After a full season of intense gardening and homesteading activities, many of us are ready to pull up the last of our vegetable plants and sit back on our heels as cooler weather moves in.
Don’t do it.
As tempting as it is to put things off until spring, there are a handful of tasks that you will wish you had already completed when the next gardening season rolls around. Springtime is usually so busy for those of us who grow our own food that we just cannot get it all done, and many projects are easier or more practical to do in the fall anyway.
Following are 7 ideas for things you might want to consider doing before winter hits.
1. Soil testing. Having the right soil for what you are trying to grow is a key component to success. Unless you have it tested, you will not know if you have enough organic matter, major nutrients or micronutrients. You can add amendments until the cows come home, but unless you know exactly what you already have in the soil, you may be missing out on essential information.
While many substances are said to be good for the garden, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” I live in an area where the soil is generally on the acidic side, and therefore believed that routinely disposing of wood ash in the garden was the right way to go. After a few years of doing this, a soil test came back with a high pH, and the advice to refrain from using wood ash.
Testing in the fall is a good idea, not only because of timing—in addition to your own busy gardening activities, the laboratory might have a full slate in spring and take an extra few weeks to return your results—but because fall testing will give you the chance to make adequate amendments before planting.
In my state, testing is done professionally and inexpensively by the Cooperative Extension. They send back a thorough written report and are available for follow-up answers and guidance. I expect most states offer a similar service, and although it may be a little more trouble and money than those instant-read gadgets you can buy, it is worth it.
2. Soil amendment. After testing your soil, you will want to follow the advice provided. It is never a good idea to add raw manure to a garden in springtime, but you can get away with doing so and tilling it into the soil in fall. And if the advice is to avoid adding wood ash, you need to know that before winter, not after.
3. Preparing sites for perennials. Many crops get off to a running head start when the site preparation began the previous year. Killing weeds, leveling the site, testing and amending the soil, and creating any necessary infrastructure ahead of time will make both you and your plants happy during spring. It will be less challenging for your berries and other perennial plants to become established and develop vigorous habits, and less stressful for you without having to squeeze it in with tilling and greenhouse-tending and planting.
4. Rototilling. Not everyone uses traditional tilling methods, but if you do, fall is a great time to get it done. Running the rototiller over the garden now will prevent weeds from taking hold before the snow flies. Be sure to first remove any spent plants that had disease or parasites this growing season in order to keep them from overwintering in your garden.
5. Mulching. Sure, you mean well. You are going to jump right on that garden and begin tending it before a single weed has a chance to grow next spring, right? We have all vowed something similar, but things happen to prevent us from following through. Two straight weeks of rain makes the garden too wet to work in, or the kids are sick, or there is a lot of overtime at work—and before you know it, the garden is full of weeds before you even start. The secret is to prevent them now by mulching. Whatever you normally use—grass, plastic or fabric—go ahead and lay it in fall. Even if you do not want to mulch the whole garden, you can do selected sections. Mulching works well to prevent weed growth on your garden perimeter and designated pathways. I use strips of used old carpet for this, and like to pull it up and re-lay it every few years, to keep it tidy and to keep out persistent weeds from coming through.
6. Mapping and planning. Unless you have a terrific memory or a very small garden, you might lose track of when and where you grew which crops. I take lots of pictures throughout the summer, which helps, but nothing beats written documentation. Maps, sketches, graph-paper drawings, and narratives are all great ways to keep your garden organized year to year. This helps with rotating crops in order to ensure that diverse nutrients are drawn from the soil over time.
A good reason for doing as much planning as possible in the fall is because the successes and failures of this season are still fresh in your mind. Right now, you remember that the location of the basil was in an inconvenient spot, or that the dog kept running through the space where the winter squash was trying to spread out, or that the amount of sun was perfect for the corn this year. Make your garden sketch for next year with those things in mind—or at the very least, make notes of what worked and what did not for reference during spring.
7. Taking care of infrastructure. This is a big one. If any one thing really knocks the wind out of my spring sails, it is trying to build, modify and make major repairs to infrastructure. It is always something I need to get done before the plants go in, so there is always a rush. Trying to put together raised beds, install new pea fencing, build arbors and trellises, rig up new rain collection systems, set up low tunnels—it is tough to get all that done during spring. I always get excited about planting season and am ready to hit the ground running as soon as I can, but having too many infrastructure projects trips me up every time.
Minor repairs and re-installments are fine. Even adding a raised bed to an existing plot or modifying a roof rainwater collection system can be done during spring. But major infrastructure projects are tough to get done before planting a garden, and can set the tone of being overwhelmed for the whole summer if you try to squeeze too many of them into spring.
If all of this sounds like more than you can get done this fall, then remember that few gardeners do everything exactly right every season. Do your best to get these projects done during the fall, but cut yourself a little slack if needed. If you do not get as much finished as you hoped before winter, then remember the gardener’s perennial mantra: Next year will be better.
What would you get done before spring? What would you add to this list? Share your tips in the section below: