8. Clean Tools and Put Everything Away
Ideally, you should clean your garden tools after every use. I know in my case, I often forget or get sidetracked, and my tools don't get cleaned as frequently as they should. The end of the gardening season is a good time to make sure that you spray all of the dirt off of your tools. Use a bristle brush to get hard to remove spots. Dry your tools with a cotton rag. If there is rust, sand it off with sandpaper.
Once you have cleaned the tools, put them away neatly in your garage or garden shed. I like to hang my tools from hooks. I also have a peg board for hanging smaller shovels and tools. This is an upgrade from the bucket I used to store them in. At this point, make a list of any tools that you need to replace.
9. Empty Rain Barrel
Another important step if your temperature dips below freezing during the winter is to empty and clean your rain barrel. If you don't have a rain barrel like this, you should consider one. It is a great way to live more sustainably and makes watering easy and convenient. Empty the water away from your house or foundation so you don't flood anything. You can rinse out the rain barrel if there is dirt and debris inside. Store your rain barrel upside down where it is or put it in a sheltered area, like a garage or underneath your deck. Make sure that the downspout that was going into your rain barrel is being directed away from your house or garage.
10. Start a Compost Pile
If you already have a compost pile, great! Now is a good time to add some of those leaves you are raking in your lawn and any plants from the garden that don't have diseases. If you don't have a compost pile, now is a good time to start one. Pick a spot and start your pile directly on the ground or in a large container. Add some leaves or wood shavings along with some grass clippings or kitchen scraps. Make sure any kitchen scraps you add to the pile do not include meats, oils or pet waste.
Add a little water and watch your pile decompose into a rich, nutritious compost that can be added to your garden beds in spring. Before you throw anything from the kitchen away, assess it to see if it could be added to your compost pile instead!
11. Review the Year
After all of the outdoor work is completed, it's time to sit down with your cup of tea and review your gardening season. Maybe you've been keeping notes all along. Maybe you even downloaded my free garden journal and kept track there. Whatever the case, gather everything you have and review what worked well and what didn't. Here are some helpful questions to think about (download the list here):
- What plants thrived?
- What plants didn't?
- Did the soil or other growing conditions have anything to do with what did well and what didn't?
- Were there any diseases? If so, what kind? Are they preventable?
- Did you have any insect infestations? If so, what kind?
- Did you like all of the vegetables, herbs or fruits you planted?
- Was your harvest too big (never) or too small? How many of each plant did you plant?
- What was the weather like? A lot of rain, drought, hotter or colder than usual, perfect conditions?
- What did your soil test say?
- Now, after all the work of putting your garden to bed, it's time to kick back, relax and enjoy some downtime this winter.