Break Down Your Fall Garden and Get Ready for Spring Planting

October 04, 2017
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A Fall Garden Harvest
Photo: Abundant City, original photo on Houzz

Early fall is a bountiful time in the home vegetable garden. It’s harvest season, when armfuls of tomatoes, cucumbers and so many zucchini can be yours. It’s also a time when plants and soil start to get tired after long months of producing food. 

To keep things healthy year after year, it’s important to do some work before winter sets in. You’ll be rewarded with a tidy and refreshed garden in the spring.

There are many ways to do a fall garden cleanup. The approach that works for you depends on several factors, including your climate, the size and format of your garden, your level of experience, and the amount of time you have available. Are you growing food in a spacious backyard with raised beds or on a high-rise deck with containers? Are your winters usually cold and snowy, wet and muddy or warm enough to keep planting seeds year-round? One of the best things you can do is to connect with other gardeners in your area and learn about how they care for their gardens. You will be sure to discover new tips, tricks and resources while making friends and sharing seeds. 

With so many options, there are a few basic principles that should help most edible gardeners keep their beds in good condition.

Tidy up your beds. 

Chances are that by late summer, your tomatoes are leggy, your zucchini have swallowed up the paths, and your kale plants resemble small trees. At this time of year, gardens tend to be susceptible to pests and diseases, such as blossom-end rot, late blight and leaf miners, especially if you’ve been experiencing hot and dry conditions.

Remove any plants or plant parts that appear unhealthy. Avoid putting them in your home compost, where they might end up re-infecting your garden. Many cities offer curbside municipal composting programs where temperatures will be high enough to kill disease-causing agents. 

Resist the urge to leave unhealthy plants in your beds, even if they still have some fruits hanging on. If you need to harvest your tomatoes early, the green ones will ripen in a paper bag on your countertop, provided they’ve already reached their full size.

Fall is the perfect time to do a big harvest. Most types of greens can be washed, blanched and frozen for winter eating — hello, delicious homegrown spanakopita. As for your excess zucchini, give them away to friends who enjoy baking. Or, even better, learn how to can your bounty.

In some cases, it makes sense to remove all plants from a raised bed or planter before winter sets in. This will give you a blank slate, making it far easier to amend the soil and get a fresh start for the spring. Consider using this approach if you planted a lot of annual vegetables in the spring and if you’re having a lot of issues with disease or pests.

If you planted winter crops, leave them in place to enjoy over the next few months. Winter gardening involves planting cold-hardy crops, such as kale, beets, parsnips and carrots, during the summer. If these plants are almost full-size by the fall, you will be rewarded with a “living fridge” to eat from. Root crops, in particular, become sweeter as the weather gets colder. Consider using low tunnels, as pictured here, to give your crops extra protection. 

Try not to go overboard with your fall cleanup. Branches and fallen leaves can provide important hiding places for beneficial wildlife. Rather than getting rid of fallen leaves, use them as a protective winter mulch throughout your garden. Just avoid black walnut leaves, which contain compounds that inhibit the growth of other plants. Bonus points if you get a chance to run your lawn mower over the leaves first, which will help them break down more effectively. 

Enrich and protect your soil. 

Although it’s helpful to add compost and organic fertilizer throughout the year, fall provides an ideal opportunity to give things a real boost. Now is the time to test your soil’s pH level using an inexpensive home kit. If your soil is acidic, consider adding lime. Lime takes a long time to break down and absorb into your soil, so applying it in the fall and letting it do its work over the winter is a good practice. 

In addition to enriching your soil with organic material, a blanket of compost will protect your garden from the erosion that can be caused by rain, frost and snow. If you have homemade compost that is still a bit chunky, spread it on your beds now. Over the next few months, the cool and wet winter will help this material decompose. By the time you’re ready to plant in the spring, you’ll be rewarded with refreshed and re-energized soil.

When considering approaches to prepare your beds for winter, keep in mind the size and format of your garden. For example, the small soil base of a container garden means that adding lots of heavy compost is usually not ideal. Move any delicate planters, such as terra-cotta pots, to a protected space where they are less likely to crack during freezing conditions. In the spring, add a generous helping of fresh organic potting mix to refresh your container garden. 

Repair tools. 

Take care of your tools so that they can take care of your garden. Wipe the mud off your shovel and any other metal tools, and keep them in a shed or other space where they will stay relatively dry and warm. Remove and neatly store irrigation lines and any other structures, such as trellises, that you want to protect over the winter.

Experiment to see what works for you. Just for fun, try planting a few seeds in September or October — you might be rewarded with sprouts first thing in the spring. 

"What to Do in Fall to Get Edible Gardens Set for Spring Planting" by Rebecca Cuttler originally appeared on, a platform with more info on growing vegetables in containers and planting guides for beautiful fall flowers. Photo credit: Abundant City, original photo on Houzz

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