The autumn garden is bitter-sweet. You’re drowning in gluts of beautiful fruit and veg like apples, pears, and squashes, which is, of course, wonderful. And, if you preserve them properly – whether you’re a master canner or you’re the queen of dehydrating, your bountiful harvest will see you right through the winter and into spring – maybe even longer. But it’s kind of sad, too. The majority of plants and trees are shedding leaves, dying back, or dying off completely. The ground starts to look bare and take on the barren gloom of winter. The crazy rush to harvest as much as possible is coming to an end, and you’re left with a few hardy veg plants, and that’s about it. But, regardless of the sadness you feel – or perhaps the relief that the mad late summer and fall break-neck crazy harvest frenzy is over, there’s still plenty left to do in the garden during autumn. In fact, doing the right fall gardening tasks can make life much easier at the start of the new growing season – and you should even be able to get a few more crops in the ground.
Here’s our list of fall gardening tasks to make life easier in the spring:
1. Clear Leaf Litter
It’s really important that you clear away fallen leaves. Yes, it’s true that leaves make a fabulous mulch that’s bursting with nutrients, but leaving the raw fallen leaves just left where they land is a recipe for disaster. What you’re essentially doing is creating a lovely warm blanket that’s perfect for keeping insects, insect eggs and larvae, and bacteria and fungus beautifully warm all through the winter. Then next year – and probably for a number of years after, your garden will be hit with huge insect infestations and bacterial and fungal infections. So get your rake and clear the leaves out. Rake them into the compost pile, or in a pile of their own in an out of the way place, cover them, and let them break down. By this time next year, you’ll have a beautifully rich, broken down leaf mulch that will be of huge benefit to your garden, without as much risk of harboring insects or disease.
2. Clear as You Harvest
It makes sense – as you harvest a bed or even a row or two – clear it. Lift your carrots, remove your squashes, cut some lettuce, and then go back and clear the row. Pull out weeds, remove the remains of the dead plant, then turn the cleared area. While it takes a few minutes, this fall garden task helps to stop weeds growing, rooting, and seeding between the time you’re harvesting and the time you’re making the final pre-winter turn.
3. Clear Fallen Fruit and Organic Matter
Fallen apples, piles of dead plant matter, and other stinky piles of organic material that are slowly breaking down act in a similar fashion to unrotted leaves. They harbor pests and diseases. If you leave fallen fruit laying on the ground, you’re providing fresh, live food for all kinds of pests – from rodents to tiny but infuriating insects that will thrive on the fruit you leave laying around and cause havoc to your crops next year – because you’ve kept them snuggly warm and well-fed all winter. And, of course, you encourage disease as fruit slowly decomposes on the surface. So you’ve got a couple of options – a) harvest as many of the windfalls as you can before they go bad – if you can’t press them into juice or otherwise utilize the windfalls fast enough, just talk to a local smallholder or homesteader who keeps goats or other livestock – if you offer him your windfallen fruit, he’ll likely snatch your hand off! If he can’t use them for himself, his animals will likely gobble up as many as you can give. He might even come gather them himself – or at least trade you some delicious preserves or eggs or something in return. b) Remove all the bad fruit that falls and put it in the compost bin, well-covered. Then it’ll break down safely, at high temperatures, and will soon be ready to enrich your soil. c) Dig ’em in. Fallen fruit, dead vegetable plants, veg that’s just not fit to eat – go for a fast composting action right in the soil and dig them all right back in. Remember, though, that for this to work and not harbor pests and diseases, you have to dig them in deeply. If they are too near the surface, your efforts will be wasted.
4. Harvest, Harvest, Harvest
Sounds ridiculously obvious? Yes, it is. But when you’re managing an edible garden, particulary in the fall, it’s crucial that you harvest everything you can. And you need to do it before the encroaching cold weather finishes things off, turns your squashes soft, your beans brown, and your potatoes to mush. So many people make the mistake of leaving crops as long as possible, and losing the last of them to bad weather, early frosts, or increasingly hungry wildlife.
This year, we bought an extendable fruit picker for our apples, pears, and plums. It made harvesting from tall branches so easy – and massively reduced the number of fruits that fall and need to be composted. You can also get berry pickers that are supposed to be amazing, but we haven’t actually tried using one yet. If you have, let us know what you think of them.
If you really, really want to hang on until the very last minute to harvest, make sure you at least protect your crops with fleece or cloches if there’s even a remote risk of an early cold snap.
5. Preserve the Harvest
So, now you’ve gathered every crop from every inch of your garden – and every available space in your home is full to bursting with the fruits of your labor (quite literally), you’ve got to do something with it. Don’t wait. Cure your pumpkins and winter sqaushes so they’ll last all winter, and process all the other stuff without delay. Fruit and veg needs to be preserved as soon after picking as possible. This gives you better results, whether you’re dehydrating, canning, making preserves, or making wine, cider, or cordial. And, the fresher they are when you preserve them, the more nutrients they’ll retain. And, if you’ve got one, or got the time to make one, a coldstore is a brilliant way of storing root vegetables like carrots all winter long.
6. Don’t Forget the Herbs
You’re busy scrambling around collecting apples, getting pricked to death fighting brambles for their berries, and straining muscles lifting giant pumpkins, and you’ll often leave the herbs and the forageable “weeds”. But they’re a good source of nutrients, and you can dry the herbs for added flavor, as well as for use in alternative remedies all through the winter. If you’ve got a good dehydrator, like an Excalibur, drying out herbs is effortless, but even if you haven’t, you can do it the old-fashioned way by hanging the bunches upside down in an appropriately dry and well-vented room.
7. Gather and Prep Seeds
For most seeds, it’s best to leave them on the plants to get as dry as possible – but you still need to bring them in before wet or damp conditions leads to mold and fungus, or frosts kill them off altogether (although, of course some varieties actually need freezing temperatures before they’ll get ready to germinate). Once you’ve stripped the seeds from the plant, it’s really, really important that you ensure they are fully, completely, absolutely 100% dry before you try to store them, otherwise they’ll simply rot. Once you’re certain those seeds can get no dryer, store them in a damp-proof airtight container, like a sealable mylar bag or a tight-lidded box with a little pack of drying agent or desiccant inside. We’ll be taking a closer look at saving your own seed in another post, so we won’t go into too much detail here.
8. Weed, Weed, Weed
Just when you thought the weeding was over for another year! Sadly not. Fall is the best time to weed. Pull up every one you can find, preferably before they loose their seeds all over your garden. Taking the time to weed in fall inhibits growth and root system development, so you’ll have a much easier time of it in spring.
9. Turn Soil Deeply
Right after weeding, you need to turn the soil. Giving it a thorough, deep dig will bring small roots and tiny weed seeds to the surface, and it loosens the soil structure. As the first frosts roll in, they kill off the exposed roots and seeds, and the harder frosts penetrate the loose soil and kill seeds below the surface.
10. Add Nutrients
Once you’ve turned your garden beds, or even while you’re doing it, it’s time to add nutrients, preferably in the form of rich organic matter. Get some manure from goats, horses, pigs, sheep, rabbits, or guinea pigs and apply it generously all over your growing area. Then dig it right in. Same goes for vegetable peelings and other compostable organic matter. Just dig it right into the soil and it’ll break down over winter, and the nutrients seep back into the soil. The organic fibres that are left behind help to provide ample drainage and help to keep the soil structure loose enough for plants to flourish.
11. Prep Coldframes
This is one of the most overlooked fall garden tasks – but now is the perfect time to clean and prepare your coldframes. Get rid of all the weeds and debris that accumulates inside over the rest of the year and give the coldframe a thorough wash, inside and out, as this helps to prevent algae, bacteria, and fungal growth. If the frame i small enough to move, then, if possible, move it to a new location. If that’s not feasible, do your best to change out the soil inside – or at least add plenty of organic matter for vital nutrients.
12. Fill Coldframes
Once they’re clean, dry, and full of nutrients, it’s time to fill them with vegetables that can withstand the winter with a little help and protection. Try items like hardy lamb’s lettuce and winter-hardy salad onions.
13. Plant Winter-hardy Crops
Get a head start on next year’s crops by planting over-winter and winter-hardy crops in the autumn. Go for varieties of smooth-shell peas, over-winter broad beans and field beans like Aqua Dulce, garlic bulbs, onions, and hardy varieties of the cabbage family.
14. Prune Trees and Bushes
Once the harvests are in, it’s time to prune and train your trees and bushes. It’s important that you get the cutting and pruning done before the first frosts so the cuts have time to heal over. If the frost gets into open wounds, it can damage or even kill the whole bush or tree. And it can leave the tree open to infection and infestation in the spring. You can always use wound paint to speed up the healing process and offer protection against frost.
15. Take Cuttings
Fall is the perfect time to take cuttings of fruit bushes and separate strawberry runners. Take your cuttings and let them root in water that you change every couple of days. Keep them warm and safe from frost to keep them alive through the winter and ready for planting in the spring. Strawberry runners are super easy to ready for next year. If you don’t want them to root where they are, you’ve got a couple of options. Lift them up and put small pots filled with rich compost beneath the root nodules all along the runner. Simply balance the nodules on top of the compost and leave them to root. Depending on how extreme your winters are, you can likely leave them this way until you want to put them in their final location in the spring. You can also nip off each section of runner that contains a nodule and plant them either in their final location or in pots under cover in a coldframe or green house.
16. Clean and Sharpen Tools
Once the bulk of the work is done, you need to thoroughly clean all your tools. Wash all blades in hot soapy water and make sure you remove any ground in dirt, sap, or other debris. This ensures that your tools are clean and aren’t harboring any nasty diseases that can infect other plants. It also means that you canstore your tools safely without them corroding. Sharpen blades in fall, too, so your spades, shears, loppers,and other bladed tools are ready to go with a sharp edge next spring.
17. Protect Vulnerable Plants
If you’re trying to extend your growing season or you’ve got plants that haven’t quite finished fruiting – or you’re just expecting an early frost or a particularly hard cold snap, make sure you fleece up your vulnerable plants. Late croppings of potatoes, carrots, fall cabbages, caulis, and all the rest will last longer if you cover them with fleece or cloches.
18. Turn the Compost Pile
A stinky but absolutely essential fall garden task: Turning the compost pile. Make sure you turn it thoroughly, getting right to the bottom. This aerates it, stirs up the bacteria, and results in faster breakdown and better, richer compost. Turning the pile regularly – and particularly giving a full turn in fall re-heats the pile and keeps in an aerobic state. It also gives new pathways for air and moisture and speeds up the whole process. Turning your compost pile also helps to prevent common composting problems.
Yes, we know there’s an array of other fall garden tasks that you can undertake, but we think these (even the not quite so “in the garden” tasks) are among the most important. And if you want to try something with your huge glut of apples, have a go at our scrumptious happleback recipe! Be sure to share your own recipes, too.