Fall Garden Maintenance

Raking leaves

Guest post by Clara Beaufort


Clara is a retired business owner, who currently works in community gardening. She operates GardenerGigs, which aims to connect local gardeners with those who need them.

Fall Gardening Tips

It’s fair to say that productive gardens are born in the fall, a time when many people are tempted to put away their gardening tools, fertilizers, and lawn mowers until next year.

Think of a fall garden and yard maintenance as getting a head start on next season by cleaning, clearing, hydrating and fertilizing. The more attention you pay to your garden soil and the state of your grass before winter, the greater the payoff when it’s time once again for seeding and planting. And you’ll make your job that much easier when spring rolls around.

Basics: Water it well

A long, hot summer places a great deal of stress on lawns and gardens. They need a good watering before the cold sets in and the ground freezes.

Anything you’ve planted over the past year, such as flowers or shrubs you planted in early summer, need to be well hydrated if they’re going to survive.

But also remember that it can be easy to overdo it and drown both soil and plants. Think of it as putting down a nice, even layer of moisture. If you’re doing any fall planting it’ll benefit you now as well as when spring returns.

Your fall garden should be watered twice a week during the season, preferably in the early morning hours (you can stop watering in early October if you’re in a region that gets a lot of snow during the winter).

Fall mulching

Fall is a good time to put down a layer of mulch to protect root systems from the frost and frigid temperatures. Bear in mind that your location should determine how much mulch you apply.

If you live in the Northeast, it’s recommended that you mulch your garden soil once the ground has frozen; mulching too soon can keep water from reaching root systems.

If you live in a warmer climate, mulching is about blocking weed growth and retaining soil moisture. But be careful not to lay it on so thick that you prevent moisture from getting through.

Fall garden leaves

A note on fertilizing

Composting may be the one task most associated with fall gardening. The plant waste and dead leaves you’ve raked up, and any animal manure and other organic material that you gather, will make an excellent compost pile.

There are different schools of thought concerning how to apply compost to your garden soil. Many landscape experts recommend putting down a layer of compost first, then covering with newspaper. This approach enriches the soil, while the paper blocks weeds but allows rain and moisture to get through.

Nicky and Dave dig deep into their compost piles here.

Recycling nature’s raw material

It’s important to fertilize your fall garden, but when you do it can make a big difference later on.

In the Northeast, for example, fertilizing in early fall will encourage new growth at a time when plants need to establish new roots. For woody plants, you can fertilize in late October or early November (spring is best for fertilizing perennials).

But in permaculture, natural, organic sources of fertilization are recommended. Why is that?  Because the elements and minerals needed to revitalize soil should be in a bio-available form to the life that is already present underground.

So for instance, instead of purchasing a bag of NPK, we "fertilize" by growing leguminous "cover crop" such as alfalfa or buckwheat.

We do not feed the soil, we feed the life in the soil.

Plants cannot readily take-up nitrogen in the form that is commercially sold in the markets.  They need the help of symbiotic bacteria most commonly found in legumes such as peas, beans and members of the Fabaceae family. These are called Rhizobial bacteria.

Other nitrogen-fixers include plants that have a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria, normally dicots, actinorhizal plants and members of the Azospirillum species. Basically, these bacteria trade their nitrogen-fixing superpowers for starch that they get from hanging out amongst the root hairs of their host plants.

So in the fall, we plant fava beans to do at least two things for us:

  1. Give us fava beans to eat, and
  2. Fix nitrogen back into our soil.
fall garden maintenance

Soybean root nodules sport nitrogen-fixing bacteria

Well, what about the P and the K?

Natural sources of P (for potassium) are palm-like leaves. If you live in the tropics you're in luck! If you don't, banana peelings are your next best bet. And the K (phosphorous)?

Our plants need soooo much more than NPK. To paraphrase permaculture designer, Geoff Lawton: "Only using NPK for your plants is like saying all you needed to survive was a burger, a bun, and fries.

We need so much more than NPK, and the "so much more" doesn't come store-bought.

If you've noticed via past readings, permaculture gardening is almost always "lazy gardening" whether it is your fall garden or year-round.  Better said, it's "work-smart-not-hard gardening." So in theory, our permaculture gardens should be designed with some sort of a living mulch built into the system. This living mulch is a "dynamic accumulator" which mines the soil yes, for NPK but also for the basic 8 elements in the soil and some!

(If you ever wanted to geek out on dynamic accumulators like this permie doctor, John Kitsteiner did go here.)

But if you want our short, easy-to-grow list, here you go:

  • comfrey
  • dandelion, and
  • yarrow.

Please add more of your suggested "dynamic accumulator" or natural fertilizers in the comments field below. I am sure the list varies from region to region.

Taking the extra time to tend to your lawn and garden before winter arrives is a great way to set yourself up for the spring. Not only will you be giving your plants the "TLC" they need, but you’ll be able to hit the ground running when the weather turns warmer.

Ready to "dig deeper" into fall through winter gardening?

Fall gardening maintenance is only the beginning.

To learn how you can extend your fall harvest deep into early winter click on our next blog,

"Extending Your Vegetable Garden"

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