FALL/WINTER GARDEN PREP

Fall/winter garden prep refers to preparing your out-of-production garden beds for the upcoming winter months and next year’s growing season.

Cooler fall days are the perfect time to work on your empty garden beds. With no planting, much maintaining or harvesting on your hands you can focus on your garden’s soil and give it care it deserves.

Doing the prep work in fall gives you plenty of time to improve the soil for the next spring by adding soil amendments, manure, compost, or sowing cover crops. You’ll find that many of the soil amendments require time to work properly, so adding them now results in already improved soil in the spring. This way you get a head start in spring.

Also, you don’t want to leave your garden soil bare for several months, as that it inevitably degrade its structure and quality, handicapping you in spring. The soil will need protection in the form of mulch, especially if you are overwintering some of your root crops in the ground.

 

What you’ll need?

Equipment/Tools:

  • Broadfork/Pitchfork
  • Landscape rake

Materials:

  • Soil amendments
  • Compost
  • Organic mulch: fall leaves, grass clippings, straw
  • Cover crop seeds (optional)

Task sequence: 1. Clean up the garden bed>> 2. Loosen up the soil >> 3. Add soil amendments and compost >> 4A. Add organic mulch for protection >> 4B. Plant a cover crop

 

STEP 1: Clean up the garden bed

First remove all weeds and plant debris from the garden bed.

  • Pick up the dead and rotting vegetable parts and plants to eliminate possibility of pests and diseases overwintering, and then restarting in spring. Grab the whole plants by hand and pull them out, leave parts of the root system that’s left behind if the plant wasn’t sick.
  • Pull all weeds from the bed, and dig their roots out, this will prevent them from taking over the bed in spring.
  • Add the healthy plant debris and weeds that are not seeding to the compost pile. Now is a good time to start a new compost pile for the next year. Burn or dispose of weeds and diseased foliage.

 

STEP 2: Loosen up the soil

Next loosen up the soil a bit, this will add oxygen into the soil and help improve the drainage before winter weather. Use a broadfork or pitchfork to do this.

  • Take your broadfork/pitchfork and apply pressure with one foot to press the tines into the soil, then pull back on the handles to lift and loosen the lower soil slightly.
  • Raise the tines out of the soil, move 6 inches (15 cm) further back, and repeat the sequence until you make a full pass down the bed

 

STEP 3: Add soil amendments and compost

Fall is a great time to add soil amendments and compost to the beds. Adding these materials now gives you plenty of time for them to start breaking down, enriching your soil, and becoming biologically active for your plants in the spring.

  • Add soil amendments based on the nature of deficiencies of your soil, use:
    • Sulphur to lower the pH
    • Lime to raise the pH
    • Bonemeal or Phosphate Rock to increase the phosphorus levels
    • Kelp to supplies a range of trace nutrients, as well as a dose of plant hormones.
    • Wood Ash – to increase potassium levels and raise pH.
    • Animal manure – to supply variety of nutrients, doesn’t have to composted as it has time to break down till spring
  • Next, spread generous amounts of compost, preferably from your compost pile. Apply it in a 2 – 4 inch (5 – 10 cm) thick layer.
  • Work in the soil amendments and compost into the top 6 – 8 inches (15 – 20 cm) of the soil with a spade or digging fork.

 

STEP 4A. Add organic mulch for protection

Mulch is like a warm blanket you spread over your garden to keep it safe and protected through the winter.

A good mulch insulates the soil, which keeps it from freezing or at least from freezing as deeply as it otherwise would. This allows soil organism to remain active for much longer. It prevents weeds from invading the dormant bed during winter and as an icing on the cake as it breaks down it releases new nutrients into he ground.

Good choices for winter mulch include: shredded fall leaves, grass clippings and straw.

–>Action step: put down a protective layer of an organic mulch(es) of your choosing and spread it evenly with your hands or rakes.

STEP 4B: Plant a Cover Crop

Instead of organic mulch you could use living mulch to protect and improve your soil during the off season month. You can sow winter cover crops such as rye, vetch, clover, oats and turn then under in the spring before planting.

In the meantime they’ll protect the soil from freezing temperatures, weed invasion, soil erosion and they add nutrients to the soil and improve its structure.

These have to be planted at least 4 – 6 weeks before the first frost. Which ones will be suitable for your garden depends on your climate. See this spreadsheet for a coprehensive list.

–>Action step: Plant winter cover crops, follow the steps outlined in this guide.

 

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