Gardeners who prepare ahead of time have the best results, which is why tackling your fall garden tasks is so important. Fall is the perfect time to evaluate your garden successes and failures, while also preparing for the upcoming year ahead.
As things wind down in the garden, you have the opportunity to look back and determine what worked, what didn’t, and what you need to do to prepare for next year so you aren’t swamped come next growing season.
Fall is my favorite time in the garden. For most areas in the U.S., it’s the end of the heavy harvest season, so you aren’t spending all of your time canning, cooking, and tending the garden. But unlike the dormant season, the garden still has plenty growing, and you’re enjoying the fruits of a successful year.
Since you aren’t as busy in the garden, you finally have time to regroup and prep for next year. Fall should be the time that you get going on the things you can do now to prepare for the spring.
There are several ways that you can prep your garden beds in the fall for a productive year ahead.
1. Test Your Soil
Over the summer, your crops sucked nutrients out of the soil to grow and thrive. Now that the gardening season is at an end, you need to see what your soil is lacking. Out of all the fall garden tasks, I think that this one is the most important.
Testing your soil helps you to understand the composition of your dirt. It shows you the soil’s pH level, as well as levels of potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sulfur. All of this is vital information that enables you to produce a larger yield in the following year.
Planting crops in garden beds that have depleted soil means your garden beds won’t yield as much the following year. Knowing your soil’s composition allows you to alter the pH and mineral levels as needed.
2. Clean Out Flower and Vegetable Beds
Once the growing season is over, debris needs to be cleaned out from your garden beds. Throughout spring, summer, and fall, fallen leaves, decaying plant matter, sticks, and other items make your garden beds untidy. Take this time to rake and pull out any leaves and debris.
You might also want to take this time to weed your garden beds for the fall. Leaving weeds in the ground encourages them to come back in the spring. Take some time to pull out any visible weeds.
3. Enrich Garden Beds with Compost or Manure
Once you remove plants from your garden beds, spread an even layer of compost or manure on the exposed soil. Make sure you turn over your soil and rake it well before applying. The winter cold will freeze the compost and it will thaw in the spring, when earthworms will work the compost into the ground for you.
The other benefit of adding compost to your garden beds is that it helps to encourage robust root systems in perennials. Plants that aren’t putting their energy towards development use compost to strengthen their root system over the colder months.
4.Mulch or Cover Your Garden Beds
Nothing is worse than starting your spring garden and having to remove tons of weeds. Between winter and the start of the gardening season, weeds can quickly take over your garden beds. That makes it challenging to put in your new plants.
To help keep weeds at bay in the springtime, apply 3 to 4 inches of mulch to your garden beds in the fall. Mulch retains moisture, prevents future weed growth, and insulates the plants and soil from temperature fluctuations.
If you don’t want to use mulch, you can opt to cover the garden bed with something else. I’ve used cut up cardboard boxes. Cardboard decomposes over time if left out in the weather for long enough. You can also use layers of newspaper.
Some people use black landscaping fabric. Whatever you decide is fine, the goal is to stop sunlight from reaching the weeds.
5. Consider Planting Cover Crops
Cover crops are underrated, but they should be high on your fall garden tasks list. These plants suppress weeds, help foster healthy soil, and control pests. Most cover crop plants don’t require too much work on your end, and they grow in almost any climate. In areas that have a lot of rain or snow, cover crops help to reduce soil erosion.
Most people assume that cover crops are only for large-scale gardeners, but they’re wrong. You can use them in your home garden beds. Loosen up the soil and spread cover crop seeds over the ground. You don’t need to plant in rows; spread them like grass seed and rake them into the soil.
Plant cover crops after the last summer crops are harvested but before cold weather starts. Many cover crops are legumes and add nitrogen into your soil. Gardeners know that nitrogen is necessary for a successful, healthy garden.
6. Collect Any Leftover Dried Seeds
If you save your seeds, now is the time to finish collecting them. Gather any leftover dried seeds that are in your garden beds. Collect seeds from open-pollinated flowers and veggies. It’s easy to do this when you’re removing the dying or dead plants from your garden.
For example, I leave many pea pods on my vines to dry. Once the vines are brown, I take off the pods, which are full of dried pea seeds ready for storage. Most people know that they should gather seeds in the summer, but it’s also an essential fall garden task.
7. Clean Out Cold Frames
The best time to clean out your cold frames and season extenders is before it gets too cold. Clean out your structures in the fall so that they’re ready to be used in the spring. You also can take down and store away any hoop houses that you aren’t using. Storing them allows you to reuse them the following year.
8. Cut Back Perennials
Now is an excellent time to cut back diseased perennials and remove all of the foliage. Make sure you don’t put those plants into the compost. Otherwise, you risk spreading diseases throughout your compost, which will later infect your garden beds.
Plants like daylilies have a mat of leaves that surround their plants. If you don’t cut them back, the plant has to grow through the carpet of matter around it. Plus, leaving decaying materials around your garden bed looks unsightly.
9. Overwinter Tropical Plants Inside
Growing citrus plants is a delight when you live in northern climates, but they can’t stay outside during the winter months. Sub-tropical and tropical plants must be brought inside and be placed by the south, east, or west-facing windows in your house.
Other plants need to be put into storage. Banana plants, for example, must be dug up before the first fall frost and overwintered inside. They need to be in either fully dormant or semi-dormant stages. Then, you can store them in your basement or somewhere that the temperature is between 40-50℉.
10. Take Cuttings
At the end of the growing season, it’s time to take cuttings from plants before a frost hits. A cutting is a piece of a plant that you cut away and root to become a new plant. They typically come from stems or branches, but roots, sprouts, and rhizomes can form cuttings as well.
It’s easier to bring in small cuttings of plants to over-winter rather than huge pots of mature plants. Later, in the spring, these cuttings will be ready to transplant into your garden beds once the soil warms up.
Herbs propagate particularly well through cuttings. Try cuttings from:
11. Build New Raised Garden Beds
Do you plan to have a more extensive garden next year? Fall is the perfect time to build new raised beds. Garden soil is usually deeply discounted at this time of year, so filling a bed is much cheaper. You can lay down cardboard, grass clippings, and compost to kill the grass before filling your frame with soil.
12. Clean and Store The Garden Tools
Finally, the last of your fall garden tasks is to clean, sand, and oil garden tools. You also need to sanitize the tools because they might have come in contact with a diseased plant. Here are some ways to prepare your garden tools for the next growing season.
- Use warm water and soap to clean all of the garden tools. Remove all traces of dirt, plant material, and rust.
- Sharpen pruners and any other cutting tools that you have with a whetstone at the same angle as the blade.
- Coat the tools in a fine layer of oil, such as motor oil or linseed oil before putting them away for the winter.
Get Ready for Spring Now
It seems strange to think about spring when the year isn’t over, but being prepared is always the best course. By preparing ahead of time with the right fall garden tasks, you’ll have nutritious soil without weeds, cuttings ready to be planted, and seeds stored for planting. It’s all about planning when you want a successful garden.