I know it sounds crazy to start planning your garden for next year right now. We are harvesting, planting for fall and enjoying the sun; who wants to think about next year?
Tip of the week: Fall and winter will come quickly. You will need a plan in hand so that you are ready to take action as we move into fall. Your fall garden prep will determine next year’s success.
ADD SOIL AMENDMENTS
Fall is a great time to amend your garden beds. Now is the time to plan which additives you will need: compost, peat moss, wood ash, coffee grounds or any other soil conditioner that your beds may warrant and future veggies will need. Depending on soil needs you can add these accordingly.
- Peat moss is good for making your soil pH more acidic, for plants such as blueberries that love acidic soil. It is also useful as a way to breakup clay soils.
- Wood ash or dolomitic lime are great for reducing acid and raising soil pH.
- Compost and coffee grounds are both great general purpose soil conditioners. They aerate, and create space in soil for nutrients to settle in those voids.
Putting these down in fall gives time for the soil composition to change so that by the time plants go in the ground, nutrients are in a usable form. Apply these at about 1 inch of thickness across the bed on top of the soil. Work in slightly just to incorporate them into the bed but allow nature to do the remainder of the work.
COVER YOUR GARDEN BEDS
As you begin your fall cleanup of pulling plants and cutting back perennials, don’t be so quick to discard that material. The plant material we pull up is the perfect cover to put right back on top of those same garden beds. If you do not have much plant material, leaves, straw or wood mulch also work well as cover. It is essential to cover your soil; do not leave it bare. The organic material breaks down over winter to return critical nutrients to the soil, and it also blocks weed germination. Use a safe source that you know has not been exposed to pesticides or disease as this can pass into your soil. Try to achieve 2-3 inches of thickness for each layer but don’t stress if you can’t. Use what is available to you in your environment.
One exception to reusing plant material is the nightshade family of plants. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and eggplants should be taken out of the garden and not reused. Why? because the nightshade plants are susceptible to diseases, bacteria and viruses which we may not notice visibly. To protect from spreading any unwanted disease, it is recommended to remove these plants completely. Any plants that had issues with disease, wilt, bacteria, virus or even insect infestation should not be reused as cover material in the garden as a general rule.
CREATE NEW GARDEN BEDS
Fall is the easiest time to start converting lawn or unused areas into garden spaces. Instead of taking on intense digging of turf or weeds, cover them in the fall with cardboard, newspaper or landscape fabric. The grass/weeds underneath will die and you will be left with a new garden bed. If you are using black landscape fabric, simply cover the area with the fabric and pin down with garden staples, bricks or stones. Fabric may be easier but it does not add any nutrients to the soil as the method below will.
- Put down a layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area you want to convert. Wet down if necessary to hold in place.
- Cover the first layer with leaves, straw, plant material or a combination. Wet down again to help material stay in place.
- Put something heavy, such as wood pieces, bricks, stones or large vines on top to keep material in place through winter.
The cardboard or newspaper will disintegrate for the most part over winter. You can remove any larger pieces that are left along with any large plant material that is left. You should be able to, however, hand till the materials into the bed in spring to achieve a deep layer of organic soil that is like butter; ready to plant.
SAVE SEEDS AND WATER
Fall is also the time to consider seed starting needs over winter. If you will be starting seeds indoors, it is really handy to have a store of rainwater available to water your seedlings. I keep 2 empty rain barrels in the basement which I fill with rainwater from my outdoor rainwater harvesting system every fall. I use that water for my seedlings that I start over winter as stock for plants next spring.
I have also saved seeds throughout the years, harvesting from plants that we really enjoyed or that performed especially well. Savings seeds takes a little timing, some patience and a warm, dry place to cure them. Some seeds will be inside the fruit, such as peppers and squash, others will be in the seed head of the flower, such as basil. Annual flowers, such as snapdragons, calendula, cosmos and African daisies are also good candidates for seed saving. Make sure to select open-pollinated (non-hybrid) plants for your seeds. In most cases, you can place the seeds on a paper towel or plate and place them in a warm location to dry out completely before placing into jars or envelopes. Make sure to label your storage container and put it into a dark, cooler location until ready to plant. Here is an excellent seed saving guide from the International Seed Saving Institute.