by Kenny Point
By implementing a few simple gardening techniques to your garden in the fall you can help nurture a healthier vegetable garden that's enriched and revitalized when the spring growing season rolls around. You'll also enjoy the benefits of a more productive vegetable patch and harvest fresh produce far earlier and with less effort.
Fall Garden Clean-Up
The first step is to shift some of the routine gardening tasks that you normally perform in the springtime, and instead take care of them during the fall. At the end of your summer growing season clear out all of the weeds, garden debris, spent vines, and any left over fruits and vegetables that weren't harvested, rather than allowing these items to remain in the garden over the winter.
This "garden-cleaning" will speed spring cultivation work, eliminate left over fruits and vegetables whose seeds can turn into unwanted volunteers next summer, prevent weeds from becoming established during autumn, and reduce the likelihood that insect pests and diseases spend the winter nice and comfy in your garden beds.
While you're at it, also remove and store those plant stakes, cages, trellises, and gardening tools that are scattered about throughout the garden. A little care will reward you with a longer useful life and avoid loss and damage to expensive gardening equipment.
Cultivating the Soil in Autumn
Autumn is also a great time to apply and incorporate compost, mushroom soil, or even leaves into the garden beds. This will give the organic soil amendments additional time to break down or mellow, and will also reduce the risk of burning or over-fertilizing young seedlings in the spring.
If you till or cultivate your garden in the fall, do so very shallowly to avoid bringing weed seeds that were buried in the soil up to the surface levels where they can easily germinate. I garden in raised beds which eliminates the need for tilling the soil altogether.
With raised beds a quick turning of the soil surface of the beds with a digging fork or wheel hoe is all that's ever needed before planting. Raised beds are never walked on and they naturally resist the compaction that forces many gardeners to till their garden each spring.
Stretching the Growing Season
Once your garden is nice and tidy, why not plant something? There are a number of cool weather crops, especially leafy greens such as lettuce, kale, collards, mustard, and spinach that will grow right into winter and provide you with plenty of delicious fresh produce from the garden.
It doesn't stop there; these same plants can actually survive winter in the garden and produce additional harvests in early spring. So, from a single planting you receive multiple harvests of tasty leafy greens, protect the garden's soil over the winter, and prevent weeds from growing unchecked in an empty garden bed.
Not interested in fall vegetable production? Well how about planting a cover crop, also known as a green manure, to protect and enrich your garden's soil over the winter, as well as to crowd out weed growth? There's a long list of crops that can be planted as a fall cover crop and remain in place until they are turned under to enrich the soil in the spring.
Annual Ryegrass is my favorite choice for planting in autumn to serve as a quick growing, green manure. If it doesn't survive the winter it will still provide cover and is easier to turn under than many of the other green manure crops. A few other choices include winter rye, rape, barley, and Austrian Peas. Even everyday edible vegetable crops such as fava beans, peas, kale, and mustard can function as fall cover crops.
Fall Mulches for the Garden Bed
Think it's too late for you to sow a cover crop in your garden? Well at the very least you can cover the garden during fall and winter with a mulch of compost, mushroom soil, or a layer of leaves. A three or four inch layer of shredded leaves in particular will restrict weed growth and encourage earthworm activity. The leaves can be incorporated into the soil in the spring, or be removed and composted.
Speaking of leaves, they're abundant and free in most areas to anyone willing to go out and gather them up. Shredding will make the leaves easier to handle and store. Each fall I use a leaf blower to shred all the leaves that I can get my hands on and store what I can't use right away until springtime.
Implement these ideas this fall and your garden will be protected from the elements and erosion while you improve the texture and fertility of your soil and encourage the activity of earthworms and soil organisms all year-round. You'll also experience less weed growth, harvest more fresh produce and get your garden off to a quicker start in the spring.
Regardless of the season it's a great idea to keep something growing, or at least covering your garden at all times. Be sure to visit my website to discover additional timely ideas and tips for growing and improving your backyard garden and edible landscape.