If you’re looking for fall gardening tasks and tips, you’ve come to the right place!
The fall garden is bitter-sweet. You’re drowning in gluts of beautiful fruit and vegetables 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. Check our 175 dehydrator recipes if you want new ideas for preserving the fall harvest!
But it’s kind of gloomy, 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 barrenness 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 there’s still plenty of tasks left to do in the garden during fall. In fact, doing the right fall gardening chores 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 in the Fall
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. Yes, it sounds obvious, but most people wait, sometimes weeks between harvesting a row or patch and clearing it, which just creates more work.
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 more, this fall garden chore 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. Get Rid of 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 – 1 – harvest as many of the windfalls as you can before they go bad – if you can’t press them into juice, use as feed for your livestock, 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.
2 – 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.
3 – 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, so only go for option 3 if you’re planning on double-digging.
4. Harvest, Harvest, Harvest
Sounds ridiculously obvious? Yes, it is. But when you’re managing an edible garden, particularly 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.
And don’t forget your herbs! So many people make the mistake of forgetting their herb plants. Harvest as much as you can without killing the plants, and dry them using your dehydrator. My Excalibur runs almost constantly during summer and fall! If you can’t justify the expense of a dehydrator because you only dry a few herbs each year, then simply harvest the bunches and hang them, upsidedown in a dry, well-ventilated area.
This year, we bought this 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 – my friend loves this one – 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 squashes 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. 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 cold store is a brilliant way of storing root vegetables like carrots all winter long. You could even consider building a cold store an extra fall garden chore!
6. Plant Fruit and Nut Trees In Fall
While most plant packaging still tells you to plant fruit and nut trees in spring, most actually do much better started in fall. Once the fruit-bearing season is over and they’ve shed their leaves, trees focus their energy on producing strong, sturdy anchor roots. Fall is the most prolific time for root production, and so you get a head start on those trees planted in spring that miss the first fall root growth period. Fall-planted fruit and nut trees also tend to do better because, although they are exposed to winter stress (cold and wind damage, mainly), because they’ve already spent months establishing a good, deep root system, they do not suffer from summer stress (dehydration, scorch, and similar) to the same extent as spring-planted trees.
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, (you could pop them in the dehydrator on the coolest setting for a day or two) 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. For more information about harvesting and using your own seeds, check out our post on easy seed saving.
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 lose 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.
If you really want to improve your soil structure and drainage, double-dig it. Yes, this is super-hard work, but at least it’s a little cooler in fall and the ground is usually more manageable as it’s a little wetter than in summer. Double digging involves removing the first foot of soil, then tilling the foot beneath. You also work in lots of compost and woody organic matter to this area, then once second foot thoroughly tilled, you add back the soil that you took out. It’s such hard work, but it really is worth it. It lets you significantly improve soil structure and adds nutrients deep down. It also encourages a diversity of micro life that ensures the health and wellbeing of your plants.
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 just dig it right into the soil and it’ll break down over winter, and the nutrients seep back into the soil. The organic fibers that are left behind help to provide ample drainage and help to keep the soil structure loose enough for plants to flourish.
If you want, you can even leave it as a top dressing over winter and dig it in in the spring before you plant.
11. Prep Cold Frames
This is one of the most overlooked fall garden tasks – but now is the perfect time to clean and prepare your cold frames. Get rid of all the weeds and debris that accumulates inside over the rest of the year and give the cold frame a thorough wash, inside and out, as this helps to prevent algae, bacteria, and fungal growth. I clean mine with a 50/50 mix of 5% white vinegar and water and a few drops of antibacterial essential oil like tea tree, lemon, or lime. The scent also helps to deter pests looking for somewhere to hide out for the winter.
Incidentally, this is the same mixture I use to clean all hard surfaces in my home, as we do not use chemicals. It’s cheaper, safer, and more effective than many commercially available cleaners. It only costs pennies per bottle. I buy this vinegar because it’s so much cheaper in bulk, and just decant it into spray bottles – I like these ones because they’re large, sturdy, and don’t leak – with the water and oils, as needed.
If the frame is 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 Cold Frames
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 Swiss Chard – I like this pretty rainbow chard, leafy greens, hardy carrots, beets, and turnips.
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, like these Green Arrows (just remember to cover them with some fleece if you have very cold winters), over-winter fava beans like Windsor, 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, like this one from Tanglefoot, 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. You can use a commercially available rooting powder, or you can use willow cuttings. Willows contain a lot of naturally occurring rooting hormone, so you can place willow cuttings in the same water as your tree and bush cuttings and let the natural rooting hormone do its work.
Strawberry runners are super-easy to prep 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 cold frame or greenhouse.
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 can store 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. You can get more garden tool maintenance here.
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.
19. Add Infrastructure
This could be anything from pathways to herb spirals. Fall is the best time to get this kind of work out of the way. Add a wildlife pond to encourage helpful creatures, change the layout of your beds, break ground for new growing areas. Build a herb spiral, get on with constructing that root cellar I mentioned earlier. You don’t want to attempt this stuff during winter – it’s too difficult, and once the ground freezes, it’s impossible. Spring is waaay too busy to be messing around with this stuff, and summer is just too hot. So, now fall is here, get busy with improving your infrastructure!
20. Experiment With Permaculture
Whether you’ve got a huge, sprawling homestead or a few backkyard vegetable beds, there’s no reason you can’t practice a bit of permaculture. It’s a sustainability model that everything, including us, the wildlife, and the planet can benefit from. The idea is that you use sustainable practices, don’t waste anything, and create a rich, bio-diverse growing area where plants, animals, and people co-exist harmoniously. And while that sounds very idealist, in reality, it’s something you can get involved with too – and fall is the perfect time. Build a hügelkultur, for example, is a great way to experiment with permaculture. You create a raised bed using wood and compostable materials as the bottom layer, and cover that with soil, giving you the classic mound. As the wood rots down, it release a lot of nitrogen and it retains moisture and releases it during dry spells. You can learn more about building hügelkulturs here.
What should I add to my garden soil in the fall?
Enrich and rejuvenate your soil in the fall by adding manure, leaf mold, and compost. You can also dig organic matter into trenches, so that it breaks down into nutrient-rich compost over winter and improves soil drainage and structure. This is known as trenching.
Should you till your vegetable garden in fall?
Yes! Once you've harvested, get in there and till! This exposes insects and weed seed and roots to the incoming bad weather and helps to kill them off when the frosts arrive. And, if you're double-digging, you'll need to till thoroughly after you've removed the first foot of soil.
Should I cover my garden in the fall?
You can, definitely. But it depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to clear a weedy area, then lay a thick layer of cardboard or black plastic sheeting and weigh it down. This eliminates light and helps to loosen roots and clear weeds, ready for spring planting. You can also use the black plastic method to scorch the soil if you're trying to deal with a serious disease problem. This only works if you're in a particularly warm climate and the temperature underneath the plastic gets hot enough to scorch the earth. Just remember though, that you'll kill the good stuff too, so you'll then need to work extra hard to bring biodiversity back to the area you scorched.
When should I spread compost in my garden?
Spread compost and/or manure once you've harvested, cleared, and tilled the area. At this point, spread your compost and either leave it as a top dressing or dig it in.
When should I add fertilizer to my garden?
You can do it at the same time as compost - right after you've harvested, cleared, and tilled. Depending on the fertilizer you're using, you can leave it as a top dressing or dig it into the soil surface, letting it spread through the soil gradually over winter.
Are fallen leaves good for the garden?
Yes, in some circumstances. Just leaving leaves where they fall is a terrible idea - it creates a snuggly warm, nicely damp environment where pests and diseases will spend the winter, ready to infest your crops next spring. So rake them up, place them in bags, tie up the bags, and poke a few holes in them, then leave them for at least a year to rot down and create a rich mulch that you can add directly to your beds or to the compost heap. The other option is to dig them in, but you'll need to dig them in deeply so that they don't just create a home for pests and disease.
Can you plant immediately after tilling?
It depends on what you want to plant and the consistency of your soil. If it's too soft and light, it needs at least a week to settle. However, if you have good soil that retains moisture well, you can plant right away.