7 Pro Tips for Fall Soil Preparation You Should Know About
Start Preparing Your Soil for Fall
The advent of autumn marks the end of the growing season in most places. But even as the leaves begin to turn and snaps of cold come on the breeze, a gardener’s work is far from finished.
Now is the time not only to close out the prior growing season but to prepare for the next one. And soil preparation is a major consideration.
Think of all the work that awaits you come next spring. Lawn chores, weed clearing, and bare-root planting would be enough work on their own. But with the soil still cold and compacted, it can turn into a real mess.
Preparing your soil for fall can not only reduce the amount of work waiting for you but help ensure your planting success next year.
To get started, here are five key tips for fall soil preparation.
1. Clear Out the Remnants of Your Summer Garden
First things first, we’re going to want to wind down our summer gardening activities. If we leave old plant debris to sit, it gives pests and diseases a place to ride out the winter. Cleaning up is essential.
Depending on the health of the old plants, you can toss them on the compost pile to get that started (more on composting later). But if you suspect that they might already be affected by diseases, it’s better not to chance it and instead have them removed from your property altogether.
2. Plant Your Fall Crops
Just because the winter months will be here before we know it doesn’t mean we can’t grow a few basic veggies in the meantime. A lot of cool-season crops like broccoli, spinach, and lettuce can handle colder temperatures than you might realize. In fact, depending on who you ask, some may even taste better after a light frost or two.
The ideal time to plant these crops varies by region, be sure to refer to your plant hardiness zone before committing to planting. But generally, the tail-end of summer to early fall is a good time for these cold-weather crops. Once cold weather sets in, floating row covers can provide those young seedlings with a few degrees of extra warmth and frost protection.
3. Start Building Next Year’s Soil
Okay, with our summer leftovers cleared out and our autumn planting done, we can focus on building our soil for the next season.
A good first step is figuring out what type of soil you’re working with. Not all soil is created equal, and your needs may vary depending on what your gardening goals are. And if the soil you have to work with isn’t quite to your needs, you may have to make additional amendments to it.
For general purpose gardening, loamy soil is often the best choice. Made from a roughly equal mix of sand, silt, and clay, it feels finely textured and a little damp to the touch and should crumble in your hand.
It’s often ideal because it both drains well and retains moisture, so you rarely have to worry about it drying out in the sun or turning into muck with heavy rains.
If this isn’t the type of soil on your property, there are amendments that you can get to help strike that golden mean.
To a great extent, the kind of soil that you build will depend on what your planting plans for the following season are. Not only can different plants favor different soil types, but many are sensitive to different pH levels or need certain nutrients in the soil.
A pH level of 6.0 to 7.0 is ideal for most garden vegetables, though you’ll want to double-check as some plants will thrive in more acidic or alkaline environments. Tomatoes are a good example, preferring slightly acidic soil.
There are a few ways to influence the pH level of your soil. The simplest is to add amendments to either raise or lower the pH as needed. Raising the pH, or making it more alkaline, usually involves adding commercially prepared limestone products. Lowering the pH and making it more acidic usually involves adding aluminum sulfate or sulfur, both of which can be found at most garden centers.
Alternatively, certain elements added to your compost can affect the pH, as we’ll see in the next section.
5. Start the Next Season’s Compost
Composting is a great activity to not only reduce household waste but give a boon to your garden as well. Plants of all kinds need organic matter in their soil to thrive. And starting a compost heap in the fall will give it plenty of time to break down for the fall.
The leftover plant material from your summer garden is a great starting point, as are fall leaves, straw, and grass clippings. Green kitchen scraps can be added to the compost throughout the fall and winter to add extra nutrients.
And depending on what you add, you can help push the pH of your compost in one direction or another. Adding acidic elements like coffee grounds will have the expected effect, lowering the pH and making it more suitable for acid-loving plants. On the other end, wood ash is one of the best elements you can add to raise the pH if that’s what’s needed.
6. Add Compost
McCarty Mulch & Stone Inc. produces a beautiful dark brown compost product for your garden beds, or add your own from the backyard compost pile. You can also visit your local livestock producer, where they sometimes have piles of hay and animal bedding sitting in piles around the farm. Compost adds nutrients to your garden and is high in organic matter helping to provide substance and texture to your soil. Applying a layer of compost to your garden and letting it blanket the soil over winter makes a great insulating blanket for your garden during the colder months. Make sure that whether spring or fall, that the compost is tilled into the soil before spring planting.
7. Till the Earth
Tilling your fall soil is key to preventing the soil from compacting, ensuring enough drainage, and allowing oxygen and your soil amendments down into the soil.
For the best results, spread your amendments over the soil before tilling to really work them into the earth. And if your climate allows, planting a cover crop like rye, barley, or clover in the fall is a great idea. It will help prevent weeds from taking root, and come spring it can be mowed and tilled into the soil as a ready supply of fresh organic material.
Soil Preparation for a Fruitful Planting Season
Working the soil in fall weather may not seem productive on its face. Particularly not if you live in a region prone to harsh freezes.
But soil preparation is a year-round task. An ounce of work now makes for a pound of progress come the next season, no matter what time of year it is.
To ensure that you’re always making the most out of each stretch of the calendar, you should familiarize yourself with the basics of building soil. For the basic techniques that will serve you well year-round, check out our soil preparation guide.