Fall is a winding down time in the garden, but it’s also a window where you can get a head start on next year’s gardening season. Get ahead of the curve now, so when spring fever hits, your to-do list will be a little shorter and your garden will be a little more orderly, healthy, and productive.
There’s Still Time to Plant
In the southern half of the country, the first frosts of fall are still a ways off, so you still have time to plant cool weather crops, lettuces, and other greens, especially if you stick with the fastest maturing varieties like arugula and mesclun mix. Onions and garlic planted this time of year will be ready for harvest a couple months earlier next year versus planting them in early spring. Besides vegetables, there are a slew of other things that are traditionally planted in fall, even in northern regions where cold weather comes early.
- Bulbs: Love those bulbs that come up and flower in early spring while most plants are still waking up from their winter slumber? The only way to have them is to plant them in fall. This applies to tulips, daffodils, irises, crocuses, snowdrops, and many others. Most are planted at a depth of 3 to 4 inches, but check the package as requirements for individual species varies. Most fall-planted bulbs require a cold winter to catalyze the flowering process, but gardeners in warmer zones (USDA zones 8 to 11) can trick them into flowering by leaving them in the freezer for 6 to 8 weeks before planting.
- Cover crops: These are the plants that give back. Many farmers and gardeners grow cover crops in fall and through the winter to prevent erosion and return nutrients to the soil. The most important group of cover crops are legumes (bean family plants, like clover, vetch, and fava beans), which convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form plants can use—the nutrients are then available for your spring crops.
- Perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees: Fall is the ideal time to plant perennials and woody plants, including edibles and ornamentals. The ground still holds the warmth of summer, encouraging the roots to grow, even while the leaves are starting to drop. (The inverse occurs with spring plantings, which can result in transplant shock when the weather gets hot: The voluminous top growth suddenly wilts because the root system has not developed sufficiently to support it.) Plus, the ground is usually soft and dry in the fall, making it easier to plant than in the wet, mushy earth of early spring. Make sure to cut apart and spread out the roots if they are tightly bound from their time in the pot.
How to Put Your Garden to Bed
Once you’ve planted everything you can, it’s time to prepare any empty beds that are left so they’re ready to go come springtime. This means removing all weeds, tilling up the soil, and mixing in amendments (like compost) to create a fertile base for next year’s crops. It’s much better to apply compost in fall than at planting time in the spring, as it has time to break down and release its nutrients into the soil.
The final step is to cover the beds with mulch, so heavy winter rains don’t wash the loose soil away. Mulch also adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes, creating that loose, crumbly, sponge-like texture that all gardeners strive for. You can use straw purchased from a local garden center or feed store, but the best mulch for garden beds is the leaves that are swirling on the ground all around you. Rake them up and spread them over the beds, the deeper the better—think of it as pulling up the covers for a long winter’s rest.
(Tip: If you don’t have enough leaves from you own yard, it’s not a crime to take the bags that your neighbors pile up on the curb, rather than letting the green waste truck haul them off.)
In spring, rake back the leaves, loosen the pre-tilled beds slightly with a digging fork and they will be ready for planting.
Last Chores Before the Snow Flies
In the flurry of gardening activity that consumes our lives in early spring, it’s easy to forget what the garden looked like the previous year. Many perennials, for example, are slow to emerge from their roots and giddy gardeners are prone to planting right over them. That’s why seasoned gardeners like to label their plants in late fall before they disappear under a blanket of snow.
You can do this the old-fashioned way with a Sharpie and wooden stake (or any number of other more creative labeling methods), or you can simply snap pictures of your beds and draw a bubble map of the garden right on to the photo. That way you’ll know where you have empty space to fill and where there might be a sensitive, late-emerging lily that you don’t want to trample.
Lastly, anything that has liquid in it needs to be tended to before freezing weather hits. Turn off the irrigation system and drain the lines by opening all the valves once the water supply is off. Drain garden hoses and, if you have the space, store them in a shed or basement for the winter. The fuel from gas-powered equipment can also be drained, or you can simply spike it with a fuel stabilizer to keep it from degrading while not in use. Run the equipment for few minutes after adding the stabilizer so it circulates throughout the fuel lines and carburetor.
The cool days of fall are a blissful time to be in the garden. Make use of the window of cool weather to take care of a few end-of-season chores—you’ll thank yourself come spring.
Thanks to the following folks who provided materials and information for this segment on the TODAY show: