Autumn’s Garden Checklist–Looking Forward to Spring!

Yay! This is the exciting part! Let’s plant some stuff!

? Plant your fall bulbs.

  • Do it before the ground freezes. In fact, get them in the ground 6-8 weeks before your first hard frost is due.
  • Shop early, and don’t hold on to them too long before planting.

? Let’s go shopping! Get some fall-blooming, winter-hardy annuals like mums, pansies, and violas to color things up in the midst of other things fading away.

? Be sure to visit the farmer’s market for those autumn bargains! And bushels of apples! And pumpkins galore!

? Time to plant those fruit trees. Just be sure to stake them up so those winter winds don’t blow them around and disturb the roots that are trying to get established.

? It’s probably too late to put out plants that require a couple-three months to mature, but most of us can get in another planting of lettuces and other greens for harvesting before winter sets in.

? Plan next year’s garden! (See this post.)

? Once you’ve got your plan laid out, get next year’s beds ready.

  • First of all, take a measuring tape, some sturdy sticks which you can even collect from the brush, as long as they’re relatively strong, and some twine out to your garden space and start measuring for your beds. Push a stick into the ground for each corner or turn. When you have all the corners of a bed marked out, tie the end of the twine to one of them, and outline your bed with it, wrapping it around each stick two or three times, and keeping the twine a few inches above the ground.
  • Next, take some soil samples to your local County Extension Office for testing to find out if your soil has any nutrient deficiencies (or if you’ve been a little too enthusiastic with the amendments in the past).
    • Get more than one sample, and get them from different spots in the garden, because soil can vary a lot from one spot or bed to another.
    • Be sure to label your samples so you can match up results to the correct beds.
    • Also before you head out with your samples, make note of any perplexing questions you have, because they likely have some answers for you.
    • They also have a very informative collection of publications on all sorts of topics relevant to your area you’ll want to check out while you’re there.
    • Alternatively, you can purchase your own soil testing kit and do it yourself. Be sure to test for pH.
  • While you’re waiting for the results of your soil tests:
    • You can prepare your garden paths and borders, and the frames for your raised beds if you’re planning any.
      • Straw and gravel are both relatively inexpensive materials for filling in garden paths. They keep the mud down and don’t track much. We have a lot of shrubs and trees, which result in a lot of brush which we send through the wood chipper—so we have a fresh annual supply of free wood chips to spread on the pathways, and that works well, too. If you have cats or dogs, don’t use cacao hulls.
      • For your raised bed frames:
        • Don’t use cinder blocks, treated wood, anything that’s been painted, or anything treated with creosote. The toxic chemicals will leech into your garden soil and contaminate your crops. Untreated wood is advisable only if you want to rebuild your beds every few years, because the wood will rot rather quickly–although thicker boards will last longer. You can, however, use a more durable, untreated wood, such as redwood or cedar.
        • Bricks are good and quite attractive, but will be expensive. Concrete blocks are great and much less expensive than bricks. They’ll last a lifetime and can easily be wide enough to sit on. You can also plant greens, radishes, or flowers in the holes in the top row, expanding your garden space and making it even more beautiful! Just make sure you get concrete and not cinder–there’s a difference. Cinder blocks are much lighter in weight than concrete, but their aggregate (what they’re made of) includes coal cinders or ash (the reason they aren’t so heavy), which is poisonous and will leech into your soil.
        • You can use straw bales, rocks (free, if you want to go out and collect them in the wild), metal sheeting, plastic fencing planks, chicken wire lined with black plastic (clip the plastic to the wire at the top to hold it in place–but leave the bottom open)
        • Or you can practice  hugelkultur, or hill culture, which requires no frame at all.
        • You can purchase kits which you just have to assemble.
        • An idea: talk to a fencing company about getting discarded fence panels from them.As for your raised beds, Carefully choose the materials you plan to use for the frames, especially if you’re an organic gardener (which I STRONGLY promote).
        • Find more info about raised beds in my post How to Plan a Garden Step-by-Step.
    • Something else you might want to do while you’re waiting for the test results is build/repair cold frames and greenhouse(s), if you have them or are planning to. If your winter months are particularly harsh, and you don’t have a cozy shop to work in, then you’ll likely want to take care of these things now. Otherwise, you can put them off for the Winter’s Gardener Checklist, which is a lot less busy. Here’s some handy information on the topic (Do a search for lots more):
  • When you get your test results back, you’re ready to work the soil. If you’re starting new beds from scratch, and they’re not raised beds, you may have to get rid of grass and/or weeds. PLEASE don’t use herbicides. They’re terrible for your garden AND your soil. They not only kill the plants, but destroy the entire ecosystem that makes your soil beneficial for your garden. There are two main ways to clear out the bed without resorting to them:
    • You can till the bed. You can either buy or rent a garden tiller (I suggest renting unless you’re just really into owning things), or you can do it the back-breaking way like we did the first time: with a pick, a shovel, and a hoe. (We use the easy way now, though.) If you amend the soil correctly, you should only have to work the soil the first year or two. I never have to till after a bed the first year, so find some solace in knowing that this isn’t going to be an every year kind of thing, unless, of course, you add new beds every year! If you make raised beds, you don’t ever have to do it at all.
    • Here’s the easy way: Cover the bed with a thick layer of straw, compost, and/or composted manure. About a foot deep would be great. Then cover that with a layer of dark polythene plastic, tacking the edges down with rocks, boards, or anything heavy enough to keep it from blowing away in the wind. By spring, the soil should be pretty close to ready for planting. The compost, straw, and decayed grass and weeds will already have begun enriching the soil, and if you have a hefty worm population, they will even have tilled it for you! There may be a few hardy weeds you’ll need to pull or hoe, but they should be easy to take care of.
  • Enrich all garden and flower beds with some compost and/or chopped leaves, and amend it according to whatever your test results revealed.
  • One option you might consider is to sow some rye, vetch, or clover in your garden beds. It will grow over the winter, and in the spring will add some wonderful organic matter to your soil—but you’ll have to till it in the spring in order to turn it under, no matter how established your bed is. So that’s something to think about.

? Get a head start on spring’s crops. Some of the things you might be able sow now for earlier spring harvest include onions, garlic, Swiss chard, cabbage, spinach, peas, and beans. Check your planting zone, though, to be sure.

? Give your rhubarb and all your berry plants a boost. Whether they’re strawberries, blueberries, raspberries—berries are hungry little critters and deplete the soil quickly. So:

  • At least every three or four years, you should move them to new locations, if possible. You’ll need to transplant them a few weeks before the first frost to give the roots a chance to start developing.
  • If you can’t move them for some reason, there are a couple of alternatives—but I suggest incorporating the alternatives every year, whether you move the plants or not. One of the alternatives is an autumn thing:
    • Mix up some compost along with any other amendments which make sense for your plants and area, and gently add a layer on top of the soil around the base of the plants out to the drip line, or outermost branches/leaves on the plant.
    • Now, most people will tell you to work this into the soil, but I’m always afraid of damaging roots that are near the surface. (Also, I don’t like working harder than I have to!) So I’ve experimented and found that it works quite well without digging and disrupting the roots if you just lay it on top of the soil above the root systems (out to the drip line) and cover the compost layer with some mulch. The mulch is important, as well as gentle watering—meaning you don’t want any run-off. You want all the water to be absorbed under the plant. The reason is that the water will carry the nutrients with it wherever it goes, and you want the nutrients in the compost layer to be absorbed into the soil where the plant roots are, not out in the pathway or another bed. This is why they say to work it into the soil, but the mulch and the gentle watering help make this happen, too, and make it unnecessary to disturb the soil and roots by trying to work the soil. It also makes it possible for those of us who, for physical reasons, need an easy way to get things done.

Oh, yeah! Don’t forget to follow Color Us Empowered on Facebook where I share the best articles, videos, and other information about all aspects of gardening (among other things) that I can find.

Okay, now it’s time to go to the Wrapping Things Up Checklist and take care of those tools. (If you haven’t been there yet, the tool section is near the end of the post.)