I am one of those people who loves to make lists. Putting on paper what I need to do helps me focus, gives me direction and ensures I don't forget anything along the way.
Especially related to my homesteading activities, I find that having seasonal checklists cuts down on mistakes and makes transitioning from one season to the next less stressful. This week, as our temperatures finally started to drop, I pulled out my checklist for the fall transition to prepare my garden for winter.
As I looked it over and started my planning, I realized how much valuable information is contained in those seemingly simple work items. So, for those of you who may be new to gardening (or want to get more organized in the garden), I thought I'd share my to-do list, and some of my reasoning, with you as inspiration for your planning.
The Fall Transition Gardening To-Do List
Depending on where you live, you may or may not have much growing in your fall garden when you read this. First frosts may have already sweetened up your collards or killed off the last of your tomato vines and pepper plants, as they just did mine.
In the fall, regardless of exactly what planting zone you are in, the one thing we have in common is the shortening of day length. This simple fact means that the garden will slow down.
All the insects that usually buzz-busily about your flowers will slow their activities. Some will suspend them entirely and find places to overwinter and survive the cold.
As this transition takes place, you can take advantage of some of nature's tricks to improve your garden for next year.
1. Plant Seeds
It may seem counter-intuitive to plants seeds in fall when they are sure not to grow. However, this is exactly how nature plants most seeds.
Generally, plants flower and set seeds in the warm seasons. Those seeds dry out, are eaten and spread by birds, blown about by the wind, or fall into the ground when the plants decay and crumble over in winter. All winter long, the seeds lie dormant in the soil.
Each tiny seed contains an internal thermometer that tells it when soil temperatures are right for germination. So, when the warmer air and sun drive up the soil temperatures, seeds will start to germinate as soon as their preferred conditions are reached.
Some seeds will only germinate well if they have experienced the cold and felt the soil re-warm again. This process is called ‘stratification.'
You can simulate stratification at home by putting your seeds in a jar of soil in the refrigerator for a few weeks or months. Or, you can do it the easy way. By planting seeds that benefit from stratification directly in the ground in fall, you let nature do the work of stratifying the seeds for you.
Echinacea, or coneflowers, are a perfect example of how this works. So many new gardeners try to plant these easy to grow, self-seeding perennials in spring. They water and weed diligently, only to give up hope in a couple of months.
The following year, after the unknowing gardeners have probably already planted something else in its place, echinacea plants emerge in full force and engulf anything planted in their way. Those seeds simply needed that period of winter dormancy to trigger their prolific production.
Native plants, perennial flowers, herbs, some grains like amaranth, and even early-germinating vegetables like mustard and arugula benefit from winter planting.
The key to making this work is to wait to put the seeds in the ground until after soil temperatures drop below their preferred germination temperature. That's why doing this in the transition period between fall and winter, when the soil has chilled but not yet hard frozen, is the perfect time to do it.
2. Divide Mature Plants
Plants do a lot of root, rhizome, and tuber development in late summer and early fall. In areas with milder winters, mid to late fall can be a great time to divide overly large plants and replant in new locations.
Without the stress from hot weather new and old plants will quickly establish new roots and acclimate to new locations. Without the heat and long days of sunlight, the soil tends to stay moist. Also, as insects burrow deeper into the ground in preparation for winter, they create passages for roots to follow and set deeply into the earth.
The trick is to make your divisions while mature plants are still growing strong and you still have enough time for new plants to anchor themselves into new locations before the ground freezes.
If you only have a short fall-to-winter transition, such as in USDA planting zones 5 or less, you may want to put your new plants in pots and overwinter them in a warm, sunny space like a greenhouse. Alternately, you can cover your new plants with cold frames to protect them from the wind, create a microclimate, and encourage faster growth.
3. Adjust your Soil pH
Use slow-acting formulas of sulfur or lime to transition your soil over winter without causing traumatic shock to all your soil inhabitants.
4. Mineralize Your Soil
If you grow food, you are inevitably robbing your soil of nutrients each time you harvest. You'll add some back when you fertilize, add compost, and mulch. However, this still may not be a sufficient trace mineral supply for a really productive garden.
Applying rock dust as you put your garden to rest for the winter, is a great way to restore mineral content. I live near a granite quarry and use granite dust as my mineral source. But any rock dust – basalt, glacial dust, and others can all be used.
About once every 3-4 years, I will incorporate approximately 14 pounds per 100 square feet into my soil over my entire garden. Some of my beds run short on minerals a bit sooner, though. So, during the growing season, I make notes about any beds that need a mineral boost and add half that amount, or 7 pounds per 100 square feet, as an interim boost.
The best time to apply your mineral source is before putting compost and mulch on your beds (which happen to be the next two things on the list).
5. Add Compost
There's a lot of confusion about the reasons for using compost these days. Many people think it works as a fertilizer for their plants and so they wait to apply it only when they plant.
To some degree this is true. However, the even better way to look at compost is as food and habitat for your soil life. That soil life, such as fungi, bacteria, worms and more, use the compost to create fertilizer and release minerals in your soil so your plants can access them.
Applying compost in spring when you start a bed helps plants grow. But, by applying it in fall, you give all the life forms in your soil an excellent winter food supply and added warmth, so they keep doing their good work longer.
Like the insects that create pathways for roots, these life forms also move deeper into the ground over winter. As they do, they will take bits of compost with them, incorporating it into your soil.
In effect, by adding compost at the time when all the micro and macro critters who live in your soil start to make their transition deeper underground, you use them to till in your compost without destroying your soil structure. Then, all winter long, and into the start of spring, they use that compost to free up more minerals from the inert matter in your garden and to create more nitrogen for your plants.
6. Apply Leaf and Wood Mulch
In fall, trees lose their leaves. Those leaves land on the ground and overwintering critters hide under them and help decompose it for you all winter long.
That mulch not only provides a safe haven for some of the most beneficial biological life forms in any thriving eco-system, it also builds new soil faster than just about anything else you can apply to your garden (except ready-made soil, of course).
By applying leaf and wood mulch, similar to what happens in a forest, you can dramatically increase your winter soil production and protect what's already in place.
These two mulches also increase the beneficial fungi and bacteria count in your garden soil. Soils with more of these kinds of good guys can grow bigger, better tasting veggies even when your soil is deficient in nitrogen than without them.
You can layer these on your beds up to 3-4 inches deep. In spring, rake these aside to plant seeds if they have not fully decomposed. Then side dress your plants with this matter to preserve moisture as they grow.
Note: Do not incorporate these into your soil or you risk locking up nitrogen until they fully decompose.
7. Collect and Burn Diseased Plant Matter
I keep a trash can with a tight-fitting lid at the side of my house to use to dispose of any diseased plant matter year round. For example, if one of my tomatoes has early blight or my peaches get brown rot, I put them in this sealed trash can.
In late fall, I do a final sweep of all my gardens. I pick up and put any other potentially diseased plant matter from around the yard into my trash can. I also include any plant matter that likely hosts my least favorite pests (e.g., winter squash vines that may be harboring squash bugs).
When I am sure I have everything, I drag out that trash can out into an open area and burn all my diseased plant matter to ash.
8. Apply Chickens
If I had any kind of pest invasions in my garden beds during the growing seasons, I like to let my chickens work those beds for me before the ground freezes.
I'll put up a temporary fence around the problem area and put out a bucket of water. Then I'll pick up a few of my best workers and carry them over to their job site.
Usually, my chickens start digging. However, if they don't, I use a shovel and flip over a few scoops of dirt in different places to show them the good stuff underneath.
Sometimes I have to bring them back each morning for a couple of days. But, it's so worth it not to have to pick as many pests off my plants next year!
9. Selectively Situate Garden Debris
I am an organic gardener. By that, I mean I hand pick pests and don't use pesticides of any form. I also rely heavily on beneficial predator insects to help me keep my pest populations in check. So, I don't subscribe to the policy of maintaining an overly tidied over winter garden.
In late fall, as we move toward the dormant period, I gather up my garden debris and put it in select locations around my garden. This creates an overwinter habitat for all my beneficial helpers. Also, by putting it in piles, rather than just leaving it all around, it makes it a lot easier for me to handle the next chore on my list.
10. Cover Paths
Most of us gardeners do a lot of weeding in our beds to keep the pressure down for our preferred plants. Pathways, though, can get a bit out of control late season. Sometimes we mow them down rather than weeding them.
As a result, paths can sometimes become a breeding ground for non-preferred weeds. To decrease weed pressure in the next year, I heavily line my paths with some kind of weed suppression cover.
Fresh fall cut hay, laid thickly over paths, is very slow to decay. If I apply it as part of my fall into winter transition, a few bales will often keep the weeds down into late-spring when the next cutting of hay is likely to occur. In my area, hay is cheap and readily available, so it's my go-to for my paths.
Some people prefer to use plastic or landscape fabric. Those wear out and lose effectiveness pretty quickly. So, if you cover your paths with that method, check for holes, scrape off the accumulated soil, and apply new layers as necessary to provide sufficient weed protection.
Other forms of mulch such as straw, leaf, or wood also work. Just use very thick layers since they are favorite food sources for fungi and bacteria and tend to decay quickly.
11. Make Notes for Next Year
As the growing season comes to an end, sitting down and taking good notes on your successes, failures, problems, and wishes is a great way to get ready for next year. During winter as you start your garden planning and seed ordering, you can reflect on your notes and make good choices for next year.
Fall into Winter Garden Don't List
There are also a few “don'ts” I have on my to-do list as reminders.
12. Don't Forget the Birds
Don't cut down self-seeding flowers and herbs. Instead, leave those skeletal forms and their seed heads as bird feed for the long winter. In late winter and early spring, when it's time to prune trees and vines, then cut back any dead material still standing.
13. Don't Prune (yet)
It's tempting to start pruning as soon as trees and vines drop their leaves. However, plants often suffer winter damage that you cannot anticipate this early in the season.
By waiting until you've gotten through the worst of winter to start those activities, you ensure you have enough living limbs and stems still intact to have a productive season next year.
14. Don't Fertilize
Fertilizer, added in fall, encourages plants to produce heavy top growth that will be more subject to winter frost damage. Then come spring that damage can become entry points for plant pathogens and diseases.
Wait for spring to fertilize with any fast-acting nitrogen sources.
Once you complete these fall tasks and check those items off your list, you can go dormant for the winter. Well… at least on the gardening front!