Although it may seem strange to be getting ready for next year while it's only the fall, this is the perfect time to amend soils, evaluate the compost system, repair tools and structures, and plan for the next wonderful growing season. It's also the time of year to plant garlic and fall bulbs!
🍂 Amend the soil
Leaves, plant debris, and finished compost are all in abundance and can be used to increase the organic matter content of the soil. Many people also use straw.
Organic matter improves almost all aspects of soil health. The best food for a tree or shrub ecosystem is its own discarded leaves & branches; it's best to let the leaves accumulate where they fall.
Mulch thickly around plants you wish to protect for the winter, like winter veggies and perennials and all of your empty garden beds. If you weed your beds before mulching, your busy springtime self will thank you!
🌱 Cover crops
Cover crops are living mulch. They are usually fast-growing plants grown to incorporate large amounts of organic matter into the soil. Crops grown over winter will protect the soil from compaction and soil loss through erosion. As soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, the crops are turned into the soil.
🌿 Plant Protection
Some plants may benefit from extra protection from overnight frosts. This is also the time of year to move hoop house structures to cover sensitive plants like tender salad greens. If snow is a concern in your area, be sure that your structures can support a snow load.
As well, in dryer parts of Canada you may need to water before the freezing sets in.
Place stakes and wire mesh around any newly planted trees, so they don’t get stepped on when they are buried in snow, and to keep the rodents from chewing them.
If you have plants that you didn’t get in the ground before frozen temperatures hit sink them into a garden bed (in the pot) to wait for spring planting. Conversely, if you are in a location with mild temperatures you could plant them into the ground now.
🛠️ Tool maintenance and repair
Gather up all of your buckets, pots, hoses, tools etc. that you won’t use over winter and store them away before snow makes them all disappear until spring.
Then take time to evaluate the state of your tools. Replace any broken handles and tighten any that are loose. Sand and oil all wooden handles. Clean off any dirt from your tools and prepare a sand/oil bath. You can clean your tools simply by taking a bucket of clean sand and putting some non-toxic oil (like mineral oil) in it (not used motor oil as is often suggested). The abrasive sand will remove rust, and the oil will protect it from moisture.
If you have rain barrels that will freeze over winter, you could take this time to empty, clean and then turn them upside down until spring.
🪱 Compost evaluation
The fall is a great time to evaluate the health and activity of your compost. Materials are abundant, and you are less likely to be distracted by more "fun" jobs in the garden.
Take a shovel or digging fork and dig through your compost. Is it stinky? Brown and sweet smelling? Full of worms? Full of uncomposted kitchen scraps? Also, evaluate the moisture level. Many composts dry out in the summer and need to be watered.
Gaia College instructor Jennifer shared her strategy for preparing her compost pile each fall in Zone 3, “I turn the compost and water it to be sure that there are no voles in residence, then build it up as best I can with fall garden waste and kitchen waste. Water again, then I let it freeze up until spring. The volume will decrease by 30-40% as it thaws in spring. Freezing and thawing really helps to break things down quickly.”
📋 Plan next year's garden
You could plant seeds now that need cold stratification. If you are starting native seeds with irregular germination you could start them in a pot sunk into your garden beds, and then transplant them when they come up in the spring.
Take some time to write down your thoughts and reflections on how the season went. What worked well, and what needs improvement? What did you enjoy (looking at, growing, eating), and what would you eliminate in the future? A garden journal is essential!
Also, plan your food crop rotation. If the same crop is grown in the same spot year after year, the nutrient conditions in the soil - and the crop residue - result in the proliferation of organisms that like to feed on that particular crop.