Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Winter can be long and harsh in the zone 3 climate. Putting a little time and effort into preparing your garden soil in the fall goes a long way towards making spring planting easy and next year's garden successful!
The end of harvest brings with it mixed emotions for me. After a busy fall full of picking, preserving and freezing the garden bounty one part of me is relieved to have this busy season behind me. The other part feels empty without having the garden to check on, the joy of seeing the miracle of growing plants, the satisfaction of picking fresh produce for dinner and the peace that surrounds me in the garden. It is a time to reflect on the year and the gardening failures and successes.
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Here are 10 steps you can take to prepare your garden for winter and for an easy planting next spring.
1. Collect Seeds
Saving vegetable and flower seeds in the fall is easy and fun to do! Once you get the hang of it you will be wondering why you haven't been saving your own seeds all along! I like to save my own seed potatoes, garlic sets, peas, beans, squash, cilantro, sweet pea, marigold, sunflower and nasturtium seeds, to name a few, and am still learning about saving other seeds! Check out A Beginner's Guide to Saving Seeds to learn how to save your own seeds!
2. Pull Dead Plants and Weeds
I like to clean my garden beds so that they are easy to plant as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. Pulling out any weeds along with their roots that were difficult to get at while your vegetables were still in the garden pays off come springtime! Once your vegetable plants are pulled, one option is to lay them back on top of the soil. The reason for doing this is that there are nutrients in these leaves that benefit the soil. Do not do this with plants that if are moldy or diseased. I have not personally used this method as almost all our garden scraps go to the chickens!
3. Clean Out Any Rocks or Lumps of Clay
While you are working your soil, rake out any rocks or lumps of clay or particularly hard soil that you come across. The easiest way to do this is repeatedly raking the surface of the soil as you are working it.
4. Test the Soil
Testing your garden soil in not required, but can be a great asset to growing healthy vegetable plants! Fall is a perfect time to test your garden soil to see if it is lacking in necessary nutrients, vital for plant growth. Soil testing kits test soil levels of pH as well as nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Each of these is required at the right level to easily grow healthy plants. If you find you are high or low in one, adding the required amendment in the fall will give the soil more time to adjust then if you try to amend only in spring. Re-test the soil in the spring and, if necessary, amend again.
Amazon carries two suitable soil testing kits. Be sure your kit tests more than soil pH. Also look at the number of tests you can run. The less expensive kits have supplies for fewer tests. I have one similar to this first kit and it has worked well for me. Read and follow the directions carefully. This second kit is more expensive but runs 80 tests.
Check out A Complete Guide to Improving Your Garden Soil for ideas on ways to amend your soil.
5. Add Compost
Adding compost in the fall is one of the best ways you can prepare your garden for spring and for a successful garden next year! To make your own compost read 6 Composting Tips. Compost can be added in both the fall and spring. Adding it in the fall gives it more time to break down and become more usable by your garden plants. If you are using the "no till" method simply spread a 3 to 4 inch layer of compost on top of the soil. If you like to rototill your garden spread the compost out and run the rototiller over the garden soil.
6. Plant Garlic and Perennials
There are some vegetable seeds that can even be planted in fall! Garlic should be planted around mid October. To read more about when and how to plant garlic read A Complete Guide to Growing and Harvesting Garlic! Green onion or regular onion seeds can be planted in fall. Spinach can be planted in late summer and cut back in fall for an early spring harvest. Fall is also a good time to consider planting perennial plants such as rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, chives and fruit trees. If you have raspberries already, they may need to be pruned in the fall. To read more about what raspberries to prune and how to prune them click here.
7. Deep Water Your Perennials
Before winter hits to stay (around the middle to end of October) give all your perennial plants, trees and bushes a deep water. This protects their roots from succumbing to the freezing temperature of winter.
8. Decide if You Want to Expand Your Garden
Fall is also a perfect time to prepare new garden beds. The easiest way to do this is to lay a layer of cardboard on top of the area you wish to make your new garden. Wet down the cardboard and then cover with a 4 to 6 inch layer of compost or mulch. A mixture of grass clippings and leaves can be used as your mulch layer. By doing this in the fall there will be no need to dig up the grass, the cardboard and mulch will be enough to kill it and turn the soil into workable garden soil. If you are wanting raised beds, use this method on the bottom of planter.
9. Plan Next Year's Garden
Now all that's left to do is to plan next years garden! Over the winter is a perfect time to evaluate and write notes on what worked well and what you would like to change for next year. I like to work on a garden map through the winter, taking into consideration companion planting and crop rotation.
10. Catch up on Garden Journaling
Cold, snowy days of winter make the perfect setting for slowing down, brewing a cup of tea and looking over the past year. Make notes of what worked well, what you would like to change and anything you learned over the past year. If you have dated garden photos on your phone, those can provide information you may want to record in your journal. If you are looking for a journal specific to vegetable gardening you can find my printable gardening journal here.
Once you have completed these steps you are set for an early spring planting and a successful garden next year!