As your fall garden starts to wind down and stop producing veggies, it’s time to prepare for the winter ahead, and set yourself up for a successful spring garden. Gardening in the fall is a great time to look at this year’s successes and failures, as well as working through a fall garden checklist.
Working in the garden throughout the fall doesn’t feel as hectic or hot. Beads of sweat won’t drip down your back, and you don’t have the pressure to get vegetables planted in the appropriate timeline. So, here are some tasks to complete this fall before your beds are covered in snow.
1. Test Your Soil
Over the summer, as your crops grew and produced vegetables, the plants sucked out the nutrients they needed to survive. Now, many of your garden crops are coming to an end, but it’s a good time to test your soil.
Why is testing your soil important? Soil testing helps you understand the composition of your soil. A soil test helps to determine your soil pH, levels of potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, and it will determine your soil structure.
This information is vital if you want to produce a larger yield in the following year. If we continually plant crops in garden beds that are depleted, we won’t be able to grow as much as we could with healthy soil. Knowing the results of your test allow you to know if you need to alter the pH levels or if you need to add more sand to your clay soil. The results will let you know that your calcium levels are fine, but those phosphorus levels are too low. Receiving the results now also allow you add lime in the fall, so that it can dissolve in the winter. You can plan any nutritional amendments to add in the spring as well.
2. Plant Cover Crops
Cover crops are underrated, working hard in your garden to suppress weeds, create a productive soil, and control pests and diseases. These plants require little work on your end, and you can grow them in almost any climate. In areas with a lot of rain or snow throughout the winter, cover crops also reduce soil erosion.
Many people assume incorrectly that cover crops are for large-scale gardeners only, but they work well in raised beds! Here are the simple steps.
- Rake up the soil gently. Seeds need exposed soil to germinate and grow correctly.
- Spread the seeds over the soil. You don’t need to plant in rows. Think of it like planting grass seed.
- Rake the seeds into the soil gently to ensure good soil to seed contact.
Cover crops should be planted after the last summer crops are harvested but before cold weather starts. Many of these crops are legumes that add nitrogen into your soil. Nitrogen is crucial for a successful garden, and a nitrogen deficiency will cause your spring crops to fail.
Unlike crops harvested for food, cover crops are tilled back into the soil or added to the compost to release more nutrients as they decompose. If you’ve yet to plant a cover crop, let this be the year you use green manure to amend your garden soil.
3. Spread Compost and Mulch
Now is a great time to fertilize your bed with compost or manure. Spread an even layer over your soil. Throughout the summer, the constant freezing and thawing, along with earthworm activity, will work the compost into the ground.
Many soil amendments, such as compost, are not immediately available for the plants to use. So, if you add compost over your garden soil in the spring, the nutrients may not be available until the summer. That is why it’s important to spread the compost in the fall.
You can add compost, mature horse manure, rabbit manure, wood ash, and other soil amendments over the soil and till it in or leave it to sit. That gives the amendments all winter long to break down. The nutrients will be available to the plants in the spring, which is when you need them the most. Plants with more nutrients available to them will be healthier and produce a robust harvest.
4. Cut Back Perennials
Take a look at the perennial veggies, herbs, and flowers. Remove any diseased or dead parts of the plant. Make sure you remove any foliage or debris surrounding the plant and dispose of it.
It’s also a good time to divide up your perennials. Planting perennials is a great way to save time and money, and you can divide them up to increase your plants. Dividing perennials also help to improve your harvest and blooming, as well as avoid overcrowding. Fall is the best time for this task!
Store the tender bulbs in peat moss or sand in a cool environment that receives no frost throughout the winter. It should stay around 50 degrees F consistently. A root cellar is a fantastic location!
If you are bringing in plants for the winter, make sure you remove any dead foliage and break up hardened soil. Look for pests as well. You might consider spraying the plants before bringing them inside to get rid of aphids, mealybugs, and other insects.
5. Take Cuttings
Before frost damages your plants, take a small cutting of any plants you want to over-winter. Then, you can transplant them outdoors in the following spring. Starting a plant from a stem is much faster than starting from seeds.
A cutting is a piece of a plant that you cut away and root to become a new plant. Cuttings are usually from stems or branches, but roots, sprouts, and rhizomes also are forms of cuttings. Branch cuttings work for woody or fibrous plants such as tomatoes, peppers, basil, and savory.
You want to use a 6-inch cutting and dip the end into a rooting hormone. Then, place the cutting into water or damp potting mixture. To create a greenhouse environment, try placing a cut plastic milk jug over.
Tuber plants, such as potatoes, horseradish, and Jerusalem artichokes, can be propagated by cutting the tuber and planting it. Many herbs propagate well from cuttings, such as:
6. Build New Raised Beds
If you plan to grow even more next year – doesn’t every gardener? -, fall is the time to build new raised beds. Organic garden soil typically goes on sale during the fall, so filling new beds is much cheaper. You can lay down cardboard, grass clippings, and compost to kill the grass before you fill with soil.
The benefits of building the beds now are that it’s less to do during the spring, so you can focus on important tasks. Also, it gives the soil amendments and fertilizers you add into the soil time to become available for the plants.
7. Overwinter Tropical Plants Inside
Did you get the urge to grow citrus in Maine? That’s okay! Sub-tropical and tropical plants can do fine in other climates, but they can’t handle our winter. That means you have to bring them inside. Place them by a south, east, or west facing window.
Certain plants, such as banana plants, must be dug up before the first fall frost and overwintered inside. It is best for them to be either fully dormant or semi-dormant. You can store them in your basement or somewhere that the temperature stays around 40 to 50 degrees F.
Fall is a great time in the garden! You don’t have to stop growing veggies. Many vegetables, especially different greens, grow well into the winter months. However, use this cooling down phase to prepare your garden beds for the upcoming winter. A prepared fall garden leads to a successful spring garden!